More Exclusive Than a Rolls-Royce: The Toyota Century

Exclusivity is a powerful coin. To know that you’re one of only a select few to have access to something. Sometimes exclusivity is deliberate—Lamborghini doesn’t want too many people driving Urus SUVs, after all. Other times, the combination of materials, design, and customization drive prices up so high, few can afford them. Such is the case with the $400,000 Rolls-Royce Cullinan. But there’s a luxury vehicle that’s even harder to get than a Rolls-Royce. It’s called the Toyota Century, and while it is rare, it is possible for ordinary people like you and me to have one.

What is the Toyota Century?

As Motor Trend describes, the Toyota Century began rather similarly to Nissan’s Patrol. Toyota and Nissan were both competing on a project. Only, instead of a four-wheel drive SUV, the companies were competing for the chance to build a car for Japan’s Imperial Household. Debuting in 1967, the first-gen Century eventually became available to other VIPs: CEOs, diplomats, and so on.

2018 Toyota Century side
2018 Toyota Century side | Toyota

Since then, the Century has only been updated two more times. The second-gen debuted in 1997, according to Automobile. The third-gen didn’t appear until 2017, reported Jalopnik. But even when Toyota sold the Century outside the Emperor’s immediate family, there weren’t many takers outside of Japan. Although Toyota made 100 left-hand drive second-gen Centuries, only 27 were sold, reported Motor Trend. The third-gen, Jalopnik reported, isn’t being sold outside of Japan at all.

2019 Toyota Century
2019 Toyota Century | Toyota

Which is a bit sad. Because every Century comes with some incredible features. Although, Emperor Naruhito’s convertible Century appears to be a very unique option, according to Jalopnik.

What makes the Toyota Century a rival to Rolls-Royce’s finest?

True, as Jalopnik reports, the Toyota Century doesn’t have the latest infotainment system. But that’s because Toyota wanted to ensure no Century would ever break down. Rather like the 4Runner in that regard.

And when it comes to customization, Rolls-Royce does have just a bit more to offer. Roadshow reports that Toyota only offers the current-gen Century in four colors: black, burgundy red, silver, and blue. But this paint, like the rest of the Century, is more than what it seems.

2018 Toyota Century final polishing
2018 Toyota Century final polishing | Toyota

Only 4 people in the whole of Toyota are allowed to paint the Century. One of them has apparently been working the Century line since the first-gen car. The Toyota Century isn’t just hand-painted, it’s hand-sanded and hand-polished. It’s more like lacquerware than the average factory paint line. And the rest of the car shows that, while Toyota doesn’t offer many options on the Century, that doesn’t make it any less luxurious.

2018 Toyota Century badge carving
2018 Toyota Century badge carving | Toyota

The phoenix badge at the front of the car? It’s a reference to the Imperial House of Japan, and it takes 45 days to hand-carve. The bodywork itself is finished by hand by three craftsmen, Autoweek reports. And then there’s the interior.

2018 Toyota Century interior side
2018 Toyota Century interior side | Toyota

Rolls-Royce prides itself on the quality of its leather. Toyota, while it does offer leather in the Century, places equal pride in its wool upholstery. Japan is a very humid country, and wool is both more breathable and quieter than leather. The seats are also coil-sprung, as opposed to foam-filled, for maximum comfort.

2018 Toyota Century interior overview
2018 Toyota Century interior overview | Toyota

The Toyota Century, then, isn’t necessarily about the latest tech. It’s about refining every aspect of car craftsmanship into making the most serene and unobtrusive experience.

Even a previous-gen Century has a lot to offer

While the current-gen Century uses a hybrid V8 and does have upgraded safety features, earlier Centuries are no less impressive, as Autotrader’s Doug Demuro discovered. And not just because the second-gen with a 5.0-liter V12. Which, incidentally, wasn’t shared with any other Toyota vehicle. Even first-gen Centuries had a Sport Mode for their engines, and electronically-adjustable suspension reported Automobile.

1991 Toyota Century interior rear
1991 Toyota Century interior rear | Duncan Imports

Both the front and rear quarter-windows are electric. The front passenger seats (the second-gen car had bench seating up front) had a pass-through so the VIP in back could stretch their legs out and nap. There’s a built-in cassette recorder in the rear armrest. The climate control and stereo could be controlled by a remote from the back seats. Those back seats also have a massage function, one of the earliest systems fitted to any car.

Driving a Century won’t put anyone in mind of Fast and Furious JDM fever dreams. MT weighed a 1992 model at just over 4200 pounds—not exactly light, but lighter than some modern SUVs. But its 4.0-liter V8, making 190 hp and 238 lb-ft, still lets the Century keep up with modern traffic. And while not powerful, the engine is, above all else, smooth.

How you can own one

Unfortunately, Toyota has no plans to sell the third-gen Century outside of Japan. But, first-gen Centuries are now old enough to be imported into the US without additional modification. Depending on condition, importers like Duncan Imports can offer a Toyota Century from anywhere between $10,000-$30,000.

Obviously, buying a used, high-end luxury car that was never sold in the US does carry some risk. Not just because most of the labels are in Japanese. Parts can be hard to come by, as are mechanics to work on Centuries. However, these cars are remarkably resilient. The only things that broke on one Hagerty writer’s 1992 Century were a speedometer sensor and part of the suspension. And that was only after driving the car non-stop cross-country and racing it on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

The engine is fuel-injected, meaning you won’t have to mess around with carburetors. And There appears to be something of a US Toyota Century Owners Club, meaning assistance shouldn’t be as hard to find as it may seem. Also, you’ll be able to drive something rarer than a Rolls-Royce.