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Exclusive: driving the new Toyota Century in Japan

To truly understand Japanese culture, you need to drive Toyota's halo luxury product

Published: 29 Jun 2019

Weddings, funerals and the potential threat of jury duty. These are the only reasons I have a suit in my wardrobe. But today it feels necessary to scrub up and have some sartorial decency.

See, Toyota may have recently got into bed with BMW in order to rummage around each other’s parts bins to produce the Supra, but there’s one car in the firm’s armoury that remains staunchly Japanese: the Century. Internally, it’s considered the company’s halo product. Introduced in 1967, it was Japan’s first domestically produced luxury chauffeur car, one named in honour of the centenary of the birth of the company’s founder, Sakichi Toyoda, and it’s only ever been available in its home market.

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Words: Rowan Horncastle // Photography: Mark Riccioni

Developed from scratch and wrapped in a restrained yet stately design, the Century has always been Asia’s answer to big pimpin’. Featuring scrupulous Japanese craftsmanship and unprecedented technology, back in the Sixties it offered an unrivalled experience to whoever was lucky enough to sit in the back. So much so, it ossified itself within Japan’s automotive landscape and was on sale for a whopping 30 years before being updated. Not wanting to shake things up, the second generation continued the first’s brief, but featured a bespoke 5.0-litre 48-valve V12 (Japan’s first and only front-engine, rear-drive 12-banger) and was on sale for a further 21 years. But now, over 50 years after its inception, Japan has a third-gen Century.

Waiting for us in Toyota’s subterranean lair in central Tokyo, the new Century sits with an animism that other modern cars simply don’t possess. It oozes authority. Quite rightfully, too. Century clientele include Japan’s imperial family, the prime minister... and the Yakuza, Japan’s Mafia – the largest organised crime syndicate in the world. Unfortunately, I fly at a slightly lower altitude in society than that lot, so an ill-fitting suit is the best I can do to look the part.

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As per tradition, before setting off, I don a pair of white cotton gloves like I’m set to polish a cue ball at the Crucible, and photographer Mark and I carefully spiral out of the car park to meet a wall of Toyota executives at half-mast – all bowing with such intensity their knees brush their foreheads. The reverential status of the car suddenly feels very real. So, being the first westerner to get behind the wheel, I guess now would be a bad time to prang the seven layers of paint some skilful bloke spent five days applying.

Wanting to minimise risk and escape the ADHD metropolis of Tokyo, we plumb Gotemba – a hot spring city in the shadows of Mount Fuji – into Google Maps to give us some time to try to unravel this modern-vintage luxo barge’s oddities and unique native details. Take the seats for example. Instead of being leather like pretty much every other contemporary luxury car on the planet, they’re wool – good for not burning the back of your legs on a hot day, but bad to rub a rogue bogey against on a roadtrip. There are also crocheted lace curtains instead of tinted windows, optional seat doilies, a shoe horn holder, magazine rack and plastic LED reading light. In an era of slip-on Yeezys and iPads, it’s easy to tarnish the Century for looking like a Sixties nursing home. But it’s not some retro stunt to make it feel ironically antiquated. This is what Century buyers want. Really.

Japan is fundamentally old school and the Century is emblematic of Japan’s glacial adoption of technology. With all its bullet trains and bing-bong automation, you may think that Japan is high-tech. But the technological bleeding edge it used to have has been severely blunted by its Chinese and Korean counterparts. Even today you still see people using ageing flip phones on the subway, fax machines in offices, and the Century speaks to this... up until a few years ago, you could spec a cassette player in the damn thing.

Japan is fundamentally old school and the Century is emblematic of Japan’s glacial adoption of technology.

That excuse only buys you so much slack, though. Considering the Century costs £140,000, the fit, finish and entertainment onboard feel extremely underwhelming compared to other modern chauffeur favourites from Mercedes, Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Yes, there are wonderful elements; the phoenix emblem – inspired by the Kinkaku temple in Kyoto – takes six weeks for a Takumi artisan to engrave, and the body panels are handbeaten to perfection. But the digital displays read like an industrial microwave. The door-lock barrels don’t centre, and the chunky plastic switchgear is familiar to anyone who has drunkenly got a Prius home after a night out. It’s not the beautiful knurled details and scrupulous execution you’d want and expect for the money, especially given what’s on offer in Europe.

Peeling off the expressway and through Nihon’s anxiety-fed ‘will they won’t they open’ game of auto toll-barrier chicken, we drive past the lush onsens and to the foot of Mount Fuji. With Chinooks whoomphing overhead, live ammunition ringing out through the trees and a flood of whatever the Japanese Humvee equivalent is, we’re unsure as to whether we’ve inadvertently driven into Japan’s answer to Salisbury Plain or an actual war. This causes an issue – the snaking road we’ve driven all this way to sample is blocked off by an armed checkpoint. Luckily, we’re in a Century. So brazenly drive up to the guard, bow a bit, and continue on our way like there’s some powerful, highfalutin dignitary in the back. In reality, it’s a shaggy-haired photographer from Kettering.

With cherry-blossomed lined tarmac sprawled onto the side of the mountain like an udon noodle, it’s the perfect space to test where the Century has been brought up to speed: the drivetrain. Unfortunately, even Japan’s richest of the rich can’t escape the clutches of environmental ethics, so the old V12 has been thrown in a bin and replaced with a 5.0-litre V8 backed up by two electric motors/ generators fed by a lithium-ion battery from a Lexus LS. With the preference of propulsion falling deftly into the hands of the weedy EV drivetrain, the Century lacks the torque you want for such a heavy car, so constantly calls for help from the V8 via an incredibly vocal continuously variable transmission. But once it’s up and galloping, the Century wafts along wonderfully on its plush air suspension.

