The Red Underwing Skipper Alights On The Pernod

Two things to know about the Toyota Crown Comfort car: one, it won a design award in the long life design category. And two…

Toyota Crown Comfort. Image: Joni Mok

… in 2010 Akio Toyoda gave it an internal President’s Award for its all-round utility, ease of use and robustness. If you travel to Hong Kong you can’t help seeing these vehicles everywhere, at all times of the day and night. They are as much a part of the Hong Kong scene as tall buildings, Cantonese and footpaths. Hong Kong offers interesting challenges to a taxi, in particular the heavy stop-start traffic and the steep inclines of the mountainside roads.

Toyota Crown Comfort. Image: Joni Mok

Any vehicle able to endure years of this kind of driving must be made to a design of considerable fundamental merit. The engineering endures and also the basic appearance as well. The boxy design fits its purpose beautifully even if it’s not exactly beautiful.

Toyota Crown Comfort. Image: Joni Mok

If you review the bewilderingly complex product history of the car you realise that it is not at all like the simple proposition of a Focus, Golf or Astra, products with a few engines and some small local variations. The Crown Comfort seems to be more like a matrix of components that can be efficiently and easily mixed and altered to suit very particular local conditions. Evidence for this is in the intricacies of its technical description.

Toyota Crown Comfort taxis, Hong Kong. Image: Joni Mok.

In the course of its career 19 engines have been deployed. It has two basic body-shells (an estate would have made sense). Eight different transmissions found work in the Crown. The seating could be bench or buckets at the front (and floor or column mounted gear shifting, accordingly).

The standard car is the Toyota Crown and the longer wheelbase is the Toyota Crown Comfort. A version for private use is the Toyota Crown Sedan (I glimpsed one in Dublin in November, resembling a modern take on the Lancia Flavia saloon).

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Versions of this car were sold in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia and Singapore not to mention in Japan. In Hong Kong the cars are mostly the longer Crown Comfort. They never stop for long so it was hard for me to check if any were the shorter version. I may have spied a few. Most had the 2.2 litre engine (a badge on the boot is the sign).

Toyota Crown Comfort: source

As a car which can potentially carry five people and their luggage, handling took second place to strength and durability. As such the rear suspension is by coil-sprung solid rear axle. At the front, Macphersons. The car is 4.6 metres long (but looks somewhat smaller), 1.6 metres wide and 1.5 metres high. The weight is very variable but comes in around 1400 kg.

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This is another car to add to the list of long-lived vehicle designs (2CV, Defender, Rolls-Royce, Jimny, Century). Its enduring ability would indicate something about the essence of the basic medium-sized car. Whilst perhaps it’s a little short on obvious emotional appeal, it lavishly makes up for it in its efficient utility. To house-train it for private use a modest adjustment of the rear suspension arrangements would yield a more soothing ride. As such it is as relevant today as it was the day it was launched. This casts an unflattering light on the unnecessarily complex, cramped and over-priced products sold in the mid-sized category.

Related: Toyota Crown S130 saloon. Source –  wikipedia

If we go back to 1995 the difference between the Crown and, say a Vectra, Passat, 406 or Mondeo were not that great. And as time went by those cars’ successors got bigger and more complex while the Crown carried on as a three box saloon. Is it any wonder people slowly gave up on the mass-marker mid-ranger ? Other factors had a part to play; branding and societal shifts explain part of the way Ford, Opel and others lost the mid-sized car market. Some of it was also that the cars carried a heavier and heavier burden mass, equipment and compromising styling that the Crown Comfort avoided by its life in another, much more practically oriented section of the market.

(Note: Nissan sold a version of the Cedric saloon as a taxi in Hong Kong but I did not see any. Perhaps among some of the blurrier images there might be a Cedric. The red taxis are urban taxis; green ones are rural taxis; the blue ones are Lantau taxis. The rules governing where they operate are nicely convoluted and one of the many likeable aspects of Hong Kong).

