The cars we loved.
Much of the world has learned to think of Japanese cars as quickly evolving. During the ‘80s automotive trends from Asia’s largest car producing nation appeared at a breakneck pace. Not all Japanese cars evolved quickly. The Toyota Century, a car much of the world has never seen, was one of them. Even its name suggested a long and slow process. The Century’s styling and attention to detail justifies its namesake, as it is Toyota’s “closet” flagship. Originally named in honor of the 100 year anniversary of the birth of the founder of Toyota Industries, the Century was just the third sedan ever produced by the young post-war Japanese automotive industry in 1967. It came initially with only a V8 and is the largest passenger car ever produced by Toyota.
As Toyota’s top car, it has an unusual position among flagships, because it is purposely restrained in some surprising ways. The Century became the first and only front engine, rear-wheel drive production car with a V12 in Japan’s history when the V8 was replaced with the second generation in 1997. The 5.0L V12 was built exclusively for the Century but is governed to 276 hp (up from 162 hp in 1996). While the power output pales against other V12 engines (usually in exotic sports cars) it has considerable reserves of torque for moments when VIPs need to get out of situations quickly. As you might expect for a car with lavish appointments, safety and possible defensive capabilities, the Century is hefty at well over 4,000 pounds.
It’s not marketed as over the top luxury as it could be, but takes the subtle conservative approach that suggests owning one is the result of hard thankless work. The marketing approach may explain why the Century is sold in exclusively in the Toyota Store instead of Lexus dealerships. The Century was designed as a means of transport for Japan’s elite business and political leaders. In the past the Century competed with cars as varied as the Nissan President and Mazda’s Roadpacer. Today its domestic competition has narrowed considerably. As such the Century’s production numbers are limited and it remains an almost exclusively JDM product. The only time a Century might be seen outside of Japan would be for official duty or embassy transport for Japanese officials abroad.
While the Century is about the same size as the more widely available Toyota Crown Majesta, it carries its 4,000+ lb more deliberately thanks to boxy styling. The Century’s almost timeless design suggests power and stability, exactly the attributes that political leaders strive to project.
With only two generations since its inception, the Century has slowly evolved with the times. From 1967 to 1997, design changes have occurred around seven chassis modifications, each with a code name denoting different engine and progressively more modern rear and front clips. Each of its design decisions revolve around making the car as quiet and comfortable as possible. The boxy proportions allow for maximum interior space for the various computers, screens and storage compartments that cater to the rear seat passengers in particular.
The attention to detail is startling, often countering traditional luxury trends. For instance, the pursuit of a quiet interior extends to the choice of material for the seats. While some Century’s are outfitted with leather, the material was deemed too noisy with its squishy sounds, so cloth became a popular Zen option. While the ideal of a Century fitted with cloth seats sounds down-market, its most important attributes are a super quiet interior and soft compliant ride like an old Buick from the early 80s, but much larger. Rear seat passengers can recline in seats that would be more at home in a living room or in the Century’s case, an office.
While not truly a third generation Century, a newer limousine variant called the Century Royal was developed exclusively for senior member of the Imperial House of Japan. It takes the Zen concept to the max with rice paper headliners in the passenger compartment. It’s biggest feature aside from the more modernized (yet boxy) look is its secret security measures. Production started in 2006 with only four of the $500,000 (USD)cars produced, the Royal remains the most exclusive of all Centurys. Despite its exclusivity, it still uses the basic mechanics of the standard Century, while stretching the chassis to match the Maybach 62 in length. While the Century Royal represents the ultimate evolution of the official Japanese government car, the Japanese Prime Minister is said to prefer a regular Lexus LS when going to official functions.