Curbside Classic: 2001 Toyota Origin – The Baby Century

I’m on the fence with Japanese retro styling. I think many of us are. Sometimes it works ok, many times it’s just awkward and feels forced. For the latter category, insert any example you wish – I’ll refrain from doing so, but I did write a few posts on the matter, so you can look those up. There are just too many to choose from.

So what about the “good” kind of retro? There are a few really nice designs from the Japanese retro craze – a craze that peaked about 20 years ago but never really went away. And one of those has to be the Toyota Origin.

The trick with the Origin, which I was always eager to feature in a post, is finding one. It’s not clear how many were made exactly, but we’re talking about less than 1100 units. Upon discovering this one when I did not have much time to spare, I had the occasion to return to it and shoot it more extensively on a subsequent day.

1955 Toyota Crown RS


As we all presumably know, the Origin takes its main retro features – grille, suicide doors, wraparound backlight, etc. – from the first Toyota Crown. They didn’t push the resemblance to the nth degree: they eschewed the split windshield (which, admittedly, looked pretty damn passé by 1955 already).

What is a bit less clear is why the Origin came to be. What was the occasion? The 45th anniversary of Toyota’s longest-running nameplate? Well, no. According to a press release dated from July 2000, the Origin was produced to celebrate the fact that Toyota had produced their 100-millionth car in Japan.

That momentous threshold was actually crossed in October 1999, so the celebratory limited edition retro luxury car thing seems to have taken a while to gestate. This is all in stark contrast to the 1996 Toyota Classic, which “commemorated” the 60 years of Toyota’s first car. That made more conceptual sense, but the product was dreadful.

The cars were released for sale only in November 2000 and, despite the hefty ¥7 million price tag (i.e. ¥1 million more than the Celsior cost), over a thousand were snapped up in no time, as in by mid-2001. Not all limited edition retro designs were this successful, far from it. So what made the Origin a hot little number?

The straight-laced and incredibly boring Progrès (1998-2007)

For starters, the Origin sat on the same platform as the Progrès, perhaps the most boring JDM Toyota of the turn of the century. But the Progrès was a yawnfest on the outside – otherwise, it was a very competent compact RWD sedan with all the trimmings, and the legendary 3-litre straight-6 found on the Supra, tamed in this case to 220hp and mated to a 4-speed auto.

So the Origin fixed the one thing that Toyota got totally wrong on the Progrès, its looks, and kept the good stuff within. Actually, they made the rest even better. The cars were essentially manufactured like a miniature Century. They came off the same Kanto Auto Works as the famously luxurious flagship and were also assembled and finished by hand. They just didn’t have a V12 under the hood and much less lace, straight or otherwise, inside.

In fact, the complete lack of doilies and other frilly bits traditionally found in Japanese luxury cars is noteworthy. As I understand it, all Origins were finished with leather interiors – very much an outlier for Japanese cars. Maybe Kanto Auto Works had a large stock of hides to get rid of. Most of the wood is genuine and came from the Progrès, as did he dash itself. Something even more bespoke and retro (I’m thinking painted with chrome inserts) would have been better of course, but might have pushed the price up to the Century and delayed the launch for another year. Retro is compromise.

The roofline on this car is pretty high, just like the Crown RS it harkens back to. The rear headroom is pretty decent as a result, but the rear-hinged doors look pretty narrow. I guess the Origin was the only “production” car with suicide doors circa 2000. The FX4 taxi was phased out around 1997 and the modest suicide door revival of the late naughties was not yet a thing.

There is nothing half-arsed about this car. The attention to detail and execution are truly outstanding. From the front, the Crown RS vibe is quite perceptible. But from the rear, with that dramatic one-piece panoramic rear window and those delicately chiseled taillights, there is some ‘53 Studebaker in there too, among others…

There were only three colours available for the Toyota origin: black, dark blue and the metallic gray-blue seen here, which I had never seen prior to finding this particular car. Darker hues might have made the substantial amounts of brightwork stand out more, but this still works rather well. Much better than the purple one I photographed last spring, in any case.

OK, I swear this just happened: I wrote the preceding paragraph about that purple Origin I saw once, I go downstairs for an errand and what do I see gliding down the street? The CC Effect on steroids, folks!

The only real criticism I would offer on this car’s design is the rear end, which is too short. An extra foot or so would have also done wonders for the retro feel of the car, as short rear ends were definitely not a thing back in the ‘50s. But then the car would not fit in Japanese parking spaces…

Compromises, compromises. Still, suicide doors, wraparound backlight and “jewel” taillights. Full of wood and leather and a bunch of toys, propelled by a good old straight-6 and built by the best craftsmen on the business. All in all, the Origin is very appealing. The problem is not finding one – there are 15 currently advertised for sale on, for instance – but they’re still pretty expensive: it’s hard to find one under ¥3 million.

And that’s well before the American 25-year-rule thing, which usually drives prices up for certain sought-after models. A 20-year-old Century would cost a fraction of that. Because the Origin is more exclusive, can actually be used in daily life and doesn’t have a thirsty 5-litre engine, it’s now worth a lot more than a mere 2001 Century. They should have called it the Millennium.


Related posts:


Tokyo Traffic Capsule: 2001 Toyota Origin – Past Is Present, by Jim Klein

Automotive History (Japan Edition): 2000 Toyota Origin – Peak Retro (Part 2), by Geraldo Solis