You may not know much about the Toyota Century; unless you’ve lived in Japan, there’s almost no reason for you to even realize the Toyota Century exists. Launched in 1967, the hand-built flagship sedan/limousine has only ever been sold in its home market, and even there, it’s a sort of an anti-halo car. Istead of showing them off, using them to highlight the level of craftsmanship Toyota’s builders are capable of achieving, Toyota relegates them to special dealerships. You have to be invited to buy one, and the process isn’t exactly linked to your social media following: It’s popular with businessmen possessed of extremely conservative taste and nothing to prove. The Emperor is driven in one.
Toyota rolled out a brand-new Century at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show. Like the return of Halley’s Comet or a continent-spanning solar eclipse, the debut of a new Century is a momentous occasion — in part because it just doesn’t happen very often. Consequently, I’m thinking more about the model than I normally do.
What is it about the Century that is so endlessly fascinating? A lot of times, car geeks get attached to vehicles because they’re not sold in our home markets. Admittedly, that’s part of what drew me to the Century in the first place. I also happen to love its looks, which are a sort of case study in what happens when you freeze a design language moments after the first car rolls down the line and then slightly defrost it for minor modifications, rarely, over the next fifty years. You might not understand why anyone would buy something that looks vaguely like a pre-oil crisis Lincoln product. I can’t get enough of it. We’ll just have to agree to disagree here; in any case, the style question doesn’t really invalidate my argument: When it comes to luxury cars, other manufacturers have a lot to learn from the Century’s effortless confidence.
When it comes to regal resonance in Japan, no nameplate rules like the Toyota Century, the official car of the emperor, prime ministers and esteemed captains of industry.Perhaps that’s why, …
The Century isn’t special because it’s opulent. It’s loaded with tech, but never for the sake of having the latest gizmos onboard. Western observers often notice the lack of leather; while other luxury builders are proud of how many hides go into their interiors, most Century seats get cloth in subdued colors or patterns instead. I’ve been told that leather surfaces squeak, which would ruin the serenity of the cabin. There’s something to it: I had the opportunity to drive a later model first-generation Century at Duncan Imports earlier this year, and I can say with (almost) no exaggeration that it was the smoothest, quietest car I have ever piloted. It’s downright freaky.
Likewise, the Century isn’t special because it’s expensive. The price isn’t really that outrageous, for what it is; new Centuries are said to start at around $100,000 (used ones can be had for a tenth of that — talk about depreciation). You can spend more than that on a Porsche Boxster. Quadruple that for a Rolls-Royce Phantom. No, it’s the impenetrable air of, if not exactly snobbery, then at least cultivated exclusivity that surrounds the Century and bolsters its image. Let’s say you won the lotto; the Century is not the car you’d buy. It’s not the done thing. It wouldn’t be appropriate.
To highlight what makes the Century sub-marque special, compare it to other top luxury automakers. Rolls-Royce has attempted to drum up buzz by rolling out a range of questionable special editions; Bentley caved to trends and built an SUV. Even if they can be forgiven for bowing to market forces, the Century should be commended for standing its ground and hewing to the formula established decades ago: It is a luxury sedan meant to be chauffeur-driven, designed and built for customers who feel no particular need to show off their wealth or status. To be successful it doesn’t need a hashtag or a celebrity pitchman. It doesn’t really need to do anything, except exist. That’s rare and remarkable.
Now, you could argue that no other luxury marque could achieve what the Century has. It’s only sold in Japan; it doesn’t have to drum up double-digit sales increases year after year, so it can basically set its own rules. To which I’d say: That’s exactly the point. The Century does’t have to compromise its ideals to meet the disparate needs of international markets, which must be accommodated in order to achieve that all-important sales growth (think of how many automakers have explained away brand-diluting product with a “well, China…”). Instead, the Century is perfectly tailored to its cultural context. It has carved out a niche and it fits that niche perfectly. What could be more luxurious than that?
Here’s the new Toyota Century on the floor of the Tokyo Motor Show.
Maybe the other automaker that has come close on that front is Bristol. Yet by the time Britain’s proudly under-the-radar heritage marque ended production (or at least this phase of production; fingers crossed for a revival), its products were, I suspect, intentionally, flagrantly anachronistic. They were bought by the sorts of eccentrics that found value in that.
That’s not the case with the Century. There’s no irony here. It’s evolved over the years, but it’s never done so for evolution’s sake. A new Century launches when the minds behind the company know they can design and build a better one. Until that day, why mess with what works? The result is just three major generations, with minor styling changes here and there, in its half-century run so far. The new one gets a V8 hybrid powertrain instead of a V12. I have no doubt that it lets it run even smoother and even quieter than the vintage car I sampled; the alternative is inconceivable.
The Century may not be to your taste. You many not get why anyone would spend so much on a fancy Toyota with cloth seats and lace curtains on the windows. But study it for a little while and you’ll realize that it has what few other luxury cars or marques possess: Utter, complete self-assurance. It takes something like the Century to show just how rare that quality in the automotive space.