How do you create an automotive legend? If you’re Rolls-Royce or Ferrari, that sort of takes care of itself: whatever comes out of your factory is exclusive and immediately revered, whatever the product’s intrinsic merits. But if you’re Toyota, you have to both aim very high quality-wise and very accurately clientele-wise. And then, make sure you only sell a maximum of 200 units per year for three decades.
The third generation of the Toyota Century has just started its reign a couple of years ago. The second generation, made between 1997 and 2017, famously sported the only 12-cyl. engine ever put in a Japanese production car. This post though will focus on the Toyota flagship’s first generation. I happened upon two late model cars, while on holiday in Hokkaido: a black standard saloon and a silver long-wheelbase model.
First off, just a quick recap on the first-generation Century. Toyota launched their first V8-powered car, created in collaboration with Yamaha, in 1963 as the Crown Eight. This model was moderately successful, but lacked sophistication and exclusivity – especially compared to the Nissan President, which premiered in 1965. Toyota decided to create a bespoke saloon with a 3-litre version of their V8 to elevate the Toyota flagship to be on par with the Mercedes-Benz 600, the Daimler DS240, the Soviet ZIL or the Cadillac Fleetwood 75 – albeit on a Japanese scale. The car was launched in 1967 and named Century in reference to the 100th birthday of Saikichi Toyoda (1867-1930), the company’s founder.
The Century VG20 established the model’s modus operandi: extremely careful fabrication, handcrafted and superbly finished body, high-tech interior almost always finished in velour, designed for livery service, discretion, silence and comfort. Only available on the domestic market (though a handful did serve Japanese ambassadors abroad), the Century would always remain out-of-reach for mere mortals. It was only sold to the government, the Imperial house and a small coterie of CEOs – never to movie stars or other lowly commoners, who usually preferred flashier vehicles in any case.
The Century was always subject to changes and improvements, but always in very careful increments. In 1973, the Century became the VG30 as the engine’s capacity grew to 3.4 litres and the automatic transmission became standard. The all-alloy hemi V8 was de-smogged and given a catalytic converter (dubbed TTC-C) in 1975. Leather upholstery and radial tyres only became optional from 1978, when the car’s denomination switched VG35.
In 1982 came the model’s only substantial facelift, both front and rear, which coincided with the introduction of the 190hp 4-litre engine, now mated to a 4-speed autobox – the Century VG40 was born. As the Japanese economy boomed and foreign luxury car sales increased, Toyota started to feel a bit of pressure to increase their flagship’s swankiness.
Progressively, the Century added more optional extras (TV, VCR, cellular phone, rear tape deck, swiveling dual A/C, digital instrument panel, self-levelling rear air suspension, reclining heated power seats with massage, power mirrors, etc.), many of which could be operated from the rear seat.
In 1989, a stretch limousine version became available, with an extra 65cm in the rear. This would perhaps be a bit too flashy for some, so in 1990 Toyota launched the VG45 Type L. It was essentially an extended wheelbase saloon, with the limo’s longer rear doors, but without the stretch. The car was longer by 15cm and looked much more like the standard saloon. This is precisely what our gray feature car is.
The standard saloon, extended saloon and stretch limo were built at Toyota’s Kanto works through to early 1997 with few substantial changes. One evolution was the addition of a thin line of red LEDs at the base of the rear window as the third stop light; another one was the addition of a driver airbag – both took place in 1992.
The first generation Century’s 30-year stint at the top of the pile was faced with remarkably few direct domestic competitors. Arch-rival Nissan had the V8-powered President of course, which predates the Century by a couple years and carried on with few major changes until 1990. Then a new, much sleeker and less “presidential” generation took over for the next decade. Other than that, Toyota only had to fend off the feeble efforts of Isuzu and Mazda, which both tried in the mid-‘70s to peddle Holdens in Japan and failed miserably.
In keeping with their extremely conservative and formal image, most Centuries were finished in black. Over the years, there were always a few that escaped that fate: in the ‘60s and late ‘70s / early ‘80s, white was available. A dark blue and a deep red were also available throughout most of the car’s 30-year production run.
In the ‘80s, silver was introduced. It’s not a great fit for this car in my view, but I’m still glad to have found this VG45 with this colour. If nothing else, it shows the rear door’s interesting shut line with greater clarity.
These cars’ real party trick is the interior, of course. Out front, our LWB Century looks positively American with its bench seat and column gearchange. This is tempered by the velour and lace doilies of said bench seat, naturally. This particular car does not have the bulky cathode tube TV set seen on other cars, which would have been housed in the middle of the bench’s seatback. The Century’s exceptional width (for a JDM car) allowed this kind of extravagance, but not everyone deemed screens to be crucial, back in the ‘90s.
The rear compartment looks like a tent made of lace. Despite the extra length, the rear legroom looks merely sufficient. I wonder how the Toyota compares to the Citroën CX Prestige (easily the most impressive rear seat I’ve ever experienced) in this regard. But the Century’s power-everything, including window vents and such, as well as dual HVAC and the ability to put one’s legs through the front passenger seat, make the Century a strong contender for most comfortable ‘80s/‘90s car to be chauffeured in.
