(first posted 6/20/2017) Full disclosure, right from the top: this used to be our ride in Yangon. But I cannot write a COAL post really, as I’ve never driven it: Mrs Tatra87’s employer forbade us from driving in Myanmar, so we had to hire a driver. Just as well, really, as road manners in Yangon are pretty atrocious and there is no insurance of any kind. But that won’t prevent me from writing an ode to the Crown Comfort, a beloved companion that almost never let us down during our four years in Burma. Besides, I just learned that Toyota finally stopped making these about three months ago.
The Toyota Crown Comfort has been covered on CC previously, but perhaps there are some aspects to be added – especially now that the model is out of production for good. The Crown nameplate went through an extensive reshuffle in the ‘90s, as one car gave birth to at least four Crown lines. After its 1991 facelift, the S130 (which I covered recently, top left) continued on its merry way with its old chassis until the late ‘90s. The Royal Saloon got a new chassis (S140, top right) with independent rear suspension in 1991 and then went monocoque (S150, bottom left) in 1995, along with the larger V8 Crown Majesta (bottom right), which had a distinctive grille and tail but was still an S150.
There was a problem though: the bulging Crown was growing itself out of the lucrative taxi market, which it had dominated in Japan since the late ‘50s. So Toyota launched the Crown Comfort in December 1995. Initial models were only available with Toyota’s relatively ancient petrol 2-litre pushrod 4-cyl., but Diesel and LPG versions soon emerged, as well as a sporty supercharged “GT-Z” limited edition. And at some point, a Super Deluxe version was introduced, with the option of six instead of four cylinders.
The Crown Comfort’s underpinnings were radical in their conservatism, but Toyota gave the body a lot of thought. Compared to the S130 / S140, the Crown Comfort would be relatively narrow, an essential quality on many Asian roads, yet it would have a high roof and rather large windows, which many taxi passengers would find agreeable. The rear seat benefited from a long wheelbase, enabling even the tallest gaijin to enjoy spending time there. A rather large remotely-operated trunk complemented the design. Function clearly dictated form here, not unlike the LTI cabs in the UK.
But the funny thing is Japanese taxi companies, of which there are many, also like to be able to pick among several models or trim levels. So Toyota proposed at least three: the plain Jane Crown Comfort (rubber floormats, vinyl upholstery, tiny armrests, wind-up windows, column shifter), the Comfort Deluxe (better interior trim, chrome hubcaps, Crown emblem on the C pillar) and the Super Deluxe G (fake wood trim, Crown hubcaps, floor shifter, armrests with ashtrays, velour seats and other junk goodies). The Super Deluxe G is easily recognizable, with its large taillights.
I’m unsure when the Super Deluxe G was launched, but it was definitely aimed beyond the taxi trade. More basic Crown Comforts were (and still are) either cabs or driving school cars with very few exceptions, but the “fancy” Super Deluxe was also bought in reasonable numbers by local government as official cars, as well as a few private individuals. This was also the case for other taxi cars, such as the Austin FX4 or the Checker Marathon. I have seen a few privately-owned Crown Comforts in Japan – they are easily distinguished by their “normal” mirrors. Taxis are still required to sport the famous wing-mounted mirrors, but that rule has been relaxed for other road users for a very long time.
Which brings me to our CC: this 2002 Crown Super Deluxe G, which we bought on-line and unseen in 2013. We needed a car, because taxis in Yangon are generally a pain in the neck. There are no meters, so one has to barter the price of the ride beforehand. Prices automatically go up if you’re a foreigner, of course. And not a few cabbies are under some sort of influence, drive like maniacs or have terrible cars. The number one car in Myanmar (by a long shot) is the Toyota Probox, including many taxis. Just try spending so rear-seat time in one of those awful things and you’ll want to buy yourself a car.
So I went on-line, with some difficulty at the time, and looked at specialist car dealers who shipped Japanese cars to Myanmar. Why? Because that’s where everybody got their cars. The stringent rules on clunkers in japan means that they are exporting thousands upon thousands of (unusually cheap and clean) second-hand cars throughout Asia and the Pacific. So much so that at least one country, the Solomon Islands, recently switched to driving on the left to accommodate the massive RHD car invasion. Myanmar still drives on the right and has done for decades, but 90% of the cars on the road are Japanese RHD. Might explain the amount of traffic accidents…
I was under instructions from She Who Must Be Obeyed to find a cheap Toyota less than 10 years old. Why Toyota? Because 75% of the cars in Myanmar are Toyotas. So if you can’t beat ‘em… I found this little jewel of a Crown on a website advertised for about US$950. It was a bit older than expected, but still within range. Add shipping, a full service, five new tyres and insurance, and the price at the Yangon docks came to about US$3000. Mrs T87’s diplomatic status meant that we were exempt from the tax that would otherwise have been levied by the Burmese on all imported cars (and that gets more expensive if the engine is over 1.3 litres).
The car had a couple of scratches, but nothing dramatic for an eleven-year-old vehicle. The A/C worked great, which is really the most important thing in Southeast Asia. I have no idea who put the first 100,000 kilometers on it, but it was definitely not a taxi company. They would have considered that car as barely run-in. I recently rode in a 1997 Comfort, and the cabbie said that it had 450,000 km on the clock but was considered to be in its “mid-life”. He also said that the car at his company with the highest mileage had over 700,000 km, and that Toyota Japan gave cabbies a big bonus if their car went over the 800,000 km mark.
