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May 16, 2019

This is How Japan's Only Chauffeur-Driven Car is Made

In Japan, the riches and most powerful men aren’t driven in a Rolls-Royce or a Lexus, they are driven around in a Toyota Century. Marking only the third-generation model to date, in a nameplate that started in 1967, the Toyota Century is considered as Japan’s only exclusively chauffeur-driven automobile.

Realizing its place in Japanese life, the Century is built in a very different Toyota factory; one that employs only master craftsmen whose skills match traditional artisans. Each Century is built at Higashi-Fuji Plant of Toyota Motor East Japan, Inc. (former Kanto Auto Works, Ltd.), there is no assembly line no long row of cars here. There’s not even the sound of electronics or machinery. Instead, a small number of craftsmen handle the entire production process from stamping, body painting, assembly, and inspection.

One of the focal points of the exterior design of the new Century model is the character line that runs down both flanks. This is formed using a traditional chamfering method known in Japanese as “kichomen.” This term originally referred to the elaborate way the posts of kicho, Heian period (794-1185) room partitions used by nobles to provide private areas for themselves, were chamfered to avoid leaving a simple angle. The finely-detailed, intricate workmanship on these partitions has led to the adjective “kichomen” coming to mean “to carry out work accurately and carefully.”

The kichomen chamfering on the Century body is created by skilled hands that create the curves when producing such angles.

The minor imperfections on the body panels after processing in the press are delicately smoothed, creating a precise, unbroken line. The metal is then finished with power sanders. This is a task that demands the utmost concentration: even the motion of breathing could affect the dynamism of this line.

To complete the body, the kichomen chamfer line must match perfectly from the front to the rear. However, as befits a luxury car, the doors on the Century are extremely thick and heavy, and so once the weight of the interior finishings is added later on, the rear ends of the doors will drop slightly from their original positions. Here, a technique known as “door-lifting” is employed. In other words, to align with the descent of the door, the alignment is deliberately adjusted to ensure that it looks perfect when the car is completed.

Finally, all body panels are checked by viewing them very closely from the side to confirm that they are all aligned precisely.

While four exterior colors are available for the new Century, black is its signature color. It is a newly-developed “eternal black” known as Kamui. This unique color, which gives the impression of black lacquer, is created through processes exclusive to the Century.

The first is the sheer number of coats. While a standard car would have four coats, the Century has seven, including a clear coating containing black pigment to create a truly rich depth to the paintwork. The second is the wet sanding process. Three times, between coats, the microscopic imperfections in the paintwork are sanded under running water, creating a smooth, even surface. Spending time to create the perfect undercoat is the key to creating a beautiful finish. Finally, a mirror-finish polish ensures that not the slightest cloudiness or dullness remains.

Additionally, before the new Century model’s production begins, workers from the Higashi-Fuji Plant visit Wajima lacquerware workshops in Ishikawa Prefecture to learn the Japanese traditional craft of lacquerware production. The aim is to realize the ultimate black in lustrous finishes, in reference to the technology of lacquerware technology with a smooth and lustrous black color.

Many of those who purchase a Century are VIPs. When alighting from the rear seats, the Century’s body becomes almost like an elegant mirror, allowing its passengers to casually check their appearance. This mirror finish is just one of the ways the Century caters to those who are fortunate to own one.

Even installing the tower console located between the front seats requires delicate work by hand. The key is making sure it is precisely even between both seats. Experienced craftsmen can sense the degree of tilt to either side, and carefully turn the bolts to adjust the center console position. This is not something that can be reduced to numbers; the work is achieved through the special trust in the senses and experience known at Toyota as “kan-kotsu” or “intuition and skills.”

The final inspection is a crucial step to ensure that the Century achieves the highest level of quality. Two types of illuminations are used to inspect the quality of the carefully painted surfaces.

First, the way fluorescent lights reflect off the paint is checked. This is used to check for any surface variances and whether the character line is perfect.

Next, artificial sunlight is used to carefully evaluate the car in situations similar to where it will actually be used, mainly outdoors. This artificial sunlight inspection is carried out on every single car produced. This is the level of inspections required to ensure that each Century achieves the finest standards possible, without stinting on either time or effort.

Starting with the second generation, history books for each individual car are kept at the Century plant. These books contain the records of the inspections performed after each process, including the name of the person supervising the inspection and the date. The Century is a car built by hand, taking time and care in its production, so naturally the path to completion for each vehicle is carefully recorded.

The craftsmen take pride in their car’s history, which spans over fifty years, and are very particular about their skills. A Century is not completed through mere mechanical work. It is the craftsmen who shoulder the weight of long tradition and who have trained for years before they can work on the car, and who are the ones who can painstakingly craft an automobile fit for its customers.

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