Lineaments, Landmarks and Leys

The code names HT51S, E-28, W-124, CDW27 and SD-1 surely no longer remain obscure enough to demonstrate proof of your car design knowledge. Add, please, G20, G30 G40, G50 to the list. Toyota’s third Century, G60,  arrives soon.

2018 Toyota Century: source

Elsewhere here I have discussed the possibility of technical updates of classic designs where the styling remains much the same even as the engineering gets revised on an evolutionary basis. The Porsche 911, the New Beetle and New Mini approximate to this ideal. Cars like the LR Defender didn’t change enough to count and nor did the long-lived original Mini or Renault 4. For an exemplar of gradual, engineering-led evolution, we must turn to the Toyota Century, now only getting to its third incarnation since 1967. 

The new car has received very favourable coverage here, and here and even here. The original 5.1 metre car broke cover in 1967, based on the 1964 Crown 8. It looked like this:

1967 Toyota Century: source

A full thirty years passed before Toyota felt it had to replace the car. Remember the Mercedes W-114 appeared in 1968 and four generations of that have appeared in the same time frame: W-123, W-126 and W-210). The second generation Century of 1997 looked like this (below), very slightly hinting at the 1979 S-Class’s proportions (only).

1997 Toyota Century: source

It has very much the same styling theme as the Mk1 car, but is longer, smoother and visually lower. The A-pillar to wing is like a text-book model.


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Of the three generations perhaps the second one seems most aligned to the vehicles of the time in which it appeared (relatively speaking). The rear aspect might suggest the SZ-series Rolls-Royces dating from 1980. The front takes the original themes from 1967 and smooths them off. If you think the car resembles some other American cars of the 1980s, it turns out to be a challenge to find one exactly matching the Century.

What it resembles is one’s idea of a 1980s American car with a 90s veneer but which has been detailed by Lexus. No such thing exists. The Century Mk2 constitutes the epitome of its own Platonic manifestation. Those epitomes of their own Platonic manifestations turn out to be hard to follow up.

Thus the new car, with its plain flanks and enlarged passenger compartment, looks now a little like a R-R Phantom.

2016 Rolls-Royce Phantom: source

It turns out that the Phantom has the more dynamic form of the pair (this is relative, as I say) with its radically falling roofline, aggressively angled C-pillar and huge wheels. Clearly the Anglo-German car is the one which asks more loudly to be taken out on a Sunday morning for a thrashing on a Berkshire back lane.

A comparison of the new and previous Century reveals more:


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The new car is not shorter but it is taller making it look as if the 1997 car is the sleeker of the two (and it is). The frontal aspect is a development of the Mk 1 with another touch of Phantom around the lamps.

If we ease ourselves gracefully into the interior, we find in the 2018 car a place where you’d think American car design had evolved very slowly and steadily from some time around 1985 rather than followed its actual path towards international homogeneity. We realise here (again) that proper execution constitutes a large element of aesthetic satisfaction.

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The dashboard delightfully avoids all the tropes of modern luxury interiors and only Rolls-Royce comes close in its strident conservatism. The Toyota though uses more plastic and resembles what I call high quality public transport. Rude though criticism is, the 2018 car uses a little too much fine wood in comparison with the maximum Toyota-Camry feel of the 1997 car.

The 1997 car clearly matches high quality with austerity to symbolise the careful use of cash: hard-wearing things cost less in the long run. In the G60 both the use of the nobler materials and the more stately proportions suggest, albeit subtly, that the ruling classes of Japan possess a shade more willingness to show off now than in ’97. They have been corrupted by the sybaritic look and finish of the Phantom, no doubt.

Commentators have been puzzled by the wool fabric in the Toyota but not many realise that high-quality textiles far surpass hide in comfort and warmth. For a car like this, overt robustness takes second place to luxury. No fear: the wool won’t wear out as the Martindale value is very high (to avoid any potential embarrassment should someone ever ask).

