Introducing the Toyota Century
There is a little bit of me that would love to be a high end private hire driver. If this ever happens, the Toyota Century will be my car. Daydreaming aside, the Toyota Century (model ID code GZG50) is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Toyota’s car manufacturing capabilities. Some even go further to say it is the pinnacle of car manufacturing across the board. Having had the chance to drive one and also be driven in one, I can see why.
Built to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Toyota’s founder Sakichi Toyoda, this is one of the most understated statements of success. There are none of the brash ‘look at me I’ve got loads of money’ statements that have become commonplace in prestige / expensive motor vehicles. This is the antithesis of the diamond-encrusted four wheeled status symbol…but it feels every bit as special. It is automotive engineering at its best.
The Toyota Century has no truck with the 2 yearly cycle of facelifts seen with so many other models. Definitely a timeless classic rather than follower of the latest trends, this is one of the few remaining cars where the wing mirrors are still actually mounted on the wings.
Introduced in 1967, the Toyota Century has seen only one minor upgrade in 1997, where it gained an extra 4 cylinders. By the way, those extra 4 cylinders took the engine from V8 to V12, with a 5 litre capacity.
Production of the version of the Century pictured here ended earlier in the year. I was really sad to hear this, but subsequently even more excited to see that Toyota will be unveiling a new version of the Century at the Tokyo Motor Show. Alas the V12 becomes a V8 again (although still a 5 litre capacity) and gains a hybrid system. It will be available for sale mid-2018. I’m so pleased to see from the press pictures that the lace curtains have been retained.
I’m going to keep this article focussed on the GZG50 model, since this is the one I’ve seen and driven…and dare I say this is the one I hope to import one day.
The Century’s engine was specially made for it, and doesn’t feature in any other Toyota.* The code is 1GZ-FE and it is a 4996 cc 48 valve V12 with variable valve timing. It produces 280 ps and 469 kg.m torque. At least those are the official figures: the ‘real’ figures are thought to be somewhat higher. There was also a LPG option for a brief period, although this had a lower power output. The engine transmits its power to the rear wheels via a 6 speed automatic gearbox.
*Well almost – you may have heard of Kazuhiko Nagata (Smokey Nagata) and the Top Secret Toyota Supra. This demonstrated that bolting a couple of turbos onto the 1GZ-FE engine, along with a serious amount of upgrade and tuning work, can see it produce somewhere between 900 and 1000 horsepower depending on who you believe. It famously propelled the Supra up a wet A1 at 197 mph. Funnily enough the police pulled him over afterwards.
Back to the Century! There is a lot of equipment and a lot of options, so this will only give a flavour of what is available.
Skyhook air suspension builds on the silkiness of the V12 engine and helps to deliver that super smooth and quiet ride.
It feels strange to devote an entire section to seats, but in a car focussed on the comfort of its passengers, this is warranted.
In keeping with Toyota’s attempts to keep the Century as smooth and as quiet as possible, wool cloth upholstery is standard. Leather is an option, but is considered too noisy as it flexes and creaks under the occupant’s posterior. By the way, those seats are huge and more comfortable than most sofas I’ve experienced.
The seats also have ventilation and a pleasing massage feature too (only for rear seat passengers).
Clearly the passenger will want complete control of their environment whilst in the car, so rear HVAC system controls come as standard also. You shouldn’t be surprised to hear there is a TV screen in the back, tastefully concealed behind a fold down panel displaying the Century emblem. Passengers can choose to follow the navigation screen or watch TV / films. Everyone’s audio needs are met with a 9 speaker system. Above the screen are two extra air vents for efficient heating / cooling of the rear seat passengers.
Should the rear seat passenger with to enjoy the scenery, the front passenger seat head rest can swing forward to give a clearer view of the road ahead. This isn’t electronic: obviously the driver should have done this before picking you up!
