What was it that hit you when you stepped out into the UAE streets for the first time? The heat, of course, if it was summer. But irrespective of the time of year, there's something else out here that you can never miss, and which has become an integral part of the country's landscape as much as the desert sand or the heat — it's the ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruiser. Not a day passes without spotting at least a dozen of these on our roads. It's not without reason that there have been so many of them around for so long. Probably, there's no other vehicle out there that'll be at home in the punishing weather and difficult terrain the region throws at it.
However, as with most legends, this Japanese icon also had quite humble beginnings, and had to face rejection and failure before going on to conquer the world. It was conceived by Toyota Motor Corp founder Kiichiro Toyoda, who dreamt of producing a car in Japan that would become popular in markets worldwide. In 1941 he was asked by the Japanese military to produce a light truck on the lines of the Bantam GP. Toyota promptly made a prototype, the AK 10, which was basically a reverse-engineered Bantam, but the project didn't take off.
Things changed in 1950 at the start of the Korean war, with the US military stationed in Japan finding the number of Willys Jeeps at its disposal woefully inadequate for a war situation. To make the most of this sudden surge in demand, Toyota came out with another prototype, based on a truck chassis and powered by a 3.4-litre inline six B-type engine. Unimaginatively named the Toyota Jeep, this model later came to be known as the BJ, as it was a Jeep with a B-type engine. But the BJ was rejected as the military still preferred the Willys Jeep. What changed the BJ's fortune favourably and permanently was the expedition undertaken in 1951 by Toyota test driver Ichiro Taira, climbing up to the 2,500m-high sixth stage of Mount Fuji in the prototype, making it the first vehicle ever to do so. This caught the attention of the military and police officials, and soon the BJ was hailed as a viable alternative to the Jeep and the Land Rover.
It wasn't until 1953 that series production started and the following year, after Willys filed a case against Toyota for trademark violation, technical director Hanji Umehara suggested the name Land Cruiser. The name stuck, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1955, with the second-generation 20 Series, Toyota started toning down the truck with a suppler ride and a more appealing design to attract civilian customers. The trick worked, and the Land Cruiser began its relentless march towards success.
It became an instant hit in all the global markets it was exported to, including South America, the Middle East and Australia. It proved its mettle on every imaginable terrain on earth, from the Arctic plains to the deserts in our region and the impossibly difficult Aussie Outback.
Sixty years on, the Toyota Land Cruiser remains the finest testimony to Kiichiro's vision of an all-conquering Japanese car. From merely a blatant rip-off of the Jeep, this legendary 4x4 has become a global benchmark in bulletproof reliability and off-road prowess that even the likes of Land Rover and Jeep now strive to emulate.