I was literally sitting on this one. It hides in a car park under my apartment block in Rangoon. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that he’d seen a Century down there, so we went down to investigate. He was right, but it wasn’t just any Century (if that makes any sense). This was the Ultimate One: a first-generation factory stretch limousine. Sugoi!
Dawn Of The Century
Let’s start with a little bit of historical background. As Japan’s number one automaker, Toyota felt they needed to have an exclusive top-of-the-range car by the early ‘60s. First, they produced the Toyota Crown Eight (VG10), which sported the first Japanese 8-cyl. in civilian use, developed in cooperation with Yamaha: an all-aluminum 2.6 litre hemi V8.
The VG10 was made from 1964 to 1967, but it had a problem: it looked like (and was) a Crown, i.e. the same body as a 4-cyl. taxi. Its competition included the Mitsubishi Debonair and the Nissan President, not Bentleys or Continentals.
Recently-merged Prince and Nissan managed to ace Toyota out by providing Emperor Hirohito with a handful of the first domestically-made imperial limousine (based on the Prince Gloria) in 1967, but things were only getting started. This imperial snub would not go unanswered.
Toyota were undeterred and launched the first Century (VG20) in 1967, named and timed to commemorate the 100th birthday of the company’s founder, Sakichi Toyoda. The new car was longer and wider than any domestic competitor, deliberately going beyond the rigid Japanese car size regulations.
The fit and finish were of the highest attainable standard, and interior features included separate front and back A/C, lace curtains on the rear windows and back light, cruise control, Toyoglide two-speed automatic (or four speed manual), and power everything, window vents included.
Cars were most often ordered in black, though a significant portion also came in various shades of gray. Suckers for punishment, these Japanese CEOs… Also available: burgundy and dark blue.
This was a serious effort by a serious company, but it was not something that Toyota wanted to export. For whatever reason, the Century always remained a pure JDM affair. The car was not even built by Toyota per se: the chassis, body and interior were all hand-made by Kanto Auto Works, a Toyota subcontractor that made small production runs, such as the S-800 roadster.
Only the engine was made by the automaker itself: originally a 3 litre (150 hp @ 5000 rpm) version of the aluminum V8, it got augmented to 3.4 litre (180 hp) in 1974. Front disc brakes were installed as standard by 1973. In 1975, the manual gearbox was deleted. Other than this, there were no important changes in the car’s first decade and a half.
In 1982, the Century went under the knife again to become Model VG40, undergoing a noticeable front-end facelift, as well as an enlargement of the V8 to 4 litre (190 hp @ 4800 rpm). I’m not 100% sure, but this might also be when the air suspension became electronically-controlled. That’s Japan for you: Donkey Kong for the masses, computerized air cushions for the few. This is where our CC’s story picks up.
The affluent ‘80s were a crazy boom time for Japan, becoming known retrospectively as the “Bubble economy.” Some of the more successful Tokyoites must have had a yen (geddit?) for something even more exclusive than the Century, whose annual sales had doubled to about 2000 units by the end of the decade. Maybe some folks were importing Rolls-Royces or lusting after a Hong Qi (just kidding). Whatever the exact cause, Toyota saw fit to up the ante and provide not one but two stretched Century models.
The first to appear in late 1989 was our CC: a properly stretched limousine, complete with separation window, TV, telephone, refrigerated minibar, wooden picnic tables and whatever else the sensei desired. The rear compartment was much bigger, but all that added space went to gadgetry and legroom, not extra seats. You want more seats? Get another car.
The Century’s original wheelbase of 286cm (112.6’’) grew to a whopping 351cm (132.8’’). The rear doors were longer, but a lot of the stretch was clearly visible in the large panel put between the front and rear compartments. This was a very rare car even back in its day: only about 50 of these were made per year from 1989 to 1997. In 1990, Toyota also introduced the VG45, also called the L-type, which had a more moderate stretched wheelbase (301cm / 207.5’’) and the limo’s longer rear doors.
Other Sumotori In The Dojo
S’matter, Toyota’s finest not fancy enough for ya? Well then, take a gander at these.
In the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, most car-making nations had some sort of “official” national low-production über-luxurious sedan / limo, usually with a special engine. So let’s set aside the French stretches (Peugeot 604 and Renault 25) as well as the Chrysler K-car for being too low-rent for this kind of company, along with the Coleman Milne conversions.
Western Europeans were pretty well catered for. The Brits had the Rolls-Royce Phantom VI and the Daimler DS240 until about 1992, or the ‘80s Tickford Aston-Martin Lagonda limo (only four made, so not really “production,” but honourable mention for sheer weirdness). The Rolls-Royce Silver Spur Park Ward limo took over in the mid-‘90s as Britain’s sole remaining top-notch limousine.