The new iteration of Century still remains unique among luxury cars in its combination of practicality and refinement. If you could imagine this principle applied to the Volvo 240 or W-123 you could imagine a car one could sell indefinitely. Or if Bristol had managed to update their engineering and build it to the standard of the Century they’d still be in business I expect.

I understand Japan has stringent vehicle inspections: do these cars also get scrapped after 5 years like Accords and Starlets?

Two more questions: why is this car not sold in Europe? And isn’t it interesting that it is not a Lexus? A third point is one for Ford and GM to think about: they don’t make a series production car suited to presidential use or indeed a simgle car half as fine as this. Neither do the French. Germany’s top-cats seem disposable in comparison. Even if Toyota lose money on every Century they sell, the value to the credibility of the marque is incalculable. Ford and GM might want to up their game. PSA should do so too. A DS5 is not good enough for Le President.

[Interior slide show photos source.]

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

21 thoughts on “Lineaments, Landmarks and Leys”

  1. I have been waiting for DtW to report on this car and now you have delivered.

    Phantom, S Class, new Lexus LS even… stand aside, the king is back in town. The exterior is an artful evolution of what went before but the interior is terrific.

    Too much wood? A matter of taste, but surely redeemed by the contrasting darker finish for the slab across the dash. And the seats are trimmed, proudly, in 100% wool according to Toyota. How come? JLR made much of the new cloth option available to Velar customers (not that it has specced any of its test cars with this fabric) but said it had to be a wool / man-made mix.

    Does Toyota know something that JLR does not?

    A technical appraisal of the new Century would be welcome too. It has the LS drivetrain apparently, so presumably sits on the same chassis?

    1. If I remember correctly, the Century is largely hand built for Toyota by a subcontractor using the LS’ platform. The old generation used the only Japanese V12, a bespoke engine for this car.
      Production numbers are low and the thirty year life span of the first generation was chosen deliberately to demonstrate the success of conservatism.
      This somehow reminds me of the Benz W100.

    2. Dave: don’t Toyota have a special team/factory for their highest standard cars? It’s a test bed for new production/quality procedures. I think that’s what you have in mind.

    3. Richard, you are absolutely right. Kanto Auto Works LTD is a wholly owned subsidiary of Toyota.
      They also built the 2000 GT for them.
      Their purpose in the Toyota world seems to be similar to Honda’s Tochigi plant.
      Does that make them Toyota’s Mulliner or Tickford equivalent?
      At least they prove that a hand built car can reach incredible quality levels.

  2. Agree, this is a really refreshing and well executed design – far preferable for me than the just launched A8, the 7-Series and current S-Class. Is Japanese car design enjoying a renaissance … I think so!

    1. Living the dream!

      The white wall tyres and Cadillac-like wheels are a bit much, but it’s a V12. Oh my. The claim that ‘it’s never been smoked in’ is appealing but does slightly burst the ex-gangster wheels bubble.

  3. I just love this car.

    That such inherent conservatism can turn out such refreshing results is simply baffling.

    1. Well spotted, Kris! Nowadays where flashy and sporty is the new conservative, it’s amazing how modern true conservatism can be.

    2. It’s the same in politics: Conservative parties are quite radical about their policies; left-leaning parties are trying to defend the status quo. Giddens said that 20 years ago.

      That’s a good point about the style. There was a time when sporty, aggressive design was non-traditional. It is now the norm. The previous norm of classicism looks different to the new norm and so appears unorthodox. That’s one reason I wear a tie.

  4. The Century definitely is more interesting than anything Lexus ever offered, hence it should be offered abroad (and also in LHD, please). Apart from the comparison with the RR, the Century somehow reminds me of the Ur-Audi A8, which was designed following different styling cues but also had its quota of conservatism, maybe not to outshine the aluminum technology.

    Come to think of it, a 1995 Audi A8 with a wool interior would be just awesome, with or without the W12 introducted a few years later…

    1. Isn’t the A8 more contemporary/timeless industrial design than the Century which I feel is rooted in the mid-60s?
      Is wool due a come back? Even mid-spec Fiestas have hide now?

