It was somewhere just west of Omaha that I said to myself, “This car was made for this shit.” I was in the midst of a cross-country drive with nothing but a Lexus SC, a toothbrush, and fewer changes of underwear than days on the road. It was heaven. 1992 was the inaugural model year for the Lexus SC, so before 2017 is out, let us honor one of the most beautiful cars ever to come out of Japan.
The passing of the Lexus SC into official classic car status is very personal to me. That’s because I took my once-in-a-lifetime dream trip in one, 3,200 miles across this magnificent nation. And not only was it my car, it was my first car.
See, I entered the workforce at the peak of the first tech boom, just before Y2K, and companies were lobbing large amounts of cash at anyone that could find the on switch to a computer. With a fat paycheck in hand, I began car shopping.
My timing couldn’t have been better. Having consumed a steady diet of Car & Track-type magazines throughout my childhood and into the 1990s, I had been waiting for this moment my entire life. Dream machines like the 300ZX Twin Turbo, FD RX-7, and 3000GT VR-4 were arriving on the used car market in droves.
I actually found, in the classifieds less than an hour away from my house, a low-mileage 15th Anniversary Toyota Supra Turbo with 6-speed manual in super-rare Royal Sapphire Pearl — a car that would probably be worth $85,000 today — and passed it up because I wanted the SC instead.
The Lexus SC was different from the others. Those oozed machismo and noise pollution and Nautica cologne; the SC exuded pure class. It was sleek, sumptuous, and built like a tank.
Each of its rivals had an Achilles’ heel — an over-stuffed engine bay more byzantine than the Tokyo subway, interior plastics that would look cheap even in a 323, and exterior styling taken from the Gundam school of vent design. Even its platform brother, the Supra, seemed at once brutish and ridiculous with that giant rear wing. There was no Lexus SC in The Fast and the Furious. I take that as a compliment.
The Lexus SC was, of course, based on the third-generation Z30 Toyota Soarer, and it had big tires to fill. As our Australian editor Kevin San notes, “In the 80s the first-generation Z10 Soarer was an untouchable benchmark, supremely high tech but with total reliability. Gadget-laden and twin-cammed, it set a template for JDM cars to follow. From the FC RX-7 to the Subaru Vortex, these are all cars whose in-cabin adjustable shocks and digital dashes are a tip of the hat to that first Soarer.”
The second-generation Z20 Soarer continued on the ultra-box theme of 1980s Japan. Aside from the Century, it was the highest-end Toyota money could buy, the flagship coupe of the lineup. Its reputation as a deluxe flossing machine was so superlative that it was sometimes called “co-ed killer” because college-aged women melted into oblivion if their date pulled up in one.
When Design Rules
The first two generations of Soarer defined the Techno Decade, uniquely tailored to Japanese tastes. With the Z30 Soarer, sales in North America began under the newly established Lexus banner. We Yanks became the focus, and as a result it was designed not in Japan, but at Toyota’s CALTY studio in Newport Beach, California.
The task was given to Erwin Lui, a former cab driver, blues musician, and a then-recent graduate of the prestigious Art Center College of Design. Work began in 1987 on what was internally known as Project F3. The second-gen Soarer was barely a year old, but Lui immediately took the styling playbook of straight lines and 90-degree corners and shredded it.
Much has been said about how Lui employed a novel technique of plaster-filled balloons to shape the SC, kneading and stretching them to form its sweeping curves. What is less often mentioned is that he used only balloons. “The total design was developed in 3D,” recalled senior chief designer Dennis Campbell in a Lexus dealer video, “As opposed to the two-dimensional techniques we normally use in car design and development.” It went from contour to clay, skipping the drafting tables and CAD renderings altogether.
To be more specific, Lui poured wet plaster into balloons, then squeezed it as it hardened into forms that looked more like abstract art than cars. “We took photographs of these kind of organic, amorphous images and we transposed them to a slide,” Lui explained. “We shot the slide onto a projector, stretched that image, and I realized, ‘This is it. This is the Lexus Coupe.'”
Lui was anxious as he went to Japan to present his design to the head office. Chief engineer Toshihiro Okada had seen his work six months earlier and not been a fan. But when Lui whisked the covers off, Okada’s tone changed. “I was very surprised,” he said. “This design had a sense of style that was not just modern and contemporary. It felt nostalgic, elegant, and classic as well.”
Chief engineer Seihachi Takahashi was reportedly so enamored of the design that he demanded it reach production as is, without compromise. Streamlined and elegant, it would be unlike anything else on the market. Design would take absolute precedence.
At the time, most luxury coupes bore at least some resemblance to sedans in the automaker’s lineup (BMW 6-Series, Mercedes C124, Acura Legend). As cool as an LS 400-based coupe would have been, however, Lexus chose to go the polar opposite route.
