I should really start this feature with a disclaimer: I love Japanese cars. Japanese Domestic Market - or “JDM” - models, especially. As a result, this story may contain bias. Quite a lot of it, actually.
Anyway, this whole appreciation for the modern and classic Japanese car started around a year ago now when I purchased a Subaru Legacy B5 - a car with which I have a love/hate relationship. I bought it from eBay for the price of a round of drinks in Manchester.
For all of its quirks - most notably Subaru’s doggedness with pursuing the unconventional, incredibly thirsty boxer engine and its insistence on making all-wheel-drive a standard feature on most of its cars for some reason - the Thinking Man’s Impreza has since managed to well and truly get under my skin.
Now, don’t get me wrong - the Legacy is financially ruinous (27 miles-per-gallon on petrol, for example!), and yes, it managed to land me on a speed awareness course within a month of ownership.
Yet despite this, I honestly don’t think I have the heart to get rid of it for something more sensible. Something more economical. Something less odd, and something more… European, dare I say.
When it comes to understanding JDM cars both classic and modern, it’s well worth embracing the idiosyncratic
If you’re a car person - and you must be, because you’re reading this - you’ll know that JDM cars and Japanese car manufacturers possess idiosyncrasies that simply do not exist amongst European models and car makers.
This is because car manufacturers from where I live would not see the point in pursuing something - in terms of engineering or manufacturing, mainly - that wouldn’t turn a profit.
Examples of these quirks are Subaru’s continued defiance of the ‘inline’’ engine configuration, which we’ve already touched on. There was also Mitsubishi’s decision to continue developing the turbocharged 3000GT, which had active aerodynamics at a time when Japan was financially broken during the early 1990s.
The most recent example of Japan’s insistence on doing things on its own terms is as recent as the mid-2000s, when Toyota decided to postpone its more-or-less ready Lexus LFA supercar by a few years.
When Toyota’s skunkworks team of engineers figured out that using a carbon fibre tub instead of the already existing aluminium frame would improve the car’s power-to-weight ratio, the majority of the project went in the bin, and the team started over.
Even now, some 11 years since the production version of the LFA launched, Toyota has never disclosed the development costs of its money-no-object supercar.
The Toyota Century and the creation of the ultimate classic Japanese luxury car for the JDM market
Japan, then, has always gone its own way, and when Dyler was invited by Zak Mattin - the founder and owner of IGM Pedigree Motors - to experience the king of the classic Japanese cars, the Toyota Century, we were never going to say no, were we?
Often called “the Japanese Rolls Royce”, the Toyota Century was never meant to be sold in the UK, or anywhere outside of the Japanese Domestic Market, for that matter. At the mere mention of Toyota’s ultra plush, handmade, flagship luxury car, car enthusiasts in Europe and the United States who appreciate left-field and the esoteric will experience deep, fluttering feelings of mystery and intrigue.
To provide some back story to this enchanting machine, the Toyota Century (G30) first launched in 1967 amidst Japan’s post-war economic miracle, and it was the Japanese car manufacturer’s tribute to what would have been the 100th birthday of its founder, Sakichi Toyoda.
Yet despite being comparable in size to its life-long contemporaries such as the Mercedes S-Class, Jaguar XJ, and a brace of Operation Yew Tree-era Rolls Royce models, the Toyota Century has retained a distinctly Japanese flavour throughout its 54 years of existence.
How the Japanese definition of luxury creates something truly different to what we’re used to in the Western world
In a car market where European manufacturers have pushed the boundaries of taste and aesthetics to attract newer, younger, buyers to their luxury models, Toyota has not eschewed the beautifully simplistic Japanese ideals of quality, which are centred around refinement, high-end materials, and functionality when it comes to the Century. Even the latest model.
As a thing, the Century is almost a much-welcome rejection of the jingle-jangle and excess that have come to dominate the luxury car market in recent times. Don’t believe me? The marketing literature of the second-generation car (G50), states that “the Century is acquired through persistent work, the kind that is done in a plain but formal suit.”
