THE SLEEPY TOWN OF MOULAMEIN lies 800 kilometres west of Sydney and another 550 east of Adelaide. Today, it has a population of 480 people, but in the early 1900s, the town was home to a thriving port, with riverboats carrying wool and wheat down the Edward River to the Murray. The main street turns into a quiet cul-de-sac, at the end of which sits the Tattersalls Hotel.

At 5pm, there’s barely a parking spot left outside the local watering hole. But there’s only one model of car parked on the street. Lined up, as if staged for a photoshoot, sits Toyota LandCruiser after Toyota LandCruiser. As we hop down from our own 79 Series GXL Ute, the owner of a 76 Series Wagon leaves the pub, jumps into his car and gives us a nod of approval. We could be in the middle of nowhere—a region where a reliable car with a big fuel tank is indispensable. But more to the point, we’re in the middle of Land Cruiser territory, where the iconic 70 Series is the vehicle of choice.

Two days earlier, Esquire strapped its camping gear into the tray of the 79 Series and, with four cameras sitting on the back seat of the spacious dual cab, we set off from Sydney in the direction of the world heritage-listed Lake Mungo, which is located on Paakantji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa country in south- western New South Wales. Lake Mungo is the oldest known site of human occupation in the southern hemisphere. Archeological remains discovered at the lake in 1968 and 1974—known as ‘Mungo Woman’ and ‘Mungo Man’—date back 40,000 years to the last ice age. The moonscape- like lunette that hems the dry lakebed, meanwhile, is one of Australia’s most spectacular outback landscapes. Visiting it was firmly on our bucket list, and, like so many other Australians with a desire to explore the bush, our dream was to do it in a LandCruiser.

Meanwhile, Toyota had just released the update to its LandCruiser 70 Series—the most significant overhaul the range has received in a decade. It was big news in the automotive world and as such, we were granted the opportunity to take a shiny new 79 series (according to Toyota’s swatches, the pantone is ‘Merlot Red’) for an extended test drive. But the trip was about more than just a review. We wanted to get a feel of the stronghold the Toyota LandCruiser 70 series, or LC70 for short, has on the Australian psyche, and, in particular, the minds of a new generation of LandCruiser owners who dream of sleeping where they surf, or customising their vintage 78 Series Troopcarrier and doing the ‘big lap’ around Australia, returning home in the same car their kids (and grandkids) will eventually learn to drive in.

2024 Toyota LandCruiser 70 Series
The new 2024 Toyota LandCruiser 79 series double cab chassis GXL with automatic transmission is priced from $83,500. Toyota says the introduction “will broaden the appeal of the 70 Series range to more customers.” Photography: Alex Walker

But first, some background. The current LandCruiser 70 Series line-up consists of four models. There’s the 76 Series, which is a five door Wagon; the military-style 78 Series, otherwise known as the Troopcarrier (or ‘Troopie’ for short); and the 79 Series ute, which comes in a two or four door configuration. The range is characterised by the boxy, utilitarian design of its body—a body shape that’s barely changed over the years, enabling it to maintain an air of rugged coolness some four-wheel drive badges have lost in the pursuit of modernisation. That rugged coolness was established in 1959, when the first Toyota LandCruisers arrived in Australia, eventually becoming the vehicle of choice for those building the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme. Today, Toyota LandCruisers are often referred to as the car that built Australia.

The first iterations of the 70 Series—a ute, as well as short and medium wheel base versions arrived in Australia in 1984, with the Troopcarrier following soon after. A Toyota advertising spread taken out in a 1989 edition of Bushdriver magazine speaks to the ‘Troopie’s’ reputation as the ultimate overlanding vehicle. “Troopies are first choice as holiday campers to take you places you can’t go, because a fridge, bunks and stove fit quite easily,” it reads, before adding: “The Troopie’s toughness and reliability can mean the difference between life and death.” A bit dramatic but you get the picture.

Vintage Toyota ad
A 1989 advert for the Troopcarrier. Advert images: Aussie Car Adverts.

