Brougham Love is not exactly a common sentiment, and of that which remains today, a fair bit of it seems to be concentrated in one corner of the Internet: this site. Some here actually like the idea of owning one. Others appreciate them from a distance as a sort of cultural relic, rolling reminders of a long-gone era. But that era isn’t as gone as I thought, at least not everywhere. It lives on in an affluent, high-tech island chain in the Far East. Allow me to present the Toyota Century, the Ultimate Brougham Time Machine.
On the surface, the Century could be straight out of the 1970s. It starts with the big size and classical proportions. It continues in the chrome door handles, mirrors, and wheel-well trims. Heck–you’ve even got little C-pillar badges and delicate chrome surrounds for the side-marker lights. Are we sure this thing is still being built today?
It sure is. But on the other hand, it’s unfair to call the Century a Brougham. I recently had the opportunity to poke around one at Toyota’s Mega Web showroom/museum in Tokyo, and unlike the monsters Detroit was cranking out forty years ago, the Century is actually quite an impressive piece of engineering. It’s powered by a state-of-the-art 5.0-litre V12 that’s exclusive to this car–it appears in no other Toyota product. This engine, as per Japan’s ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with legislators, puts out (cough, ahem) 276 hp, but the folks I spoke to at Mega Web suggested there are more than a few extra horses hiding under that long hood.
The Century’s neo-classical carcass is made of unit body construction, and suspended by airbag-augmented double wishbones at each corner. The resulting product tips the scales at 4,400 lbs–about the same as a Chrysler Cordoba. Chassis rigidity is probably more like an Imperial–after it’s been to the crusher and compressed into an ingot.
Yes, appearances can be deceiving. While American Broughams were all about surface-level prestige, with little substance underneath, what we have here is the opposite. In Japan, the Century is considered a less flashy alternative to a BMW 7-Series or Mercedes S-class–it’s meant to broadcast your success in the most modest, traditional fashion possible. In the words of the brochure: ‘The Century is acquired through persistent work, the kind that is done in a plain but formal suit’. The Richard Bransons and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world are politely asked to shop elsewhere.
But enough about the Century’s cultural context. Toyota’s Mega Web showroom is all about getting up close and personal with every car in the Toyota lineup, high-profile or not. So let’s swing open the door and get inside.
On second thought, wait. Let’s stop and admire that door. When was the last time you saw pull-up interior door handles on a new car? Or a horizontal bank of power-window switches, framed in resplendent wood and chrome?
Admittedly, those door- and window-lockout buttons look awfully familiar, being shared with much cheaper cars such as the Camry. But reach your elbow out, and give that sinfully cushy armrest a try. It’s like a teeny-tiny waterbed.
Now, have a look inside before you pull the door closed. Hang on–are those seats upholstered in cloth? They sure are. Apparently, to the Century’s customers, leather is considered quite undignified, with its conspicuous croaking noises as you move in your seat. You can order cowhide as an option, but cloth is the most popular fitment in these cars.
Now, pull home the driver’s door. ‘Whumpfff!’ Closing it gives the same warm, fuzzy, bank-vault feeling of a W126 S-Class. And yes, that’s a column shifter. The only available transmission is a six-speed automatic, operated in classic fashion.
The dinky nav screen looks vintage in a less flattering sense, as does the slab-like dashboard and thin-rimmed steering wheel. But for those who appreciate the nostalgia of such things, these features are delicious, if a bit rubbery and plasticky in execution. The interior was last updated in 1997–and even now, in 2013, we’re likely still in the first half of its life cycle: the first-generation Century was built with minimal changes from 1967 to 1996. If you’ve ever wanted a comeback to the phrase, ‘they don’t build ’em like they used to’, here’s your car.
Having kanji on a Japanese car’s controls might seem like a no-brainer, but looking at the other cars in the Mega Web showroom, I noticed that most JDM Toyotas–even models sold only in Japan–use English or international symbols for the secondary controls. Not the Century. Traditionalism is the language spoken here.
And while I’d say these buttony climate and radio faceplates are looking a bit small and illogical nowadays, who can argue with a ‘Logic Control Deck’? Clearly, it’s just me.
But these are all trivial points, as the target audience isn’t likely to be up front using those buttons anyway. For them, the back seat of the Century is where it’s at. And the traditionalism shows through here as well.
For shade, white doilies are typically fitted instead of dark window tints (the latter could appear too youthful or brash). And while the S-Class and 7-Series feature La-Z-Boy style footrests in back, these would be too visible an indulgence in this car. Instead, the Century features a discreet fold-down panel in the front passenger’s seat. With it down, riders can recline and rest their stocking feet–no shoes, please–on the front cushion.
Don’t misunderstand, though–the Century’s rear cabin is hardly lacking in luxury. There’s heaps of leg-, shoulder-, and headroom, and massage and heat functions are built into the bench seat. You don’t even have to suffer the indignity of closing your own doors. Instead, you gently swing them inwards, and then electrics silently seal them shut for you. You get sliding chrome ashtrays in the doors, too. So sit back, put your feet up, light up a cigar, and pretend it’s 1975.
Oh, and speaking of the ’70s–did you think those delightfully ornate, model-specific Japanese badges went extinct during that decade? I did. But they’re still alive and well here on the Century. Its resplendent gold lyre-bird shield isn’t my favourite–it isn’t a patch on the dragon-gravy-boat Celica emblem, for instance–but it’s nice to know these things are still kicking around.
Speaking of kicking around, check out this rear kick plate. How lovely is that detailing? As for the sticker: It’s asking you (politely) not to mess with the delicate automatic trunk-shutting mechanism by slamming the lid.
And there it is: the weird and wonderful Toyota Century. Being simultaneously a technological marvel, cultural curio, and delicious slice of twentieth-century nostalgia, the Century is something of a enigma. Brougham Love is more often rooted in fantasy than reality, with the cars offering a sort of connection to a bygone age, nevermind how crap they might be in the metal. But the Century, stoically, keeps that fantasy alive in the 21st century.
Oh, and did you want to take home a Century brochure? They’ve thought of that too.