“We sold 27.” Toyota chief engineer Masato Tanabe is curt with his answer. I had asked if Toyota had plans to sell its recently redesigned Century—the chauffeur-driven, ultra-luxury sedan that’s been in production since 1967—in markets outside Japan. He first, quickly, answered, “No.” Then I ask why not. Because, Tanabe-san explains (through a translator), they tried to do so with the previous generation. And it flopped.
The second-gen Century launched in 1997 with a 5.0-liter V-12. Yes, a Japanese V-12. For a single car model. Not even Lexus could borrow it. Toyota offered that Century for sale in Germany, Austria, Great Britain, Australia, and a few Middle Eastern countries. One hundred left-hand-drive examples were built, with some winding up in the U.S. to shuttle Toyota’s local executives.
But selling even 100 units was a bridge too far. Even through the cheery-voiced translator, I can sense Tanabe’s bitterness at the rest of the world’s miscomprehension of his baby. Yes, sure, he also rued the loss of what had to be a medium-sized fortune. But really, the rest of the world simply doesn’t understand the sheer genius and excellence of the Toyota Century.
The V-8-powered first-gen Century was in production from 1967 to 1997. The V-12 second-gen version spanned two decades, from 1997 to 2017. The third-generation Century bowed last year. It sports the 5.0-liter V-8 and hybrid system out of the previous-generation Lexus LS 600h L. If you’d like to buy one, the price is $180,000.
The Century isn’t very nice to drive. It’s torquey and nearly silent but tuned to be smooth above all else. It’s proudly, defiantly, most certainly not a driver’s car. Not for nothing, less than 10 percent of Century owners will ever slide in behind the steering wheel. Know thy customer.
No, the third-generation limo is a car to be driven in, and with great precedent. The Japanese royal family owns five heavily customized V-12 Century Royals—special super-customized limos with top-secret features, akin to the American presidential limo. One is even a hearse.
In describing the Century customer, Tanabe says that a man seated in the rear seat should be able to read a newspaper without interruption. Pressed further, he says he and his team “focused on the Emperor,” who prefers a newspaper over a phone or tablet for his daily news. Moreover, a woman wearing a kimono (the Empress, obviously) should be able to “look beautiful” entering the back seat without any unbecoming issues. That’s why the rear sill and scuff plate are completely flat.
Obviously, then, the Century is something of an anachronism. Are you even allowed to have gender-specific design considerations in 2019? Or are we perhaps shoving our notions of right and wrong down Japan’s throat? Maybe we Americans could learn something from a car?
You see, the Century is dripping with Japanese cultural symbolism. For instance, there’s an unspoken rule that if you sell a luxury car, it needs to be stuffed with leather. Bentley and Rolls-Royce routinely get into pissing matches about which slaughters more cows per car.
The Bentley Mulsanne bears the skin of 17 Scottish cattle—all bulls because the skin won’t stretch during a pregnancy that can’t take place—none of which have ever known the sting of a mosquito or the graze of barbed wire. The new Phantom is probably even more gussied up. (At the Rolls-Royce factory, I was once told that they prefer “McDonald’s cows” because they’re grown so fat and the skin is extra soft, but I’m not familiar with their anti-PETA details.) The Century? Wool. Yes, wool. Like a fine suit. Leather is noisy and obnoxious (read: rude), whereas wool is much more dignified.
Should you demand leather seats, however, Toyota offers them as an option. But you should get the wool. Along with exterior color choice (black, burgundy, navy blue, or silver), the interior material is the only choice you get with the Century. During the factory tour, I asked if any customization was available, noting that I once drove a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe that had a humidor in the glove box. “No.”
Then there’s the paint. I’ll try not to get into the weeds about the Century’s paint, but I could write a short book about it. It’s the finest paint ever applied to a car. Emphasis on ever. I’ve been lucky enough to drive more Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Maybachs, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and McLarens than I can count. Not one of them has paint that even comes close to this Toyota’s.
I’ve visited dozens of car factories in my decade and a half of doing the car-writing thing. The plant tour is the mandatory salutation to the guys who grind out their days on the factory floor. But this tour is special.
I am one of two American journalists to ever see the inside of the Century plant, located in Ohira, Miyagi, about 450 miles north of Toyota’s Nagoya HQ. Most of Toyota’s elite plant tours are of the Lexus Tahara factory, which cranks out LS sedans by the thousands. But the Higashi-Fuji plant is not that. And although most plant tours are idolatries to our new robot overlords, here, only seven robots are used to build the Century. The rest is hand-assembled.
The longest I’d ever spent in a paint shop was about 20 minutes at the McLaren Technology Center in Woking because they had dozens of spaceship/sex toy-looking paint samples for us to look at. On our tour of the Century factory? I would guess that fully 75 percent of our time in building F201 was concerned with the paint.
