Rob Rye’s current business may be in classic Toyota LandCruiser parts and restoration, but this is only a snippet of a fascinating mechanic’s life.
There can be few mechanics that would be candidates for having a film made on their life. Logbook servicing and carburettor rebuilds hardly translates to movie magic, but Rob Rye’s fascinating path through life, the majority spent in and around vehicles, is a captivating rollercoaster of a story.
At 71 years old he currently co-runs LandCruiser Parts and Restoration on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, specialising in the restoration and customisation of Toyota LandCruisers from 1951 to 1984. The company also manufactures its own aftermarket products for these now legendary 4x4s, and deals in their increasingly hard-to-find genuine spare parts.
The tale of how he got here could fill an entire magazine, so I’ll keep things succinct. Originally from New Zealand, Rob’s father was a professional hunter who took his kids along with him to learn survival skills. Aged five, Rob was self-sufficient in hunting, fishing and building shelter, all with just a knife and a box of matches. With such a start in life, being able to eventually tackle mechanical complexities was a given.
Rob came to Australia aged 15 and began hunting in the Top End with Aborigines for kangaroos, camels and crocs. He was imprisoned in Tasmania following a misunderstanding about the Vietnam draft, promptly escaped and returned to New Zealand, was married there, then returned to Australia.
His new bride was far from happy as Rob built up a WWII Willys Jeep for his work in the lounge and bedroom, but this sowed the seeds for his work to follow.
“This was in 1968 and there wasn’t much choice of all-wheel-drives except Land Rovers and Jeeps,” Rob said. “Army Jeeps were everywhere back then, and most had been bush bashers and were in bad shape. But Kiwis have always had to be practical. If you wanted a vehicle you had to build it.”
Rob moved into bricklaying, which meant good money, but ultimately ruined his back. After two years in a wheelchair and financial ruin, plus already having four kids, Rob went into partnership to form Rye’s Jeep Service, building about 60 WWII Jeeps from scratch while selling parts. He was forced to move into commercial premises, so committed to go big, buying Sydney’s Jeep City and moving it out to Penrith.
“We needed to do all models of Jeep, and also LandCruisers, Land Rovers and Nissans,” Rob explained. “I ended up employing 17 mechanics and three spare parts guys. We were an engineering firm casting our own parts, mainly adapter kits to put V8s into LandCruisers. These were brand new ‘Cruisers and we’d fit 350cu in Chev engines to them; we’d do about five a day. We also developed a kit to do automatic conversions for Range Rovers. We had a big turnover, it was a really good business.”
Sydney could be a hard place back then. Rob said corrupt police, death threats, threats to his family and eventually two guns held to his head convinced him to move out, settling on Rainbow Beach just beside Fraser Island and Noosa’s North Shore; both popular sand driving spots for off-roaders.
Here he bought and ran a 4WD hire company – he had 28 off-roaders which he’d help maintain – while operating his own tow truck to recover the many people trapped on the beach, sand routes or by the tides. “It was a joy up at Rainbow Beach, like a dream, but it was 24 hours a day,” Rob said. “I’d tow out sometimes five or six people a day, I loved doing the beach driving, and for around 20 years I was the only guy doing it. I’d drive Jeep Gladiators with 350 Chev engines, which we built from scratch using our own chassis.”
Ill health caught up with Rob when he turned 47 and he couldn’t operate his businesses anymore. He rejuvenated Jeep City once more dealing in spare parts, while dedicating himself to a more spiritual way of life. After many years, he restarted Rainbow Recovery towing with two of his sons, and began building expensive yet very desirable Super Jeeps built on Jeep Renegade CJ5 and CJ7 chassis, given new bodies and fitted with trusty old 350 Chev engines.
The Landcruiser Parts and Restoration business began in 2000 at Rainbow Beach. “These pre-1984 Toyotas were like the WWII Jeeps; easy to take apart and rebuild, and there’s a big following for them,” Rob said. “People wanted the old LandCruisers but with modern high specification. They have character, but are really heavy to steer and they rattle down the road. We’d put in the 350 Chev engine, add air con, disc brakes and the like. People like reliability to go with the ruggedness.”
He moved the business to Noosa in 2015 and runs it with a partner, and although they’ve done some restoration work, their bread and butter is aftermarket and spare parts for these old LandCruisers. “We own Rhyno Off-Road Manufacturing, and our power steering kit is the most popular, plus suspension, coil springs, disc brakes and handbrake kits for LandCruisers, and we have a contractor making fibreglass body panels,” Rob said.
These old LandCruisers may be iconic, but most are now very tired Rob said, and need a huge amount spent on them to be perfect. He said people didn’t have the money they used to, so his next venture is building all-electric amphibious vehicles for use in a series of films.
“It’s my next challenge, but I’ll be a consultant as I’ll be retiring soon,” Rob said. He also plans to spend more time exploring and teaching his spiritual beliefs; understandable of a man, and a mechanic, who’s had a long life well lived.