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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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)