How Japan’s Only Chauffeur-Driven Car Turns Into a Masterpiece
To the rest of the world, Lexus is Toyota’s luxury brand. But in its home country, Toyota’s top model is known by another name–Century. Ever since 1967, Japan’s only chauffeur-driven automobile has displayed the highest level of craftsmanship, comfort, and luxury seen in a Toyota car. The third generation of the Century has been unveiled last June 2018, a fitting celebration of founder Sakichi Toyoda’s 100th birthday.
With each Century model handcrafted at the Higashi-Fuji Plant of Toyota Motor East Japan, Inc., the car is every bit the masterpiece you’d imagine it to be. Requiring such a high degree of craftsmanship, it’s apparent that the Century’s builders are some of the most uniquely skilled in the business. The manufacturing plant itself is every bit as unique as the Century’s builders–there are no assembly lines, no long car rows, no whirring and whizzing gadgets or gizmos. All there is, is a quiet, spacious work area consisting of the most skilled craftsmen, who build cars like they were making a work of art.
The making of a Century involves five steps: stamping, body work, painting, assembly and quality check. Each step incorporates the master craftsmanship expected for a Century.
Stamping and body work
The character line that runs down both flanks is formed using a Japanese traditional chamfering method known as ‘kichomen,’ which means ‘to carry out work accurately and carefully.’ The term is inspired by the kicho room partitions used by nobles during the Heian period (794-1185), which were chamfered to add a craftsman’s touch to the posts.
Here is the kichomen method at work.
Naturally, handmade means there will be human errors, but minor imperfections are delicately smoothed and finished with power sanders. The task demands utmost skill and concentration, as even breathing in and out can affect the straightness of the line.
Though the chamfer lines look straight on the finished product, it doesn’t start out that way. The lines are deliberately misaligned during the car’s earliest manufacturing stages to allow for the added weight of the interior furnishings, which can cause the rear door ends to drop slightly. By raising the line higher toward the end, the builders ensure that it will align perfectly when the car is completed.
The new Century is available in four exterior color finishes, with a newly developed ‘eternal black’ known as Kamui serving as its signature color. Kamui gives the impression of black lacquer, and is developed through a process only made available for the Century. While an ordinary car has four coats, the Century has seven, including a black pigmented clear coat that imbues the finish with rich depth. Other steps include multiple wet sanding, and a final mirror polish finish.
Every bit of the interior is done by hand, including the installation of the tower console in the middle. Assemblers must ensure this console sits at an equal distance between two seats while being as straight as an arrow. Expert craftsmen can detect if the console tilts to one side, something that can’t be reduced to measurements alone. The Century’s builders also apply a heightened sense of ‘kan-kotsu‘ or a highly developed set of intuition and skills.
The most stringent quality control measures are necessary to ensure the Century delivers consistent perfection. The painted surfaces are checked using two types of illuminations: fluorescent lights and artificial sunlight. These are done to check the surfaces for any cloudiness, dullness, blemishes, or askew lines while ensuring the entire car satisfies the finest standards possible.
Every inch of work is documented
Each Century car comes with its own history book detailing the inspections performed after each process, along with the name of the inspector and the date it commenced. As a car that’s completely built by hand, it’s only natural that each aspect of the work done on the car is meticulously recorded.
Guardians of tradition and quality
The Century’s builders take great pride in each car they build. With the car spanning over fifty years, these craftsmen are very particular about their skills, as they shoulder the weight of a long and storied tradition. The selection process for these craftsmen is long and arduous, with some training for years and even decades before they can be allowed to work on the car. The dignity and the prestige of the Century have been refined and polished here at the Higashi-Fuji Plant manufacturing plant, and here these traditions shall live on.