(first posted 11/3/2016) 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
I had the dubious pleasure of driving a friend’s father’s ‘top of the line’ Toyota Crown in the late 70’s. I presume that this was an model that Toyota did export; at least to my hometown of Hong Kong.
My only memory was putting my foot on the brake leaving our compound’s gate. That damn car stopped right there right then; no quibbles. Turned out that it had not one, but two servos, for the brake. Bloody fierce they were.
There are still crowns on the road here, low rent models that are still produced to meet the taxi trade here. Prior to that we rode around in 60s’ Mercedes Pontons. Apparently Toyota dropped a hugh bribe on someone in the government’s transport department to have them approved for taxi use and we’ve been stuck with them ever since.
Tatra87 surely you must have Photoshopped that Mitsubishi Debonair “American Style” for nothing that magnificent could possibly be real. Would have been the perfect limo to pick up Lee Iacocca at Narita airport for meetings at HQ to discuss buying more Silent-Shaft engines for the Caravan.
hehehe. European Style looks totally fastback in comparison. I wonder if American Style is the same rear with extra vertical padding.
Looks like the same car except for the vertical padding and that box they stuck on at the end. Chrysler used that same trick to make a Dodge 600 out of a Dodge Shadow if IIRC.
Who knows, if they had a few drinks one night it could have gone like this…
Lee: “I like the way you make your cars. The limo is a beaut.”
A few rounds later: “To be honest with you fellas, I’m not crazy about our new LHS prototype, the one Lutz-san likes so much. I think it’s a little weird.”
Picking up on the hint the President says: “Iacocca-san why don’t we send you over a Debonair American Style for evaluation and your personal use, keep it as long as you like.”
Lee: “Good idea.”
I love the rear door on American Style. It takes real attention to detail to make that window not quite square, and yet somehow manage to make that leading edge padding and trim not quite parallel to the shut-line.
“Sure, the styling is jarring, but is it jarring *enough*,” say the Mitsubishi designers.
“How about some opera lamps? We can make them the wrong size.”
+1. That Mitsubishi put a big smile on my face.
Holy moley, what a find! Keep ’em coming.
VG10 Crown Eight was actually six inches wider and five inches longer than the standard S40 Crown.
My fave stretchy…
Che bella strecci!
I shouldn’t have used the words “identical body” for the VG10 and the normal Crown. I recognize this now and take a deep, 45 degree bow to you, Andreina-sensei.
What i should have written was that they looked almost identical.
I return a bow to you at 46 degrees T87. Your contribution to CC is an invaluable trove of riches and I am embarrassed by my occasional nitpicking. CC effect – I have located a 1984 Nissan President being used as an actual company car right now and this piece has inspired me to follow it up.
Two standard wheelbase claimed fresh imports for sale on New Zealand’s TradeMe auction site at the mo. Choose from a Toyota Century Limo 1993 and showing 123.000 km – asking price: $NZ 10,000, or a 1994 and a start price of $11,950.
There are quite a few mixed into Auckland traffic these days it makes being stuck in a jam on the southern motorway almost worthwhile just for the car spotting, lots of classics in regular use not just ex JDM cars
ive got that Limo. living in auckland. check out instagram: tincity_century or facebook for more pictures of it
Great article. I can attest from being here in the ’80’s that it was indeed the go-go bubble decade. Walking in downtown Tokyo, looking what’s parked at the curb, you’d see BMW, Merc, Audi, Rolls, Bentley, Maserati, and maybe a Century or Crown.
Just one small add on why Japan (and most Asia) prefer cloth seats – it stems from the Confucius ideal of the uncleanliness of slaughtering animals – leather unfortunately still carries that stigma, though much less than decades ago.
Japan’s “impure” social caste is called Burakumin, & it includes trades involved in death, such as butchers, undertakers, & leatherworkers. Being outcasts, Yakuza membership is an important outlet for them; they are estimated to be a majority in these.
Leather, great for boots motorcycle jackets and mini skirts not vehicle interiors.
Perhaps production of these was too high. You don’t see many Rolls Royce Phantoms from the 60s-90s having to suffer the indignities of third world livery service. I got to sit in a 2004 model in Tokyo at a showroom called Megatech. This classy car deserves better.
It’s not like you see this car every day here in Rangoon either, I can tell you. I see more Cadillacs (SUVs, ususally) here than Centuries. But about as many new Centuries as new Rolls-Royces or Ferraris. Which is to say: not very many.
This is the only limo and the only older Century I’ve ever seen here in three years.
Ive seen a couple of the standard wheelbase Centurys driving in traffic Ive never got actually close to one, quite a car. The stretchy Debonaire is just awful in its tackyness, Nissan make a great V8 motor for their President they are along with Lexus V8s popular in Stockcars thats Kiwi style full contact motorsport not the weak as water nascar variety.
