We turned to Land Cruiser Heaven to bring our 1997 Land Cruiser’s interior a new life. This article takes a deep dive into the process of making our seats lookÂ better than new.
Land Cruisers evoke a well-deserved respect for their toughness. Made famous across the globe, from deserts to jungles, no model of vehicle has been continuously in existence for longer. The no-non-sense build of Land Cruisers also meant no frills for many decades. Ultimately, that pattern was largely up-ended with the FZJ80, as leather interiors joined niceties such as automatic antennas and 7-speaker stereos.
Time has shown that leather interiorsâespecially seat coversâare the Achilles heel of the otherwise bulletproof 80 and 100 Series Land Cruisers. Blown out seams, cracked and dried leather, and subsequent tearing of seat foam from prolonged exposure are a certainty for the 1994-1997 80 Series, and increasingly for any 100 Series with over 100k on the odometer. Sadly, the only solution to the dilemma has been ill-fitting fabric seat covers or fully custom recovering of the seats.
Whether seats or full drivetrains, restoring life to Land Cruisers is incurable among aficionados. That bug caught Frank Diaz long ago. A native of Colombia, Frank knew the venerable Toyota line from watching them prevail in jungle conditions. His efforts to restore his own Cruiser led, like others before him, to fill a gap in the market. The result was Land Cruiser Heaven.
At the heart of the market gap was leather. Specifically, leather interior replacements that met or exceeded Toyota factory standards, while being reliably available in the States. Others had tried and failed, but lacked his personal roots in South America. Land Cruiser Heaven uses semi-aniline leather in their Luxury and Premium seat covers lines. The treatment of such leather relies upon a soluble pigmentation method to impregnate the leather rather than top-coat or paint it. This expensive process retains the leatherâs natural grain and pores at the surface, but offers the manufacturer no means to hide imperfections. The result is leather that keeps its natural beauty and feel.
While glazed surfaces produced from top-coated or insoluble pigmentation methods feel slick and cold, semi-aniline leather has a smooth yet warm feel to the touch. More durable than pure aniline leather, which typically is used in clothing or some exotic cars, semi-aniline is used as the standard for wear prone applications like 4×4 interiors. The modest pigmentation helps address the major threats to automotive interiors: scratches, stains and micro-particle infiltration. As to the cattle from which Land Cruiser Heavenâs leather is derived, most are Brahmans, a tough beef breed originating from India, and prized through North and South America for their tough, insect-resistant hides.
Land Cruiser Heaven offers replacement solutions for the key leather components of 80 Series/LX450 and 100 Series/LX470, and is expanding to other Toyota models. Seat covers (all rows), steering wheel covers, armrests, center console and shifter knob, the companyâs line-up includes them all, each with factory options from dual-tone 40th Anniversary color ways to standard tones. Each is available in âPremiumâ 70/30 leather and vinyl blends, and âLuxuryâ full leather choices.
Rejuvenating our 1997âs interior meant addressing a life of hard useâa journey deserving of the Land Cruiserâs heritageâthatâs proved abusive for leather. Like many 80 Series, the 3rd row was long gone, having been eschewed for added cargo capacity. For this makeover, we reached out to Frank to order a full kit to replace the forward two rows of leathers ($1,300), along with all armrests ($80), console ($80) and steering wheel ($475)âthe elements most susceptible to weather-hardening and split seams.
âAnything worth doing is worth doing rightâ is a virtual motto among Land Cruiser owners, and Land Cruiser Heaven provides the underlying components to resurrect upholstery and more. Not unusually, ours needed new foam beneath most of the front leather. And, living in the mountainous Northern Wasatch Range of Utah, it was also time to rectify a gap that Toyota left. Those factory leather seats, for all their âpremiumâ intent, always gave an icy greeting when, during winter, a body contacted them. Land Cruiser Heaven offers a solution for that as well. Their carbon fiber heated seat kitsâtwo seats are provided for with a single kit ($99)âare timely to add once youâve begun the involved process of reupholstering.
The same is true for pitching a seatâs foam cushions, which are invariably compressed and often torn beneath the countless comingâs and goingâs of a driverâs derriere. Land Cruiser Heaven provides only genuine OEM Toyota foam, selling the upper and lower halves separately. Our truckâs history spanned 175,000 miles, and Âž of the front foam was due for the dumpster; only the passenger seatâs upper cushion warranted reuse.
