A couple weeks ago, we saw two examples of smallish pillared hardtops that really tested the outer size limits of the concept. Last week’s Nissan Leopard and this Toyota Crown will demonstrate that, given a decently-sized RWD platform, the bizarre Japanese obsession that was the pillared hardtop did make some sense and could meet success.
The big difference between this Crown and last week’s Leopard is that the Toyota was actually popular. Extremely so, even. The Leopard was a dud because it was derivative and, though competent and well-built, it lacked personality at a time when the economic outlook was dire. By contrast, the S130 Crown came from a very long line of well-defined and highly valued cars and was launched right when things were looking up. Same ingredients, different mold and baking time: the difference between disaster and triumph is stunningly small.
Launched in October 1987, the S130 was the eighth generation of the Crown nameplate. As we’ve seen previously, the S130 was a pivotal generation: it was the last time the whole range (saloon, hardtop and wagon) was renewed all at the same time, it was the last generation to feature body-on-frame construction and it ushered two major developments, namely trailing arm IRS and a V8 engine, for higher-end models.
Our feature car is one of those higher-end cars with the new IRS. It’s not a top-of-the-line “Royal Saloon G” with the optional air suspension – it’s the model just below that, so it just has coils. That’s probably a good thing: those air-sprung Crowns must be a pain to keep on the road now that they’re over 30 years old.
This generation of Crown was also notable for being the first to be only available in Asia. Toyota had pulled their flagship car from the US market in the early ‘70s, but they kept selling a steady trickle in certain European, African, Middle-Eastern and Asian markets until the 1988 model year. At that point, Crowns were no longer sold abroad except in southeast Asia, China and a few Middle-Eastern markets.
This is not unrelated to the launch of Lexus, of course. Toyota finally understood that the Japanese / Asian tastes in luxury sedans was not really compatible with the rest of the world, where Jaguar, BMW or Mercedes-Benz were the reference points. Even on the domestic market, the Crown was in danger of being outpaced. Straight-6 engines were entirely acceptable, but a V8 (or a V12) was required to fight on equal terms. Nissan were also coming to that realization with their Cima, which sold very well from the start in 1988.
The engine under the hood is the same straight-6 found in the contemporary Supra: a 2954cc DOHC 24-valve version of the venerable M-series providing the rear wheels with a healthy 190hp via a 4-speed automatic. Lower trim hardtops and saloons, as well as all wagons, were available with an assortment of 2.5 and 2.0 litre sixes, or a 2.4 litre Diesel 4-cyl.
When the S130 was launched, the 3-litre 6-cyl. was the prestige engine, but Toyota saw how the wind was blowing and introduced the new 4-litre V8 they had just created for their new Lexus marque into the Crown hardtop for the JDM, as the Japanese customers would be denied the new luxury brand for the foreseeable future. This was the second time the Crown was made available with a V8: from 1964 to 1967, the 3-litre Crown V8 was at the top of the Toyota range, warming the seat for the Century. But now, the V8 was here to stay, ultimately forcing the Century to upgrade to a V12 to stay above the fray.
My attempts at photographing the dash were hamstrung by sun glare and a generally uncooperative camera lens (now fixed, thankfully), so I’ll have to resort to this factory photo of a Super Saloon G that shows the revolutionary navigation screen, which one used with a CD-ROM. Not sure how that worked exactly – it probably only functioned in Japan, if at all, and it’s likely impossible to use nowadays. But hey, it was the ‘80s.
I was far more successful in my attempt to document the rear seat. No doilies in this one, strangely, but the legroom looks decent enough and that Toyota velour seems to be weathering the years with aplomb.
The S130 Crown lived a long life as a saloon and wagon, as those versions were facelifted and carried on through the entire 1990s. The hardtop, however, went away in October 1991 so that the Crown S140 could take its place – as well as the new Majesta, Toyota’s actual answer to the Nissan Cima. But that coincided with the bursting of Japan’s Bubble Economy, so the S140 was much less popular than its predecessor.
In 1990 alone, Toyota sold close to 240,000 Crown S130s, making this generation an exceptionally successful one. And these Crowns are definitely still seen about relatively frequently – the wagons and formal saloons of course, because they ran extra innings. But one also sees the hardtop on occasion, which along with the Soarer was one of the most representative Toyotas of the late ‘80s.
This ancient badge still has enough equity in Asia to remain useful for the time being; even Lexus hasn’t managed to cannibalize it completely. The Crown’s peak years may have taken place about three decades ago, but it’s still here. At least it’s consistent: it’s still a somewhat gaudy 2-to-3-litre RWD saloon (AWD and hybrid drivetrain are now available, of course) and still mostly made for domestic consumption. That’s how it peaked, and that might well be how it will end.