- of - UNDERSTATED OPULENCE
- of - UNDERSTATED OPULENCE
We all know Lexus to be the premium arm of the Toyota Group. It is the brand Toyota specifically created to play ball on level footing with the Germans, and they have done a fairly good job since. Yet, the most luxurious car from the company is one that carries the name of the parent brand – the Toyota Century.
The original Century was launched in 1967 to commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of company founder Sakichi Toyoda. In over five decades of existence, it has went through only two model changes, most recently in 2017, coinciding with the golden anniversary of the original. The first two generations were on sale for 30 and 20 years respectively – that’s serious longevity.
Official ride of the Japanese imperial household and senior Government officials, the Century has cultivated an image representing conservative success of its owners. Anybody seen stepping out of Century is immediately recognized as an individual of great importance and class. The owner of a Century is someone with nothing to prove to anybody.
The Century’s stature is comparable to the likes of a Rolls-Royce or Mercedes-Benz 600. Other Japanese car makers also had products of similar positioning in the past; the Nissan President, notably, pre-dates the original Century by two years, but the Toyota is the only ultra-luxury limo made in Japan today.
In keeping with its mantra of understatement, all three generations of the Century are styled in unassuming fashion, designed not to assault the senses with unsightly lines and curves. Beneath its simplistic-looking sheet metal, however, lies craftsmanship of luxury that is simply unrivalled.
The plant where the Century is produced is very different to a standard mass-production plant. There is no assembly line, no long row of cars. There is no sound of electronics or machinery. In this quiet, spacious area, a small number of highly trained, skilled craftsmen create cars almost as if they are producing works of art. The production process for the Century has five steps: stamping, body, painting, assembly, and inspection. Each step incorporates the master craftsmanship to rival any of the world’s top ultra-luxurious marques.
The kichomen chamfering on the Century body is created by skilled hands that create the curves when producing such angles Minor imperfections on the body panels after processing in the press are delicately smoothed, creating a precise, unbroken line. The metal is then finished with power sanders. This is a task that demands the utmost concentration: even the motion of breathing could affect the dynamism of this line.
To complete the body, the kichomen chamfer line must match perfectly from the front to the rear. However, as befits a luxury car, the doors on the Century are extremely thick and heavy, and so once the weight of the interior finishings is added later on, the rear ends of the doors will drop slightly from their original positions. The counter this, a technique known as "door-lifting" is employed. In other words, the door is deliberately mis-aligned in the early stages of assembly to ensure it looks perfect once all the fittings are put into place.
Finally, all body panels are checked by viewing them very closely from the side to confirm that they are all aligned precisely.
Next, artificial sunlight is used to carefully evaluate the car in situations similar to where it will actually be used, mainly outdoors. This artificial sunlight inspection is carried out on every single car produced. This is the level of inspections required to ensure that each Century achieves the finest standards possible, without stinting on either time or effort.
Starting with the second generation, history books for each individual car are kept at the Century plant. These books contain the records of the inspections performed after each process, including the name of the person supervising the inspection and the date. So, if you are one of the very few owners of a Toyota Century walking on this planet, somewhere in Toyota HQ is a book detailing what your car went through during its construction.
Here, we chart a number of surprising technological innovations introduced mostly during a refresh of the first-generation model in 1982, and subsequently the second-generation full model change in 1997.
In most of these examples, what’s surprising is not the technology itself, but how early it came about. Some of them are still being marketed by modern cars as state-of-the-art stuff.
Luxury is more than just an assembly of expensive materials and an inflated price tag.
A focal point of the Century’s exterior design is the character line that runs down both flanks. This is formed using a traditional chamfering method known in Japanese as ‘kichomen’. This term originally referred to portable partitions used in aristocratic households during the Heian period (794-1185). Made from silk, the finely-detailed, intricate workmanship on these partitions has led to the adjective ‘kichomen’ coming to mean ;to carry out work accurately and carefully’.
Most of us recognize the Century in its signature black, but there are actually four colours to choose from. The signature colour is a newly-developed "eternal black" known as Kamui. This unique color, which gives the impression of black lacquer, is created through processes exclusive to the Century.
First is the sheer number of coats. While a standard car would have four coats, the Century has seven, including a clear coating containing black pigment to create a truly rich depth to the paintwork. The second is the wet sanding process. Three times, between coats, the microscopic imperfections in the paintwork are sanded under running water, creating a smooth, even surface. Spending time to create the perfect undercoat is the key to creating a beautiful finish. Finally, a mirror-finish polish ensures that not the slightest cloudiness or dullness remains.
Additionally, before the new Century model's production begins, workers from the Higashi-Fuji Plant visit Wajima lacquerware workshops in Ishikawa Prefecture to learn the Japanese traditional craft of lacquerware production. The aim is to realise the ultimate black in lustrous finishes, in reference to the technology of lacquerware technology with a smooth and lustrous black colour.
When alighting from the car, the Century's body becomes almost like an elegant mirror, allowing its passengers to casually check their appearance. This mirror finish is just one of the ways the Century caters to those who are fortunate to own one.
Even installing the tower console located between the front seats requires delicate work by hand. The key is making sure it is precisely even between both seats. Experienced craftsmen can sense the degree of tilt to either side, and carefully turn the bolts to adjust the center console position. This is not something that can be reduced to numbers; the work is achieved through the special trust in the senses and experience known at Toyota as "kan-kotsu" or "intuition and skills."
Meticulous Inspection, Documented
The final inspection is a crucial step to ensure that the Century achieves the highest level of quality. Two types of illuminations are used to inspect the quality of the carefully painted surfaces.
Firstly, fluorescent lights are used to check for any surface variances and correct alignment of the character line. This is discerned by carefully observing the reflections of the light off the body.
Guardians of Tradition and Quality
The craftsmen take pride in their car's history, which spans over fifty years, and are very particular about their skills. A Century is not completed through mere mechanical work. It is the craftsmen who shoulder the weight of long tradition and who have trained for years before they can work on the car, and who are the ones who can painstakingly craft an automobile fit for its customers. The dignity and the prestige of the Century have been refined and polished here at this manufacturing plant, and here these traditions shall live on.
Beneath Elegance Hides Sophistication
Despite its 1960s-inspired classic look, the Century carries a substantial amount of cutting edge technology under its skin.
1982, First Generation Major Update
• Self-levelling suspension: Automatically maintains a constantly level ride, regardless of the number of passengers or cargo weight, and through changes in the suspension systems.
• On-board electronics: The 1982 Century came with four display functions including 12 warning lamps. In total, there are 52 inspection, diagnosis, and result displays accessible through this Century’s electronic system.
• Multiplex optical fibre communication: The first application of a large-scale optical communication system in an automobile, connecting more than 60 different signals with five microcomputers via optical fibers.
1997, Second Generation
• 5.0-litre V12 engine: Still the only V12 ever produced in Japan.
• Multimedia system: In cars with the dual Electro Multi-Vision (EMV) package includes such features as a GPS voice navigation system, CD player, TV, and FM multiplex text broadcasting.
• Air suspension: All-round double wishbones with air springs continuously regulating damping in response to changing road conditions and car speed.