Shinzo Abe’s Hearse Is A Reminder That Toyota Can Make An Impressive Last Ride

Abehearse Top

As you’ve likely heard, former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe was assassinated a few days ago, and his funeral was yesterday. Of course we understand this is a somber occasion, but being who we are, and who our readers are, it was impossible not to notice the hearse that was being used in the funeral. I noticed it, and Autopians on social media and via email told us they noticed it, so let’s take a moment and talk about this remarkable automobile, the Toyota Century-based state-owned hearse that was Shinzo Abe’s final car ride.

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The hearse is based on the most recent iteration of Toyota’s stately flagship, the Century. This generation of Century was released in 2018, and was the first major redesign of the car for over two decades. The latest ones use a hybrid powertrain, with a five-liter V8 engine and an electric motor, making well over 400 horsepower.

It’s an astonishingly regal car, hand-crafted and referencing a lot of traditional Japanese handicraft and artistic tradition that my be lost to many of us in the West. Toyota mentions such influences as

  • The side design achieves a beautiful curvature to the doors enhanced by a surface treatment used in Heian period (794-1185 C.E.) room partitions on the character line of the shoulder portion. Two distinguishing lines have been polished at an angle with only a slim space between them so that they appear as a single, prominent line, lending the body an air of dignity and excellence.

The color isn’t just black, either. It’s a very specific reference to a sort of black that was used in traditional Japanese lacquerwork:

  • The newly developed color is an eternal black, dubbed Kamui. The rich coating consists of seven layers, including a clear coating containing black paint to give the impression of a black lacquer finish. Sanding and polishing, based on traditional Japanese lacquer craftsmanship, give the car its deep luster and shine. A wet sanding technique is carried out three times to smooth out the minute unevenness. The body then receives a mirror finish to ensure there is not the slightest cloudiness or dullness in color.

The hearse version is pretty significantly lengthened from the limousine version, even more so than most hearses seem to be. Look how much longer the wheelbase is – the extra length isn’t just at the rear overhang:

Lengthcomparo

Also lengthened significantly is the traditional landau bar that shows up on the otherwise unadorned rear side panels. This may be one of the longest landau bars I’ve seen on anything, and it’s worth taking a moment to remind everyone just what these things are and why it’s so strange they’re used on hearses. They’re a kind of hinge, really.

Landaubar

The landau bar shape comes from the sort of external, ornate hinge system that was used on the convertible tops of fancy landau carriages. On a hearse, of course, a landau hinge would be useless, since the roof of a hearse is not designed to fold down. The stylized, fake landau bars started to appear on hearses in the early 20th century as a way to class them up and add some visual interest to otherwise featureless expanses of black on the rear sides of hearses.

They don’t make logical sense, but they’re tradition.

Funerarycars

Speaking of tradition, Japan hasn’t always used the somber Western-style hearse; Japanese Funerary Cars (also known as “miyagata“) are far more ornate, looking like golden temples, complete with carvings of dragons and other adornments, perched on the back of a large black limousine. They’re quite striking and dramatic, and were popular after WWII, and seem to be getting some renewed attention.

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Of course, Abe’s funeral used the more understated Century Western-style hearse, and I have to say I’m impressed with the grace and dignity and presence this Century has. Even with the incredible length the car has been stretched to, it doesn’t feel ungainly or freakish, which is quite an achievement.

Also, the integration of the dual rear doors into the existing trunk cutlines works well and feels natural; even the stub ends of the taillights at the corners feel natural and don’t seem to be just truncated bits of a missing whole.

Hearses are difficult vehicles to design; they’re inherently somber, they must have dignity and gravity without drawing attention to themselves. They must be both invisible and are also a crucial component of the visual tradition of a funeral. It’s a harder task to pull off than you’d think.

Toyota’s Century hearse works, and, to those of us outside of Japan who don’t normally see these, it’s a fascinating and subtle take on an extremely specific automotive design task.