The SC’s physique was so avant-garde it met with a slew of engineering challenges. For one, most cars of the era required an upright section at the nose to accommodate headlights flanking a vertical grille. Or, if it was a low-slung sports car, pop-up headlights were utilized as a trade-off.
On the SC, the body dictated the shape of the headlights (and everything else), meaning even the most compact combination projectors available at the time wouldn’t fit. To retain the rounded prow Lui had sculpted, engineers developed a new embedded headlight design, separating out the high beams into two smaller units and giving the SC one of its most memorable cues.
Thanks to the SC’s sloping hood several parts surrounding the Lexus V8, such as the air intake, had to be redesigned and rearranged. New stamping methods had to be invented to create the swoopy body panels. The unusually long and curved doors made it difficult to get in and out of narrow spaces, so engineers devised ingenious multi-jointed hinges that opened out and forward, away from the car and tilting slightly upward.
Once inside, driver and passenger were greeted to a wraparound dash that flowed into the doors, de rigueur for a high-end Japanese coupe of the 1990s. The center console could have been better integrated into the flow, perhaps, instead of terminating in a hump at the front.
Plush leather seats swaddled occupants in kingly comfort, but rear seat passengers would probably find themselves numb below the knees over any measurable distance. A series of large, eminently logical knobs and buttons provided a feeling of precision and quality, but the pièce de résistance was the instrument pod’s dazzling spread of glowing electroluminescent gauges. It was a rare occasion for design to take the front seat, and the results showed.
At launch, Toyota offered two engine options in each market. For top-flight wafting, Japan received the same 1UZ 4.0-liter V8 as the Toyota Celsior/Lexus LS 400, rated at 260PS (256 horsepower). Hoonier types could opt for the lower-spec but higher-powered 1JZ 2.5-liter twin-turbo inline-6, limited to a gentleman’s agreement 280PS (276 horsepower).
North Americans received the same 1UZ in the Lexus SC 400, but detuned to 250 horsepower. The lower-grade SC 300 got a naturally aspirated 2JZ 3.0-liter inline-6 rated at 225 horses.
On both sides of the Pacific the V8s were given a 4-speed automatic only, but straight-sixes had the option of a 5-speed manual (for the transmission nerds, the SC 300 had the W58, while the Soarer 2.5 got the beefier R154 to handle the turbo torque). In 1996, the 2JZ option would be added to the Japanese lineup with automatic only. According to Hagerty, a single SC 400 manual was built for then president of Toyota USA Jim Press.
With the Soarer’s reputation for gadgetry, Toyota continued the tradition by cramming the most advanced gizmos it could possibly think of into its Japanese market cars. Digital dashes were a must, of course, but so were speed-sensitive wipers, a 12-stack CD changer, and the all-powerful Electro Multi Vision.
A Soarer mainstay since the Z10, EMV started life as a CRT screen in the center console that displayed the car’s vitals, or could be switched over to receive terrestrial analog television broadcasts. By the time the third-gen rolled around, EMV added GPS, a backup camera, and touchscreen controls for audio and climate systems — all in 1991! Even Jeremy Clarkson was wowed:
No less than three suspension options were offered: the standard coil and shock setup (our only option stateside); a driver-adjustable airbag suspension; and for the highest grade, known by its chassis code as the UZZ32, the electronically controlled hydropneumatic Toyota Active Control Suspension. TACS-equipped cars had no springs or anti-roll bars, just an array of g, yaw, height, car speed, and wheel speed sensors to keep the sprung weight level. As a result, even in the hardest tire-squealing drifts, the body stayed table-flat. Oh yeah, and it had 4-wheel steering to boot.
The system added nearly 250 pounds to the already substantial curb weight, but the thing that really kept it from taking off was its ¥7 million (USD $7,500) price tag. According to SoarerWorld, only 873 UZZ32 models were built, making them one of the rarest Toyotas ever made.
In fact, the spread on Japanese pricing was astronomical. Base 2.5-liter Soarers started at ¥3.03 million (about US$30,000), but an optioned out UZZ32 rang in at ¥7.67 million (about US$76,000), more than double the base cost. American pricing was a bit more reasonable. For 1992 model year, an SC 300 started at $31,650 and an SC 400 $37,500 — an absolute bargain for what you were getting.
Big in America
Despite its techno-wizardry and stunning looks, the Z30 Soarer wasn’t a runaway success in Japan. For Soarer purists, the rounded look didn’t jibe with its beloved and boxy predecessors. Instead, a new audience found its turbocharged platform (shared with the Supra and Mark II/Chaser) to be perfect for modification. Goodbye, co-ed killing; hello lonely driver drifting and Shutoku battles.
Japan may not have embraced the Z30 wholeheartedly, but Americans ate it up. Going by the media’s unrestrained drooling, if there was ever such a thing as objectively beautiful, the SC was it.
