Austin Peterson is the passionate owner of Black Dog Traders, a complete FJ-40 restoration shop that brings classic 4×4 trucks back to life, exactly how the new owner wants it, or in this case dreams it. But how did he get here, why start a restoration business, and what’s so special about the Toyota FJ-40? After letting our curiosity linger, we finally had the chance to interview Austin about this huge undertaking… or adventure, depending how you look at it. In his lifetime, Austin has seen more classic Toyota trucks than most of us can ever imagine, yet he still isn’t immune to the giddy feeling that this special vehicle provides, time and time again. What started as a transportation method for reaching coffee farms in South America has overhauled his life forever.
1. How did you get started with the FJ-40? There are many 4X4s out there to choose from?
This is my fourth company, and I feel like I’ve finally found something I’m completely and utterly in love with. My last was a coffee startup, and I would travel to Colombia and Nicaragua to sample coffee and travel to remote fincas (farms) up in the mountains to scout sustainably sourced coffee, from all regions of South America. The coffee company was doing well, but wasn’t a passion project at all. To be honest, I don’t even drink coffee, and find the coffee world to be a bit elitist once you get into the ranks — similar to wine culture, it just wasn’t for me.
I’m more of a man of the earth. Despite not being passionate, it took me to some amazing corners of the world and really helped to expand my view of the world as well. Previously I had been all over Southeast Asia, but the South American culture is so rich and warm. I was really drawn to it.
I loved traveling to these remote areas, and the only trucks that could take you there and back were these old Land Cruisers. I had never really had much experience with them before, but I began to love them. Now I can’t get a smile off my face every time I see one. I look like a big dork grinning from ear-to-ear driving them.
I’ve been passionate about entrepreneurship from a young age, but I feel like I’ve finally found my place in the world. Someone offered to buy the company recently and it wasn’t even a consideration to me. I’m truly happy now with these trucks and the people they attract.
2. What is the most difficult aspect of rebuilding an FJ-40/BJ45? Parts availability? Body Corrosion?
The entire process is a challenge. I would say the most difficult aspect is hiring the right people. There aren’t many folks left who know how to work on these trucks. When I say that, I don’t mean the engine, the paint, or anything like that. I mean the nuances — the small things. It’s very hard to find someone who can look at an FJ40 with confidence and know, down to the nuts and bolts, exactly what went on that year and model truck. You’d be surprised what we find sometimes.
These trucks are known as work-horses, and in a way that’s true. They’ve done battle with the earth in so many regions of the world that you just never know what you’re going to find. Never mind the fact that Toyota builds were at best “loosely” standard at the time. Every continent they shipped to had its own subtle changes. It’s not hard to find nice trucks that are rust free — the parts can be a hassle but not impossible — but to find people who have been working on these for decades and know exactly what they’re talking about is hard work. That’s what I focus on.
3. Who is your customer? Young, old, people who have them in there family, rock’n roll musicians?
Our customers come from all walks of life. We’ve got ranchers, librarians, small business owners, accountants, and mega-wealthy corporate magnates. We appreciate all of our customers, and do our best to serve each and every one of them. I don’t look at myself as having a Land Cruiser restoration company. I see myself as a servant to those customers and a purveyor of a certain lifestyle. When you buy a Cruiser, or any other classic for that matter, you’re buying the feeling it gives you. We work to make that feeling last longer, burn brighter, and come with exceptional service.
I think what separates us from other shops out there is that attitude. It’s multi-dimensional because I understand that the quality, consistency, and reliability of the Cruiser production is king, but that we have to strive to be the best in every other aspect of the business as well.
We give back to our customers because we understand that building a strong brand is about details and the relationships we form. We give back to the environment because we understand that these trucks are a huge part of that world. Starting this year we’re planting trees, and backing other efforts to help restore the planet that we’re taking from to build these vehicles.
4. If I wanted an FJ-40, could I get one? Where do you get the vehicles built, overseas? Are they all left drive?
We build out of our shop in Dallas, Texas but most of our production is overseas. Our shop overseas is run by myself and my foreman Diego who hails from Georgia and has been restoring everything from Toyotas to Lamborghini and Maserati for over 30 years.
All of our trucks are left-hand drive and numbers matching, but what really distinguishes Black Dog Traders is our manufacturing process. We’ve studied modern production lines and Henry Ford’s techniques from back in the day, and taken the best practices from them both. The traditional restoration method is to have small teams work on each build. The problem with this is that it is extremely slow and inefficient and can also lead to lower quality standards. It’s hard to keep quality at a similar level across the board with this method of production.