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As a driver, you quickly realise the aim is to achieve some sort of Zen state of grace behind the wheel. The controls are lightly calibrated so not to disturb whoever is in the back. But once you’re at a corner – or 20-odd hairpins in our case – you have to treat it like something nautical that’s lost its mooring. With incredible bodyroll, it sloshes from one side to the other like a drunken jelly. Even if it’s dishonourable in the extreme, it’s hilarious to hustle such an incongruous lump to the point it lifts a front wheel. But this sort of immature enthusiasm blows our cover – the tyre squeal alerts some army types with big guns and we’re pointed back down the hill to do some redemptive bowing.

Tired from all the bowing and hustling, we stop off at one of Japan’s 55,000 konbini convenience stores that make the Wild Bean Café offerings look like prison gruel. An elderly gentleman grabs my arm on the way in, “Ahhh! Good car,” he says with an excited, contorted face. “Century! Japanese car! Stroooonnnng car!” the 71-year-old continues, while beating his chest. Turns out he used to be a chauffeur back in the Eighties and drove a Century. Opening the back door, he peers his head in with intrigue and an eruption of increasingly higher pitched “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” are emitted as he clocks the instantly outdated 11.6in screen between the seats. “Very, very nice. Thank you,” he says politely before bowing and scuttling back to his Kei car. As it’s designed solely for the person in the back seat, I retire to the rear for a spot of lunch.

To offer the most relaxing sanctuary possible, at the touch of a button on the 7in touchscreen in the rear centre armrest, the front seat curls up into the foetal position to give ample legroom for a Japanese businessman and enough for a small western teenager. Unlike the older generation, there’s no longer a hole in the front seat to poke your legs through for the full recline, but there’s a handy ottoman. To allow occupants more room inside, the wheelbase has been extended by 2.5 inches and the scuff plate height has been reduced by 15mm to ease entry and exit and no doubt to minimise the chance of panchira.

What really gets you while in the back is the serenity and the blissful sound of silence. Thanks to double glazing, four mufflers and in-built noise cancellation like you get in posh headphones, the cabin is like an anechoic chamber. Forget Rolls-Royce’s trademark of being so quiet you can hear the clock, the Century is so quiet you can hear the click of the light relays on the automatic headlights… which doesn’t quite hold the same cachet. Next to everyone else in Family Mart’s car park eating pizza buns, bento boxes and smelly fish, having rocked up in Toyota’s elitist halo product, I feel like some sort of successful sake sales rep.

Having enjoyed the open space of the countryside, the sprawl of Tokyo is a shock. Being nearly 18 feet long, it’s a bit too big for the city’s anorexic streets. You have to concentrate so hard you fear you’re going to strain something, a reality when I get the black beast wedged in a back alley. Truly reprehensible Japanese chauffeur driving. More bowing for me later. But around the bustle of Tokyo, the Century cuts a fine, dignified shape. Surrounded by Kei cars and crazy gyroscopic three-wheeled delivery scooters, it’s an exorbitant, but not exuberant, means of transport. And when running just off the juice of the batteries, in the back it’s a positively relaxing, unruffled way to travel. But the ghostly effortlessness of electricity only gives a sachet’s worth of power before the CVT and V8 cavalry butt in to lend an incongruous hand.

As darkness falls, we pass the apocalypse-proof polypropylene plates of food in Roppongi’s restaurant windows, then work our way through the hot noise of Shibuya and Akihabara. Navigating these hectic streets is the closest thing to driving around a pinball machine; the migraine-inducing neon lights rip up to the skyline, you buffer against a jungle of sound from pachinko parlours and karaoke bars, and frustrated, repressed salarymen slop out of bars like red-faced multiballs. But given the Century’s associations with the underworld, we slink off into the shadows of Tokyo’s sleaze district: Kabukichō.

Shinjuku is a trifle: sweet and pretty on top, but the deeper you dig, and more layers you remove, you find yourself in some proper boozy naughtiness. Between the love hotels, host bars and yakitori shacks, the red-light district is full of blacked-out Benzes, VIP Lexuses and shifty characters. Even though it’s made for royalty, the Century fits the sinister underbelly aesthetic gloriously. But after a day in a shirt, my neck feels like I’ve been wearing a dog collar made of sandpaper, so I loosen my tie and soak up the Century from afar.

It’s amazing how people are magnetised to its majesty and aura. Locals respectfully stop, have a look, and proudly acknowledge the craft and tradition the Century represents. There’s a palpable sense of domestic pride, and this is why it also lures us enthusiasts in. It’s an oddity full of intrigue and because we can’t have it, we want it. But I’m glad it’s not available elsewhere.

In our increasingly globalised world, the cultural palette is often accused of lacking individualism. Thanks to obsessive oversharing on social media, cultures are starting to merge and become more homogenous to the point nothing stands out. The Century stands out because it doesn’t stand out. It’s what it doesn’t have, or do, that defines it. That’s why it appeals to the people who buy it. It plays into Japan’s cultural idiosyncrasies and traditions perfectly. But the world is moving faster than ever, and the new Century can only be described as a fundamentally anachronistic automotive experience, which I think will struggle to last the test of time like its previous two generations.

I fear it won’t cement itself into automotive history like the old ones as the riptide that the car industry is facing is simply moving too fast. Yes, it’s got new safety tech and a hybrid drivetrain, but, to properly futureproof itself, it needed to be taking a bigger leap into the technological realm. See, the modern brain has been conditioned to accept rapid change. So when the old people who currently buy the Century die out, in its current state, it’s a hard sell for generation Z to continue its legacy – no matter the cultural history. But is it something to dust off a suit for and respect? Absolutely.

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