This FJ40 Is An Heirloom That Launched A Family Business
Photography by Hagop Kaladijan
By this point if you’re not familiar with how big the Resto-Mod market is becoming it’s safe to assume you’re living under a rock. In the past decade we’ve watched a venerable cottage industry spring up to service the collective nostalgia we all share for classic trucks, Porsches, American Muscle and just about everything else under the sun.
What fascinates me about these businesses and what started my conversation with Juan Diego Calle of The FJ Company is that each one came into being for a different reason. Juan’s Grandfather was a passionate FJ owner and it wasn’t untill his family restored his last truck after his passing that they fell in love with it themselves. Our photographer Hagop spent some time with The FJ Company recently on The Copperstate Overland, which they sponsor and I spoke to the Colombian born Juan Diego Calle over the phone to talk about their humble beginnings.
Ted Gushue: How did all of this begin?
Juan Diego Calle: The first FJ40, or Land Cruiser that we acquired, wasn’t really an acquisition. It was passed on from my grandfather. My grandfather had two vehicles during his lifetime. A 1968 FJ40 Land Cruiser and a 1982. He traveled the country with the ’68. By ’82 he needed a new one, so he bought a brand new 1982 that had just rolled out in ’79.
The ’82 he drove for the remainder of his life. When he passed away in the early 2000’s, my cousin was the first one to take it. He started what we consider the first restoration for the business that exists today.
TG: Was the goal with the restoration to get it back to original factory quality?
JDC: No. The first restoration was purely to fix it up and put it back on the road and preserve a vehicle that my grandfather had owned for many years. It was the preservation of a family heirloom.
My cousin actually put big tires on it. He put a winch on it. It was kind of like a resto-mod. It was purely to actually use the vehicle off-roading, to take it out and enjoy it.
It wasn’t a very deep restoration. It’s not like we had the facility that we have now. But the end result was very, very nice. At that point I was already living in the US. I travelled back to Colombia at some point. I saw the car restored and I couldn’t believe it. Number one because of the emotional attachment we had to it. Number two because it looked very cool.
Right at that moment I offered to buy it from my cousin. He agreed to sell it and I shipped it to the US and had it registered here. As soon as I put it on the road people were all over it. Everybody wanted to have a vehicle that was similar to it. If not, they at least would comment and talk about how their grandfather had one or their cousin or their uncle. Always there’s a story that relates back to some Land Cruisers.
People would just approach me and talk to me about these stories. It was very exciting to see the reaction people had. Even in a city like Miami where we were surrounded by Ferraris and Lamborghinis and all these fancy cars. Yet this little Land Cruiser from 1982 got all the attention.
TG: What was the second car that you built?
JDC: At that point when I bought the truck from my cousin, my brother (who really is the car nut in the family) and my cousin got together and said, “Hey, Juan’s car has garnered a lot of attention back in Miami. Why don’t we build another one, and we’ll go sell it at an auction?” They did that. They bought a Land Cruiser, they started restoring it, this time with a lot more attention to detail, and trying to restore it back to factory specs. We brought it to the US six or eight months later and immediately sold it at an auction in Dallas Texas.
I think that’s really the birth of the company because that’s when we realized that, “Okay, we can do this maybe with a few more cars. We all have our day jobs, but we can make a little money on the side building these vehicles.”
After that one sold we bought a couple more. We either sold them at auction or, because of the first auction, we were getting some knocks on the door from people who said, “Hey, I want you to build me another truck like that.”
TG: Since that point, how many have you actually built?
JDC: At this point over forty. Year to date we have forty six contracts signed for new trucks.
TG: When you talk to your customers, obviously they’re shopping around. Do you find that you’re competitive with the guys like ICON?
JDC: The probability that an ICON customer will call us is low. And vice versa, I think at this point in time. The customer that calls us is a guy who wants an authentic Land Cruiser made with a steel body with an authentic Toyota Land Cruiser engine. The guy that calls ICON is looking for that super modern truck that has the looks of a Land Cruiser.
We have customers that have both and they enjoy our trucks and those trucks. But they’re completely different animals. It wasn’t until recently that I drove one for one of our customer’s ICON trucks that I understood how different they are. One is truly a very modern car. It has a modern engine, it has modern air conditioning, modern seats. It drives very differently. Whereas a Land Cruiser is a Land Cruiser. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s a very different feel.
TG: Where do most of your trucks end up?
JDC: This has changed over time. Very early on in the company, we were participating in lots of auctions. It’s difficult to say where the early ones ended up because we didn’t have contact with our customers back then.
Nowadays our biggest markets are Texas. About seventeen percent of our business is Texas. Followed by the whole New York area with twelve percent. If you add up the neighboring states in the northeast, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maine, that really makes up the lion’s share of our business. After that you get into Colorado, you get into Arizona, and then after that California.
TG: What else should we know about your process that makes it unique?
JDC: I think that there are a number of things. When we first started doing this it was just building a few here and there as we saw the demand for them. Today it’s not so much a restoration shop as it is an assembly line. It’s a factory where we’re bringing in industrial type processes to building these trucks. On the production side it’s a very robust operation, but the marketing side is the same.
Pairing a clean and clear marketing message with our robust construction process has been the game changer for us. One of the big differentiators between us and anyone doing this sort of thing out there is you can actually go to our website and build a truck online. You can specify color, engine size, the type of radio that you want, the seats, et cetera. You can spec it out fully and place an order online. That is how most of our customers have their first interactions with us. They go online and they build the truck and then we put the vehicle into production.
I think that’s a very unique aspect of what we’re doing.
TG: What’s production time?
JDC: Nine months.
TG: Where are the majority of the trucks being sourced?
JDC: It depends on the model. The FJ43 has been particularly successful for us lately. Those are coming in from Latin America. Frankly, at this point, we source vehicles from all over the world. A lot of FJ40’s come from the US. We’ve had to bring in the more exotic models. Models like the FJ20 series, the 225 and the 28. Or the FJ45 LV. Some of those have come in from the Middle East and Australia.
We have scouts looking for trucks all day long. We’re selling around five, six a month. Nowadays that means we have to replenish our inventory constantly.
TG: How big do you see this market becoming?
JDC: We’re setting up production so that we can deliver ten a month. Can it be bigger than that? That is a big question mark for us.
The next phase in the company is to actually establish service centers and showrooms around the country. We’re opening our first service center and showroom in Dallas at the end of the year. That’s going to be led by Joey Pomerenke. He’s our GM. The idea is to open a second one in the New York area because that’s our second largest market in mid 2017 or late 2017.
This is not specific to Land Cruisers, but this is a problem that applies to the classic car world in general. The problem with classic cars is that they’ve been limited to people that have the ability to tinker with cars. If we can make it a little bit easier for the regular enthusiast of cars to access a vehicle, to touch it, to service it, to not have to worry about the carburetor or things that are just outside the realm of what they can tinker with, bringing it closer to home, I think the demand for these trucks would expand dramatically.
The next step in the company is to do that. To bring the trucks closer to where our customers are. I think that’s going to open up the market in a bigger way.