A less obvious fix that is also timely when restoring front seats in an 80 or 100 Series Cruiser is the lack of legroom in either modelâs driver seat. For anyone nearing 6â in height, more legroom is woefully lacking. Witsâ End, which was founded by another Cruiser fanatic, Joey Romero, the same year as Land Cruiser Heaven, offers among its arsenal of ingenious products an 80 Series LANDTANK Seat Extension Bracket Kit ($142). These machined steel rail extensions can add 2â of legroom, and are never easier to install than when removing seats for re-upholstery. [Note: before adding this modification, replace seat gears to avoid any later need to do so, which is made more difficult after the brackets are added].
Table of contents
Behind the Brand
Solving the chronic leather problem for the 80 and 100 Series characteristically took the passion of a true Cruiserhead. That story began in 2015 when Frank Diaz, himself a Toyota owner and consumer, hit a roadblock in sourcing leather seat covers to restore an 80 Series Cruiser. What began as the journey of a frustrated enthusiast, would evolve into a start-up companyâLand Cruiser Heavenâwhich Frank launched to help fill the market gaps he found in leather refinishing, replacement body panels, and complete body-off restorations.
The search for automotive grade leather covers pointed Frank back to his native Colombia, and, ultimately, further south to source quality leather hides in Uruguay and Argentina. It also required him to ship his U.S.-spec Land Cruiser to Colombia to help create upholstery patterns and conduct test fitting. At the same time, Land Cruiser Heaven continued to expand, importing replacement body panels, opening a Hagerstown, MD shop in 2017, and around the same time transitioning into a full-time business with a staff that by 2019 has reached a half dozen employees.
The companyâs restoration work has grown dramatically. While visiting the shop I saw first-hand the number and variety of Land Cruisers undergoing projects from leather replacement to engine swaps and full body-off restorations. Since then, the company has expanded, opening a new facility to handle the increasing number of vehicles coming and going, and containers of parts. This spring, Land Cruiser Heavenâs new Cartagena facility opened its doors, expanding the capacity of their critical Colombia-to-U.S. pipeline.
That same connection flips directions in another unique offering from the company: the 2019 Colombian Expedition. Frank has created a fully planned and well-optioned 2-week 4×4 immersion into the mountainous heart of Colombia, which kicks off this August. Participants can ship their Cruisers from the ports of Houston or Miami for this guided trip, or rent a Prado or either 73 or 80 Series Land Cruiser in country.
Installation and Performance
Installing replacement seat coverings is unlike other DIY vehicle projects, and yet much the same. What probably sets it apart from every day âwrenchingâ is the unfamiliar tools and techniques, and that the results are judged by appearance and felt comfort. With high-end leather coverings the expectations for quality are that much higher. Like many owners, that fact led us to skip a driveway trial-by-fire and take the project to a professional upholsterer.
How do you choose an installer? Upholstery shops frequently keep the lights on by taking in a variety of work. Auto upholstery may only be a small sub-set of a shopâs work. In addition, leather is a unique material to work with, and not all shops can say they routinely work with it. To protect your investment, ask how much of a shopâs work is automotive, and leather specifically. Better still, ask to see work they have recently completed. Top quality leather furniture and vehicles heading for competitions are excellent indicators of a shopâs abilities.
Getting your installation done properly may also require driving to another town. We were fortunate to have a family-owned, second generation upholstery shop in our area. YMMV. If minimizing shop costs is a priority, removing seats yourself is advisable. In our case, having the Cruiser at home for personally installing the LANDTank seat extension, along with wiring in seat heater switches, is another reason we chose to drop off the seats and other components to the shop.
While the seat extensions provided by Witsâ End are going in itâs also a perfect time to dive into wiring the carbon seat heaters. In fact, itâs also the right time to upgrade any plug or switch options youâve been putting off. Routing the seat heater wires involves removing both armrest console and the shifter console. Space under the latter is very limited, so carefully plan for wiring/component layout, and use only high quality, supple wires to minimize routing problems.
For ease of mounting, locating heater switches on the armrest console will save fitment issues, but may also prove less convenient (i.e., visibility-wise) in the end. For this reason, and to clear the numerous obstacles below the consoleâs surface, we situated both switches forward and right of the shifter port. A Blue Sea 12-fuse block, situated beneath the armrest console, feeds power to the switches as well as a series of new 12v and USB ports. Accessible via a false floor in the consoleâs main compartment, the fuse block helps update the old Land Cruiserâs cabin to handle a modern mix of electronics. [Note: Delta Vehicle Systems has since then released a full CNC set of console replacements, complete with switch mounting points.]
