Spotting a fellow Toyota Land Cruiser in California’s San Fernando Valley in the mid-’60s was such a rare occurrence that you’d not only wave to the other driver, but you’d also both pull over to compare notes about your trucks. So says Mike Pearlman, longtime owner of multiple Toyota off-roaders, including this restored 1966 FJ40, the truck that started the Baja 1000.
Oh, big claim, but Pearlman can back it up. You might recognize his name as the founder and promoter of the current NORRA Mexican 1000, a vintage-friendly off-road rally that travels Baja, Mexico’s famous peninsula. If you really know your desert-racing history, you’d also associate Mike’s dad—Ed Pearlman—with some of the early record attempts in Mexico that eventually led to the first organized Baja racing events, as well as founding the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.
In the early 1960s, off-roading was a thing, but not an organized racing thing. It was more Jeeps and sand buggies and motorcycles tooling around in the desert and jumping dunes for fun. When Bud and Dave Ekins timed and advertised their motorcycle runs down the peninsula, that inspired four-wheelers like Meyers Manx inventor Bruce Meyers and Land Cruiser owner Ed Pearlman to try their own record-setting attempts. Meyers was more successful in reaching the finish line fast, but it was Pearlman who had the brilliant idea that if he thought desert racing was this much fun, maybe someone ought to organize a recurring event. He did, it worked, and every trophy truck that bombs through the night in the Baja 1000 owes a tip of the hat to Ed.
For Mike Pearlman, his relationship with the green FJ40 started after his dad used it to scout the courses for the first Mexican 1000 races. He recalls getting the keys sometime in 1968, and falling completely in love with both Land Cruisers and off-road driving. Ed Pearlman had a habit of naming his vehicles. His first Land Cruiser was called Rosebud, and the one that found its way to Mike was El Toro Verde, or the Green Bull.
“It was green originally but orange by the time I got it,” he says. “Already had a small-block Chevy in it. Dad bought it brand-new and immediately swapped the six-cylinder for a V-8. Back then, most kids had ’55 Chevys or roadstery sports cars, not trucks, but those of us who had off-road cars had the most fun.” He recalls pulling his friends behind the Toyota to go “water” skiing on the golf course, and then making a run for the hills.
“When I first got the truck, I remember my dad telling me not to forget to put the skid plate back on if I was going off-road. Well, I was hell-bent on getting an eight-track player in that thing, and I sure did forget the skid plate. Broke the transfer case right off the first big hit. We pushed that car 8 miles, but at least we had nice music while we did it.”
The Land Cruiser’s racing duties didn’t stop under Mike’s ownership. He recalls being in Nevada for the 1968 Stardust 7-11—another off-road race organized by his father. Several off-road-loving Hollywood celebrities were in attendance, including the actor Steve McQueen. According to Pearlman, McQueen was better on-screen than on the dirt. “Dad comes over and tells me Steve wants to pre-run the course, and can they have the keys to the Toyota? Well of course, I was thrilled! Steve McQueen wanted to drive my truck! I couldn’t hand them over quick enough. Well, they brought it back with the air cleaner in the back seat, filthy, all choked up with sand in the carb, and then McQueen gives me the weakest handshake I’ve ever experienced. I’ve hated him ever since.”
Queen, but he continued to love Land Cruisers, amassing a collection of more than a dozen different FJs. At one point he gave his dad the ’66, and it sat for years while they worked on other projects. About nine years ago, Mike reclaimed it with the goal of restoring it and running it in the reborn NORRA Mexican 1000. “I wanted Dad’s grandkids to race,” he says.
The rebuilt Cruiser is a mix of restoration and modern upgrades. In place of the 327 Chevy, the Toyota now sports a 400 hp GM crate engine backed by a manual BTB Products three-speed. Transaxle Engineering did the transfer case, and 4.11 gears give El Toro hill-climbing grunt to roll Method 15-inch wheels clad in Yokohama Geolanders over Baja’s rocky and silty terrain. Inside is a custom roll bar by Curt LeDuc, Mastercraft adjustable seats and harnesses, Deist window nets, Lowrance GPS, PCI radio, push-to-talk satellite radio, and redone gauges. Ed Pearlman would have loved all that back in the day when he was bombing through Baja with a hand-drawn map rubber-banded to his leg.
One thing Mike didn’t change during the restoration was the hood. If you look at the louvers, you’ll notice they aren’t symmetrical. It all goes back to when Mike was in high school. “I didn’t latch the hood, and it flew open and put a big dent across the side. I took it to this old, drunk metal-working guy in the valley to see what he could do to fix it.” The body man suggested putting louvers in to cover the dent, and told Pearlman to come back in a couple of days. When he returned for the hood, he noticed that one side of the louvers faced forward and the other went backward. “I guess the die he used to punch them wasn’t deep enough to work from either side, and he didn’t want to bother turning it around. When I pointed it out, he just snarled at me, ‘Do you want it or not?’ I wanted it.” Who was that grouchy man? Oh, just a painter known as Von Dutch (Kenny Howard). His mismatched louvers are one of Mike’s favorite things about the Land Cruiser now.
“It’s so nice now, I’m not sure we can race it,” he says, but he’s always happy for an excuse to take it out and hit the dirt locally with his son Casey. “It was a big part of my life. It was what I lived for. I got this in high school, and that age is real influential for vehicles. When I get behind the wheel, I feel like a kid again.”