Mountain Monster

’78 Toyota Land Cruiser restored to original glory

By Jeff Barnes

(Originally published in the Omaha World-Herald, December 2012)

When he was transferred from Wyoming to Omaha, Jim Cicarelli was forced to leave a love behind.

The retired Union Pacific employee once owned a Toyota Land Cruiser while living in Wyoming. “I had a ’77 that I had bought new,” he said. “My kids grew up with it and they loved it. It got you into areas no others will go, in the mountains and in the snow – it’s an animal.”

When the U.P. sent him to Omaha as locomotive distribution director, he bought a bigger truck to make the move; he couldn’t afford both vehicles and sold the Land Cruiser.

In the back of his mind, and despite now being a flatlander, Cicarelli wanted to get back into a Land Cruiser. In 2008, after making up his mind to find and restore one, he found a 1978 in Loveland, Colorado. “It was olive green and advertised that it had some rust,” he said. “It had a LOT of rust, more than I had bargained for.”

He got the price down substantially, then bought it and sent it to a Land Cruiser specialist in Salt Lake City for a year-and-a-half restoration and new Desert Sand paint job. It was then brought to T&M Automotive in Omaha, for the chassis and interior work. “It’s kind of funny,” Cicarelli said. “They do work on Corvettes and Lamborghinis, but they said when anyone came into the shop they’d first go over to check out my Land Cruiser.” That shop had it for more than a year itself, and then finally came home to Cicarelli eight months ago, nearly three years after he’d bought it.

Cicarelli, 64, enhanced the original by adding bigger tires, a “snorkel” air intake to pull in cleaner air, a new stereo system, air conditioning, updated front seats and reupholstered rear seats. The new power steering is a must, he said – if the Land Cruiser gets stuck on a rock while off-roading without the power assist, if you’ve got your thumb in a steering wheel hole when the wheel suddenly straightens, it could tear that digit off.

The SUV only has 125 horsepower, but more than makes up for it with 200 foot-pounds of torque. “It had a lot better torque than a Jeep, because you didn’t need a special transfer case for lower gears,” Cicarelli said. “It’s not much on the highways, but it’s a Cadillac off the road.”

He didn’t take it out much this summer, using the time to get some additional “bugs” out of the vehicle and make it completely drivable. He admits he won’t drive it nearly as hard as the last Land Cruiser because of the investment, but does plan to trailer it to Utah this coming spring for some four-wheeling and some elk hunting. “A vehicle like this, you do NOT want sitting in a garage,” he said.

It obviously is a big hit with other bow hunters as well. “If a bow hunter drives by he’ll honk and give me thumbs-up,” Cicarelli said. “Most other people think it’s a brand new Jeep.” He said the vehicle has a cult following in the Rockies with rallies and a Land Cruiser museum in Salt Lake City.

Cicarelli said the Land Cruiser was developed in the 1950s with the U.S. military asking Japan for a Jeep-type vehicle that they could purchase locally. Sales took off in the ‘60s, he added, “and they sold close to a million of these by the late ‘80s. They’re getting harder to find now – most of them are rusted out or in junkyards by now.”

After rescuing his from the rust, Cicarelli has infected most of the rest of the family with nostalgia – oldest son Jed has already bought a Land Cruiser to restore and youngest son Jon is looking for one.

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