Once I Was Blind, but Now I Can See
Toyota does have a sense of humor. All it takes to see it is a look at the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser, a cartoon version of the old FJ40 Land Cruiser. It makes your daily commute feel like a trip to the beach.
Until, that is, the FJ Cruiser's double-wide C-pillar blots out your ability to make a quick lane change during the crush-hour traffic. There must be some kind of comic irony to be found in a retro vehicle with severely impaired rearward vision.
Someone should do something about this. In fact, why not just cut off the whole top altogether?
Is Placentia Anywhere Near Newport Beach?
Apparently someone at Toyota had similar thoughts, because last year the company commissioned a convertible concept for the SEMA show from Al Zadeh of Newport Convertible Engineering in Placentia, California. Actually, Zadeh did much better than just slice off the FJ's roof; he went ahead and built a power-operated fabric top to replace it.
This is not the first time an automaker has come to Zadeh to produce a convertible version of one of its vehicles. The FJ represents only a small portion of the alphabet soup of vehicle tops he has engineered during his 24 years in business.
"I have done just about every vehicle from A to Z," he says, only half joking. Under the letter "A" you will find conversions of the Aston Martin Vanquish for individual customers. He handled the design and engineering of the first convertible version of the Volkswagen New Beetle in 1998. Soon after, he worked on the PT Cruiser for Chrysler. His conversion of the 1990-'99 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is still popular with customers in Dubai. Recently, he's been meeting a big demand for ragtop versions of the Cadillac CTS and Chrysler 300C. And don't forget his Nissan Z, which was popular in Japan through the 1980s.
For all Zadeh's popular successes with convertible versions of exotic modern cars, he got the inspiration for his vocation from an MGB while a student at USC.
"I got tired of carrying towels and having wet pants every time I drove my MG in the rain or the car wash," Zadeh recalls. "I started thinking about how I could improve the design of the convertible top."
When work in the oil business began to disappear in 1981, Zadeh changed his engineering career and began to build convertible versions of the Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 928 and even Roll-Royce sedans.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
Zadeh relies on a combination of sketches, computer design and Photoshop-altered images to carry out his development.
"My knowledge base is strong because of all the cars I've done over the years," he explains. "I respect the manufacturer's original design and try not to deviate from it. Safety is most important, so the mounting points for the seatbelts and backseat points stay in place."
Zadeh personally carries out the initial conversion to get a feel for the way the car is built and where it needs structural reinforcement. He says that a four-door vehicle usually takes up to three or four months to design.
The four-door Toyota FJ Cruiser posed an additional problem because its unique B-pillar swings out to afford access to the rear seat, so once the top is removed, the upper latch points for the front seatbelts go with it. As a solution, Zadeh has fabricated a roll cage of 1.25-inch tubing over the passenger area to locate the door mount, plus he's added structural integrity, safety and a dash of Hummer-like off-road machismo.
What Zadeh didn't add was a lot of weight. "I try to keep the weight within 50-100 pounds of the original vehicle," he declares. His FJ convertible weighs about 80 pounds more than a stock version.
Because the FJ has body-on-frame construction, there was no need to further stiffen the chassis. The body, however, gets additional bracing at the rear via extensions from the side of the roll cage, a rectangular bar just forward of the rear wheelwells and two similarly sized bars across the back near the tailgate.
The fully lined power top includes a heated glass rear window. A switch on the lower left of the dash raises and lowers it. Securing it to the windshield is easily done by a pair of latches borrowed from the Toyota Solara convertible.
As eager as we were to do some al fresco beach cruising in the FJ, it was hard not to resist the opportunity to watch one of NCE's workers wield an electric saw in an attack on the FJ Cruiser's offensive C-pillar along with the rest of the roof.
The whole spark-scattering, eardrum-shattering process (much like a fireworks display during a demolition derby) takes about 30 minutes. This is done after the interior has been stripped and the exterior covered in 3M Welding and Spark Deflection paper. It takes three workers to lift off the amputated roof.
What follows is the more exacting task of fitting the roll cage, bracing, top mechanism and then the reinstallation of the interior.
Great Big Beach Cruiser
With the top down and the windows raised, the FJ convertible is nearly as temperate and draft-free as the hardtop FJ. Judging by the stares we get (well, except for the guy in the Wrangler straining to avoid eye contact), it's even cooler on the outside.
Some people might like the humpback styling of the stock FJ Cruiser, but the general populace definitely feels the convertible vibe, especially the closer you get to the beach.
Zadeh's engineering skill and the general sturdiness of the FJ convertible are verified when two sets of railroad tracks fail to induce a hint of cowl shake or vibration. While vehicle performance hasn't been upgraded, the airy cockpit makes the FJ feel sprightlier. Being able to hear the V6's raspy little exhaust note adds to the illusion of power.
Although the top retracts almost completely, it still rests above the FJ's already high beltline, so visibility directly behind the driver remains compromised. Once it's raised, the top seals well, with no annoying squeaks or rattles. But we must admit that there is only a slight improvement, if any, in terms of the dreaded blind spot.
But who cares when you know the remedy is only a button-push away?
So Good, Toyota Wants One
The success of Newport Convertible Engineering's FJ Cruiser Convertible has made Toyota think seriously about putting something similar into production itself, and we anticipate a factory-authorized version in the fall of 2009. For the time being, plenty of Toyota dealers are sold on the idea. To meet demand, Zadeh has had to employ two 12-man shifts to pump out 20-25 FJ Cruiser Convertibles a month.
About 90 percent of Zadeh's sales are new models sold through dealers. The remaining sales are to individual FJ owners who deal directly with NCE. The convertible conversion costs $10,000 and includes NCE's warranty for three years or 36,000 miles. Just as important, the conversion does not affect Toyota's warranty on the rest of the FJ.
You know, there are times when you really enjoy driving a life-size cartoon, especially if it's a big, yellow convertible.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.