Author: richard herriott

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

27 thoughts on “The Red Underwing Skipper Alights On The Pernod”

  1. Hello Richard, when I was last in HK I got to travel in one of these, the Crown’s replacement as a taxi in Japan as in Hong Kong. First shown in 2017 as the JPN Taxi Concept, it is an LPG fuelled hybrid electric vehicle.

  2. This car seems to be the Japanese equivelant to a Checker or LTI taxi.
    The Crown’s ‘automatic door’ system where the driver can open the passenger side rear door using a lever and mechanical operation would be the equivalent to the LTI’s luggage space where a front passenger seat would sit in a normal car.

    The question is why we don’t all drive around in cars like this when they are so fit for their purpose and long lived and simple to maintain.
    For some decades lots of people did exactly that when they bought an old Mercedes because every Ponton, Fintail or /8 was built to taxi standards of ruggedness and longevity. (until the W123 Mercedes offered a ‘taxi pack’ option with reinforced heavy duty seat frames, extra thick MB Tex synthetic seat covers and sturdier door hinges and locks which made for a truly long lived car)
    It’s barely believable from today’s perspective that German taxi drivers organised a protest rally with /8s and W123s to protest against the drop in quality in the W124 with the result that the W123 stayed in production for taxi drivers only until the W124 was fully sorted out.

    1. In the words of Jeremy Clarkson “Buying a car because it’s reliable is like marrying someone because they’re punctual.” The world would be a very gray place if everybody bought things fit for purpose.

    2. Clarkson was an expert at the funny but structurally wrong metaphor. Cars aren´t much like people – we use them for things, they are a pleasant means to an end. People are not means to an end, not the ones with whom we have a meaningful relationship. I´d be really ticked off if my sportscar was not reliable. The Crown is reliable and also useful plus (personal to me) I find it as visually charming as some people do more obviously alluring vehicles. I´d much rather a civilian Crown saloon than anything Ferrari make.

    3. A friend once told me he had bought a certain car because he liked its lines an thought it would be fun. He reasoned that people got married for the same reasons and that this led to the high divorce rate in our country.

    4. I think the metaphor is spot on when related to people who view cars as more than just means of transport from A to B. Most people don’t, which is why Toyota is one of the biggest car companies.

      Nobody says reliability and ease of maintenance are bad things but for some people that can’t be the only reason to buy a car. I feel that answers the question why not everybody wants to be driving around in a base spec taxi.

      That crown isn’t much different than an old Vectra but I suspect that it being limited to certain markets makes it slightly more ‘exotic’ and appealing to western eyes.

  3. Good morning Richard and thanks for the reminder of a true icon of Japanese design. Here’s an image of the Crown Comfort in its most basic form, on steel wheels and in non-metallic beige paintwork with unpainted bumpers:

    There’s a very pleasing functionality to the design and I see beauty in that. Interestingly, it puts me in mind of the early W201 Mercedes-Benz 190, which was similarly austere:

    I’m sure the new Toyota taxi is much better suited to catering for passengers with mobility issues, but it lacks the charm of the Comfort.

    1. Then it’s appropriate that beige was the mandatory colour for taxis in Germany

  4. “The world would be a very grey place if everybody bought things fit for purpose” – who said being fit for purpose can’t also be fun (think 2cv)? Or exciting? It all depends on what the purpose is! And punctuality could well be a very important quality in a relationship…….

  5. I think all cars should be fit for purpose which, if your desire is to get the tail out on track days, is the definition of a Caterham.

    For me the cars that aren’t fit for purpose are the many imposters that live in between the Caterham and the Crown.

    The Crown appeals because it’s totally honest. There is probably a temptation for many anthropomorphic parallels to be made here, but I generally agree with what Richard says about the difference between cars and people.

    And a man who was notoriously too late to get steak, should understand the benefits of punctuality.

  6. Hi, I don’t think Clarkson said cars are like people, rather that doing something (in this case choosing to buy a certain type of car). Also pleased to see the return of the definite article.

