A 1992 Toyota Century is the weirdest, most brilliant cross-country cruiser

Toyota Century front 3/4

My ears perk up when people start talking about a particular car out of nowhere—the Toyota Century is the latest earworm for my habit. This beautiful, hand-built sedan was created for Japan’s business elite, and it showcases the best of comfort, subtle style, and technology.

I knew zero—nothing, nada—about these cars until I was standing in front of one two years ago and said, “Wait, what is that thing?”

I got the basic details right off the bat. It was a 1992 version, so it has a 4.0-liter fuel-injected, V-8 that appears to share not one bolt, nut, or gasket with any other Toyota product ever built. Right-hand drive, naturally, since it’s a JDM (Japanese domestic market) car, never meant for export here. It has super cool Japanese writing on every button and switch, and even talks to you in Japanese when you open the door. (Probably saying, “You’re not worthy.”) There’s an automatic transmission with overdrive, comfortable seats with every adjustment available, and those fantastic side view mirrors perched way out on the front fenders, making it instantly recognizable to others as something… different.

A vehicle of taste

Toyota Century front
Brad Phillips

Approaching from the starboard side of the car, I open the door to the Century and can’t help but notice the heft of it. It exudes a stately quality from that first interaction. The steering wheel has a nifty “up and away” feature, so it’s easy to climb into the plush velour seat enjoy the deep, cushioned floor mats. Once you get settled, simply pull the wheel down and it locks into position. The key is on the right side of the column, and with a twist the engine is running. The starter is actually louder than the engine, really the only indication anything has happened is that the digital tachometer is now reading 1300 rpm, indicating cold idle. (Warmed up, I’ve noted a smooth 500 rpm.)

The automatic climate control system then beeps to life, and frankly this is one of the things I like the most about the car. This design period in Japanese cars is downright lovely. Every function is controlled by its own logical little square or rectangular button, and they are all backlit beautifully, complete with a light to show if it’s off or on. Wonderful. There’s also a digital speedometer that reads in km/hr, and a digital fuel level and temperature gauge. There’s a cool surround-sound Technics stereo system with tape deck, along with seat heaters and the little buttons that control all eight power windows—yes, eight, since the little front and rear quarter windows are also electrically activated. You feel like you are in command of a very special piece of equipment. That is, until you realize that the true command position lies in the back.

Toyota Century foot rest
Brad Phillips

Let’s talk about the back seat for just a minute. It’s more important than you realize, because everyone that rides with you in your Century is going to want to do it from there. These cars were primarily chauffeur-driven. As much fun as it is to drive, this car wasn’t built for you. It was built for them.

What do they get in back? Seat heaters, of course. But it’s a remote control that lets you take over the climate control system and stereo that starts to get your attention. Would you like to turn on the massaging function to relax after that big meeting with the Yakuza? Feel free. Personally, I think it feels more like the toddler kicking your back from 28E on a Southwest flight to Disney, but it does have some charm. There’s an armrest that hides a tape recorder. A button even resides in a console above you that allows you to move the front passenger seat forward and out of your way if you choose. How about a completely separate air conditioning unit just for you? But the most fun is dropping the middle of that front seat down, giving you a complete reclining chaise lounge all the way to the dashboard. It’s absolutely fantastic. Trust me, no one sits “shotgun” unless there are four people to take somewhere. Get used to it, that’s the way it is.

Signing of documents and a familiar flushing sound from my bank account followed.

Demolisher of miles

Toyota Century rear 3/4
Brad Phillips

I left the car where I bought it in Roanoke, Virginia, with a promise to return for it in a couple of weeks. I had a plan brewing.

My favorite way to get to know a new car is to vanish over the horizon in it as quickly as possible on a long trip. This gives you plenty of time to really get to know the car, as well as gauge the reaction to it from other people you encounter—that “thumbs-up factor” you discover on the highway. Monterey Car Week in California was the destination, a solid 3000 miles from my home in Eastern Maryland. I enlisted my friend Tom Yang from Connecticut to join me. Tom is a Ferrari restoration expert, and knew as much about these Toyotas (read: nothing) as I did. We’d learn together.

Our plan was to hop across the country starting on a Saturday, visit some car friends along the way, and alight from our Samurai Chariot in Monterey no later than Thursday morning. We had a basic route picked out, and because the distance was mostly straight highway, we plugged the Monterey Marriott into Waze and let ‘er rip.

I picked up Tom at the airport about noon, and we set straight off down the highway, merging onto Route 50 West from Salisbury, Maryland. We had a notion that we’d drive until about 8 p.m. or so, which would put us around Elyria, Ohio, for our first overnight. Tom climbed into the Diplomat seat in the rear while I handled the first shift driving, and as is customary in these situations, we made the vague agreement to swap driving duties every tank of gas or so.

Toyota Century on a lift
Brad Phillips

I’m here to tell you with absolute certainty, these cars eat miles and reward you with an experience like no other. Right away, it started to sink in what a fantastic car we had chosen for this trip. We weren’t surrounded by duffel bags and cleaning supplies. Everything we owned was behind us in the giant, self-closing trunk. Instead of screaming each other hoarse trying to have a conversation over a loud exhaust or roaring open windows or top, we were in a completely silent, serene environment. We chatted at a normal volume, playing with the various buttons and controls like a couple of kids that were about to be told “stop touching that.”

