Pride of the land: visiting the Japanese factory that makes Toyota’s ubiquitous Land Cruiser

Kevin Hackett goes behind the scene's at Toyota's Yoshiwara factory to find out how the Land Cruiser is assembled

A production line at Toyota’s Yoshiwara factory. The plant totally assembles the iconic Land Cruiser, as well as Lexus’s luxury variants of the off-road vehicle. Photos courtesy Toyota
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What one car, more than any other, is synonymous with life in the Middle East? No, not gold-foil-wrapped Rolls-Royce Phantoms or tyre-smoking Lamborghinis — I'm talking about Toyota's self-proclaimed "Pride of the Land", the ubiquitous Land Cruiser.

It’s a vehicle that has a tenacious grip around the throat of this region, and when I arrived here five years ago, I didn’t recognise it for what it was, simply because in ­Europe they’re rarely (if ever) seen. Think Land Cruiser in the United Kingdom, and it’s the ­Prado equivalent, not the behemoth we see battering down Sheikh Zayed Road, or bashing the desert dunes across our empty spaces every day of the week. But here the “Land Cruiser proper” is so commonplace that it’s almost expected that you own one, and its success shows no sign of slowing down.


• In pictures: See the evolution of the Land Cruiser


The plant where Toyota builds the Land Cruiser, its Lexus LX sibling, the utilitarian (but still incredibly popular) 70 hardtop and pick-up models, as well as the Coaster bus, is the Yoshiwara factory in Toyota City (yes, that’s a real place), in Aichi Prefecture, Japan. A vast, sprawling mega­factory, Yoshiwara produces 13,900 vehicles per month, and half of them are shipped to the Middle East. That’s a staggering statistic that proves beyond doubt that it’s as much a part of the culture here as shawarma, shisha, sand and camels.

As I stand in one of the enormous production halls on a specially organised tour of the facility, robots and fastidious humans work in perfect unison to piece together these iconic automobiles. It’s an incredibly industrious place, as you’d expect, and while factory tours make for potentially boring stories, the sheer size of this operation leaves me agog. The entire thing is made here from scratch, with massive presses forming sheet steel into body panels; an army of people on seemingly countless work stations take each component, attaching them to rolling chassis in set periods of time. With a production cycle of just 12 hours, it runs like clockwork, and has set the template for many other manufacturing plants, with the likes of Porsche and Aston Martin basing their production lines around the way Toyota does things. It’s the epitome of efficiency.

With each car that I see, in each phase of its construction, I realise that there’s a high possibility that what I’m looking at could end up in my company car park or be used to scare tourists while barrelling along desert tundra. I also can’t help but wonder how and why this model became such an important part of motoring life in the Middle East. I’ve never viewed it as particularly handsome, and it’s so anonymous nowadays that nobody is impressed when seeing one, surely? So why on Earth is it the default choice for thousands of people here every year?

It must, at least partly, come down to price. You can get into a new Land Cruiser for as little as Dh209,000, which makes it a veritable bargain when you compare it with Land Rovers, Range Rovers and luxury SUVs from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and the rest. There’s also Toyota’s well-deserved reputation for reliability to consider — after all, breaking down in the middle of the Empty Quarter could even be fatal depending on the time of year.

But there’s also the fact that the Land Cruiser was one of the first vehicles to be widely sold here, with Al Futtaim Motors in Dubai being especially proactive in getting it into the market during a period spanning more than six decades. It has become almost a rite of passage for Emirati families to own a Land Cruiser or its Lexus stablemate. And when the new model was launched here at the end of 2015, examples were being advertised for significantly more than they cost by enterprising individuals savvy enough to know that demand would outstrip supply, in the short term.

As with that American legend, the Willys Jeep, Toyota’s Land Cruiser was born into warfare. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, and the United Nations resolved to assist the South. At the time, Japan was still occupied by the United States after the end of World War II, and the country became a supply base, with car manufacturers such as Toyota commissioned by the US military to produce compact off-road vehicles.

In January 1951, five months after Toyota began designing such a vehicle, it produced its first prototype, using a chassis from its SB truck and a 3.4L “Type B” petrol engine. The company called it the Jeep BJ. The allied forces would go on to recognise it as a dependable, rugged machine fit for military use. To prove its off-road credentials, in July 1951, a test driver, Ichiro Taira, completed a run in one that saw him navigate his way up to No 6 checkpoint on Mount Fuji. Before that, the only “vehicles” that had made it that far were horses.

Two years passed, and Toyota was ready to take the model into series production, still using that Jeep BJ nomenclature. The following year, in 1954, the Willys Company took legal action over that somewhat blatant copyright violation, and Toyota renamed it the Land Cruiser.

The rest is history, and the Land Cruiser evolved over the years in a succession of different ­“series”, becoming more refined with each one, until 1984, when Toyota sensibly began tapping into the recreational vehicle market with the Series 70 model. This was the Land Cruiser that changed everything, and it quickly became renowned for being dependable, rugged and comfortable, no matter what conditions it was driven in. It has remained in production ever since, and was practically unaltered for 23 years before its first comprehensive update.

What’s now known as the J70 entered folklore thanks to its “go anywhere” abilities. For example, in a similar fashion to last week’s featured globetrotter, Gunther Holtorf, the Swiss husband-and-wife team Paul and Brigitta Böhlen Jüni took their diesel Land Cruiser HZJ78 around the world, covering 63 countries and 280,000 kilometres. As they were midway through their voyage, they wrote a letter to Toyota Europe. “The Land Cruiser is the best car you can drive around the world,” it said. There are many other examples of people exploring the outer reaches of the planet, making epic journeys in Series 70 Land Cruisers.

As time went on, ­Toyota faced increasingly stiff competition from Nissan, Mitsubishi and others, all offering dependable and rugged vehicles. The Land Cruiser name had come to be applied to two distinctly ­different cars; one distinctly utilitarian, the other geared towards the comfort side of things. And it was the J100 Series, which came along in 1998, that provided the overall look and feel of the vehicle we call to mind whenever the words “Land ­Cruiser” are uttered.

In 2007, the 100 gave way to the 200, and it’s this model that is in such high demand here, offering rugged off-road capability and on-road speed and comfort. ­Toyota’s posh division, Lexus, has also got in on the act with the LX variant.

Sales in the US have been in steep decline for the past 15 years, and company representatives admit that if it wasn’t for the Middle East market, the Land Cruiser as we know it probably wouldn’t exist. They also think that there’s little point developing future models in the icy wildernesses of the Arctic Circle when the majority of customers will be using them in much higher temperatures, which means that the 200 Series has been tried and tested before production, right where it matters most: here.

More than 6.5 million Land Cruisers of various shapes and specifications have been sold in the past 65 years, and they’ve all rolled off the production lines of this impressive factory. As I see the final inspections being carried out on a white Lexus LX, which rival those of any luxury car company, I know exactly where it’s heading — the Middle East’s love affair with this machine is unlikely to fizzle out in my lifetime or yours.