A half-century of the Century: Toyota’s Rolls-Royce Turns 50

Japan doesn’t have a king of the road, it has an emperor. More than 17 feet long, typically jet black in color, with wheel covers bearing the phoenix crest often seen atop Buddhist temples, and a general appearance so conservative as to border on anachronism, the Toyota Century is the master of all it surveys. Tokyo traffic parts before it, little kei cars and Crown taxis scattering like serfs in the presence of royalty.

Nothing can match the Century in its home country for sheer presence, not a Mercedes-Benz S-class, not a BMW 7-series, not even a Rolls-Royce. You might see any of the usual executive limousine suspects on the road in Tokyo, but this ultra-reserved super-Toyota is the chariot of choice for a different class.

The Century is not about a vulgar display of wealth, it is about discreetly wielded power. A translation of the brochure reads, “The Century is acquired through persistent work, the kind that is done in a plain but formal suit.” The kind of businessmen who can afford to be chauffeured from place to place by a Century are those who have already arrived.

Now, for only the third time in 50 years, there’s a new one. Launching at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show, the third-generation Century features a hybridized 5.0-liter V-8, but retains uniquely Japanese features like lace curtains and available cloth upholstery. To the casual observer, it doesn’t look all that much different from the original. Then again, that’s the point of the Century: like the Emperor, it is eternal.

Toyota Century driving
Brendan McAleer
Toyota Century wheel detail
Brendan McAleer

Toyota Century toy
Brendan McAleer
Toyota Century in front of skyline
Brendan McAleer

In 1967, the same year that the Toyota 2000GT went into production, Toyota unveiled a new, flagship variant of its Crown full-size sedan. Equipped with a 3.0L V-8, the car was intended for use by dignitaries and high-level executives. While most other Toyota sedans take their name from some variation of the word crown (a corolla, for instance, is a small circlet), the Century would receive its nameplate as a way of honoring the company’s founder. Sakichi Toyoda was born in February 1867, and Toyota’s flagship marked what would have been his 100th birthday.

From 1967 to ’97, the Century remained a constant in Japan. Features like automatic climate control (1973) and fuel-injection (1982) were added through the years, but the styling remained pure 1960s. While relatively uncommon, a few of these first-generation cars have made their way across the Pacific and into the hands of collectors.

We even have a Century fan in-house. Brad Phillips is Hagerty’s Field Sales Manager for Private Client Services, and he recently took his 1992 Toyota Century on a cross-country trip.

“I just drove mine 3,100 miles from Maryland to California for Pebble Beach Week, and I even showed it at the Concours d’Lemons,” Phillips said. “I won ‘Best Japanese Soul Sucking Appliance,’ which I consider quite an honor. On the way, we went to Carhenge in Nebraska, Yosemite National Park, and spent a day at Speed Week in Bonneville and took it on the salt—it was absolutely hilarious to spend all day telling people what it was while cars and motorcycles are in the background going 200-plus mph. Fantastic scene. We washed it five times after being on the salt, sort of a rite of passage.

“All the controls and buttons are a mix of English (Microprocessed Automatic Air Conditioner!) and Japanese characters. But thanks to Google Translate, I was able to figure out what everything did since I don’t have an owner’s manual for the car. I love this era of Japanese cars for the fact that there are zero touch screens, everything is a neat square or rectangular button with an individual light that tells you if whatever you’re doing is OFF or ON. Simple and perfect. The more I think about it, the more this car talks to me as the perfect blend of quasi-vintage styling and everyday usability.”

Toyota Century in Yosemite
Brad Phillips
Toyota Century at Bonneville Salt Flats
Brad Phillips

Redesigning such a beloved icon after 30 years of familiarity was a tall order. However, in 1997, Toyota showed off an entirely new Century, this time powered by a 5.0L V-12. In the history of Japanese automaking, the Century is the only production Japanese vehicle with this iconic engine layout.

The second-generation Century closely resembles the first and continues a heritage of reserved design. Everything that appears to be metal is genuine. The doors open and close via electric latches, which closes with an authoritative click. Leather is available, but the more common upholstery is wool, which doesn’t creak when an occupant shifts in the backseat.

I once hired a Century to take me to Tokyo’s main station, a distance of only four or five miles. It cost a fortune, and the white-gloved chauffeur who showed up to greet me was understandably bemused by the jeans-clad gaijin standing with camera in hand.

The ride was eerily quiet. The Century navigated traffic like a dreadnought, skimming past the Imperial palace, and finally drawing up curbside, where a parking spot instantly opened up as if by royal decree.

Toyota Century from the backseat
Brendan McAleer

When a friend imported one under Canada’s 15 grey market rules, I jumped at the chance to don a chauffeur cap and unleash the V-12. Again, the Century’s ride was hovercraft-smooth, and the 12-cylinder engine produced nothing in the way of vibration.

Free from the perpetual snarl of Tokyo traffic, the Century positively lunges ahead when you goose the throttle. Power from the 5.0L V-12 is rated at 276 horsepower, but is probably higher in reality—the rating comes from an era when Japanese manufacturers had a gentlemen’s agreement to limit horsepower in the domestic market. A four-speed automatic displays shifts tuned for smoothness; later cars came with an updated six-speed automatic.

Beyond a Rolls-like sense of massive presence, driving a V-12 Century on the opposite side of the Pacific resulted in some temporary celebrity status. Vancouver has a large number of Hong Kong ex-pats and tourists, and used Centurys have a reputation as being something of a gangster’s car. Think Cadillacs to the Cosa Nostra.

Selfies were the rule, rather than the exception. But having purred off away from the hordes, I found myself again considering the Century’s ability to disappear into traffic, becoming invisible among all the gawp-mouthed crossovers.

Toyota Century rear detail
Brendan McAleer
Toyota Century on the side of the road
Brad Phillips

Soon, Lamborghini will have a sports-utility vehicle. Bentley already has that eyesore known as the Bentayga. The new Rolls-Royce Phantom is here, and it looks even more severe and imposing than the old one. Further, Rolls-Royce is also developing some kind of SUV, which will have the road presence of a steam locomotive, and the reserved styling of, well, a steam locomotive.

All these baubles of wealth will flash and glitter in the sun, doused in stylized aggression and replete in their display of conspicuous consumption. On the other hand, you could buy a Century, draw the lace curtains across the window, and enjoy the luxury of not having to show off.

In Japan, the Emperor doesn’t do new clothes. He wears a formal business suit. It is well-cut. It is impeccably tailored. It is very costly. It’s still all business. Just like the Toyota Century.

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