The thumbs-up factor was immediately in play, with several looks of surprise from people when they realized what side of the car the driver was sitting on. It was also fast enough for what we needed. Not overly powerful, but once it was rolling you could squeeze it up and down the highway speeds easily. This car thrives on torque—80 mph demands about 3000 rpm in overdrive, so it’s got plenty of room for more speed if you need it.

Powering through

Toyota Century profile
Brad Phillips

So there we were, happily blasting along and Elyria came and went in the rearview mirror. We were comfortable, energized by the new experience, and felt no need to stop. It was about 8 p.m. or so, and Tom and I both have about a million miles of road trips under our belts. We’re happy.

We started to realize that the more Eastern highway miles we burned, the more time it would give us later to noodle around the West and see some cool sights on the side roads. We pushed on that night, passing underneath Chicago, and rolling westward on I-80. Somewhere in here I passed the driving over to Tom and enjoyed the comfort of the back seat. Both of us noticed a tendency for the driver to drift a little towards the middle of the road, and every now and then we’d give each other a “Hey, watch it!” But we were both probably overreacting. We also noticed how much fun it was to cruise at night; the digital dash and all the little lights were neat to look at, and the lights have an AUTO feature to kick between bright and low beam when needed. Combine that with the distinct yellow fog lights, and we had world-class illumination down the road.

Deep into the wee hours, we were consuming 24 Hour Energy like our lives depended on it, and killing bugs fast across Indiana, Illinois, and then Iowa. Then we hit Nebraska and finally decided we should get something substantial to eat. Fully 24 hours after we had left Maryland, we had our first real meal at a Cracker Barrel in Omaha.

The Century had used exactly zero oil, and we were filling it with about 22 gallons of gas each time. When you get to the last digital gauge bar towards “E” it reverts to a secondary gauge giving you a larger countdown through the reserve tank! Truly this thing was made to extract the most from the fossil fuels along the route.

Revenge of old rubber

Toyota Century changing a tire
Brad Phillips

We fueled up body, mind, and vehicle and set out again shortly, now around lunch on Sunday. At this point, Tom was driving and I was reclining, reading from the stack of 1960s car magazines I brought to pass the time. Five or so more hours down the road (and after a great side trip to Carhenge, a car themed art installation in Alliance, Nebraska), we started hearing the dreaded THUP THUP THUP at an increasing pitch from the left front tire. Pull over. Yep, tire was done.

I fully knew we were running on a fairly old (like late-1990s old) set of “Bridgestone Sneakers” with Japanese writing on the sidewalls. Stupid. We pulled the original spare out of the trunk (it was still in the wrapper and so I was crying) and headed to the next town with a tire store, Ogallala, Nebraska. Knowing the other tires were likely just as doomed, we now had a small side mission to complete.

Now, you’re not going to believe this, but the selection of 14-inch tires and a place to buy them in this little one horse town was… limited. Fortunately, the people we met were friendly, made a phone call, and the next thing you know the Century was up on a lift behind a feed store getting the only two 14-inch tires they had. The guy even stayed open for us. While the tires were being put on the front, we made calls to the towns ahead of us to secure another pair for the rear.

Next stop was to be the Walmart in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and we made an appointment to have them mounted at 7 a.m. the next day, which was Monday. We were only about three hours away, so this actually meant we were forced to get a hotel room—and the first real night’s sleep since leaving Maryland.

Back in action, bound for Bonneville

Toyota Century at the Bonneville Salt Flats
Brad Phillips

The next morning we took stock of our situation. I’d made plans for us to meet up with some friends at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Wendover, Utah, on Tuesday, so we were doing great on time, even with the tire problem. Cheyenne to Salt Lake City was only about eight hours on the main highway, so we had plenty of time to take some back roads and check out the scenery. The Century was still rolling along fine, even on the mismatched tires.

We both noticed how much better the car rode on the new tires, even crappy off-brand ones. There are lots of historical markers, dusty wagon trails, and railroad ghost towns between Wyoming and Utah, and I’ll just say we hit a bunch of them. It was a lot of fun to just pull out a paper map and explore a little, instead of always looking at GPS. We explored downtown Salt Lake City, then hit the hay, both excited to finally be going to see the Land Speed Racing at Bonneville. I had friends running a 300+ mph streamliner and a 200+ mph hot rod, and they had promised that this would be something I’d never forget. And when we took our turn, we would also set the bar for every Toyota Century, ever.

Tuesday we arose before dawn to make the two-hour run to Wendover from Salt Lake. As usual, the car started on the first crank and we were off. I had been given some advice about hitting the salt, and it was mostly in the area of rust prevention. Many people think Bonneville is a billiard-smooth, rock-hard surface of pure salt. Nope. Most of the year it’s a lake, and then it’s up to the sun and wind to scour it into a rough moonscape, just flat enough to be useful. While the conditions this year were good for racing, there are some years where the entire event is cancelled. Major bummer.

