The 800,000 km Toyota: On the Hoist with Mike Drew

Longtime readers of the Calgary Sun are probably familiar with photojournalist Mike Drew and his column On the Road with Mike Drew. Every week, Mike travels the back roads of western Canada, taking photos and writing about what he sees. The photos are always enthralling, and Mike artfully exposes the beauty in the world around us; beauty that we often don’t notice, driving by during our busy lives. It’s a refreshing change of pace and a change from the largely dispiriting read that is modern news. In his 30th year of bringing us On the Road, Mike hasn’t missed a single week since 1991!

For the past 15 years Mike has done all of that driving in a 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser, which he purchased new at Stampede Toyota in Calgary. We first learned about the FJ after reading this article (driving.ca) earlier this year. The article tells the story about how Mike’s FJ had just hit the amazing mileage of 800,000 kilometers. It was at this time that we started to follow Mike on Facebook.

mike drew photographer

Not long after that, disaster struck. Mike’s Facebook post on April 10th was entitled, “Crocus and Crisis: The flowers were blooming but my truck was fading.” The FJ had suffered a blown head gasket; an expensive repair that might spell the end of the road for a vehicle with this many miles. Mike parked the FJ while he pondered what to do, and how he would afford such a repair.

Mike’s FJ is special; it has a story. The remarkable odometer reading is part of it, for sure – especially given that Mike “avoids pavement as much as he can,” in his words. Those weren’t all easy kilometers! But the FJ has also seen things. It has been places most of us have never been; places that Mike takes us every week. If any vehicle deserved to hit one million kilometers, it was this one. Being big Toyota fans ourselves, we wanted to help. I reached out to Mike through Facebook, explaining that I owned a great auto service shop in Airdrie. I told him that we wanted to donate some of our skills and resources to get his FJ back on the road.

I nervously awaited a reply. Now I was getting excited about this project-to-be, but I wondered if someone had already stepped in to help. Surely Toyota themselves would have been interested? A day or two later, I received a reply from a surprised and grateful Mike. He accepted our offer, and it was time to get to work!

Diagnosis and Inspection

Bringing the FJ inside our shop for the first time, we started with a full inspection. We wanted to confirm Mike’s suspicions of a blown head gasket, and to take stock of the rest of the vehicle. Was this high mileage Toyota still worth saving? Our findings were encouraging: the head gasket theory was correct, but the engine was otherwise in amazing shape. The rest of the FJ wasn’t too bad, either. The to-do list included some drivetrain and brake repairs, but was still shorter than many estimates we’ve written on vehicles with a quarter of the mileage. This speaks to the quality of Toyota vehicles.

fj cruiser repairs
airdrie toyota repairs
high mileage toyota

Engine Repairs

A head gasket replacement on the FJ’s 4.0L V6 is a fairly complex repair that involves disassembling the engine right down to the cylinder block. The whole job takes 20-25 hours to complete. We thought the process would make a good learning experience for our apprentice Hayley, so we let her undertake the repair. (With the assistance of journeyman technicians Mike, Dan and Chris.)

airdrie auto service shop

Once the cylinder heads were removed, we sent them to our friends at MDM Machine Shop in Calgary to be pressure tested for cracks and freshened up a little. The heads required very little work for their mileage. MDM re-ground three of the valves, replaced the valve seals and resurfaced the decks. While we did consider just replacing the heads (or even the whole engine), we felt it important to retain all of the original parts. If Mike makes it there one day, this would make the million kilometer milestone more significant.

Dozens of parts were meticulously cleaned and the engine was carefully reassembled with new gaskets and seals. The cooling system was flushed thoroughly and the fluids replaced. We added a new serpentine belt, replaced some worn belt pulleys, installed new spark plugs and a new battery.

cylinder head repair
radiator flush
Flushing 800,000 km of dirt build-up from the FJ’s radiator!

Going the Extra Mile

With the engine running well and no longer overheating, we turned our attention to the rest of the FJ Cruiser. If Mike was going to shoot for a million kilometers, we wanted him to have a safe vehicle to do it in.

The front CV axles were replaced because their joints were very worn; Mike says these have only been replaced once before. Remarkably, front suspension parts like ball joints were mostly in good condition despite being original. The FJ still has lots of original parts, including what we would consider common wearable items such as the starter, fuel pump, and more.

worn out cv axle

One of the fuel tank straps had rusted through, so we installed two new straps. The rest of the undercarriage was in great shape. We replaced a leaking pinion seal in the rear axle, and changed the fluids in both differentials, plus the transfer case. Mike’s front brakes were about 80% worn, so Hayley fitted new pads and rotors, performing a thorough service of the calipers in the process.

airdrie brake repairs

Finally, we wanted to do something about Mike’s tires. The FJ had a noticeable vibration at highway speeds because the tires weren’t balanced properly, but they were also quite worn. Instead of re-balancing them, we decided to cap off the whole repair by installing a new set of “shoes”.

airdrie toyota dealership
Almost finished: The FJ with new tires installed, and completely detailed on the outside.
airdrie oil changes
Definitely the highest mileage we’ve ever put on an oil change reminder!

Finishing Touches

With over 30 hours of repairs complete on the FJ Cruiser, it was time to put the My Garage touch on Mike’s FJ Cruiser. Our detailer Branden spent almost two full days completely cleaning the Toyota from stem to stern. This was no easy task as this FJ had seen more miles than many of us will drive in our entire lifetime! In cleaning the interior so deeply, we were “no doubt depriving science of several new, undiscovered species of microbe”, Mike said.

airdrie car repair
The interior of the FJ following over 8 hours of work from Branden.
airdrie engine repairs
Here’s what Mike’s engine looked like upon arrival at our shop.
detailed engine
Here’s what Mike’s engine looked like when we returned it to him.

Returning the FJ to Mike

Having spent over 60 hours working on the FJ Cruiser to this point, we were finally done. The finished product was a vehicle that ran, drove – and dare we say, even smelled – totally different than the Toyota that we started with. Excitedly, we phoned Mike to tell him the good news. He arrived, toting his camera of course. Our owner Chris gave him a complete tour of the FJ, explaining all of the work we’d performed throughout the past couple months. We also presented Mike an invoice – for his records – detailing the full extent of what was done. His balance owing was zero dollars.

airdrie auto repair
caring mechanic airdrie

We couldn’t wait to read On the Road the next week. To our delight, at the time of publishing Mike had already put over 1000 kilometers on the FJ! Rolling through the prairies south of Stavely, Mike captured photos of eagles and hawks, dry sloughs and picturesque Alberta skies. You can find that article here.

mike drew
The FJ on its first outing; getting some dirt on those new tires.

Our whole team is proud of this project and we thoroughly enjoyed the process. Every year, we donate our skills and resources to helping one or two deserving people or organizations like this. Of course, we can only afford to do so much, which means that we can’t pursue every opportunity that comes our way. This project was definitely one of our favourites, and Mike was incredibly grateful. Before he drove away, we make Mike promise to tell us as soon as he reaches one million kilometers. He smiled and put the FJ in gear. “You’ll be the first to know”.

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