Japanese laws make it very expensive to keep older cars on the road; not to mention the hassle of finding a big enough parking space – let alone maneuvering one of there things down a Tokyo side street while a ordinary punter can keep an old Rolls parked on the street outside his council flat and just pay MOT (or not). It used to be that almost all JDM cars were off the road after 4 years… things have been loosened up some since the economy went to hell, but the same basic barriers for keeping old cars still exist.
So, since they have no real collector value worthy of justifying the costs involved, sooner or later Japanese limos have gotta go somewhere. Suzuki-san probably got the equivalent of $2,000 or so from a scrap car dealer, who retailed it for $3500 to the guy who is getting rich selling them to any country that will accept RHD cars.
I heard that that rule was promulgated by Occupation authorities as a form of postwar economic stimulus, maybe from the “Gaijin Shogun” himself, MacArthur.
I dunno,,, When MacArthur left in 51, there were virtually no private cars in Japan. This kind of legislation smacks more of the ’70s to me.
That’s the function of the shaken (required vehicle inspection) regulation in Japan. The cost of getting the cars in compliance with inspection goes up as the car ages – so when the cost of shaken compliance begins to approach the depreciated value of the car, it’s time to replace it.
You can see how this benefits 1) the automakers and retail dealers and 2) the garages doing the inspection work.
So a lot of the old JDM cars that are several years old but roadworthy often are exported to places as New Zealand, Ireland, or even the Russian Far East.
It seems like a fairly clever law. Japanese cars, really all cars now, are so durable. Yet the manufactures want to be able to still sell you a new one. Answer, industrial policy, probably cloaked in the real safety and environmental benefits of driving new vehicles. The 5 year old vehicles are then even exported.
Wonder when this will come to the USA. It works especially well in Japan where there are only a small minority of cars imported into Japan.
On this Century, being such a special and uniquely Japanese vehicle, one would have thought these factors would have less effect. I wonder if there is a stigma in Japan when a car isn’t replaced on time, even a Century.
I spent a couple of weeks in Bolivia recently. I got really confused when seeing many Japanese vehicles on the streets in La Paz: roughly, I emphasis, roughly 70-80 per cent of vehicles I saw had the wipers and headlamp lenses set up for the right-hand-drive, yet they were left-hand-drive.
I rode a taxicab, a high-roofed Toyota with one door on left and two on right. I noticed the dial cluster and automatic gearbox selector were oriented toward the right-hand side, yet the steering column stuck out of left-hand side.
A local whom I met during thr city tour explained that many of vehicles were brought from Japan after their four-year stint expired and were converted to left-hand-drive without bothering with wipers and headlamps.
In recent times, this one is rather good looking… (and the Dutch royal family agrees with me)
Oh my God, that is the greatest car of all time. There you go, I called it.
And also… What the effffffffff? Nissan factory stretched a Q 45?
“That’s not a column shifter. This is a column shifter.”
I’d prefer the regular over the stretch, but I’d take a Century any day. Clean, understated design; stately essence…
Sigh, Japanese are so lucky.
And it looks like it pivots off the bottom-side of the column, rather than the top. That would give an unnatural movement. Still, you’d only use Drive and Reverse.
Rear end of the original reminds me a lot of the mid sixties Chryslers. It’s a good look, and a great write up. More coachbulit / bespoke CCs, please!
Great find! And the similarity between the Century and the ZIL is amazing.
It’s interesting how the exterior design, which is almost archaic for a 1990s car, is contrasted by a modern (for the times) interior. I never would have guessed that the chauffer’s view picture or the rear seat accommodations would have been matched with the Century’s antiquated exterior.
Any guess as to the significance of the bird emblem? To me, it looks like a cross-breed of a griffin, a phoenix and a chicken. The CC Perpetual Classic article identified it as a lyrebird, which looks similar, but not quite exact. But it’s featured so prominently on the car (on the grille & hubcaps), I’m thinking there must be more to it than just a generic gilded bird.
The ’91 Toyota Century in the parking garage looks to be in very good shape. No dings, scratches, etc. Someone must drive it on occasion because there’s little to no dust considering the construction work immediately next to it. However, there were a few cob webs on the Panasonic antenna.
Deserves a dust cover.
It’s very much still in use. I went back down there to check on it a few days ago, and it was gone. Replaced by a 10-15 year-old black Lincoln Town Car (the only one I’ve seen in this country too, btw). It seems there’s a collector of big limos here, and he’s using our car park, though he doesn’t live in the apartment block.
Fantastic article, Tatra87! I enjoyed it thoroughly. Thank you!
Great article on quite an interesting car–a relic in some ways, but modern in others. And I love the fact that they’re not afraid of long product cycles–15 years for the first generation, 15 years for the second, and now crossing 20 for the “current” model. They’ve also stayed remarkably true to the original ideal, as the styling of the 1997-current version is actually closer to the ’67 original than was the second-gen car.
