This Reader Took A Chance On An Old FJ40
Photography and story by Tim & Kelsey Huber
Is it normal to want to turn half your house into a garage? Maybe we have a problem, because we just got another vehicle last weekend. Did we need another vehicle? Did we need another project? Did we run out of ways to use all of our free time? Were we bored? No. But sometimes opportunities present themselves and you just can’t say no.
So we welcomed “Tonto Rockford” to the family. We first met “TR” the weekend before last, after we had heard through a friend about a rough little FJ40 whose longtime owner was ready to part ways. We were warned it was in rough condition, and considering its remote location, we tried to temper our expectations and not get too excited.
Off we went to take a look at this 1976 Toyota FJ40. We were trying not to build the truck up in our heads so we didn’t talk much about it on the drive there. Passing through the last little town, I realized this truck was way out there. We eventually hit dirt and I couldn’t help but think, “This is exactly where I’d love the story of this old truck to begin.” Way out in the most Arizona landscape I could think of—beautiful, remote, and wild. As the road got rougher we were glad we had taken Goose, our tough ‘95 Land Cruiser, for this outing.
We topped the hill and saw an airplane hangar, where the truck was supposed to be. We hadn’t seen any pictures but we knew we were looking for some variation of the color red and tan. Sure enough he was sitting there, to our excitement under the hanger’s protection. It felt shady being on a stranger’s property without them with us, checking out their vehicle, but we were given permission to look over the truck—still, we were hoping none of the neighbors would try to exercise their second amendment rights.
When we arrived to Cascabel, my first thought when stepping out of Goose was the fear of rattlesnakes—it turns out Cascabel means “rattle” in Spanish. Thankfully, we didn’t see any in the area.
My next thought was, “What is that sound?” We quickly discovered it was one of those electronic noise machines to scare off birds, bugs, mice, etcetera. We made our way inside the hanger. We were ready for snakes, bugs, and mice, anything to jump out at us as we opened up the doors and had a look inside the old Toyota.
The mice had left many presents inside the cabin, which didn’t give us much hope for the wiring. We also discovered several large wasp nests forming within the hangar and we were really hoping they had not found their way inside the FJ40. After looking all around inside and out, it was about what we expected in terms of appearance.
The key was on the dash—you’ve gotta love rural trust. My husband, Tim, turned the key over and there was very little juice. We pulled in trusty Goose and jumped the little truck—reassuring Goose that he was still very much loved. To our surprise the FJ40 started up right away! Apprehensively, we fully expected him to sputter to a stop shortly after the lucky start, but he kept purring away like a little sewing machine.
Amazed, we just listened. We revved the surprisingly strong sounding engine, listening for anything suspicious. Nothing. After debating whether or not it was overstepping our bounds on this guy’s property to take it for a drive, we came to the conclusion that we had come all this way, and if we were really considering buying it, we needed to drive it.
Pushing in the clutch, Tim shifted smoothly into reverse and, to my amazement, the reverse lights worked. I watched Tim put the truck into first and putt along to the end of the driveway and that’s when I thought there was just no way we could leave this one behind. The little truck seemed to be trying so hard, as if to say, “Don’t leave me here! I am worthy! See, look how well I run! I want so badly to go on adventures and not just sit here rotting!” As soon as Tim got back, we looked at each other and both said, “I think we have to.”
With heavy and anxious hearts, we closed him back up making sure to plug in the electronic noisemaker. We drove off hoping it would not be long until we would be back. We kept checking to see if we had cell service so we could let the owner know we were indeed interested. Once we finally hit pavement again we had a little service and left a voicemail informing the owner of our interest. As we drove back we compiled a list of all the things we would need to take with us to get the little guy home. In total automotive nerd fashion, we made a list as we drove home.
We had to wait another day until we heard back from the owner. He loved the little truck and said he felt bad that it had just been sitting there. He had only driven it a few times, years ago, to recover someone who had been stuck in a wash near his property in Cascabel. He said the truck was just amazing and it would always start up.
