- Bill Antonitis
We all have a story about how we became automotive enthusiasts. Other EDD writers have shared theirs, and I, personally, love reading them. So, if you have a moment, here’s mine.
For me, the FJ Cruiser is the one that started it all. After only slogging around in boring economy cars until entering my 30s, I bought mine used with 80,000 miles on it. Specifically, I wanted something to start my infant son adventuring in, but I bought it a few years too early for that–though we got in our fair share of off-roading and other muddy fun.
What really happened is it got me interested in driving.
I have always loved driving. I never had an interest in cars, however. Cruising around, feeling free, motoring was always more of a moving meditation for me. I have held several jobs with long commutes; some of which kept me in the car up to four hours a day. Unlike many, I never minded the hours on the road. When I decided to go for my first SUV, I reasoned like most Americans starting a family: I thought I needed more space, more capability, more, well, automobile than I was used to having. I planned to do typical family stuff, but I also planned to haul loads of messy gear from adventure to adventure–to merge driving with other pastimes of mine, namely hiking, camping, mountain biking, kayaking, and exploring. In retrospect, these are not good enough reasons to own an FJ Cruiser when an Outback would suffice.
Owning a type of enthusiast vehicle had an unexpected effect on me, however. It made me an actual driving enthusiast. After a few years of keeping the FJ stock and on pavement, I began researching mods. Most of these were because I developed an interest in prepping. (Becoming a father really warps a guy’s mind!) I worked to hone my load-out in case TEOTWAWKI occurs, organizing and reorganizing my bugout stuff. I even tried designing several tailgate rack systems before just dropping a huge Husky tool box full of gear in the rear.
Gradually, I had an off-roader modestly prepped for the Apocalypse. There was only one problem. I had never really taken it to the trails! That changed when my son was a bit older, and I picked up a pair of Goodyear Wrangler Duratracs. We learned of some runs nearby from a tire shop employee, and we started getting dirty nearly every weekend.
Other than getting stuck one time, it was always a blast and it got me interested in improving my rig as well as, by necessity, my driving skills. I began making some low-level performance and aesthetic mods. Other than the tires (the most important one) I Plasti-Dipped the hood and roof, I spray painted the front skid plate and license plate frames red, and I added a rockrail/side step combo. Aside from grab handles, a power inverter for a sound system and other accessories, and LED head lights/reverse lights, that was about it. I had lots of fun making these upgrades. I’m sorry I didn’t take too many pictures, but I never thought I’d be lucky enough to start producing content about cars!
Why get excited about this particular Toyota? The FJ Cruiser, more than a Jeep Wrangler, is the ultimate civilian all-terrain vehicle. It isn’t Trail Rated. It is “Photograph-Rare-Wildlife-Found-Only-in-Remote-Locations” rated and can neither be stopped nor killed. The only issues I ever had with it? Some of the instrument panel lights went out. I didn’t bother fixing them. The wheels needed to be replaced because they corroded, so I got steelies to bang around on. I broke the ABS system when a branch caught the undercarriage, so I needed to take care of that one. Otherwise there was some body rust and the suspension was starting to give a bit, making for more of an unsightly and rough ride than I wanted to live with in a primary vehicle. Still, not bad for a body-on-frame SUV driven for 100,000 miles beyond its original, significant mileage. I have no doubt it could have done 100,000 more.
The FJ Cruiser handles great on-road despite its off-road setup. It’s better than a Wrangler JK because it can tow more, and it drives nicer in most situations. It’s not as smooth as the new JL but it is quieter and a lot more reliable. The FJ handles better than a 4Runner because despite being so similar because it has a much shorter wheelbase. It’s also plasticized inside like a kid’s playhouse, unlike the 4Runner which is better appointed but harder to clean. If you would like a Tacoma or small truck instead of an SUV for the extra cargo space, that’s fine. I still think the FJ rides better than its open-bed sibling thanks to rear coils versus leaf springs.
My reason for trading my 2009 FJ Cruiser was because it needed some work, it still held significant value despite its nearly 180,000 miles, and I was ready to drive something a little nicer as a daily. I was also fully afflicted by “the disease” by then and couldn’t help but look for a new experience. My shopping was even featured on the Everyday Driver Car Debate Podcast (#247). Still, I miss my FJ. I’ve owned other vehicles since my loyal Toyota, but it was my first—and probably favorite—enthusiast vehicle. Here’s to many more to come.
I got into motorsports a lot later in life than many of you, I am sure, but I am glad to be part of such a diverse and welcoming community. If I’ve learned anything about what driving can and should be over the past few years, it’s about creating great stories. I hope that my son is inspired to write his own someday as well. When and under what circumstances did you become an enthusiast? I’d love to hear your stories if you’re willing to share.
Bill hosts a blog and YouTube channel that lead him to think more deeply about what it means to drive. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.