4x4 Australia join the biggest gathering of FJ Cruisers in the world at the FJ Summit in Colorado, USA.
Think 4x4 gatherings in the USA and your first thought is likely to be Jeepers. Their Jeep Jamborees are legendary and have been going on across the USA for generations. But there’s another legendary 4x4 brand gathering momentum across the Pacific and there are numerous events attached to its growing popularity.
Toyota’s Land Cruiser doesn’t have the massive status in the States that it enjoys here because it was never sold there in huge numbers. This limited availability has created an underground following for Cruisers Stateside and early models are prized possessions, often being imported from all corners of the globe including Australia.
An FJ40 that has sat in a shed for the past 30 years and has just 2000 original miles on the odometer sold for more than $125,000 in August this year, which gives you an idea of the exclusivity of the marque. The FJ Cruiser, which launched in the States in 2005 went a long way to raising the profile of Cruisers over there. The FJ presented was a quirky looking, practical and capable 4x4 that could take enthusiasts out on the trails and tracks that are usually considered the domain of Jeepers. Like the Jeeps, the FJ Cruisers attracted a loyal following from buyers and the aftermarket followed suit with just about any accessory and modification an enthusiast could think of.
FJ Cruiser publications and events also popped up with the annual FJ Summit held in Ouray, Colorado dubbed the big gig not to miss. With its location one of the USA’s best off road tracks, Ouray is often called the ‘Jeep Capital of the World’ – but for just a few days a year it becomes the FJ Cruiser Capital. 2014 marked the eighth annual FJ Summit and ironically the last year the FJ Cruiser will be offered on sale in the USA (see below). With this in mind, we travelled across the pond in July to checked it out for ourselves.
With the imminent departure of the FJ Cruiser from US Toyota showrooms, the organisers of the Summit have opened up the event to any and all Toyota four-wheel drives which seems to have worked. There were more than 350 vehicles lining up for the tracks outside Ouray this year and while most of them were FJ Cruisers, there were a mix of Tacomas, and even a few regular Land Cruisers too.
FJ Cruiser finished in the US
Unlike Australia where the FJ Cruiser didn’t go on sale until 2011, the Americans have had it since 2005 and after more than 200,000 have been sold there, they feel that the model has run its race. As of June 2014, Toyota USA has stopped importing the Japanese built FJ and there is no new FJ Cruiser planned to replace it. The aggressive-looking 4Runner wagon seems to have stepped up to fill its place as the choice for American Toyota 4x4 enthusiasts looking for a new vehicle.
Australian FJ Cruiser fans need not panic, yet. Despite its late arrival here, or perhaps because of it, the FJ has been a success in Australia, doubling the sales originally predicted by Toyota Motor Corp Australia. As you would expect, TMCA is keen to keep the vehicle and have ensured that production of right hand drive FJs will continue for a few more years yet. Other RHD markets to take FJC include New Zealand, Japan and South Africa.
Arriving in Colorado
Ouray, Colorado sits higher than any point in Australia at 2375 meters above sea level yet the town is at the foot of the thrilling trails that rise spectacularly around it. The team behind FJ Summit select a dozen or so of the best tracks to send Summit participants on and, as many Summiteers are first time off roaders in stock vehicles, the tracks range from easy to difficult.
The great thing about this location is that even the easy tracks can be spectacular as they wind their way through the San Juan Mountains, which are part of the Colorado Rockies.
Many of the tracks follow old mining trails which were pioneered through the area early last century. These include the infamous Black Bear Trail that links the highway high above Ouray to the high-end ski town of Telluride via Black Bear Pass at 3910 meters above sea level. It was on this trail that we joined some of the leading Summit vendors in their Cruisers for our first taste of Colorado High Country.
Tackling the 4WD tracks
The first part of the Black Bear Trail (they call them trails in the USA, not tracks) is a fairly sedate yet scenic drive on a formed gravel road. Even on this clear sunny day in the middle of summer, patches of snow and ice were scattered around the road as we climbed higher into the alps. It’s only when you reach the pass at the top and view the steep gulch leading down to Telluride that things get gnarlier. It’s still a road but adds some washed out rocky sections and tight switchbacks which, even in the compact FJ Cruisers, require multi-point turns that take you right to the edge under the guidance of a spotter. Get it wrong and not only will you take the spotter out, but it’s a long rocky roll down the mountain.
