For more than a millennium, the ascension of a new Japanese emperor has involved three sacred treasures: Kusanagi, the sword; Yata no Kagami, the mirror; and Yasakani no Magatama, the jewel. Taking over from his father, Emperor Naruhito is the 126th ruler to sit upon the Chrysanthemum throne, receiving the traditional regalia of ancient sword, mysterious jewel – and also a Toyota.
Yes, a Toyota. As Naruhito changed from crown prince into figurehead of the Imperial court this month, he gave up his Mercedes-Benz for a car from the company that brought you the Corolla.
Yet, this behemoth is no Corolla. The Emperor’s new car will be approximately six meters long and weigh three metric tonnes. Official documentation notes requirements that the vehicle be larger than everything else in the motorcade, built in Japan, regal, efficient and safe. Really, there was only one choice to base the new royal vehicle on: the Century.
Built since 1967, the Toyota Century is the undisputed ruler of Japan’s roads. While other car models live mayfly lives, updating every year, there had been only two Century variants in 50 years – a new, third generation was unveiled in 2018. The Century is not really supposed to change much. Like an Emperor, it is eternal.
The original was based on the Toyota Crown, equipped with a V-8 engine displacing 3.0 litres. At the time, the similarly gargantuan Nissan President had slightly beat Toyota to market, and indeed the Imperial household adopted Nissans initially.
The elite strata of Japanese business loved the Century’s understated looks. The older it got, the more popular it was, with largely handmade construction and a very traditional appearance. Even so, competition among manufacturers for the top-level limousine market in Japan was fierce, akin to the Sengoku period of warring states.
The second generation Century arrived in 1997 and quickly put a definitive end to the squabbling. Like the Tokugawa shogunate personified as a car, this authoritative new model would brook no dissent. Suddenly, in the Japanese car market, there was the Century, and there was everybody else.
The second-generation Century didn’t look radically dissimilar from its ancestor, but it carried something unparalleled in the Japanese market. The silky 5.0-litre V-12 carried under that long hood remains the only production 12-cylinder engine to ever be built by a Japanese manufacturer.
Peace through power was the theme of the Edo period, and so it was with the V-12-powered Century. Nominally the V-12 made 276 horsepower, as per Japan’s unofficial manufacturer agreement limiting power, but in reality, output was considerably more.
There are two ways for Canadians to experience a Century. The first is to book a flight to Tokyo, call up a hire car service and specifically request a Century to ferry you around. Be forewarned that this is hideously expensive.
A white-gloved chauffeur will greet you politely. The door will shut behind you with a heavy and precise click, its closing mechanism electrically operated. Settle back into the deep wool upholstery – leather is eschewed as it can squeak – and relax as the Century eases its moorings and slips from the curb, traffic parting before it like lesser fish in front of a whale shark.
Only the upper echelons can afford to travel like this, and a Toyota Century thus commands a certain amount of respect from passers-by. Let the moneyed youths of Tokyo toy with their chrome-wrapped Lamborghinis, gliding through town in a Century is the properly discreet way to wield power.
Alternatively, thanks to Canada’s reasonable 15-year grey market, you can just import a first- or second-generation Century and drive yourself around. Don’t expect the FM radio to work, but do expect something that drives like a more-reliable Rolls-Royce. And actually, the Century is far more polished than a contemporary Rolls – polished and hushed and effortless to drive.
The V-12 Century embodies many of Japan’s anachronisms. It has none of the flash and technology of a Mercedes-Benz S-class, being instead the automotive version of a well-tailored wool business suit. It’s charmingly old-fashioned.
The new third-generation car upon which Emperor Naruhito’s state car will be based is the third-generation of Century. As with his rule, it promises modernization, yet not at the expense of breaking with tradition.
Each third-generation Century is based on the Lexus LS600h, and the V-12 has been dropped for a cleaner-running V-8 hybrid. Each one is still hand-assembled by takumi, specially trained craftspeople. Its phoenix badges, for instance, take six weeks to engrave. Its paint is seven layers deep.
At a cost of nearly a quarter of a million dollars Canadian, the Century is as exclusive as it gets, and only 50 are produced each month. There is already an extensive waiting list. None will be officially exported. The Century is something that Japan keeps for itself, and for a very select clientele.
Of course, if you’re the head of the company, you can order any kind of Century you want. With a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans to brag about, Toyota president Akio Toyoda had a pair of Gazoo Racing-prepared Centurys made, equipped with a sport-tuned suspension. Given the Century’s huge size, this is a bit like having a racing version of your sofa, but it’s surprisingly lighthearted fun for such a normally serious car and company.
As for Emperor Naruhito’s specially modified royal Century, it’ll be a convertible, the better for Japanese citizens to see him. It will be delivered in advance of Oct. 22 this year, the date set for the official enthronement celebration.
The Reiwa era already began on May 1 when the Naruhito ascended to the Chrysanthemum throne in a private ceremony. When the Japanese public properly welcome their new Emperor in the fall, he will be seated on a different kind of royal chair, smiling and waving from the back of a very special Toyota.
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