What we’ve done is turn that model it’s head and built our own, full production line. We have about five to six times more guys working on each build as usual. Each man has his own job, and he is the master of that domain. Trucks hit certain quality control checkpoints throughout this process and our foreman and I thoroughly check every last bit of truck. What’s cool is we know exactly what has been worked on, and by whom. We have 100% accountability for everything in our shop. The result is a higher quality vehicle that is completed in about 1/3 of the usual time.
The industry standard is a twelve month minimum. Shops aren’t run very professionally and you essentially have no idea how long it will sit there. I’ve heard horror stories of builds taking years and going way over budget. We’ve solved that problem, and even guarantee it won’t happen in our contracts. If you buy a truck from us and aren’t 100% satisfied, we are more than happy to offer a refund. We’ve never had a single issue, but want to make sure our customers have 100% peace of mind.
I’m a process geek so everything is run as efficient as possible, from the sourcing of the vehicles to disassembly/assembly and shipping to the customer and the way we treat them as well. Everything is done to the fullest extent. My girlfriend thinks I’m crazy sometimes, but I just believe that’s how it should be done and that’s how you become successful. Offer a much better product, at a better price, with better service and you will find success. However, It does help that I’m obsessed with these trucks.
5. Do you customize them with specific types of gear a customer might want? Hard core camping gear, bicycle racks integrated into the frame for example?
We build everything from your standard truck at $45,000 to 500+ HP off-road beasts that are massively expensive. Everything we do has a bit of my personal touch to it. I think these trucks are beautiful ; they’re brawny, but there’s something elegant about them as well. I try to incorporate that into design and source things like exotic woods and leathers.
We use a lot of traditional methods so nothing is CNC, but we forge our own parts using old school techniques like investment casting. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate milled parts, my step-dad has a huge aerospace engineering shop and I grew up around it, but I like to feel attached to the process and enjoy playing with fire. We customize everything, but prefer to keep parts Toyota. For example, one of our biggest sellers is what I have affectionately come to know as our “Daily Driver”. If you want modern performance you need a more modern drive-train so we upgrade that to a newer Toyota drivetrain, spruce up the interior so it’s more comfortable and less noisy, and upgrade the suspension so you don’t feel like you’re on an expedition when driving to work or the kids soccer game. I love the aesthetic and feel of these trucks original, but it’s not practical.
Our trucks maintain their heritage by sourcing Toyota drivetrains, but we’re also realistic and know that in the 21st century not every one wants to drive a 4 speed built for off-roading in the 70s. The most exciting thing we have coming up is our 1H-T build. It’s a honker of a diesel engine, extremely reliable, and turbocharged!
6. Do these vehicle meet emissions regulations for all states? Or do you get a classic car waiver?
Our trucks with updated drivetrains meet emissions standards, and most certainly our electrics do, but the original engine does not. That being said, there is no issue registering them in any state. It is a simple process that we handle ourselves so the customer never even has to deal with that.
7. Are all FJ’s 4×4 or are there 2×4 as well?
All FJs came 4wd from the factory, but the transfer case and front open differential allow you to drive either 2wd or 4wd.
8. What do you think of the FJ cruiser? Be nice, a lot of people wish they could get an FJ-40 or old land Cruiser but end up with the newer FJ Cruiser.
You know, I think they are great trucks. I don’t think they do the FJ justice in terms of aesthetics, but they can look good and drive great with small modifications. I fell in love with them recently on our trip to Arkansas when our friend — an Arkansas local — took us on all his backroads in his FJ.
9 What would you do to the FJ Cruiser to make it a more “legit” 4X4? Those with the 40’s kind of look down on the cruiser, is the cruiser redeemable?
That really depends on your budget and what you’re looking to do with it. I would say for someone starting out the biggest thing is protecting your rig when off-roading. You want to make it less likely that you’ll get stranded. That’s never fun. There’s a really good thread about “How to spend your first $2,000” here. Basically you want a skid plate, protect your rear lower control arms or upgrade them, sliders, and you never want to go anywhere without recovery gear: two strap, shackles, and a hi-lift will save your life. Here is another great resource for those looking to build out their FJ Cruiser.
10. Do you totally upgrade the suspension with modern technology, or is the existing suspension as good as modern 4X4’s?
The trucks all came from the factory with leaf spring suspension so they are definitely not as good as modern suspension, especially for every day driving. We upgrade to coil/leaf, but moving forward most of our trucks will come standard with 4-link suspension which is the best you can get.