The trail passes the relics of the area’s mining past and travels directly under a waterfall. To say it’s spectacular is an understatement! The return run to Ouray is just as impressive on the Imogene Trail and pass of the same name at 3997 meters. Again it passes through snow and scree slopes, mining relics including a ghost town, before ducking back below the tree-line and following a fast flowing creek back to town.
Ouray itself is a piece of history and parts of it are protected under the National Historical Register. It’s real easy to imagine what life here would have been like back in the mining heyday as miners rode back to town to sell and spend their hard-earned silver and gold. The Beaumont Hotel where we enjoyed a dinner with the FJ Summit organisers, is a step back in time. It’s reminiscent of a true old-time western saloon, just minus the dancing girls. Throughout the FJ Summit, the event HQ plays host to the vendors’ area where you can see and get just about anything you want and need for your 4x4.
If there was one FJ Cruiser that really stood in the vendors’ area at the Summit, it was the bright orange one from Metal Tech 4x4. MT 4x4 is an Oregon based Toyota 4x4 specialist shop run by Travis ‘LT’ Telleria, Mark Hawley and Wade Bradley – they can build almost anything you want for your Cruiser. LT’s FJ is a showcase of what they can do and when we heard they were joining us on the trail, we jumped on board for a ride.
The rig features the Metal Tech’s tube doors, rear bar with wheel carrier, front bar with Come Up winch and Rigid Industries LED lights, MT rock sliders, MT seat mounts and MT long arm rear suspension. The front suspension uses a Total Chaos arms with Icon Dynamics remote reservoir coil-overs and additional shocks. Mechanically the 4.0L V6 engine and auto transmission remain stock but behind them is an Atlas 4 transfer case offering four speeds to make the FJ suitable from everything from highway and trails, to dune driving to rock crawling. The lowest gear in the Atlas 4 is 10:1 giving massive overall reduction for complete low-speed control. The rear locker is the factory Toyota one with 4.8:1 gears fitted while an ARB Air Locker works up front. Tyres on the car at the Summit were 35-in BFG muddies on Walker Evans beadlocks.
The FJ made light work of the trails and more difficult rocky sections, and it was one of the few cars to drive up the rock steps on Poughkeepsie Gulch, one of the more difficult trails visited on the Summit. The tube doors give that true open air experience usually reserved for Jeep drivers which was sweet in the fresh mountain air, even if it did get dusty driving in convoy. In case you are thinking that orange colour looks different to the orange FJs here, you’re right. Persimmon Orange is an original FJ55 Toyota colour and is the hue adopted for all of Metal Tech’s rigs. In the spirit of the FJ Summit, Metal Tech teams up with some of their suppliers and each year puts on an open bar at the historic Western Saloon in Ouray. Free beer, sponsors t-shirts and merch, and good times are had by all at this not to be missed evening.
A hive of activity
We saw an FJ Cruiser with live front axle conversion, tube doors for FJs, lift kits, superchargers, roof tents, Aussie-made gear from Outback Proven, t-shirts, badges, restoration parts, protective barwork, big tyres, recovery kit – you name it, it was there.
The vendors all put in product for a massive raffle that happens on the Saturday night and the prize pool had something like US$40,000 worth of kit in it with many winners taking home some pretty impressive swag.
The social activity that extends from the HQ to the bars and restaurants on Main Street, and then up on to the trails, is what keeps many visitors coming back to the FJ Summit. It’s a family friendly event suitable for anyone who wants to explore and certainly something that any Aussie 4x4 enthusiast should pencil in to their itinerary if they are planning an American adventure.
There was one FJ Cruiser fan from Sydney at Summit 8 who flew over specifically for the event and was taken out on the trails by the locals. It’s a great way to see a spectacular part of the country and what’s better than hanging out with friendly off road enthusiasts?
For more information on other FJ events around the globe, head to www.fjsummit.org