TOYOTA launched the latest edition, the third generation of its Century, a Japan market-only limousine that many consider to be the Japanese Rolls Royce.
Up until the current model, the Century had the distinction of being the only Japanese car with a V-12 engine but for some reason, probably the need to comply with stringent modern emissions and fuel economy guidelines, the latest model will have to ‘make do’ with a 5.0-litre V-8.
Today the Century rules uncontested but up until 2010 it had to battle the Nissan President as the top choice of Japanese executives.
In the mid 1960s, the Japanese Royal Household wanted to have a Japanese official car and the battle royal was between the Toyota Crown Eight and the Nissan Prince Royal. The Prince Royal won the battle, thanks to its more distinguished profile.
The Prince was proposed in 1965 by the Prince Motor Company and when it was bought over by Nissan, the name was amended to Nissan Prince Royal. The car entered service in 1966 and remained as the official car of the Emperor of Japan until 2006 when it was replaced by a Toyota Century Royal. A total of five cars were built.
It is interesting to note that the Prince Royal were upholstered both in leather and in wool. Can you guess which one went into the rear cabin?
The driver got leather seats while the rear cabin was covered in wool. It seems that the Japanese has always prized wool over leather when it comes to upholstery, not surprising since the best suits are made of wool and not leather.
In low temperatures, or in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, wool or fabric is always more comfortable, anyway.
Back to our Limousines. After the battle royal was over, Nissan started the ball rolling for proper Japanese limousines for captains of industry in 1965 with the first generation President, codenamed G150.
The styling was quite obviously influenced by America full-size sedans of the time with long bonnet and very long overhanging boot.
The proportion bear clear influences from the second-generation Ford Galaxie and the 1964 Chevrolet Bel Air.
Since American cars from the 1950s and 1960s are some of the best from the period, the Nissan President ended up looking elegant and distinguished, always good for a limousine.
Toyota came up with the competitor in 1967 with the Century which, like the President, copied the proportions and stance of 1960s American full-size sedans.
Just as the President influenced the styling and stance of lesser Nissan cars, the Century also gave the rest of the family their looks.
The Century came with a choice of three engines, 3.0-litre, 4.0-litre and 4.4-litre and all came in V-8 format.
Nissan also offered the President with similar engine size options but its 3.0-litre engine was an in-line six.
Toyota and Nissan pulled out all the stops and packed their cars with the best craftsmanship and latest technology.
The President was the first Japanese car to offer anti-lock brakes; the 1971 model year car came with what they called Electro Anti-Lock System.
In 1991, they offered airbag option for the rear left passenger, the boss seat. I guess they thought it would convince the boss that Nissan cares about them more than the others.
In the end, the modest sales number and increasingly strict legislation meant that the President could not be reengineered economically to allow Nissan to recoup its costs. This despite the third-generation HG50 sharing its platform with Infinity and the fourth generation sharing the underpinnings with the Nissan Cima and Mitsubishi Dignity.
In the meantime, Toyota introduced the second-generation Century 30 years after the first generation was launched. The long production life allowed Toyota to properly recoup the investment cost.
Where Nissan changed the identity of its cars with the third-generation President, Toyota simply made small changes to the overall look although the car was thoroughly reengineered. The stability in the design is actually quite crucial at the very top end of the car market where buyers are really conservative.
Whereas the President looks and feels like a high-end mass production car, the Century looks like a hand-made limousine, which it is and by that we mean everything look like they were crafted, even the chrome headlamp surround feels solid and should last a lifetime.
After 50 years of the Century, Toyota introduced the third-generation car at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show and it looks exactly like a modernised Century. The new design shows that Toyota is confident with its design history and what we have today is a car that looks like it could only have come from Japan and for Japan. Hurrah for that.