4WDing means many things to many people. For some, a 4WD is a simple tool to get them beyond the city lights to their favourite campsite. For others 4WDing means testing themselves, steering a 4WD up tracks that push it far beyond its limits. Then there’s gear heads like California’s Jose Cardona, the owner of the wildly modified FZJ80 LandCruiser you’re looking at right now. For guys like Jose, half the challenge is the vehicle itself, building it to be bigger and badder than the original engineers could ever conceive, and then pushing it time after time to find its weaknesses and starting again. This isn’t a regular 80 Series build up we’ve all seen time and time again. There’s no off the shelf lift kit, no 33” tyres or 5 poster bull bar. This is a LandCruiser re-envisioned into a purpose built adventure machine, all in a suburban garage. Jose is the owner, designer, fabricator, and bill payer. While the 80 Series has been pushing the limits with every passing year, so has Jose, which is what makes this story so cool.
"The idea was a trail rig he could beat on, take camping, and start cutting his teeth in the off-road and rock crawling worlds."
Jose first picked the 80 up in near stock condition back in 2012. The idea was a trail rig he could beat on, take camping, and start cutting his teeth in the off-road and rock crawling worlds. As with most projects things soon snow balled, and not just for the LandCruiser. In fact, the most important piece of equipment Jose has bought to this date hasn’t been a set of driving lights or a diff lock, it’s been his MIG welder. Like most 4WDs the first few modifications were relatively minor, a few 12V accessories here, a different set of wheels there, just the bare necessities to get him out wheeling the trails around Northern California. But it wasn’t long before some minor fabrication was needed, rather than pay a shop, Jose bought himself a welder and figured he better learn sooner or later. What started out as a few tacks here and there for minor brackets and racks soon turned into serious fabrication that would turn this LandCruiser into a beast far more capable than 99% of 4WDs on the tracks.
It’s no surprise the 80 has gone through more than a few transitions since Jose first started, but the current setup is easily the most impressive of the lot. The factory fitted Radius arm setup up front is a compromise right out of the box, they hang down low as rock anchors and severely limit flex. Jose has solved what is arguably the weakest link of an 80 Series with a kit from 4WheelUnderground, a whole heap of skill, and lot of time and patience. The radius arms have been ditched, in their place now reside a TIG welded heavy duty DOM 3-link system that gives an insane amount of articulation. If you’ve ever looked at a set of 80 Radius arms you’d note the distinct curve to get around the tie rod. With the new links lining up exactly where the old tie-rod was Jose had to get creative. The entire knuckle assembly has been replaced by an aftermarket unit known as a HellFire Knuckle. The new knuckles mount both tie rod and drag link in front of the diff in a high-steer arrangement. The benefit of this is a drastically reduced angle on the drag link allowing Jose to move the Panhard up higher for a more balanced and better handling suspension system. “Radius arms work well for road driving, but once lifted the geometry is way out of whack, especially caster,” Jose says. “With the 3-link the truck drives much better on the freeway, less wandering and it tracks nice and straight thanks to the 7 degrees of caster I dialled in. Off-road a radius arm setup is incredibly stiff as it acts like a giant sway bar. Fine for most trails, but when you get into the really big boulders and off-camber drops and ledges the radius arm tends to pull the body with it since it won't let the suspension articulate. This can lead to body damage on the tougher trails and can actually be dangerous in tippy situations. Flopped 80s are quite common once you lift the centre of gravity. With the 3-link, it was a huge confidence boost off-road. The truck feels much more stable in the rocks, the body can stay level while the suspension does all the work.”
To make the most of the new articulation available the standard springs and bumpstops have been replaced by 14” Radflo Emulsion Coilovers and hydraulic bumpstops. All burned in with custom towers and bracketry Jose painfully tweaked and modified until it was perfect. We could go on for hours on each individual component so if you’re after more in depth information head to his build up HERE. Up the back the standard 5-link is still getting the job done, although the lower arms have been extended and sleeved to minimise rear steer while the uppers are adjustable units to dial in the pinon angle thrown out of whack by the 5” coils. There’s a set of 2.5” Radflo Emulsion Shocks keeping the rear end in check as well.
With a set of 37” Nitto Mud Grapplers bolted to the axles the rest of the drivetrain needed to be beefed up to handle the extra load. The diff ratios have been swapped out for 5.29 Nitro gears, up from the factory 4.1 ratio. There’s heavy duty Longfield chromoly CVs and axles up front with a set of Aisin hubs and a part time 4x4 conversion.
"This is an on-going project though, so by the time you read this Jose would have sliced off the sill panels, gaining an extra 5” of ground clearance with some heavier duty box tube in their place."
While Jose’s LandCruiser definitely walks the walk, it also talks the talk too thanks to an aggressive, yet purpose built exterior. It’s got the full set of barwork you could expect on any rock crawler, a set of rock sliders, high clearance front bumper and a stout rear bar, both pieced together by Jose with DIY kits from 4X4Labs. This is an on-going project though, so by the time you read this Jose would have sliced off the sill panels, gaining an extra 5” of ground clearance with some heavier duty box tube in their place. The rear bar has been sold too, a set of cut ¼ panels replacing it with some form fitting tube work. “I loved the bumper it had on it but it acts like a boat anchor on tougher trails and hits everywhere,” says Jose. “Long term I plan on chopping the roof behind the 2nd row seat with an exo-cage and half doors. You can see where this is going, once you start down that path it spirals quickly.”
Those with an eagle eye may have noticed something a little odd with the paint work, while reasonably uncommon in Australia bed-liner style products are growing in popularity in the states, and for good reason. “I’d always liked Monstaliner from the pictures I’d seen, and to this day I love the paint,” he says. “It comes in a lot of colours but doesn’t have the typical gritty sandpaper texture of other roll-on paints. It’s easy to clean and doesn’t trap dirt.”
The main intention of this rig has always been for tougher trips. There’s the occasional relaxed camping trip with the wife but it spends most of its life tucked in the garage waiting for the next rock crawling trip. With this in mind it’s no surprise inside is rather spartan. There’s the usual 12V gear like gauges, UHF radio, and in-cab winch controls for the Runva 12,000lb winch but there’s also a few cool personal upgrades like on-board air, a 4x4Labs cargo basket, DIY slide for a 65qt (60L) cooler, and DIY “Attic Rack”.
This really is the kind of 4WD that has custom tweaks and modifications everywhere you look. From the braided stainless steel brake lines to the sneaky LED driving lights mounted behind the mirrors, Jose has built himself a one-off creation to suit his needs, learning skills when they were required, rather than relying on others to do it for him. “My best advice is to not be afraid or intimidated, just dive in,” Jose has to offer. “The internet is a great resource for learning new skills. Take advantage of it, learn from others, learn from your mistakes, and overall just have fun! At the end of the day it’s just money and sheet metal, and money you enjoy wasting is not money wasted.”