Removal and replacement of the leather of all front and second row seats and their armrests took 1-1.5 hours once delivered to the upholstery shop. As seats go, the construction of the Toyota bucket and bench seats are sturdy but not complex. The old coverings and worn out foam cushions were discarded, and the previously damaged controls/knobs were replaced to restore electrical functioning.
Seat heater panels provided by Land Cruiser Heaven are easily mounted to the upper surface of seat cushions thanks to their adhesive backing. This assures each padâone for the back, and one for the seatâstay in the proper location as the leather flexes and moves under load. Routing of the heatersâ wires is simple, with plenty of length to allow the ends to be zip-tied securely beneath the seat pan. Plug connectors on the wires make it easy to snap in place the switch harnesses, which get routed under the center consoles, when the seats are installed.
Land Cruiser Heaven seat cover kits come complete with all hog rings, rods and foam inserts necessary for the basic installation. The quality of these components, along with the grade of the leather covers, led our experienced installer remaking about how much higher quality the kit was compared to others he has seen. That first impression played out during the installation process as well. Quality leather seat covers rely upon the grade of leather, the quality of the stitching/fabrication, and the precision fit. If covers are made from imprecise patterns the result can be slop in one area, and overly tight connections in others.
Not only can an accomplished upholsterer spot these imperfections (frustration being one good sign of their response), so can a customer. Fit doesnât lie, and leather, with its relatively low stretch, will reveal fitment issues. As I watched in person the fitting of our covers it was obvious what a physical task an upholsterer faces. The thick all leather Land Cruiser Heaven coverings were pulled and stretched into place with a blend of experience and ample elbow grease. This is where your dollar is well spent. And, being there in person to study and document the process, I was reminded why thereâs value in seeing the talent a professional has developed.
Held in place with the time-tested method of hog ring clips, our covers were wed to the Toyota seat frames with perhaps two dozen clips on the bottom section alone. Strong and taut, the fit it produces allows the installer to respond to the subtle stretch of the leather. Similarly, the leather coverings for arm rests and the center console are pinned in place via heavy stables. In our case, to add further comfort, additional foam was added before the driverâs two arm rests were recovered. The result process of installing the covers on both front seats, the full second row bench, all four headrests, and the five arm rests consumed no less than 4-5 hours by our professional upholsterer.
Reinstalling the seats is a straightforward, 2-banana job. Requiring less than 90 minutes, the job can be done by one person, assuming their back is in reasonably good shape. Before doing so, itâs a good time to be sure that all mounting bolts are treated with anti-seize, and the front seatsâ drive mechanisms have a new coating of lithium grease.
Although Land Cruiser Heaven offers full upholstery installations in their Maryland shop, for most customers the two recoverings they do are steering wheels and shifters. In fact, our steering wheel was shipped to Colombia where it was given new life with factory matching leather. Allowing a few weeks for that process is wise (as is having a spare wheel on hand to allow your vehicleâs drivability in the interim). The steering wheel is your most tactile connection to the vehicle, and poorly done recoverings will be noticed for a long, long time.
Unpackaging the steering wheel from the box postmarked âCartegnaâ was a reminder of why DIY is worth skipping sometimes. Factory-perfect, the wheel was tightly wrapped in a creamy surface of lightly marbled leather. Slightly less thick than the original covering, the wheel now fits smaller hands a bit better. [For those with larger hands, specifying your preferred thickness is an important expectation for you to communicate.]. The other difference that was immediately apparent is the feel of new stitching. Less recessed than from the factory, and with none of the worn-in/polished feel of the old wheel, the new stitching is immediately apparent.
Life with LCH Leather
Nothing will transform the interior of a vehicle like recovering the seats. After two decades of wear, the interior of our 80 Series was more than tired; it was beat. The feel of renewing the feel of the cabin with better than factory leather is difficult to explain. The quality of the Land Cruiser Heaven kit was immediately clear. Our Cruiserâs seats looked as though they were coming off a showroom floor. For the first time in a decade they were smooth, supple, clean and taut. Rather than blown out foam that offered little resistance or support, the new OEM Toyota foam that Land Cruiser Heaven provided made them once more firm and supportive. And for the past year we have been watching how those new coverings bear up under everyday use.
Since its November 2018 installation, this facelift has seen a full season of usage. Our Cruiser is a multi-duty rig, whose weekends are as likely to have a chainsaw and cattle dog thrown in as a group of snow-covered skiers. During the week its interior could be filled with wet paddling gear, or (when paying the bills) chinos and a sport coat. In truth, many trucks need to function across a wide range of activities and settings. And their interiors should remain unfazed by those shifting demands.