    1. Analogies and metaphors work on making connections and rely on underlying similarities. He said (if he said) this “Buying a car because X is like marrying a person because Y”. He is in some sense drawing a link to cars and people. No didn´t literally say people are like cars. But the point doesn´t function if there is no implied relation (similarity) between thing being chosen. And since car and people are fundamentally different classes his analogy is wrong. I think its humour even rests on the absurdity of marrying a person because they are functional. As I said, JC is often amusing and also wrong and the amusingness fudges the deep down idiocy of the man who cultivates a loathesome public persona.

    2. Hi Richard, this is a simile rather than a metaphor of course. I take your point but if writing is about anything it’s about communication and therefore precision is all. The reason so many of us like DTW is that it’s about specifics, i. e. detail and fact. For example I don’t want to read for instance that a Triumph Herald S is a sports version, when anybody setting themselves up as an expert and writing about it should know it’s not. Similarly stating one thing and then shoring up that opinion using what amounts to sophistry is departing a little from what readers might be looking for. Anyway that’s it. I hope you don’t take offence. I like your writing very much.

    3. Mr. Clarkson has his bully pulpit in Mr. Murdoch’s so-called newspapers, where he is very well remunerated for espousing his outrageous opinions, some of which he might even believe. Hence, to my thinking at least, what he means or doesn’t mean regarding any particular statement (on any subject, including automobiles) is profoundly irrelevant.

    1. Odd driving a taxi alone with a face mask (and passenger seat wrapped in protective padding)…

    2. The cooler running of brakes with alloy wheels might be why seemingly all of these are fitted with them? I found when I was running a courier vehicle, changing from the original 13″ steel wheels to larger alloy wheels with lower profile tyres that my brake pad life went from being a monthly consumable to more than yearly.

    3. @ Patrik: Wearing the face mask is not as odd as it seems. Japan has, like some other Asian countries, a collective society where the individual doesn’t matter that much. The rules for wearing a face mask has been loosened in the last few weeks, but it will not make a big difference. People will prioritize doing as they are told, fitting in and doing the right thing.

      Furthermore in Japan the facial expression is read from the eyes and not the entire face, so wearing a mask doesn’t change this. For that reason you see few sunglasses in Japan and in Japanese movies the mystery man will often wear shades.

    4. @Freerk: I think that is not true.

      My experience is that Japanese care very much about not being a nuisance, not stepping on anyone’s toes. The Japanese’s behaviour is not caused by „doing as they told me“, but more by „if I‘d do this, this would mean unnecessary work/hassle/nuisance for another person. as I do not want to have such caused on me, I rather make the effort not to“. The Golden Rule at work.

      This can be seen all
      over the place, from not littering, to the art of queing, universal friendliness, or building cars that actually work reliably.

      Needless to say I‘m very much a fan of Japan. And a Lexus was (and will probably forever be) the very best car I ever owned.

    1. That looks awfully similar, but more attractive. I had to keep swapping between two pictures to find the differences; mostly seems to be a bit rounder with a shorter boot. The Toyota somehow looks more of a commercial vehicle. Very subtle.

    2. Hello Bob and Peter. The Crew is very much in the same vein as the Comfort, but take a look at its rear-end:

      What were they thinking with those tiny real light clusters, and the way the boot lid cuts into them? Weird.

    3. I apologize for the heresy but this is what I immediately thought when I saw this rear end

    4. Nissan did appear to try improving the rear of the Crew, although they could have probably incorporated something more Primera or Maxima QX derived at the rear.

  7. Eóin,

    I fully agree with your JC perspective.
    But my main concern os not him, his persona, because ‘the fool’ had allways a place in most societies.
    My great concern is about the true powers on out society that out JC under the limelight and DTW on the shadow.
    That is IMO the real danger
    JC his just the puppet
    And when we pay attention to the puppet we do not see who and why pulls the strings

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