In 1995 a group of Land Cruisers amble across Moab terrain and unknowingly spark a fire within a young boy scout. Watching from behind mountain bike handlebars, he would soon learn to drive and chasing his passion for this legendary machine would take him across Baja finish lines and five continents before the age of 40.
This is a story of possibilities, told by “Cruiser Kurt” Williams.
The First Build
Kurt Williams built his first Land Cruiser before he could drive it.
“When I saw those Land Cruisers in Moab, I just knew that’s what I had to have,” he recounts. The fifteen-year-old proceeded to spend the next few months tracking one down and fatefully found a family member willing to part with a 1968 FJ40.
“I knew it would take some work to have it drivable by the time I got my license.”
It’s easy to carry affection for the land where the Colorado Plateau meets the Wasatch Range. There are upwards of 40,000 square miles of public land to explore in Utah, ghost towns to comb, and treasures to be found in its unearthly landscape. Spending time outside with his family from a young age, Kurt loved the outdoors and knew he needed a utilitarian vehicle to get out and explore. This first Land Cruiser certainly fit the bill.
“I grew up 20 minutes south of Salt Lake City and at that time there were off-road trails up into the Wasatch Mountains five minutes from my house. My friends and I would go up there every afternoon – often even during school. We loved to take the challenging course with mud holes and little rocky climbs to see whose vehicle was the best. We were up there several times a week during high school.”
It’s fitting that young Kurt’s first requirement for his first vehicle was something to help him reach rugged places – as ‘reaching places’ never stopped being central to his life.
“I adopted an allegiance to Land Cruisers pretty early on. Beyond great experiences behind the wheel, it was really getting involved in the local Land Cruiser community that solidified my devotion.”
The Day Job
Following his budding passion, Kurt was hired on at Cruiser Outfitters while completing his Mechanical Engineering degree at the University of Utah. This was about the time local businesses were first tapping into ecommerce and Kurt helped ready the shop for the digital age.
“I was a full-time student so I needed it to be a part-time business that I could run all hours of the day; taking it online was the answer in more ways than one.”
Here again, something unexpected intercepts Kurt’s path.
The company’s founder was looking to retire and the internet-savvy Kurt seemed a natural fit to take the reins. But how can one walk away from an engineering degree?
“Cruiser Outfitters was never meant to be a full-time gig. In 2006 as I was about to graduate, I started interviewing and trying to figure out what I was going to do after school. It was a tough decision for me. A professor of mine who had been very supportive of this little Land Cruiser operation I had going, ultimately helped me decide.
“He told me, ‘You didn’t come to school to be an engineer, you came to be a problem-solver. Use that skill to run this business. If it doesn’t work, you can always be an engineer, but an opportunity like this isn’t one you can easily pick back up.’”
Helping others hit the trail in reliable Land Cruisers is a satisfying way for Kurt to spend his energy. He consults everyone to beginners to those taking on the Pan-American Highway, but often with the same advice.
“A suspension upgrade always makes sense for aftermarket loads,” he counsels, “it doesn’t necessarily have to be a traditional suspension lift where ride height is increased. Instead shock and spring components that are engineered to increase the load capacity of the suspension, accommodate bumpers, tire carriers, sliders, skids and gear. ARB’s Old Man Emu system is the top-choice. You get better flex, better ride, and better compliance which makes an off-road adventure that much better. That’s what I run in my vehicles.” For overlanders Kurt also advises the right tires, added fuel capacity, and interior storage.
“Anything can happen out there. Just one part not doing its job can ruin a whole trip, so the investments you make in quality components pay back exponentially.”
Journey to the Motherland
Kurt pauses to reflect before stating: “My interest in travel really grew from my love for Land Cruisers. As I got more involved in the community through Cruiser Outfitters I realized that this platform is even bigger outside of the US, and that really inspired me.”
This has held true since Kurt’s first-ever trip abroad with his family. He says of his time in Central America, “My camera roll was all pictures of Land Cruisers. Here I am, my first big trip, probably about 16-years-old in beautiful Guatemala and Land Cruisers were what I was most excited to see and learn about.”
Years later, Kurt would lead a pilgrimage to the Land Down Under. “My wife was kind enough to come along and of course we did some touristy stuff, but we essentially rented Land Cruisers and drove them around to go look at other Land Cruisers – from wrecking yards to ARB stores. We had good friends with us and covered a lot of Australia, but definitely spent time even in ARB store parking lots admiring and studying all the different builds and mods. It was fascinating.”
Love of Land Cruisers certainly isn’t unique to Kurt and his local chapter of enthusiasts, the Wasatch Cruisers, grew more and more involved.
“A few members started doing bigger trips and that eventually led to attending the Baja 1000 in Mexico as spectators. We loved it and always said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to race this one day?’”
Interest in competing grew over time, until it became feasible from both a manpower and financial aspect to make the dream a reality. They purchased a race vehicle to outfit, but that was the easy part according to Kurt.