Leather has historically been the material that can handle this range of abuse. The problem is that the buttery leathers from Land Cruiser Heaven make you want to baby themâŚat least for the first few weeks. And then life sets in. The muddy dog jumps in. The tool bags and snowshoes get stacked to the ceiling. Your EDC knifeâs clip abrades each time you climb in. And desert sand and dust invades every crevasse. Thatâs the real life of a 4×4âs interior. And Iâm sometimes embarrassed how poorly the interior of our Land Cruiser gets treated. Unexpected rain squalls hit when windows are left down. Pokey objects are left pressed against the seat backs, etc.
While such neglectful behavior is ill-advised, when it comes to testing real-world performance of seat coverings itâs exactly whatâs called for. In the process, what it has shown in the case of these leather products is how little effect the normal wear-n-tear of overland/off-road vehicle usage has had on them. The surfaces have shown very minimal signs of dirt, wiping clean after dirt or mud has gotten on them. When the leatherâs grain has revealed a presence of dirt it cleans up easily.
With moisture, the covers also appear to be highly resistant to changes in their surface. Whether light moisture from damp pants or droplets from a passing shower, the leather isnât exhibiting absorption. For instance, no darkening has occurred that would suggest water is permeating the surface. Thatâs a comfort, as weâve all experienced leather gloves and boots that seem to absorb water rapidly, drying stiff afterwards.
As a tactile experience, Land Cruiser Heaven leather is welcome change from the non-pliable, glazed-over factory leathers that felt cold in winter and no longer âbreathedâ in Utahâs desert summer. Neither sticky in the heat nor icy cold in winter, the new surface is pleasant to the touch. Itâs so far proven resistant to wear, having shown no scuffs or scratches from tools and gear, or even from an Australian Shepherdâs claws.
In the case of the Columbian-made steering wheel recovering, the changes have illustrated that specifying your desired feel is critical. Grippy, if somewhat rough, the refinished wheel came with new threads that add a distinct feel to the exceedingly personal connection for the driver and vehicle. Initially disconcerting, the strong nylon stitching began to fade from consciousness as it became the new norm, and as its slightly rough nature became broken in. A year later, its feel is familiar and comfortable.
In hindsight, I would have preferred if its cross-section were slightly greater. Measuring 1â to 1-1/8â in diameter, the finished wheel lost a bit of its former heft and fit to my hand. If ordering your steering wheel to be recovered I would recommend you go with 1-1/4â to 1-3/8â, or alternately measure your existing wheel in several locations and specify if you wish for it to be kept the same diameter.
For winter in the Northern Wasatch Mountains, the addition of seat heaters is a godsend. Leather conducts heat in a mellow fashion, and the Carbon 2 heaters that Land Cruiser Heaven offers are no exception. Using separate switches for both seats, and with two heat settings, these heaters provide plenty of options. Because our Land Cruiser lives outside, itâs common for the interior to be in the teenâs on winter mornings. Despite the chill, I flip the switch to High, and will feel the warmth within 2-3 minutes. They have your back and bottom feeling quite warm within 4-5 minutes.
Typically, once warmed up, I will turn the heaters off, as the cabin has warmed up and the initial need for heat is past. Depending upon your wiring scheme, the heaters will shut off when the ignition is killed. Ours are direct wired to a Blue Sea fuse bus along with other accessories. As a result, on one occasion the heaters were accidentally left on all day. Though not advisable, the mistake provided a chance to witness the impact. For the auxiliary battery, the Genesis Offroad G-Screen indicated a loss of .4 or .5 volts. The seatâs temperature was not excessive, indicating the temperature reaches a reasonable level and then stays there (~62F on High, ~45F on Low).
Our Final Verdict
If youâre ready to resurrect your Land Cruiser the options have gotten much better thanks to Land Cruiser Heaven. Rapidly becoming the #1 source for solving the weaknesses that Toyota built into its flagship 4×4âs interior, this family-owned company has a range of solutions for all major models of Cruisers. Thanks to the individual parts or packages that they offer, transforming your Toyotaâs leather is now much easier. For anyone committed to keeping their rig for the long haul, Land Cruiser Heaven is making a big impact on the market.
About the Gear Doctor:Â Dr. Sean Michael has been designing, abusing and testing outdoor gear since the 1980âs. He began reviewing forÂ Off-road.comÂ in 2000, and today lives in the Northern Wasatch Mountains, where he isÂ Professor of Outdoor Product Design & Development at Utah State University. Follow his trips and gear @thegeardoctorÂ on Instagram.