Whoever ordered this particular VG45 did not tick all the option boxes, then. But with so much included as standard, forgoing a few gadgets seems borderline sensible.
The same could be said about the other Century we’re going to have a look at here, a VG40 standard saloon of pretty much the same vintage that I encountered a few days after the gray car. An embarrassment of riches, but not filthy rich.
Let’s start with this VG40 saloon’s interior, then. This one looks more like an owner-driver kind of car, with those front bucket seats and warmer tones. We also find a satnav screen in the center stack – quite an achievement on a dash designed in the mid-‘60s. This car also lacks a TV set, as well as the ubiquitous seat doilies. It’s not worse for either of these traits.
The rear compartment does look more like a normal car’s than a CEO’s mobile office. The rear legroom, which seemed so generous back in 1967, appears barely sufficient for the mid-‘90s. The lowly Crown Comfort, which debuted in 1995, probably provided more rear passenger space than its illustrious stablemate.
Lace comes standard with all Centuries, but only as electrically-operated curtains. Who need rear visibility anyway? The driver? Well, does he not have two gigantic fender mirrors to take care of that?
Yes, he does – chromed, heated and electrically operated, as per nearly everything else on this car. The majority of Japan’s car industry switched to door mirrors when the law changed in 1983, but some cars never made the transition. Conservative JDM saloons and wagons could be ordered with fender mirrors well into the ‘90s and to this day the majority of taxis have them, as they are deemed superior to help negotiate the country’s notoriously narrow streets. First-generation Centuries all have these, but their V12 successors are not uniformly so.
As elated as I was to find the gray VG45, it was a bit heartbreaking to see it parked way out in the sticks, looking lonesome and forgotten, without a license plate – on the verge of banger-dom.
The black car, on the other hand, was still a daily driver and had lost none of its panache. Perhaps seeing it in the afternoon sun also helped, but it was definitely the more attractive of the two.
It could be argued that the standard saloon has a more elegant profile than the extended wheelbase one. This is often the case with this type of stretch – the Jaguar XJ6, Mercedes S-Class or Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow all look better-proportioned in shorter form, in my opinion.
Another reason I prefer this one is the colour, of course. Nothing beats seven layers of lacquered black for a Century. That’s what these cars were designed for. And the quality of the paintwork, which is hard to convey in pictures, is simply out of this world. It really looks like the old-fashioned cellulose-based paint – which it very well could be, for all I know – you see on cars that predate the ‘70s.
Where the Century really shines, in my view, is in its strange blend of understated elegance and bizarre formality. The designers who penned this car’s lines over 50 years ago did a terrific job in many respects. The chamfered beltline, the neat greenhouse and the clean flanks of this automobile were devised with great taste and judgment, allowing the basic body to remain virtually unchanged – and yet still classy – for such a long time.
In the metal, the Century VG40 is long, wide and sits quite low – in the best Detroit tradition of the ‘60s. however, contrary to its American evocations, it’s shod with pretty beefy 15-inch tyres that give it a more sure-footed stance than many a land yacht. The designers also eschewed burying the rear wheels inside fender skirts – a wise and prescient decision, given how dated that feature would have looked by the ‘80s.
On the weird side, only the Japanese could ever badge a car with this chicken / phoenix emblem with a straight face, or use a golden Gothic script “C” as the model’s secondary badge, as if it somehow needed one.
The terror-bird is called Hō-ō (maybe that name’s derived from its mating call?), an Eat Asian mythological poultry-gheist that somehow is supposed to represent the Japanese Imperial family. It appears on each wheel, the grille and the steering wheel, so it’s clearly the cock of the roost.
It’s not clear exactly how many Centuries were made. They say Toyota built around 200 per annum on average, so I guess around 3000 cars similar to this one were crafted in 15 years. Data for the VG45 are shrouded in mystery and stretch limos are rarer than hen’s teeth. In any case, first-generation Centuries are now very rarely seen on the roads.
There are several reasons for this. One is that not a few were apparently destroyed. I understand that some owners, after having used their car for some years, were kind enough to pass them on to more junior staff, but others preferred to demand that the car be disposed of, plain and simple. Centuries to the crusher? It happened, apparently, more often than you would think. These are not Rolls-Royces.
The price of these cars when new has always remained at around the same level through the years – between about US$150k-200k, depending on the optional extras. The Century is the most expensive production car on the JDM, though it’s a relative bargain compared to many imports. Depreciation is steep, however. If you can find one, a standard issue VG40 saloon in decent nick will only set you back around US$10,000 – despite their rarity, Centuries are not worth much here.
A few Centuries end up on the used car market and in the hands of collectors, both at home and abroad, but also those of less respectable characters: the Yakuza are known to have a fondness for these, which has led to a drop in the car’s reputation. And in the final analysis, an old Century is just another old car or many Japanese folks – and thus undesirable, expensive and useless. What, no Bluetooth and no USB charger? A tape deck? Call that a luxury car?
Well, yes. It is a luxury car. One of the best. It’s just from a previous century.