It’s an odd, timely and curiously moving family reunion.
This is a journey into the past, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Land Cruiser, a car that has become inextricably woven into the identity of the UAE, and it begins, fittingly enough, at the Al Badia Golf Club at Dubai Festival City, one of the latest symbols of the modern nation.
The futuristic clubhouse stands within sight of the Creek, not far from where the first small shipment of 20-Series Land Cruisers was landed in 1955. Here, the sand is domesticated; becoming trapped in the beautifully raked bunker that lies in wait at the end of the 13th hole is merely bad for the score card. Where we are going, however, getting stuck can have rather more serious consequences, and it feels good to be going in the car that, as much as any other vehicle, opened up this country.
We are just 50 or so kilometres east of Dubai, tyre pressure down, off road and clambering through the sands somewhere to the southwest of Al Dhaid, when we see it. Standing alongside a simple barasti lean-to on a remote goat farm is a 40-Series Land Cruiser, a model that began production in 1960.
With its back end long ago chopped off to accommodate a water tank and only a rusty streak across the radiator grille where the name badge was once fixed, it’s bruised and battered but still earning its keep, as much at home in the sands as a ghaf tree and a symbolic reminder of just how entwined in the cultural fabric of the UAE the Land Cruiser has become.
For this leg of the journey I’m behind the wheel of the Xtreme, a limited-edition Land Cruiser collaboration between Al Futtaim and the Icelandic adventure company Arctic Trucks. With its black paint job, 17-inch wheels, fat 35-inch tyres, flared wheel arches and raised and toughened suspension, this beast, boasting the new torque-rich 5.7L, 362hp V8 engine, is as butch as the Land Cruiser gets.
And yet, parked alongside its rugged, no-nonsense ancestor, the Xtreme – ponced out with surround-sound audio, dual headrest DVD players, four-zone air conditioning and (shame of shames) a refrigerated cool-box nestling between its front seats – looks almost sheepish, a tough guy exposed as a posing metrosexual.
It was the Al Futtaim family that imported the first few Land Cruisers in 1955 and, to mark the diamond anniversary of the vehicle’s birth, Al Futtaim Motors has created a special 60th birthday limited edition that, at the top of the four-version range, like the Xtreme, also comes with the new big engine, all the finest interior comforts (including the nice touch of diamond-stitched leather seats) and all the best technical goodies (Crawl Control System, Kinetic Dynamic Suspension, multi-terrain ABS, and so on) that make the Land Cruiser such a doddle to handle, off-road or on.
New engine aside – and a car that weighs 3,300kg can surely only benefit from the extra litre of capacity, boosting torque and adding more than 90 horses to the output of the 4.7L version – most of the birthday package is cosmetic, including “60th anniversary” badging on body, mats and scuff plates, silver roof rail and daytime LED running lights that are guaranteed to have other Land Cruiser owners rubber-necking and pleading for a retrofit.
In its excitement, it has to be said, Al Futtaim has jumped the gun slightly. The Land Cruiser evolved out of the Toyota Jeep BJ, which was developed in 1951 (and which in the July of that year showed its mettle by becoming the first vehicle to climb from the trailhead at Mount Fuji’s fifth station to the sixth, clambering over the enormous and steeply angled ash field that separates the two). It was two years later that full production began and the name was changed to Land Cruiser and so, depending on just how picky you want to be, the anniversary celebration is either one year premature (by a couple of months) or three.
But hey; who's counting? If any vehicle deserves an early birthday party, it's the Land Cruiser.
There is no doubt that in the UAE this vehicle has transcended its status as a mere car to become a national symbol. Unintentionally, the UAE and the Land Cruiser were made for each other, as witnessed by the fact that today it accounts for 53 per cent of the large SUV segment here and that in a good month Al Futtaim will sell 1,000 of them.
When the financial crisis came, it would have been reasonable to expect the vehicle market in the UAE to downsize, but for Land Cruiser, at least, it doesn’t seem to have happened. Yes, sales fell away in 2009, but they have bounced right back, up 43 per cent so far this year.
So what’s the attraction?
It’s not really about being flash – sure, the Land Cruiser is luxurious inside, but is still visibly workmanlike on the outside and can hardy be described as ostentatious. Partly, of course, it’s about practicalities – with all those seats (there’s room for eight) and space it’s great for the school run, days at the beach and trips to Ikea. But perhaps there is a more visceral, romantic attachment.
Whether or not they ever head for the dunes and wadis of the interior, owners of Land Cruisers know – and everyone else knows – that this is a car that is, above all, fit for that very purpose. Perhaps the prestige of ownership is rooted in needing – or at least looking like you need – a car capable of such heritage-rich adventures.
But why was it the Land Cruiser that won a cultural status, almost on a par with camels and falcons?
After all, back at the beginning there was plenty of competition. Photographs from the time show Dodge and Chevrolet equivalents and, of course, the once ubiquitous Land Rover – the vehicle whose name Toyota deliberately aped and for which, like the first Land Cruiser, inspiration had been taken from the Willys Jeep, built for the US army between 1941 and 1945.
The answer, it is tempting to conclude, must have something to do with natural selection. After all, back in the early Fifties, in a remote part of the world that was still two decades away from becoming the United Arab Emirates, there was no advertising, no newspapers, mobile phones, televisions or even radio stations to sway consumers. The vehicles jostling to usurp the ancient role of the camel would have stood or fallen by one simple, word-of-mouth criterion: were they up to the job?
And the job was a tough one. There were no roads to speak of, vast distances to be crossed – long, dangerous, horizon-limiting journeys that were possible only by camel – and no service stations or recovery trucks standing by to fix engines or haul wayward motorists out of trouble. In a country where the oil had yet to flow, even getting petrol could be a challenge when it still had to be shipped to Dubai from Iran.
Clearly, it was the Land Cruiser that passed the test.
The first versions were a hardy breed, designed for a tough bunch of drivers, and it wasn’t until the 60 Series, which began production in 1980, that Toyota started to think about passenger comfort and the Land Cruiser began its transformation from workhorse to recreational vehicle.
Over the years, the Land Cruiser has evolved with the country that took it to its heart – predecessors of our farmyard 40 Series would have witnessed the foundation of the nation in 1971 – and, like that country, it became steadily more comfortable and luxurious, evolving through nine incarnations into today’s 200 Series, while all along retaining the basic DNA of strength and reliability that was once necessary for very survival in this harshest of environments.
As the afternoon wears on we leave the sands and wadis of the UAE behind, crossing the border into Oman at Dibba before tackling the final off-road section to our destination – the luxurious Six Senses Hideaway resort at Zighy Bay. Well, enough harsh environment for one day. There is only one road in or out, a twisting gravel track up and over the mountain, up which the Land Cruiser scrambles like a surefooted goat.
And talking of goats, a word of warning.There are plenty of them in these parts, free-roaming reminders of the subsistence lifestyle once common throughout the Trucial States. When I stop at the top of the pass to photograph the breathtaking view of the bay below, I notice one in particular, which appears to be taking a thoroughly un-goatlike interest in the Land Cruiser.
Too late, I realise that it is actually taking an extremely goatlike interest in my passport, which I had inadvertently dropped when I got out the car. Barring the cover and the page bearing my photograph, it scoffs the lot.
Well, that’s heritage for you. The Land Cruiser can transport you back in time; what you do when you get there is down to you.
The 60th Anniversary edition of the Land Cruiser comes in two models, each with a choice of engine: the GXR-i (Dh205,000 for the 4.0 litre engine and Dh231,000 for the 4.7l) and the VXR-i (Dh273,000 for the 4.7l and Dh296,000 for the 5.7l).