(Photos: Toyota, BBC, YouTube, Duncan Imports)

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20 Responses

  1. I dealer near me recently got a miyagata hearse in from Japan, and I made a mini-roadtrip out to Sacramento just to see it. I was always very curious about these, from a structural perspective.

    Turns out, they are more or less exactly what they look like: A building attached to a car. Actual architecture! Mounted on the back of a Toyota Crown! Confirmed of maintaining structural integrity at American freeway speeds!

    The basic structure was solid wood, covered with gold leaf-foil. It was actually quite beautiful, and the workmanship was incredible. Inside is a golden “room” that looks a lot like a traditional Japanese formal space. But for the creepy factor, it would have been a wonderful solo-camper vehicle. So cool!

  2. As a living person I would like nothing more that to be chauffeured around in a Century (sedan, not hearse). But if it was my final trip to the body dump, please just prop me up in the passenger seat of a Miata. I might even be prepared to shift gears on the way.

  3. It seems to me that the Landau on a hearse is symbolic of life. Two distinct points showing a beginning and an end. The center point is further emblematic of that one decisive moment that arrives in everyone’s life. The directions of the connecting band show the slow descent in one’s life until that decisive moment occurs. Similarly the graceful climb indicates the gradual rise of one’s life experiences finally ending by passing. Also, the relative width of the band as in waxes and wanes follows same pattern.

    Man, this is some good shit I scored!

  4. I suspect-from what I remember of the cultural zeitgeist 40 years ago-that they knew this would be on a large world stage ( given the assassination ), and wished to present Shinzo as a modern world leader. With gravitas. Plus, you rarely go wrong with stately. I do wonder who else got to ride in this. Well, ‘got’.
    I’d welcome anyone with more current cultural knowledge to chime in as I could be at ff the mark.

  5. Thanks for the Torch-take on landau bars! I’ve always had a thing for hearses (this would be a “big Cadillac wagon” thing, not a goth-like “omg dead passengers” thing), but never bothered looking up the origins of the decor that graces their body-work.

  6. “Even with the incredible length the car has been stretched to, it doesn’t feel ungainly or freakish, which is quite an achievement.”

    I bet you a case of Schilling’s Alexandr that somewhere on the list of original design requirements for the Century was, “Must still look good when stretched.” Centurys (Centuries?) were never not going to get the stretch treatment, and it would be unacceptable if that compromised the car’s dignity in any way.

  7. Thanks Jason for the deep dive on this…
    My first take when I saw this car in the news:
    “Man, Mr. Abe’s casket must be HUGE because it required such a long hearse to haul it. You could almost fit two regular caskets in their end to end.”

  8. This hearse looks really cool. I’ve always wanted to own one out of morbid curiosity. In a way, it’s like a weird station wagon.

    I’m not a big funeral guy. I’ve had a great life, find another way to celebrate it instead of in a funeral home. My only request is an open bar and a burial at sea. No casket, just put me in my scuba gear coated with cement and hurl me into the ocean from a party barge while Mastodon plays.

  9. The dirty little secret of hearses is that the padded vinyl roof has endured on them mainly because it’s much cheaper and more expedient than fully finishing the seams where the (usually fiberglass) extension meets the factory sedan body.

    This style of extra-stretched hearse is popular in much of the world as it retains 5/6-passenger seating and thus allows family members to travel in the same vehicle, hearse and limo in one unit.

  10. To me anyway, the hearse part of hearses always seems to have odd 20+ year old styling cues that often conflict with the original car platform on which it’s based.

    What’s different here is how given how slowly things in Japan change, it looks way more natural in a way it doesn’t on Western hearses. The almost-retro-but-not-really-as-it’s-never-stopped-looking-that-way grill helps.

    1. I agree. I think the main reason it works so well is that the Century is kind of a retro ride to start with. It’s big and beefy in a way we don’t really expect Japanese cars to be, and it pulls it off in a very understated, dignified way. This isn’t a car that’s competing with Cadillac and Lincoln. It’s taking on Rolls Royce and Bentley.

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