Our first stop was a truck stop on I-80 to buy all the WD-40 they had, which consisted of four tall cans. Keep in mind that the Century in question is a pristine, low miles example with the factory plastic still on the door sills. The carpets and upholstery are absolutely perfect. Everything is working properly. So let’s just drive it out onto the most corrosive, salty surface possible, shall we?

Toyota Century under spray
Brad Phillips

The WD-40 is to protect the car from about the beltline down, so we quickly got to spraying. The idea is to liberally coat everything to put as much of a layer of protection between the salt and the paint and metal you can. We were both lying on either side of the car covering everything we could get to on the underside, behind the big chrome bumpers, the suspension, any exposed nut or bolt. Every can had given a last gasp before we said “enough.”

To reach the racing area, you pull off the highway, past a gas station, down a long road, and there it is. Miles of open, white salt with just cones to guide you. And friendly people, too—they couldn’t have been nicer to us newbies. (The car helped grease the wheels.) We bought a pit pass for $10, which let us basically go wherever we wanted to off the race course, and we used it to visit the pits of our friends as well as make some new ones.

If you want a car that doesn’t draw a crowd, avoid a Toyota Century. Everyone loved it, and particularly loved the fact that it was out on the salt driving around getting covered in thick, hanging chunks of salt. Think winter storm in Buffalo—that’s what the wheel wells on the Century looked like. We spent a fantastic day shooting photographs and talking to everyone, then hit every power washing station in a 10-mile radius to get the car cleaned up. This is absolutely the first thing you do when you leave the salt—mandatory if you don’t want Swiss cheese floorboards within a year. Mission accomplished, we headed for the casino in Wendover where all the racers stay, and hung out way too late with our new crowd.

Desert dreaming takes a toll

Toyota Century view from the driver seat
Brad Phillips

The next day, Wednesday, was The Day of The Desert. I’ve driven across Nevada several times, and it is one of the most amazing landscapes our country has to offer. Long roads that stretch to the horizon, interspersed with mountain passes and little to no other traffic. Little to no gas stations either, so you’d better be prepared for anything. I was really excited to get moving, as the end of this day was to be Yosemite National Park.

It was hot, but both air conditioning systems were working well and we had them cranked up to the max. However, somewhere along this stretch of road the Toyota sort of told us it may just be getting a little tired. First the digital speedometer went a little haywire, reading only 180 km/hr at any speed over a walking pace. This wasn’t a big deal since I was using the mph readout on Waze most of the time anyway, but it wasn’t fun either.

Next thing to go was a bit more problematic. The Century uses a complicated system of computer-controlled air shocks at each corner, and it would appear that one or both of the rear shocks had gone kaput. The rear end settled down on the coil springs, the light on the dash that says EHC (Electronic Height Control) lit up, and the air compressor under the hood would run until it tripped the relay and cooled off. Then the cycle would begin again. I disabled the system by disconnecting the relay for the air compressor under the hood, but now the ride was decidedly bouncy.

Toyota Century changing fluids
Brad Phillips

The last thing I wanted to do was hurt the car, but we were in the middle of nowhere with no other options. Fortunately the coil springs look like they belong on a school bus, so although uncomfortable we didn’t seem to be in any danger. It did give the car a bit of a rake, but the wrong way. We spent the rest of the journey with our nose in the air like a debutante at a hot dog eating contest. Then the side trim fell off and we had to tape it back in place. Maybe all that WD-40, salt, and pressure washing hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

Despite these issues, we still roared across the desert, down US 93 to US 6, and then would our way to a great stop at Mono Lake just over the California border, then a hike in Yosemite at one of the Domes, and onward to the last hotel room in Mariposa.

We even stopped to help a motorcyclist who had run out of gas, siphoning a gallon or so out of our tank so he could make it to the next town with fuel. Actually, we had to do that twice for him, so he’s lucky Tom and I both have a Good Sam Club attitude towards other drivers and riders. Another 11-hour day of driving, and we were still thankful for the cold A/C and comfortable seats.

Final stretch

Toyota Century broken down on the side of the road
Brad Phillips

The last day from Mariposa to Monterey was an easy three hours, and we were ready to get to Car Week by this point. We gave the Century one last bath at a self-service car wash outside of Hollister, and took stock of our deeds. After 3000 miles of driving, the Century held up pretty well. Sure, the speedometer had gone wonky and the rear air shocks had gone out. Big deal. Those could be fixed. The 4.0-liter V-8 had used zero oil, the radiator needed zero water, and the air conditioning had kept us cool and comfortable no matter what.

There are a lot of different kinds of cars out there for different jobs. If you want an interesting, generally reliable oddball to see a lot of miles in, the Toyota Century is a good way to go. And the journey will be interesting to say the least. I already have a fix in the works for the shocks—apparently a GM F-Body air shock is a direct replacement and they’re $50 a pair. I’m still looking for the speedometer sensor; it doesn’t seem to be shared with any other Toyota product. Just one more example of how this Japanese luxo-barge is one of a kind.

Toyota Century last gas stop in the desert
Brad Phillips