Shame they’re not available LHD, but even having to drive on the wrong side for this country, how I’d love one of the V12 cars. A beautiful anachronism, not a line out of place. Yeah, it’d be fantastically expensive to service as probably *all* of the parts would need to be flown in from Japan, but you’d have to expect that. There have to be a couple that have made it to North America…
Kinda exist some Toyota Century with LHD
I’d be willing to bet that’s a diplomatic car. UN or Japanese embassy.
VG20 designed by Erwood Enger?
What a find, and right under your nose, too. Fab car, and equally fab write-up. Thanks.
I can see a Century pulling up next to a Lexus LS and sneering: “You call yourself a Luxury Car. HA!”
Nah, a Century wouldn’t even acknowledge the petty LS. That would be beneath it.
Excellent find and writeup! As one who likes bigger cars, these fascinate me.
I’m not sure these would have done well here in the US in the 70s. The price would have been astronomical, and they would have lacked the luxury credibility of the European stuff here that could command high prices.
Also, the Japanese were fighting some anti-Japanese sentiment here, especially by 1979-80, and an assault on the big American high end car might have been seen as a step too far. Better to compete in small cars and slowly work up to something bigger that could sell in volume. I guess Toyota’s success without this car coming over punches a hole in the “halo car” philosophy.
I can’t imagine it making any financial sense to export the Century officially — doing so would have probably required building it in house in greater numbers, which would have been madness in the ’70s because there was no way Toyota could sell any more of them in Japan than they did.
I have to think there was also some preemptive chagrin about the inevitability that the company’s serious VIP model would be compared to the likes of the Ford Torino in the U.S. — which certainly would have happened if the car had still carried a Toyota badge.
Man, and I thought that Americans built huge and practical automobiles.
All joking aside, I really do like these Centuries. As a consumer of all cars big, it’s fascinating to see the Japanese take on the big land barges that we have here. Granted, this car isn’t really in the same ball park as something like a Lincoln Continental or a Cadillac Deville, but its interesting to examine the closest equivalent to those cars made by a Japanese manufacturer.
I would like to see one of these cars, but unless I travel to Japan, that’s probably not going to happen. As for if it would’ve been possible for the U.S to get these cars, I dunno. It would’ve been like the 600 Grosse, yes it would’ve been unique, but the price would’ve made it strictly old money territory and nothing else. I actually think these cars might’ve been able to be sold here had they sported a Lexus badge on it, but I think that would’ve been totally against the Lexus philosophy at the time, not to mention our ever stricter safety and emissions standards would’ve been a huge hurdle in trying to get it federalized.
Some have made it to New Zealand.
There is an art to making a good looking limo. The Mercedes 600 probably sets the international standard for good taste.
The current standard Century is not a bad looking car at all. I think I prefer it over the Lexus LS.
Agree on both points. People used to laugh at flashy African and Eastern European dictators who had Mercedes 600 Pullmans and Laundauets but looking at the Russian, Chinese and Mitsubishi competition, they had remarkably conservative and restrained good taste! Interestingly Chairman Mao had a huge fleet of 600’s – I have read he had as many as 12 (what happened to them I wonder?).
I like all of the Century models, standard and stretch versions. Those rear interior shots look very comfortable.
American Style and European Style are just sensationally bad! I wonder who ever bought one of those? Certainly not Chairman Mao!
Taxis – the Toyota Crown Comfort rules the cab ranks in Fiji, just as they do in Hong Kong.
It seems like Mercedes became, and may still be, the default choice of leaders and despots of countries without indigenous car companies. If you didn’t want your country to look too cozy with the United States, and the thought of a ZIL put chills up your spine, Mercedes was as close to a neutral quality prestige car you were going to find globally.
Interestingly though, a few leaders and despots have hung on to a handful of American cars for a long time. Leave it to the unpredictable North Koreans to bling out a ’70s Lincoln………
Chromed headlight doors…..
Great article, Tatra87, these have always fascinated me, as have the other JDM ‘premium’ vehicles. That Mitsubishi Debonair is horrific!
There’s currently a Century on eBay in the UK; if only I had £10k burning a hole in my pocket…
Awesome story! I’ve heard of the Toyota Century, but because it was never sold outside Japan, I’ve never seen one. I love the early Toyota Century.
It’s unforgivable that it was never sold here in the USA. I can see it competing against the Mercedes-Benz 600, if nothing else, as a limousine.
If I had the resources to import any JDM car this would be the one. For the simple reason that they are known as the most overbuilt, high quality car in the history of the automobile. The ride quality of a RR and the reliability of a Toyota. Can’t beat that in my book.
…except it would not be safely or comfortably driveable at night, because there are no right-traffic headlamps made for it. That would kind of limit its utility.
Eek. Lee Iacocca was just as much of, um, a Lee Iacocca in the alternate timeline, as it seems. I see the roof and wheel covers of a Chrysler New Gran Yorker Fifth Avenue LeBaron Diplomat’s-Fury Caravelle Salon; the decklid/rear bumper/taillights of a Dodge Spirit; the front door of a Dynasty, and…I just cannot with this. Eek, I say. Much eeking.