But it’s no longer just farmers, serious four-wheel drivers and Steve Irwin types (the Crocodile Hunter was also the proud owner of an old Troopie) that pine after the 70 Series. Today, the car’s old school, stripped-back aesthetic appeals to a broader cross-section of people than ever before. In 2021, Toyota Australia recorded its highest number of LC70 sales on record; 2023 was the second-highest full-year total on record, while the model’s local sales have exceeded 10,000 vehicles in each of the past six years.

During the pandemic, the wait time on delivery, which was already notoriously long, stretched out to four years for the 4.5-litre V8 turbo diesel version, forcing the brand to hit pause on all orders for that model until the backlog could be cleared. At the time of writing, orders for the V8 engine remain closed. According to a brand spokesperson, the wait time is currently down to “20 months on average”.

“The TROOPIE’S toughness and reliability can mean the difference between LIFE and DEATH.”

For the first time ever, the 2024 update includes an automatic transmission, which is easily the most talked-about part of the overhaul. Toyota’s intention is that customers on the waitlist for the V8 turbo diesel version will switch their orders from V8 to the auto, which will “help reduce the wait time for other customers”. It’s for this reason we’ve been given one of the shiny new four-cylinder, 2.8-litre engine versions with six-speed auto transmission. As expected, the shift to auto has raised some eyebrows, while others are intrigued by its improved performance capability (the new powertrain boasts a reduced weight and improved payload). By pushing an auto option, Toyota is also making the range more accessible, by opening the doors for non-manual drivers to get on board.

On the road to Lake Mungo, we come across a couple of curious sceptics. One man even asks for a peek under the bonnet—he drove LandCruisers for years while working as an electrician in the Northern Territory, and is clearly impressed by the new setup. In the town of Balranald, on the southern corner of Mungo National Park, we meet a young guy whose eyes widen when he catches a glimpse of the redesigned front end and its circular LED headlamps—another new addition to the 2024 range, and a dead giveaway the ute is brand spanking new.

“How does the new LandCruiser go?” he gushes. “Everyone will be so jealous. People wait for ages for those things.”

Lake Mungo landscape
A kangaroo hops across the lunette at Lake Mungo. Photography: Alex Walker.

PEOPLE DO WAIT FOR AGES FOR THESE things. But for many owners, driving the car home is just the beginning. A big part of the 70 Series’ appeal lies in its ability to be customised—Toyota intentionally leaves buttons empty on its consoles so that its customers can add things like hot water systems for showers and switches for spotlights. In some cases, we’re talking Pimp My Ride levels of modifications and gear. It’s not uncommon for someone to spend more on a custom fit-out than they did on the car itself. And it’s here, among the slide-out kitchens and rooftop tents, that the modern cult of the LC70 really takes shape.

“We’ll have customers that spend $150,000 plus,” says Brendan Ives, the founder of Adventure Merchants, a specialised four-wheel drive outfitter in Marrickville, Sydney. “That’s if you take an old car and you want a suspension upgrade, engine upgrade, better sound system... it’s definitely the upper end. But people joke that you go and buy an $80,000 Troopie, and then spend $100,000 to give it cup holders and more comfortable seats.”

Ives and his team outfit all kinds of four- wheel drives, but the LC70 is easily one of the most popular series they work on. “I think people love that stripped-back utilitarian look. It is a more basic car, there’s less electronics... but it has this perception of being this really tough Australian overlanding vehicle,” says Ives. “For a lot of people, they’d rather buy a more basic car... leather seats just aren’t as important as, say, better suspension capability off road, or the ability to add and change and put your own spin on it. Yeah, it’s a big thing.”

But it’s not just the newer 70 Series range that people are willing to splash out on. On the secondhand market, old Troopies, Wagons and utes—not to mention the retro-leaning 60 Series, which was introduced in 1980 but is no longer in production—can fetch up to $100,000. And it’s not uncommon for cars being sold at this price to have twice as many kilometres on their odometers.

An old 60 Series we passed; cattle on the road. Photography: Alex Walker.
It’s no longer just BOGANS GOING BUSH ... This is now something that modern COUPLES and FAMILIES are doing
Taking a look under the hood; the LED lights and ultra-wide side mirrors. Photography: Alex Walker.