He said we could go pick it up whenever we wanted. Sadly it was Sunday evening when we got the news, so it wouldn’t be until the next weekend when we could recover our new friend. In the meantime we kept adding to our list, ordering filters and fluids that we would need to make the drive back.
We both had trouble sleeping the night before we were to head out, wondering, “Is this going to be the most foolish thing we’ve ever done?” We planned a weekend trip with an overnight stay in Tucson on Friday night and then we would head to rescue “TR” in the morning. We met up with friends that night and had a great dinner while we enjoyed some wonderful company, who reassured us, “It’s a Toyota it will make it.” With that, we headed off for one more restless night of sleep.
We had masks, gloves, and cleaning wipes. We were ready to wage war on the mouse infested interior. Tim went through the mechanical items, greasing and checking fluids, while I was in charge of the interior.
I put on my mask and gloves and, after fighting off many spiders, I got the vacuum that was sitting there in the hangar. Cringing, I wiped and cleaned until I got rid of the majority of the nasty stuff. We came prepared with a Mexican blanket to put over the seats, until we could give the interior a more thorough cleaning once home.
We pulled the truck out to change the oil and upon pulling it back Tim asked, “Do mice really squeak?” I replied, “Yeah, did you hear a squeak?” He didn’t think too much of it and went to start bleeding the brake fluid, I crawled in to pump the brakes and as I was pulling myself in, I noticed that just below the clutch pedal were too pink little baby mice crying in there high pitched mouse squeaks.
“Tim, there are baby mice!” As if we had already established this, Tim nonchalantly said, “Okay.” To which I replied “No, I mean literally there are baby mice right here! Come look!”
With fresh fluids and the mice removed, we were finally ready to hit the road. It was time to see how far we could get. Tim would drive the FJ40 and I would follow in Goose. Down the rough hill we went, onto the more major dirt paths, and the FJ40 started put-putting just about five miles into the trip. The tires were very old but we decided to risk it and, as a result, we had our first flat.
Hoping this wasn’t a sign of what was to come, we made quick work of changing the tire. A rock had actually penetrated through the tire and was now sitting out of site within it. We’d never seen that happen.
With our one spare used, off we went again—still optimistic. We made it to pavement and decided to take a break for lunch. Then we decided to keep-on-keepin’on, seeing just how far we could push it.
The next stop was about 100 miles in. We had pulled off to take a break and I told Tim I was amazed at how quick the little old truck was. He was managing 65 mph! We were in disbelief that we had made it this far and we were making far better time than expected, too. We sat and cooled down, relaxing before pushing on again to see how much further we could make it.
We had finally made it back to civilization and, just barely, to a gas station. Every time we would turn off the engine I would think, “This is it, it won’t start again. The battery has to be toast.” But, it would just come right back to life. When we pulled into our driveway I could hardly believe we had made it. I never expected the dirty old truck to make it all the way back let alone so triumphantly. Our tough little truck had proven himself, which made us even bigger fans of him.
Once safely home, I got to hop in and drive him for the first time. The steering takes some muscle but it shifts like a dream—I’m amazed at how notchy the gears are.
The following day we decided it was time for his first bath in over a decade. We took him to the mud bay at the local car wash and Tim began spraying as I soaped and monitored, inserting quarters as needed. $9 later, we were satisfied and we both held our breath as Tim turned the key and, like always, it started right up.
Now it was home for more detailing. Tim worked on putting the missing bezel on the front and waxing the long forgotten paint. I spent my time cleaning the inside—hosing out a vehicle just feels wrong, but it was about the only way to handle the mess. The layers of gunk on the windows alone took an entire roll of paper towels and a half bottle of window cleaner before they looked decent. After an afternoon of scrubbing, it was much better than before.
We went to run some errands and grab lunch. Approximately four hours later, and a good bit of driving, we arrived back to the house and to my surprise, momma mouse decided to make an appearance next to my seat! She slowly crawled under the seat leaving her tail exposed,–Tim was able to promptly remove her.
It was quite the adventure, the first of many to come. We are working on bringing our new buddy back to life. Our little FJ40 sure has heart. It’s been a great adventure so far and we can’t wait to see where TR takes us.