Like the Light Touch of a Spanish Festoon’s Wingtips On Your Cheek

Every four years Toyota has a go at doing a new version of a really exceptional large saloon and tries to make it better every time. From whence might this drive for revision emerge?

1995-1999 Toyota Crown Super Saloon (S150) in Hong Kong (2022).

The curious aspect of this unending drive to produce a really good, straightforward car is that the results can be deceptively plain. I had to look at this S-150 version of the Toyota Crown Super Saloon to really understand its character. The same is true here, a Toyota I saw some years back. Recently I discovered some explanation for a number of characteristics in Japanese design traditions which this car exemplifies.

1995-1999 Toyota Crown Super Saloon (S150) in Hong Kong (2022).

The book is Just Enough Design – Reflections on the Japanese Philosophy of Hodo Hodo by Taku Satoh. The book is a selection of small essays on details of design in Japan and also on Satoh’s remarkable design work (typography, packaging, products). He explains that the isolation of Japan during the Edo period (1603 to 1868) is the foundation of Japanese craft attitudes.

Pretty much up to 1968, hand-craft dominated over any kind of industrial production. The Japanese had no word for garbage as nothing was thrown away. During this time artisans began apprenticeships at 12, trained for a decade and spent the rest of their lives being master craftsmen, focused on one skill. This deeply-founded culture of expertise is what leads to the kind of progressive refinement that characterises Toyotas like the one pictured (Hong Kong, Dec. 2022).

The second aspect of the car is the “just enough design“. It’s a very understated bit of work. In order for me to explain what I see I’d need to do a cartoon exaggeration of the car. The character is under the surface, as if seen through water. Features like the small glass house, the C-pillar and boot relationship and the front end are all there as suggestions, subtle deviations from the engineering minimum, not statements shouting out.

1995-1999 Toyota Crown Super Saloon (S150) in Hong Kong (2022).

We could say that one feature of modern design is that sketches are being realised in metal rather than being guides to the gentle inflection and accenting of simpler forms. Toyota is a little short of hodo-hodo at the moment, and the same applies to many others although Mazda’s sublime 3 hatch and 3 saloon are landmarks of subtle, non-aggressive elegance in the present market.

Satoh explains another feature of Japanese design and culture. After the second world war Japan looked to America for inspiration. Satoh considers the obsession with convenience to be a “virulent virus“. This plus a more-is-more attitude leads to the flip-side of Japanese simplicity and hodo-hodo: the bells-and-beeps over-complexity that is seen visually as a penchant for ornamentation (I have to say that on Japanese cars I find it charming) and byzantine mechanical complexity.

I think there is some overlap with the pursuit of excellence (helium-filled tyres on LS400s) and on-the-limits complexity (the AWS, 4WD turbo-charged saloons of the late 80s).

Nikka Pure Malt Whiskey packaging by Taku Satoh (source)

You could see that Toyota and Nissan (more than Mitsubishi and Mazda) are prone to wild swings from hodo-hodo to ‘dezain’, as Satoh calls it. We’ve discussed here recently Honda’s identity crises (occurring on model-cycles) where the same company that made the 1996-2001 Prelude also make the current Civic. Where do we put Subaru on this scale? It seems for the most part they are inclined to hodo-hodo but are seldom able to imbue the car with the elegance of nice chopsticks or the bottle shown above.

Author: richard herriott

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

26 thoughts on “Like the Light Touch of a Spanish Festoon’s Wingtips On Your Cheek”

  1. Fascinating stuff, Richard. I really like the concept of “just enough design”. Most of my favourite cars could be described in those terms.

    I’ve always found it interesting that Toyota continues to produce the Crown (and the Century) under its own name rather than under the Lexus marque. I think the explanation is pretty simple: Lexus was invented for overseas markets (primarily the US) where the Toyota brand was seen as not ‘prestigious’ enough for a luxury sedan, given that it was strongly associated with small and medium sized cars. Put bluntly, it was a matter of snobbery: most potential buyers of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi models would not be seen dead in a Toyota, no matter how finely engineered and beautifully built it was.

    In Japan, Toyota is a highly respected brand and the Japanese are proud that the official transport of their head of state and prime minister is a Toyota Century (another car that exemplifies “just enough design”). Lexus wasn’t even officially available in Japan until 2005, some sixteen years after its launch.

  2. It is fascinating – thank you, Richard. My nomination for hodo hodo design in the automotive world would be the Citroën 2CV, as it achieves the most with the least. It has few features, but a great deal of functionality. Products like the 2CV tend to mean a great deal to people as they fit so well in to so many people’s lives. It’s also the reason it’s so hard to ‘update’ them – it’s like trying to update a spoon.

    1. Lol – the SUV of spoons.

      It looks a bit wide to fit on to a saucer easily.

    2. Or like trying to design a modern throne. I think it was LJKS who came up with that analogy; I’ve never forgotten it. Ornateness of style is immediately seen as dated, yet simplicity can be mistaken for cheapness. Expensive materials alone can be seen as gauche and gaudy. How to unmistakably convey purpose….?
      I’m glad that’s not my job!