“The logistics of being a six-man team in Utah that races in Mexico were a real challenge. But since we had been down there enough and were familiar with the travel, we were able to make it happen.”
Outfitted with Air Lockers® and later Solis Lights from ARB, Team Canguro has competed in the race six times, placing second three times and winning First in Class twice; most recently this year. For a 37-hour race where only about half of the entries complete the course, Team Canguro carries a pretty incredible record.
“I was in the car when we came across the finish line this year and it was amazing. You’re excited to get out of the car so that’s honestly half of it… but in all seriousness, it was an incredible feeling.”
“When the idea first surfaced to take the same Land Cruiser to all seven continents, I immediately raised my hand and said, ‘If you ever need a guy for an open seat, I’ll make it happen!”
Though he imagined his participation in Expeditions7 would most likely stay within the Americas, he quickly proved too valuable an asset to keep stateside and journeyed with the group to Asia, Africa, and Australia. These trips took Kurt across Siberia in 2012; from Johannesburg, South Africa to Windhoek, Namibia and from Brisbane to Broome, Australia in 2013; through South and Central America in 2014; and most recently across Greenland in 2018.
Extreme terrain and harsh weather are stern teachers, especially in such remote places. Of the many lessons extended overland travel has taught Kurt, one stands out.
“An overwhelming factor in all the expeditions was being very mindful of the quality of your products. The sting of having a part fail on you in the middle of nowhere and ruin a trip because you didn’t invest in the better option; that money you saved no longer feels good when you’re broke down in the middle of nowhere. This is why we only sell premium gear at Cruiser Outfitters – from my own personal experiences I understand how important quality is and would never introduce risk to a customer with a lesser product.”
“ARB’s Old Man Emu suspension systems were installed on each of the Expeditions7 vehicles,” Kurt explains, “There’s no way I’d take on a trip of this magnitude without the very best, and you’re not going to find a suspension system that you can count on more.”
It was on this expedition that Kurt met Clay Croft, who served as the team cinematographer. Clay was gearing up for a project of his own, called Expedition Overland. Its first big trip would be the Pan-American starting in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and Kurt had recently completed the route from its southernmost point in Ushuaia, Argentina. There was much to discuss and the many, many phone calls to Kurt for his expertise quickly materialized into an invitation to join.
“Hey, so are you available? Can you just come on the trip?”
Kurt’s quick agreement to ten-thousand-mile journeys could seem impulsive; but his affirmative responses are very much built by design.
No Frontier Is Final
“I’ll certainly continue to pursue opportunities to travel and race in addition to running the shop. You know, it does take a few weeks for the exhaustion of a race or trip to wear off, but inevitably somebody perks up and says, ‘Let’s go again.’”
And Kurt’s all-in. To circumvent the proverbial ball and chain of small business ownership, he relies on an expert team.
“I’ve always had my company set up with great team members who can run things while I’m gone. In fact, they probably do an even better job while I’m out of their way,” he quips.
It’s none-the-less a heavy load to balance.
“I intentionally made my interests in racing and overland travel every bit as much a priority as my business. I certainly could have been more aggressive about getting into a bigger building, ramping up hiring or carrying more stock but I’ve purposefully focused on conservative business growth that doesn’t keep me from pursuing other endeavors.”
Room to feed personal passions is something Kurt extends to the whole team at Cruiser Outfitters; and a debt repaid in kind.
“We have quite a few student employees, and a few that do travel of their own too. I always encourage time off when possible. In the end, they come back to work with a broader knowledge and greater understanding of the purpose we serve as a business.”
This ethos stands in contrast to work-centric American culture, but Kurt’s travels have opened his eyes to its value.
“Other places in the world, people often take a month-long holiday and I think we don’t do that enough in the US. Spending 24 hours a day no more than 10 feet from a Land Cruiser on these trips, you think of a lot of things you could do.
“We’re still relatively new to builds here, while in Australia for example they’ve been overlanding in Land Cruisers for so many more years, which is why companies like ARB have such a head start in designing enduring products.”
There’s more to Kurt’s contributions than bringing knowledge back to his business. He also serves on the board of the Land Cruiser Heritage Museum in Salt Lake City that aspires to assemble the world’s largest collection of Land Cruisers. Greg Miller, founder of Expeditions7, started the effort which now includes over 100 Land Cruisers.
Kurt is one who sees potential everywhere and his appetite for pushing limits will continue to serve overlanding as a whole.
He says of our current place in time, “I don’t think, historically, there’s ever been so many diverse and just cool vehicles that you can buy new. Even though maybe they’re not all applicable to off-roading, I enjoy seeing them because to me it’s a rising tide that brings up all ships. As long as there’s interest in off-roading, there’s going to be interest in developing relevant platforms, and that will keep pushing things forward.”
Special thanks to Scott Brady and the Overland Journal Podcast for their contributions in telling this story.