The cars are even hand painted. They’re actually wet sanded by hand, then hand polished to a true mirror finish.
A total of four people in the world are skilled enough to paint a Century, though they’ve taken on two apprentices. A Lexus has four layers of material (including primer and clear coat) in its paint job. The Century has seven. I’m not saying seven layers of paint, as the Century has many more than that. Rather, there are seven materials used to complete the mirrorlike paint job. The four craftsmen were sent off to learn lacquering techniques from a high-end lacquerware workshop for six months. The Japanese have been lacquering objects for 7,000 years. As a culture, they take the process and the products very seriously.
Ready for some weeds? The Imperial Regalia of Japan consists of three celestial objects (supposedly) brought to earth by Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the great-grandfather of Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu, and grandson of Amatersau, goddess of the sun and the universe in the Shinto religion. The objects are the sword Kusanagi, representing valor; the jewel Yasakani no Magatama, representing benevolence; and the mirror Yata no Kagami, representing wisdom.
Lacquering is therefore related to this celestial mirror, and the Toyota Century’s paint is a direct result of this tradition. More practically, let’s say the businessman or head of state in the emperor’s seat (a nickname I’ve given to the left-rear seat, as Japan is a right-seat-pilot country) has been ensnarled in Tokyo traffic and won’t be able to visit the washroom to adjust his tie before an important meeting. No worries! All he need do is stare into the Century’s C-pillar, for it is as reflective as a mirror, just like Yata no Kagami. That level of detail might mean nothing to you and me beyond novelty, but it’s a literal connection to the divine for the Japanese.
The die for the hood ornament (a celestial rooster called ho-o and representative of the Japanese Imperial House) takes 45 days to carve. The doors are hung by hand. The interior wood panels are hand-cut and hand-sanded, with each car needing 15 hours of woodworking. The body panels are hand-adjusted. Most critically, the body panels are hand-finished.
“Deru kugi wa utareru,” a Japanese proverb, translates to “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” It’s a tribute to conformity. So even though the Century is meant to transport emperors, lions of industry, and heads of state, it carries a deeply conservative appearance.
However, the Century has a character line that is meant to scream “dignity.” Not kidding. This line runs the length of the car on each side. Three craftsmen perfect each panel’s dignity line—by hand, of course. One gentleman is in his 60s and has been working on the Century since the car’s first generation. He has trained two other guys who are in their 40s. They are considering taking on an apprentice but haven’t found the right candidate yet. The kicker? To ensure complete accuracy, the tools these three sheetmetal sculptors use are custom-built to fit their individual hands. I’ve never seen a car built like this.
I could go on. The intricate patterns on the headliner have tremendous significance to the Japanese, as do the patterns on the lace doilies that slip over the wool headrests and seat backs. You don’t use doilies on leather, gaijin. The significance will fly over our collective western heads, and let’s be honest—you’re still struggling to get past the idea that Toyota sells a sedan that costs $180,000.
I blame William Crapo Durant, the man behind General Motors. He was the guy who said, if you make X number of dollars, you buy a Chevrolet, and once you start earning more money, Mr. Chevy Man, why don’t you move up to an Oakland, or, heck, even a Buick? Maybe, just maybe, if your ship comes in, one day that big, fat Cadillac could be yours. GM got so nuts with slicing and reslicing the pricing pie that it launched four “companion make” brands—Pontiac, Viking, Marquette, and LaSalle—to fill in the gaps between the original four. Curiously, upstart Pontiac survived while the other three plus Oakland didn’t. Until Pontiac didn’t, either.
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz makes the bulk of Germany’s garbage trucks and taxi cabs, and not a single S-Class owner in Europe cares. The Volkswagen Phaeton was an outright failure in America, lasting only three model years with less than 3,000 cars sold. In Europe, Phaeton production ran for 15 years, with about 80,000 sales, and VW is considering bringing it back as an all-electric model. Americans just don’t seem to understand stealth wealth.
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As for the Century, Japan’s recently enthroned Emperor Naruhito is getting a custom one-off open-top Century limousine for his coronation this fall—replacing his father’s Rolls-Royce Corniche for parade duties. Why the switch, and why go with a Century?
The car used in the Emperor’s inauguration ceremony has to meet multiple criteria, among them: It has to be available domestically and be larger than any vehicles it would travel with; it must be environmentally friendly; it must have high safety scores; the Emperor and Empress must be easily visible in the back seat; and it must be suitable for daily use post-parade.
After looking around, The Emperor’s Inauguration Ceremony Office concluded, “Therefore, we will use the Toyota Century Motor Co., Ltd. ‘s ‘Century’ as the vehicle used in the Celebration Row Ceremony.”
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