Germany had the Mercedes-Benz 600 “Groẞer” until 1981 and more recently (2002-13) the Maybach 62, but nothing in between except the S-Class. BMW got burned back in the ‘50s with the 505 and never went back – it was not the image they wanted to project in the late 20th century anyway. The last Italian effort in this segment was perhaps the 1986-90 Maserati Quattroporte III Royale, though those were not factory-stretchable.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Soviet apparatchiks could select a number of short and long wheelbase ZILs (the 4104 is pictured here, top left), some of which are still apparently in production. The USSR also built the somewhat lower-status GAZ Chaika 14 until it died in 1989 (of a broken Wall, perhaps). And let’s not forget the Tatra 613 Special, the only Eastern bloc limo designed to pick up a Czech. And in the Far East (here: bottom right), there were still a few Hong Qi CA770 being made, blissfully unaware that this was not 1958 anymore.
Across the pond, limos seemed to have lost their exclusivity, really – except those bizzarro Stutzes, and were increasingly used for prom nights and stag parties rather than by grey men in blue suits. Cadillac’s Fleetwood 75 became more “common” and mass-market (certainly miles away from the PininFarina Eldorado Broughams of yore), but were the last full-size factory-built American limos when production ended in 1985. The gargantuan Lehmann-Peterson Lincolns or the Ghia Imperials are better parallels to the Centruy, but never made it to the ‘80s. Instead, US limousine buyers had to make do with specialist-stretched Town Cars or the aforementioned 4-cyl. K-car.
Speaking of ridiculous-looking stretchers, let’s see what JDM rivals were doing to combat the Toyota Century. Nissan gave it the old college try but failed to match the Toyota’s aura.
Autech, the outfit that made special Nissans for the automaker’s more demanding customers, attempted limousine versions of the Y31 Cedric and of the President. The latter was perhaps as close as Nissan ever would get to a Century, but the smallish rear end looked wrong on a car this size.
And Mitsubishi did attempt to tart up its Debonair in both “European” and “American” flavours. Just painful to see, really. And you thought the K-car was the worst limo of the ’80s…
But I digress…
Back to our Century limo: the detailing on this thing is rather magnificent. The big gold “C” in old English script really matched the gaudy bird-like creature on the hubcaps.
Well done, Toyota, you out-Broughamed the competition. Our feature car was ordered without the usual padded roof trim, though. And that’s a good thing in my book, but most of the other VG40 limos wore a vinyl toupee.
It seems this car came with black tinted windows, which is another rarity. Although it was an optional extra, most clients did not go for it, preferring electrically-operated lace curtains for privacy and UV protection. To each their own, I suppose, but the downside is that it’s impossible for me to offer you photos of the inside of this limo, which is a real shame.
So here is a photo of the chauffeur’s view I found online. Some sources claim that the shifter on these ‘90s Centuries migrated to the floor. One of the few things I could see in the front compartment were the top of the steering wheel and the shifter, which was (as on this picture) still column-mounted.
Not that this car has a bench seat – at least some of the space between the two front seats would be occupied by the acres of wiring and fans needed to power and cool the TV / VHS / Betamax / HiFi / refrigerator area. Speaking of which, here’s the one of the TV antennas.
The lounge. Looks like a pretty nice place to be. These seats have built-in heating and massage settings. It seems a majority of Japanese luxury buyers prefer cloth or velour upholstery rather than the leather seen here. It is alleged that the smell of leather is not universally appreciated in East Asia, and that some find the squeaks and other impromptu noises that can emanate from leather seats annoying (and/or embarrassing).
The rear of this car really reminds me of the Brezhnev-era ZIL 114. Both of these pseudo-American designs look, to my eyes, as if they might be related. At least the ZIL had evolved a bit by the ‘80s. The Toyota, on the other hand, was wore its fat lapel / bell-bottom / oversized tie three-piece suit and Elvis sideburns in the mid-‘90s. Thank Shinto it didn’t have whitewall tyres…
I should confess, by the way, that I have no idea whether this is a 1991 car. These were made from October 1989 to April 1997. I picked the year because, as I have stated before, I like palindromes.
This century’s Century
I suspect many Curbivores will know this already, but it bears repeating: the Toyota Century is still very much in production. In 1997, the second generation appeared. It was “same same, but different” in that it kept all of the older model’s styling cues and general layout, but everything had been redesigned. The V8 was ditched in favour of a completely new 5 litre Toyota V12, which can only be found on the Century and it mated to a 6-speed automatic since 2005. Stretched versions are also still on the roster.
The Nissan-Prince imperial limos were finally retired in 2008, allowing Toyota to make a series of four new Century imperial cars, costing about US$ 500,000 apiece. That’s about five times what Japanese subjects would pay for a “base” Century, but that’s the price of Zen-like transport for the aging Tenno.
And when the time comes for His Majesty Akihito-yama to leave the Chrysanthemum Throne and join the great sushi chef in the sky, his last ride will also be in a Toyota, a specially-made Century hearse. The good people at Toyota really thought of everything!
For my money though, an older V8 Century would suffice. The stretched version if you must. The quality of the materials used, the fanatical attention to detail and the superior workmanship one can expect from the Japanese make this a real contender for the top spot in my personal automotive pantheon (‘80s four-door saloons section). The “chromka” Tatra 613-2 has probably found its match!
Related CC: Perpetual Classic: 2013 Toyota Century: The Ultimate Brougham Time Machine, by MCC.PI