So these are tough cars. And in Super Deluxe guise, they’re surprisingly nice to be in. The taxis usually make do with a 4-cyl. that drinks either petrol or (more commonly) LPG and is usually mated to a 4-speed automatic gearbox. The ’97 Comfort I rode in recently had a 4-speed manual column shifter, which I thought was pretty incredible – so much so that I managed not to screw up the picture this time. It added a distinctive high note whine to the voice of the engine, particularly in 1st gear, which ended up sounding like, well, an old pushrod 4-cyl. manual car. I’ve ridden in Citroën Traction Avants that sounded very much like that (though louder). But then the Crown Comfort was, as I stated above, radically conservative.
To my knowledge, the Comfort was the last production RWD saloon with a solid rear axle. The engine was of course longitudinal. Rear drum brakes were deemed sufficient. There was an optional Diesel engine, but very few would have been ordered with that in Japan – too noisy – though I understand there used to be many roaming the streets of Hong Kong. Our Super Deluxe had the 2-litre DOHC 6-cyl. found on some other Crowns and other Toyotas, such as the Mark II or the Altezza (a.k.a Lexus IS) – the Toyota “G” engine, a square motor (75mm bore and stroke) made from 1979 to 2006. It may have had the same displacement as the 4-cyl., but had a rounder, softer exhaust note and a few more HP – 160, to be exact. In three and a half years of service, only a flat battery made our Yakuza-mobile stay in its garage. The badly pot-holed roads in Yangon and elsewhere never were a problem, though the rear axle did make itself noticed on those occasions.
We only left the Yangon Division a handful of times with it, which explains why it survived pretty much unscathed. Myanmar’s not the kind of country where one just goes on a road trip. There is one two-lane highway that goes from Yangon to Mandalay, appropriately named the “Death Highway”. It was built in a hurry by a Chinese contractor about 20 years ago and is renowned for its dodgy surfacing, brutal right-angle turns and ability to get flooded during the monsoon. Plus, folks who live near it tend to use motorcycles and other non-motorized transports on it, many times going against traffic. Other roads in Myanmar are a lot worse: one has to contend with huge pot-holes, mud, pedestrians crossing on a whim, zero road lighting (coupled with bad or absent vehicle lights), buffalo-, horse- and ox-drawn carts, massive trucks with no brakes and suicidal cyclists. As a result, progress is usually very slow: one can attempt to go up to 100 kph on the “Death Highway” in the daytime and if the weather is good, but on normal roads, it’s difficult to go above 60 kph.
But I digress. The Crown Comfort is now history, be it in the T87 family or Toyota’s JDM pricelist. The old gal was built at a rate of 10-12k units per year in the late ‘90s, though this slowed down markedly as time went on. I haven’t managed to find total production data, but by 2009, Toyota reported to having made just under 160,000 since model year 1996 (2008 production was down to 8643), so it’s probably near the 200,000 mark. The Comfort’s sole export markets, as far as I know, were Hong Kong and Singapore. Ours wasn’t the only one in Yangon though: one local taxi company imported several dozen from Japan circa 2015 – all former Super Deluxe taxis, complete with the goofy fender-mounted chromed mirrors.
The only competition came from arch-rival Nissan, with the Crew and Cedric Y31. The former was a bare-bones people-hauler much like the base Crown Comfort, and the latter was more of a Crown Super Deluxe fighter; a few also made it to Myanmar, as I mentioned a few posts ago. Nissan stopped production in 2015, as they were losing the battle pretty badly, from what one can judge on the streets of Japan, where their taxis were outnumbered ten-to-one by the unassailable Crown.
But by then, the Crown started to be seen as a dinosaur even by taxi companies, who had begun switching to hybrids, especially the all-conquering Prius. The Comfort was beyond outdated when it first came out in 1995 – twenty years later, it was a true antique. It’s a wonder it lasted as long as it did, but given their durability, they’ll be on Japanese streets for another couple of decades still. It’s a pity, since Crown taxis have been in circulation since the Crown’s inception, back in 1957. Sixty years of Crown dominance are now coming to a close.
Toyota’s “JPN Taxi” LPG-hybrid concept car may be an indication of what lies in store for the future, though no official word has yet been uttered. A first iteration of this new taxi was presented in 2013, followed by a tamer, more production-oriented version (pictured above) a couple years later. The goal here is obviously to make a wheelchair-accessible taxi – given Japan’s ageing population, this makes a lot of sense. But does practicality necessarily imply bland and boxy styling?
As for our 2002 model, it has found a good home, I hope. Mrs Tatra87 sold it to an incoming colleague for US$5000 – cars are worth a lot in Myanmar, especially ones that work well and still look presentable. We took our last ride in it to the airport a few days ago. I miss it already – but as I’m currently in Japan for a little while, I’ll still be able to get a fix every time I take a taxi.
Related CC posts:
CC Capsule: 1995- Toyota Crown Comfort – Living Fossil, by Robert Kim