(first posted 1/15/2016) Four decades is an eternity in the automobile business, with new technology and design trends constantly changing automotive design, so there are few vehicles produced today that closely resemble their 1970s predecessors. Toyota produces such a vehicle, the Crown Comfort, an updated iteration of the boxy, conservatively engineered sedans that were crucial to the company’s rise during the 1960s and 1970s. It is a living fossil of a previous decade, and like all living fossils, it has survived because it is well suited for a particular niche, even though the world as a whole has passed it by.
Three box sedans with a four cylinder engine, rear wheel drive, and solid rear axle were Toyota’s foundational product during the 1960s and 1970s, and the Crown Comfort is the last of that line. It is part of a lineage of Crown models that began in 1955 and has spanned 14 design generations with no apparent end in sight. Crowns have been Toyota’s mainstream large sedan, aimed at relatively well-off families and at taxi operators. They became more upmarket and sophisticated with each generation, with six cylinder engines becoming available in the second generation of 1962-67, the fifth generation of 1974-79 introducing two different body sizes in which the smaller met the compact classification under Japanese road tax regulations, and the seventh generation of 1983-87 adding four wheel independent suspension on higher line models while lower grade models retained solid rear axles.
The Crown Comfort emerged in the tenth generation of 1995-99 as a vehicle configured specifically for taxi use, using the compact size and solid rear axle of lower grade models. It reverted to an upright three box style while Crowns and other Toyota sedans were becoming lower and more obviously aerodynamic. Other old-fashioned features to reduce cost or increase durability included rear drum brakes and a plastic and vinyl interior. The Crown Comfort was purpose-built and not simply a continuation of an old design made on old production tooling, though, as it was an entirely new design with a unit body in place of earlier Crowns’ body on frame construction, like all tenth generation Crowns.
The result was an eminently practical car for taxicab use. Only 4,695 mm (184.8 inches) long and 1,695 mm (66.7 inches) wide, it was shorter than a 1995 Camry and no wider than a 1995 Corolla, making it easy to maneuver through tight city streets. It was small and light enough, with a curb weight of only 1,400 kg (3,086 pounds), to power adequately with a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine for economy in urban taxi use. Within these compact dimensions, the tall and formal roofline, high seats, and nearly vertical side windows gave enormous headroom and legroom for rear seat passengers.
The Crown Comfort has continued with few changes since 1995, while Toyota has introduced four new generations of the mainstream Crown and dropped the compact Crown with the twelfth generation of 2003-08. The chassis has been unchanged, and the only significant exterior change has been replacing the original small vertical taillights, seen in preceding photos, with a larger and more visible full-width arrangement in 2007.
The most significant evolution has been in the engine compartment. The engines initially offered were a gasoline 2.0 liter OHV four, a utilitarian pushrod 8-valve design dating back to the early 1980s and used primarily in Hi-Lux pickups and Hiace vans; and a diesel 2.2 liter SOHC four. In 2001, Toyota added an LPG fuel version of a more modern 2.0 liter four from the Hi-Lux pickup, a DOHC 16 valve design with VVT-i variable valve timing, producing 114 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 139 ft-lbs of torque at 3,600 rpm in the Crown Comfort’s LPG version. The LPG engine became the most popular in Japan and is the only engine currently offered in the Crown Comfort.
In Japan, the Crown Comfort has been the leading taxi nationwide, seen everywhere in Tokyo and in smaller cities and towns. Equipped with an automatically opening rear door, the Crown Comfort taxi is as characteristic of Japan as an FX4 or TX-series black taxi is of London, or a yellow Crown Victoria has been of New York in the 2000s. Its main domestic competition has been the Nissan Cedric, archrival Nissan’s equivalent to the Crown, with Toyota’s own Prius becoming increasingly popular as a taxi in recent years.
Outside of Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore have been the main export markets for the Crown Comfort. Red-and-white Crown Comforts are the main taxicabs in the Hong Kong special administrative region, where cars continue to drive on the left, as they did when the city was a British colony, instead of on the right as in the rest of China. Over 99 percent of Hong Kong’s 18,000 taxis are Crown Comforts. All are LPG fueled, as imports of diesel taxis ceased in 2001 and operating a diesel taxi became illegal in 2006. The pre-2007 taillight configuration is still commonly seen, which is a testament to the durability of these cars.
Ex Singapore taxis stacked three high. From www.gomotors.net.
In Singapore, another Asian country with driving on the left, the Crown Comfort was formerly the predominant taxi, but it recently has disappeared from the streets–ironically, because of clean air requirements that the LPG engine was supposed to address. In 2006, there were 19,000 Crown Comfort taxis in Singapore that made up 80 percent of the country’s taxi fleet. With all Singapore taxis being diesel powered, and the Crown Comfort’s older diesel engine design being unable to meet the stricter Euro IV diesel emission standards that Singapore followed and that went into effect in September 2006, imports stopped in 2006. Singapore requires taxis to be retired after eight years of service, so the last Crown Comfort went out of service in September 2014. The Hyundai Sonata took its place as Singapore’s leading taxi. LPG powered taxis have been in use on a trial basis for years, and if general adoption of LPG taxis occurs, the Crown Comfort may make a comeback in Singapore.
Although produced in small numbers (only 36,400 from 2005 to 2011, approximately 6,000 per year) and only in right-hand drive, with insignificant export sales, the Crown Comfort continues to be a significant product for Toyota as a living embodiment of traditional Toyota virtues. Toyota’s highest authority, Akio Toyoda — President and CEO of the company, and head of the founding Toyoda family — declared the Crown Comfort in 2010 to be the best representative of Toyota as a company, making it the recipient of the first President’s Award during Toyota’s response to its 2009 quality crisis. Selecting the Crown Comfort instead of Toyota’s market-leading Prius hybrid or Lexus LS luxury flagship sent an unequivocal message that the focus on quality and reliability that propelled Toyota to the top during its rising years of the 1960s and 1970s should continue to be central to the company’s identity. It was a fitting tribute to the Crown Comfort and its predecessors, whose qualities made Toyota what it is today.