“The LandCruiser market appeals across a lot of generations,” says Ives. “Younger, surfy guys in their early 20s—they’ll scrape together 15, 20 grand and buy these old school cars because they want that seventies LandCruiser vibe going on. But the 70 Series has that coolness factor you don’t necessarily get with the 200 and 300 Series,” he says, referring to the top range of Toyota’s current four-wheel drive offering.

Interestingly, this ‘coolness factor’ isn’t something Toyota has necessarily pushed through its own brand messaging. Just like those ads from the 1980s, the 70 Series continues to be marketed as an off-road workhorse—because that’s exactly what it is. Instead, the cool factor and the culture of customisation that thrives around it has been inspired by LC70 customers—customers that are attracted to the fact the car isn’t trying to be cool, which is increasingly rare in today’s automotive landscape.

Since launching Adventure Merchants in 2020, Ives has witnessed the demographic of LC70 drivers shift firsthand. “It’s no longer just ‘bogans going bush’,” he laughs. “This is now something that modern couples and families are doing, getting cars like the LandCruiser to get out and explore in.” He adds that without a doubt, social media has given greater exposure to this previously niche subculture of touring, for better or worse. (It depends who you ask).

“People see other people out there and they go, ‘Yeah, that actually looks quite nice’. I think typically, if you asked a similar couple 20 years ago, they probably weren’t buying a four-wheel drive and going exploring. They were probably going to Europe for six months. It’s a changing market for sure.”

Lake Mungo lunette
"The moonscape-like lunette that hems the dry lakebed is one of Australia’s most spectacular outback landscapes." Photography: Alex Walker.

WE REACH OUR DESTINATION of Lake Mungo around 8am. On our way in, we drive past the Park Ranger—naturally, he’s driving a LandCruiser. A mob of emus trot alongside us as as we wind through the scrubby lakebed; according to the MPRA, the peak Indigenous governance body for the Murdi Paaki Region of western New South Wales, the former oasis dried up 16,000 years ago, with rabbit plagues, sheep grazing and erosion due to climate change contributing to the formation of the 25 km lunette. Characterised by layered peaks of ancient wind-blown soil, which look as if they’ve been melted down, the lunette looks even more otherworldly up close. The vastness of the ancient landscape around us is humbling. As if on cue, a kangaroo hops across the dunes as we approach the viewing platform.

The mid-morning heat is setting in, so we hop back into the ute—its exterior now sporting a thick layer of red dirt—and follow a long, red, single lane road out of the park for what seems like hours, ignoring a road sign scribbled with the words ‘Wolf Creek’ along the way. We’d officially made it to our destination, 1000 km from Sydney through the saltbush-covered plains of the Western Riverina, past a total of 152 LandCruiser 70 Series (we kept a tally), to the lunette of Lake Mungo. And our Merlot Red truck had chauffeured us all the way there without a hitch.

After spending a week inside its cab, on the receiving end of envious looks from passersby in small towns, it’s easy to understand the stronghold. This thing is more than just a car. It’s a status symbol; one that implies the people inside are headed somewhere exciting. And while this might not be something every car owner aspires to, as more people look to disconnect from modern life, it’s certainly capturing the collective imagination.

Toyota LandCruiser film
The Landcruiser 79 Series with some cattle we met on the road between Hay and Moulemein. Photography: Alex Walker.

Shaun Edwards, the founder of House of Darwin, a First Nations- owned social enterprise that makes colourful streetwear, summarised it perfectly when we spoke recently. “It’s just such a cultural phenomenon in the bush. In the city, when people grow up they might be like, ‘I want a BMW, or I want an exotic sports car’. But every kid who grew up in the bush, especially up in the Territory, they dream of owning a LandCruiser.” He would know—he started his brand by slinging T-shirts out of the back of his grandpa’s 60 series, and recently had a trailer for his 76 Series Wagon custom built in Melbourne. “The 76 Series or 79 Series is like the Rolls Royce up here,” he adds with a laugh.

Up there, and, increasingly, everywhere. If owning a car is a symbol of independence, owning a LandCruiser 70 Series that you can take camping today and complete the big lap in tomorrow—that might just be the modern definition of freedom.

This story appears in the April/May 2024 issue of Esquire Australia. On sale now. Find your copy here.

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