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1991 Toyota Century Review: We Drive Toyota’s Rolls-Royce

What it’s like to drive like an emperor (if an emperor actually drove).

Maybe it’s the last remnant of Puritanism, or maybe it’s some happier rejection of classism, but whatever the reason, aside from the occasional party limo, Americans haven’t ever really embraced being driven. We’ve always preferred to drive, even as that may be changing in the age of Uber, Lyft, and self-driving cars. Even when we buy Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, they’re rarely chauffeured. But elsewhere in the world, many of those who have arrived choose to get around in the back seat. The Toyota Century is a Japan-only flagship built for precisely that: chauffeuring business people, diplomats, and even the Imperial family in the height of Japanese luxury.

Since 1967, just three generations of the Century have been built, with the third launched two years ago in 2017. For a quick look at the Century’s history, as well as results from testing of a late first-generation model (like the one pictured here but without the flags on the nose), read Jonny Lieberman’s first-test article for our sister publication MotorTrend. And for a primer on the current-generation Century plus a tour of the plant where the Century is built, check out Jonny’s recent Inside Look story. To find out what it’s like to drive a car that’s meant to be ridden in, read on.

As Jonny noted in his first test, the Century is rare in America, because it was never sold here; as a best guess, there are maybe two dozen examples to be found within our borders, all gray-market imports. The car pictured here with the flags on the nose? I drove it around for the better part of three days. How’d I manage that stroke of phenomenal luck? Through the generosity of Eric Roehm, who loaned us the car for a photo shoot to complement MT’s Century coverage. I got involved because the team needed someone comfortable driving a rather large right-hand-drive vehicle in busy Los Angeles traffic to get the desired photos.

Now the scene is set, what’s it like to drive? Let’s start at the top with a quick look around the cabin.

Sliding behind the wheel—remember, it’s on the right-hand side—is not as easy as you might think, given the Century’s rather immense (especially by Tokyo standards) dimensions. The front seat only goes back so far, and the steering wheel is fixed, so those over six feet tall or with stout legs (or like me, both) will have to engage in some contortion to assume the driving position. That done with only minor bruising to the inside of the left knee and a slightly splayed-leg stance adopted behind the wheel, the first impression is one of surprising complexity and high-tech gadgetry atypical of a vehicle from the early 1990s.

Despite being from 1991, this example of the Toyota Century is, as they all were, loaded to the gills with convenience tech, all of which could be controlled from the driver’s or executive seats. Electronically adjustable suspension? Check. Ride-height control? Yep, that too. There’s even a choice between “NORM” and “PWR” modes for the drivetrain. Also despite being from 1991 and having never undergone an extensive restoration, every single function and feature remains operational in this example. There’s even a passenger-side passthrough in the front seatback to allow the rear-seat passenger to recline fully with feet supported, and curtains can cover every inch of rear glass.

Once you’ve adjusted the mirrors and familiarized yourself with the controls, it’s time to don your driver’s cap and gloves. Turn the key, listen closely as the buttery-smooth 4.0-liter V-8 wakes its 190 horses. Slip the four-speed automatic into drive, check your fender-mounted mirrors, and you’re off.

Gliding is probably the best descriptor of the experience, the V-8’s 238 lb-ft of torque making slow but steady work of any acceleration; MotorTrend’s test data says it takes 12.6 seconds to reach 60 in the near-doppelgänger 1992 model pictured alongside our 1991. The steering is equally slow, the large wheel gently wagging perfectly back and forth as if in a movie scene on straight stretches. The suspension is decidedly floaty—whether by age or design, it doesn’t much seem to matter.

Why? Because driving the Century isn’t about the actual driving. It’s about the experience for both driver and client, and here in America also for onlookers—and if you happen to find yourself driving around Los Angeles in a vintage Century with Japanese and American flags on the front fenders, diplomat-style, the usual complement of extended middle fingers is magically transmuted into raised thumbs and smiles. Any car that can make driving in L.A. a fun experience for all involved is one worth driving—or being driven in.

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