  5. The Century is an interesting vehicle, inverting the Detroit business model of model cycles and planned obsolescence. What would a car be like if it were designed to last ten years without wear? If the price tag reflected the quality and not the label? Mercedes were perhaps the last bastion of that ethos, but even they fell prey to the allure of flashy short termism.

    1. For a car in that price class it is possible to ignore fashion. I suspect that if Mercedes or Volvo were to produce a similarly conceived long-life W-123 or long-life 240 they’d find customers choosing them over the more ephemeral standard cars. The question is would they gain conquest sales enough to compensate for customers shifting preferences from other cars in their range? So, if one had a choice between a 240-type car or an S90 would one prefer the long-life 240?

    2. ” I suspect that if Mercedes or Volvo were to produce a similarly conceived long-life W-123 or long-life 240 they’d find customers choosing them over the more ephemeral standard cars. ”
      Mercedes already offered cars like this. Up until the DaimlerChrysler years, the design target life of Benz mechanical components was 250,000 miles and once they solved their eternal corrosion problems with the W201/124/126, bodies were equally durable.
      I remember a W124 taxi which regularly took me to the airport. Its odometer had stopped at 987,000 kilometres and apart from a slight vibration from the prop shaft the car could as well have done 100,000.

    3. Dave: yes, you’re right. The 240, W-123 and also Saab 900 were long life cars. The thing is all of them are out of production. I was wondering about the consequences of their re-introduction updated only in regard to improvements related to production and engineering not style.

    4. I wouldn’t count the W123 as a truly long life car. It was built like a tank (or up to a standard, not down to a price) but corroded in no time. On their home country’s salt laden roads the wheel arches and rear valences turned into brown mille feuilles very quickly.

      I still see some similarity between the Century and the Benz W100 (‘600’). Both surely don’t (didn’t) make much money for their manufacturer yet were important statements of competence. Both use unique technical solutions (bespoke V12 vs. big V8 with incredibly complex hydraulics) and both use wool cloth in their interior…

    5. Dave: sure, the W-123 rusted but there are still lots and lots of them around in the way Granadas and Senators are not. And if I have not made this clear, I am imaging a product which is essentially the shape, size and ability of the W-123 but executed with all possible improvements without compromising its gross form. So, one thing the “retro-novo” W-123 would have is total galvanisation and redesign of anything like a rust-trap. It could even be lighter as long as it was as strong and durable. Perhaps the idea is “longer life” car. Ultimately everything breaks but with the right design it can be slowed down. The longer life car is also, in my way of thinking, repairable. So if something does break of rust that bit can be replaced. I don´t know if this is true of the Century. The idea emerges from the notion of designing a car that is meant to be in production for a long time and to last a very long time.

    6. “So, one thing the “retro-novo” W-123 would have is total galvanisation and redesign of anything like a rust-trap. It could even be lighter as long as it was as strong and durable. Perhaps the idea is “longer life” car.”
      Essentially you want the ‘new W123’ to be like the W124 🙂
      Benzes from ‘tailfins’ to W123 had a lots of rust traps because their body construction was very complex with lots of multi layered structures of sheet steel – the perfect rust trap the reason many of them were thrown away because restoration would have been prohibitively expensive.

      I would even say that the new car should not contain all possible improvements but all sensible ones.
      Which again brings (at least) me closer to the W124 or a W126. They contain electronics where they make sense (ABS, Airbags, catalytic converters) but not to today’s overdose where all kinds of electronic nonsense are used just for the sake of it.

  6. Thank you for the article – instructive and thought-provoking, as always. It’s made me aware that there are many models available in other markets which I know little or nothing about.

    I love the new Century’s design; it looks ‘gentle’ and ‘relaxed’, somehow. Perhaps ‘cohesive’ is the word I’m looking for. Your article prompted me to look at Toyota’s global site and this minibus caught my eye. As with the Century, it’s a replacement for a long-lived model and which I think also looks comfortable in its own skin.

    1. Thanks for that link. Toyota also had a very boxy saloon for taxi use which ran more or less unchanged for a long time: 1995-2017 Crown Comfort.

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