    1. And in worse news, I googled ‘Toyota Century’ for some reassurance, only to discover much speculation that it was going to be ‘reinvented’ in 2024 as an SUV in the style of the Rolls-Royce Cullinan.

    2. I would bet 100 kr that Toyota won´t revise the Century as an SUV. They simply don´t need to. The counter-argument is that their customers want them like that.
      Another counter-point is the Citroen DS. That´s not very minimal, is it? But it´s still quite a nice looking car.

    3. I had a closer look at the 2023 Crown. It´s hard to dislike it. And it makes a subtle reference to the 1971 Crown. Can anyone else spot it?

    4. The current 2023 Toyota Century is great and that is before you realize how it is build. From the top of my head you can only order it in four colors: dark red, dark blue, silver and black. Most of them are black and the paint finish is truly exceptional.

    5. Rather than hodo hodo, this Crown makes me shake my head. Nono nono.
      While relatively restrained for an early twenties Toyota design, as befits the Crown’s place in the range, it still suffers from an overabundance of what I think of as SGO – Stuff Going On.
      Strange lines. That curving panel step that catches the light and draws the eye from beside the taillight down to the number plate recess. Why?
      Funky accents. That metallic-shaded ‘step’ at the bottom of the rear. Again, why? Odd paint breaks that seem unrelated to form. I can understand the roof being black, but why does the black continue onto the tail panel and sideways around the taillights? Was the intent to make it look like it had coloured shell panels applied over a black core? Why?
      Is there some philosphical reason for the Crown design to raise all these questions in the viewer’s mind? Am I misinterpreting it as bad design?
      There have been some nice looking Crowns over the years, and some strange beasts like the S60 “Kujira” of the early seventies (pic). It will be interesting to see how this one is received.
      Toyota Crown MS75 ( 1972 )

    6. “Odd paint breaks that seem unrelated to form.”

      Well observed, Peter. This is a particular bugbear of mine. Here are just two examples, the current Yaris and Yaris Cross:

      Horrible. If you’re going to offer duo-colour paint schemes, would it really be that difficult to design into the metal the lines where they meet?

    7. Richard, I think the subtle reference to the ’71 you’re referring to is the flat-faced wheel arch flares.

    8. Daniel, as a kid I wanted to be a car designer, but for a variety of reasons it never happened. Closest I got was building scale models, of which I have rather a lot. But I’ve always maintained an interest in shape and colour. My mother was an artist; maybe I got the bug from her. And I tend to be outspoken when a supposedly trained designer gets it wrong.
      Fortunately I haven’t seen one of those Yarises (Yarii?) in my little town. My goodness that’s busy. It seems to carry on the tradition of ugliness, especially in regard to that paint break. Maybe a few centimetres lower – there’s a kink in the metal there? But then it wouldn’t line up with the spoiler on the rear window – something needs reshaping. I think the Yaris Cross perhaps hides that ‘flaw’ better because of the body’s more angular form. The added black with colour insert panel at the bottom of the doors kind of prepares the eye for more of the same nonsense elsewhere.

    9. I think the Yaris Cross – which is becoming very common – works rather well for a CUV, except for the unfortunate ‘sad’ mouth.

    10. Peter asked: “That curving panel step that catches the light and draws the eye from beside the taillight down to the number plate recess. Why?”

      I suspect aerodynamics. A lot of current cars have a hard trailing edge in that vicinity.

    11. Also note the tiny strakes appearing on the mirror and also just forward of the tail light.

  3. Hi Richard, Subaru even more than Honda exemplifies for me a company where engineers run the show, design coming somewhere around the time the bean counters and PR people are let into the building “here, this is what we built. Design, cost and sell it.” (I exaggerate, obviously). Having said that, during the 90’s, Subaru did seem to hop onto the design train, but my feeling is that that was the exception and to my eyes their designs never had the fully pared-back quality that the best examples of their compatriots had.

    1. Subaru’s decline began when they started to put frames around the door windows.

    2. I agree, Dave. They used to have an appealing simplicity, now they’re just another overdone design.

    3. Hello Tom

      I’ll express another perspective: Honda, IMO, is as much design driven as engineering driven.

      When I look at the hatchback civics 1983-1995, the S2000 or the Jazz 2, what I see are beautifully designed cars, where the form follows closely the function, the packaging and the technical choices.

      Some models follow this school, other’s don’t:
      1-There are the conservative ones, like civics 2 and 6
      2-there are the (mainly 21st Century) overcreased and oddly proportioned and detailed ones, like Jazz 3 and Civic 10
      3-and then There are the good designs, subdivided in two categories:
      3.1-the elegant ones, like civics 4 and 7 hatch, prelude 97 and Jazz 4
      3.2-the space-age ones, like Civic 3, 5, 8, 9 and Jazz 2

      That’s why, in my imagination, Honda has several design teams, each one with a distinct design philosophy, competing to get the management approval.
      But said approval, in my imagination, is not given to the best design, but to the one the market research, the social studies and targeted costumers give indication will prove the most profitable.

      That, for me, also helps to explain how Honda remains (the last?) volume independent car maker

  4. Since the book you mentioned is for some part about packaging, may I suggest a classic that is about that subject: ‘How to wrap five Eggs’ by Hideyuki Oka.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: