My 1978 Toyota BJ40 Land Cruiser Is Still Crawling Across The Costa Rican Rainforest
Story by Daniel Valverde
Photography Marcos Gustavino
I read all kinds of stories on Petrolicious that begin with some form of “I’ve been interested in cars since before I could: walk/talk/drive/etc.” Mine begins much later on in life though, and I wouldn’t even really consider myself a “car guy” before the year 2005, when I began my career with the major Meguiar’s distributor in Costa Rica. Up until then, I took the pedestrian view that cars and bikes were mostly utilitarian machines, designed for a certain function that they’d coldly perform for whomever needed it—I wasn’t blind to the differences between a Lamborghini and a Lada if you’d have put their photos in front of me, but I wasn’t really that interested either.
For the last decade and change however, I’ve come to understand that vehicles have their own personalities, and can reflect and influence their owners’. They have souls buried somewhere in the metal and wiring looms. So, rather than drive something figuratively grey and literally boring, I decided to stock my garage with a bit more personality. This took the form of my BMW R1100GS motorcycle, as well as this box of brightness: my Toyota BJ40 Land Cruiser.
Now, the hipster Whole Fooders probably think that’s a typo, but the BJ40 signifies the diesel-powered variant of the in-vogue J40 Land Cruisers, and in this country you rarely find these Toyota trucks in mint condition with a fresh coat of paint and a bunch of supermodels hopping out to do their vegan grocery-getting. In the land of volcanoes and beaches and rainforests, you truly need a 4×4 to visit the really scenic spots in this country, and there are few workhorses more capable and more reliable than the BJ40.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s especially, it seemed that every other Costa Rican family had one of these in their garage, and even those who never owned one have multiple stories about time spent in a friend’s, a relative’s, a coworker’s, etc. That was certainly part of the reason I became interested in finding one and restoring it; it’s a nostalgic part of not just my life growing up, it was a definitive vehicle in Costa Rica’s history. That said, you still see plenty being put to work out here today. To me it represents also a certain kind of freedom given its off-roading capabilities, and it has an inherent reliability that gives me the confidence to trek deep into the forest with a decades-old 4×4.
Given how much the BJ40 is a part of Costa Rican motoring culture, it’s not exactly difficult to find one of these for sale, but the humidity combined with their near-constant use means most of them are in a rough state. Remember, these were not the cars for Sunday drives, instead they were more likely to be found twisting their frames through the thick foliage far from any roads you’d call smooth, let alone paved. They were essentially used as tractors in the farms here, and because they were so stalwart, many of these have stood the test of time—but they also show it. That’s probably why, in searching for a Land Cruiser of my own, I looked at seven examples before finding the one you see here.
It was far from this condition when I purchased it, but it was cheaper than the ones I’d been seeing so I decided to take on a project. This thing had rust on just about every single panel, the undercarriage was crusty and cracked in more places than I’d feel safe driving on, and plenty of parts weren’t the original Toyota pieces. In short, it’d lived a life longer than most trucks already, and I was determined to give it a fresh start. Lucky for me then that one of my good friends owns a body shop, and he offered to take on the restoration project with me. It turned out to be more involved than either of us expected (when is this not the case?), but even then, it only took a period of six weeks to get it all refreshed and reassembled. The color was originally yellow, but it was a bit dull for my taste so I opted instead for a color from the 2014 FJ Cruiser to at least keep it in the same family tree. The rest of the truck was also put back together with OEM Toyota pieces wherever possible.
It’s now my daily driver, and while it isn’t fast (read: slow), I have my bike for that purpose. The Land Cruiser delights in other ways. It basically will not break down if you’ve remembered to keep its fluids stocked (it isn’t picky about which oil or grade of fuel you use, and it almost seems like it just needs something in the tanks and reservoirs in order to do its job), and I get plenty of attention from the people I come across in my travels for both work and pleasure. Yeah, maybe I’m a bit vain, but who are we kidding? Don’t we all like at least a little bit of attention/recognition for the cars and trucks that we take pride in? I love when people approach me at gas stations asking questions, and I’ve met plenty of friends through the conversations that follow.
Anyway, this is my 1978 Toyota BJ40. I hope you enjoyed my story, and the wonderful photos shot by my friend Marcos; I know we enjoyed putting this together to share with all of our fellow Petrolicious readers!