Passengers’ privacy is assured with curtains. Many of the Centuries I’d seen driving around Tokyo were equipped with lace curtains, which suit it very well. I mention this because if this article inspires you to buy a Century, you should try to make sure it has the curtains. Tinted windows are for rappers! Ideally the lace curtains will be complemented by doilies on the seats and head rests.
Build Quality and Attention to Detail
The build quality of the Toyota Century is superb and attention to detail is everywhere. The first thing to catch my attention was the quality of the paint, which is outstanding: deep and super smooth (like many other aspects of the car), you can tell it has been finished by hand. On so many mass produced cars today, orange peel paint comes as standard from the factory. Not on the Century, but then it isn’t a mass produced car…
Driving a Toyota Century
I had the pleasure of driving a Toyota Century round the small ‘test track’ at Toyota’s MegaWeb showcase / museum facility in Tokyo last year. I was so excited – my choice was a toss up between two extremes of size, with Toyota’s Coms being the small option. I was glad I went large and chose the Century.
Clearly the main focus is on passenger comfort, but that doesn’t mean the driver gets a raw deal. Electronic everything, super comfortable seats and a commanding driving position…which is important because the bonnet is vast.
The smoothness and quietness of the Century is absolutely outstanding with not even a hint of a clunk, jolt or even a change in engine note on shifting the transmission from Park to Drive. Every input from the driver is enacted without fuss, theatre, noise or anything else to upset the quiet enjoyment of the experience. I think the sense of occasion would still be present after years of driving this car every day.
The incongruity of wing mounted wing mirrors and a digital speedometer display was a pleasure to behold. I don’t think I managed to reach more than 40-50 km/h but I imagine it would be just as quiet and composed at 140-150 km/h. I would have loved to ‘floor it’ to see what happened, but the straight sections weren’t long enough, which is probably a deliberate design feature of the MegaWeb ‘circuit.’ You’ll gather I didn’t really get to go fast enough to give the cornering ability a proper test. I suspect there would be some body roll, but if this is an issue in the Century, you should sack your driver.
Being Driven in a Toyota Century
Driving the Century was an amazing experience, eclipsed by being driven in the Century. Obviously I selected the left hand rear seat for this experience. Why? Because one can make full use of the foot rest formed by folding the back of the front passenger seat down. I reckon the carpet had about 2 cm deep pile and was so good I really felt I should remove my shoes (and I did).
I’m not exaggerating when I say the loudest noise, aside from my voice(!) was the air coming out of the vents.
There are so many other details dedicated to keeping the car smooth and quiet: the doors have electrically operated closers, so they don’t need to be closed with force to make them latch shut. There are so many things to
fiddle with adjust to maximise your comfort. A whole panel of switches for the HVAC and seats, audio controls, remote control for the TV, seat massage controls…what an amazing way to travel! Before emerging from their lace curtained privacy, rear seat passengers can check their appearance with illuminated mirrors that pop out from the head lining.
Summary of the Toyota Century
At this stage in the article I’d usually write about running costs, reliability and the like. Quite a challenge in this case because there isn’t so much information out there. I would expect reliability to be outstanding and running costs to be high. I’ve seen real life fuel consumption reported at 17 mpg, which I didn’t think was too bad for such a huge car.
You’ve probably gathered this car made quite an impression on me. The Toyota Century is an outstanding car, like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Whether driving it or being driven in it, the smoothness, build quality, attention to detail, comfort and sense of occasion are all superb.
How much does a Toyota Century cost?
The basic list price of a Century in 2005 was around 10 million yen. At today’s exchange rates, that equates to £67k. At the time of writing, you could import a nice 10-15 year old car for £16-19k. If this appeals, make sure you’ve got a big space to park it, they are about 5.3 metres long!
If you do import a Century, you’ll be glad to know that the annual car tax will ‘only’ be £245 per year (based on current rates). I know it seems odd to write ‘only’ before a figure of several hundred pounds, but you won’t find many cars with a V12 engine being taxed at such a low rate. You can read more about tax here.