Even in 2021 when the bulk of Western luxury cars are characterised by fully digital cockpits and are being purchased by Tik-Tokkers, Toyota has retained a traditional, anachronistic approach towards its largely JDM flagship.
The gen-three Toyota Century (G60) may share its running gear with the Lexus 500h luxury sedan, but it still has ACTUAL PHYSICAL BUTTONS for its radio and heating controls, along with an ACTUAL PHYSICAL GEAR LEVER. Imagine.
Thankfully, this latest iteration of the Century is still favoured by the Imperial House of Japan, the Japanese Prime Minister, and the erm, Yakuza. However, it is not the most anachronistic model in the five-decade long history of Toyota’s big, pillowy luxury car. That accolade goes to the second-generation car; the one that’s the centrepiece of this story.
Making the case for the Toyota Century as an anachronistic classic Japanese car
You see, whilst the first and latest Toyota Century models came at a time of relative financial prosperity for Japan, the second-generation car came during a period of economic strife for Japan during the 1990s - a period which has been given the rather ominous moniker of “the Lost Decade”.
When the G50 was launched in 1997, Japan found itself in the midst of a deep recession after its economic boom of the 1980s. Towards the end of the 1990s, Japanese car makers were no longer able to throw money at producing over-engineered machines with a six-figure price tag at a time when the average person was struggling. In short, cars such as the Toyota Century should have been as welcome as a Ginster’s pasty at a sushi buffet.
Yet safe in the knowledge that the great and the good of Japanese society would love the latest iteration of the car that had served them so well for three decades prior, Toyota pressed on with the second-gen Century. As with any anachronism true to its definition, the G50 stood out at a time and in a place when it really shouldn’t have done.
Upon opening the 1,900 kilogram Toyota’s hefty steel doors, it’s easy to see why it managed to win over Japan’s hoi-polloi.
Instead of opting for the traditional leather trim that characterises most European and American luxury cars, Toyota chose to trim the Century’s cabin in luxurious Jacquard wool not just to deflect heat during Japan’s summer and retain warmth throughout its cold winters - oh no, the woolen trim was selected because it was quieter than that oh-so-shouty leather whilst the vehicle was in motion, thus appealing more to its target market’s appreciation for silence and contemplative space.
Unprecedented levels of refinement and luxury are why this classic Toyota deserves more recognition outside of Japan than it gets
And whilst we’re here, the cabin of the Toyota Century is an extraordinarily comforting place to be. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re anything like me and can’t understand Japanese, then you may struggle to find your way around the Century’s switchgear. At least to start off with.
As you’re figuring your way around though, what you will experience is a gratifying ‘clack’ from each of the Century’s many buttons and a deep sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that Toyota actually employed someone to go and figure out the best possible level of action from them.
Oh, then there is the lacquered walnut trim. Alongside being an almost extrasensory experience to the touch, it looks gorgeous. Movingly so. In fact, I’m happy to go on record as saying that it’s pretty much a work of art.
Toyota achieved this masterclass in craftsmanship by fashioning each piece of walnut trim from the same piece of wood to maintain a continuous grain throughout the wooden parts of the car’s interior. The way it interacts with the interior’s other aluminium panels and wool seats is unusual, but in no way is it jarring. It’s tasteful. It’s refined. It’s understated. Ultimately, it’s what you’d expect from a Japanese luxury car.
To ensure that the Century’s occupants are transported as comfortably as possible, Toyota fitted the Century with voice GPS, a CD player, a TV and VHS player in the back. For the businessman or political figure on the move, a dictaphone for recording voice memos was also made standard. When you remember that all this happened in 1997, this makes the Century even cooler than it already was.
What’s more, the astonishing attention to detail that Toyota spent on the interior of the Century is also extended to the rest of the car. At over 5.2 metres long, this is not a small car in the slightest. In fact, it roughly measures up to the same size as a Maybach 57.
Yet a small team of artisans were - and still are - employed by Toyota to paint the Century in seven coats of paint by hand. They then wet sand the body by hand, and then polish the body to mirror-effect by hand.
Again, like the single-grain walnut trim, this is not something you would necessarily know or normally care about. Yet when you know, there’s something comforting in the knowledge that a vastly-experienced, elderly Japanese handicraftsman has taken the time to hand-paint the car.
The Toyota Century as a JDM legend and Japan’s gentle giant
The G50 was also the first Toyota Century to be offered in a variety of other colours than Kamui Eternal Black. Alongside Rinpo Glorious Grey, Seika Radiant Silver Metallic, and Seiun Cloud Demure Blue, it was also available in Mashū Shrine Blue Mica, which is the colour of our car today.
As it sits in the grounds of Sutton Hall - a stately home-turned restaurant just outside of Macclesfield - the blue mica Toyota gives off a regal appearance, but it doesn’t look aggressive. It’s imposing without being shouty. Compared to the similar Mercedes-Benz W140 of the era, it looks almost kind, even.
At this point, you’re probably wondering what the Toyota Century is like to drive. To this day, it remains the only rear wheel-drive V12 car to have ever been made by a Japanese car maker. Well, given its vast dimensions and almost two-tonne kerb weight, the short answer is “not very athletic”.
If I had to sum up what it’s like to travel in a Toyota Century, I would use the term “calming” as both a passenger and a driver. Upon settling down into one of the rear seats, you mash a series of buttons which engage the electric motors and allow you to recline and engage the seat massager. The next thing for the full Japanese VIP treatment is to draw the lace curtains to deflect any unwanted attention.
Once you’ve got your feet up, let that air suspension do its magic. The big Toyota will soak up the miles and lull you into a state of relaxation that should not be possible in a car. In fact, looking back, being a passenger in a Toyota Century is less of a ride, but more of an experience.
Up front, things are not that different, either. Sure, the Century has a V12, but thanks to the “gentleman’s agreement” amongst Japanese carmakers of the mid-to-late 1990s to avoid a horsepower war, it only produces 286bhp. Thanks to plenty of soundproofing, Toyota has also firmly ensured that the 5.0-litre lump is bereft of that high-pitched scream that characterises most V12 motors, so don’t expect any noisy Ferrari-rivalling moments when you put your foot down.
As you can probably work out, there is absolutely nothing sporty about the Century, but that’s the beauty of it. In a world of luxury performance cars, Toyota refreshingly stuck to the principles of Japanese luxury and never even bothered to hoodwink buyers into thinking that its flagship had any sporting aspirations. This is a good thing.
The Century’s handling is soft, and there is very little feel through that leather-trimmed steering wheel. There was also quite a lot of suspension travel as it moved through the snaking, narrow roads of the Peak District.
Even when I tried to give it the proverbial berries, I felt almost uncouth going above 60mph and exceeding 2,000rpm, because that’s simply not what you do in a Toyota Century. Doing so would be contrary to its quiet and cosseting nature.
As I handed the keys back to Zac, it dawned on me that every generation of Toyota Century is a JDM gentle giant. The big ‘Yota possesses a kind, affable personality, rarely seen in cars of any type these days. Especially high-end luxury saloons.
Without a doubt, I’m thrilled that as a JDM aficionado and a lover of obscure cars, I was lucky enough to drive something as rare and exclusive as the Toyota Century. Remember that from 1997 to 2018, Toyota made just 9,573 of them.
Yet in the part of the world where I live, the demand for brash, high-tech, sporty luxury cars isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. With that in mind, I know that Toyota’s Gentle Giant will never really appeal to anyone in my part of the world with the exception of a few. It’s too goodhearted. It’s too thoughtful. It’s too esoteric. Ultimately, it’s too nice.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s sad because having the Toyota Century as a mainstream offering would make the luxury car segment a far more interesting place than it currently is.
To paraphrase what I said at the start of this rather extensive story, “the Toyota Century is the JDM classic car the Western world needs, but sadly doesn’t deserve.”
And that’s a shame, don’t you think?
If you would like to browse the classic and modern classic Japanese cars listed for sale on Dyler, please click here.
Should you wish to own the 2001 Toyota Century V12 featured in this story, click these words to visit the IGM Pedigree Motors website. Dyler would also like to say a big thank you to Zak Mattin for letting us spend the best part of a day with his spellbinding car.
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