Motor Trend named it Import Car of the Year. Car & Driver‘s editor-in-chief Csaba Csere called it “frustrating” because he “couldn’t think of one single thing to do to the new Lexus coupe that would make it better.” A New York Times reviewer bragged that a random woman shouted at him to take her home in his press loaner. Harrison Ford, Biggie Smalls, and E-40 were all customers.
And so was I. According to ClubLexus, Lexus sold 3,883 manual transmission SC 300s during its decade-long lifespan. That’s what I opted for. But, you might say, according to the Hsu Car Buying Commandments, one must acquire the highest-spec engine offered. Yes, and there’s no way I would’ve purchased an automatic SC 300. But, I stipulate that the rule can — and should — be superseded if a stick shift was offered.
Besides, Car & Driver‘s tests showed that the performance difference was negligible. The SC 400 hit 60 mph from a standstill in 6.7 seconds; the manual SC 300 did it in 6.8. Braking on the lighter SC 300 was even slightly improved. I bought mine used, but if it had been new, rowing my own gears would have saved me $6,000 off of the SC 400’s sticker.
Sadly, the rest of the country didn’t agree. My car is a 1997, the last year Lexus offered a manual transmission on the SC. By then, the number of 5-speed buyers had dwindled to nearly none. After that, it carried on for three more years auto-only.
As it happens, 1997 was also the first year of the facelift, which added a small grille, chrome-ringed taillights, and a tougher looking body kit. Many SC enthusiasts, myself included, believe this to be the better looking version. It also means, if this other ClubLexus post is correct, that my car is one of just 120 facelifted 5-speed Lexus SC 300s made.
I had no idea it was that rare when I bought it. Years later, I had moved to California to co-found JNC and left my SC with my parents back east. When it became clear I was going to stay on this path for the long haul, I bought a one-way ticket home to drive my SC to its new digs in Los Angeles.
I hadn’t driven it in three years, but with a new battery and a turn of the key, the bulletproof 2JZ fired right up, purring like a warm kitten. That’s one of the best things about the SC — its feeling of granite solidity. All 90s Lexus cars were remarkably overbuilt, thanks to Bubble Era habits and the fact that Toyota needed its new luxury marque to excel. I’ll wager a body part that any given 1990s Lexus will outlast any new car built in the last five years.
I had not the slightest hesitation to point it westward and start driving. To be honest, the urban streets of eastern metropolises never suited the SC. Sure, it soaks up potholes like a memory foam mattress and ensconces you in serene tranquility while gliding through gridlock, but it always feels too big.
Its sleek design belies it true size. At 4,890 mm (192.5 inches) long and 1,800 mm (71 inches) wide, it’s too substantial for short, intra-city hops and cramped urban parking spaces.
West of Omaha with nothing but hundreds of miles of flat Nebraskan interstate ahead, though, that’s where it comes alive. The SC is a Japanese grand tourer, built to cut down interstate miles like a hot katana slices bamboo. It’s bullet-shaped nose pierces the wind with a .31 drag coefficient while the straight-six carries you across great expanses with the eagerness of an Iditarod sled dog.
Meanwhile, inside, surrounded by leather and real wood, the atmosphere is as calm as a sleeping baby. If you have the optional Nakamichi stereo system, you’re free to enjoy studio-like sound quality, but even the unbranded Pioneer 7-speaker, 5-amp setup is fantastic.
Don’t get me wrong, the SC also drives brilliantly on curves. The steering feel is precise and taut without being jerky. Its suspension, though soft compared to modern cars of its ilk, is able to conquer the tight turns of any touge if not for the car’s girth. It’s superbly balanced, letting you know exactly when the aft tires are about to break traction, but allowing you to push it over the edge with linear predictability. And should you lift off the throttle, the rear snaps right back into place with no drama.
Back when it was new, Road & Track called the SC 400 a car in a class of one. The Acura Legend slotted below and was front-wheel-drive. BMW’s $90,000 V12 850i cost twice as much and was only slightly quicker. And the Jaguar XJS was neither cheaper nor a more engaging dance partner. Plus, it broke a lot.
Over six days of driving that August, I never once felt taxed or sore. True to its Japanese GT moniker, the grand tourer took me across the corn fields of Iowa, through the blazing red rock canyons of Utah, and over 14,000 feet to the top of Pikes Peak — before it was paved — where I dined on Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima‘s favorite meal of doughnuts and a chili dog (it was disgusting).
Throughout it all — and this is key for any car that purports to call itself a grand tourer — I never once doubted my steed. There were stretches where I didn’t see another human being for hours and dead zones with no electronic lifeline to the civilized world. Yet I had utmost faith that a team of dedicated engineers in Toyota City had toiled night and day to ensure I wouldn’t become a powdery skeleton in a ditch somewhere in Arizona.
When I reached LA, I called up Erwin Lui and asked him to autograph my SC. “Are you sure you want me to ruin your car?” he joked, marker in hand, in the CALTY parking lot. He scribbled his name in the corner of the sun visor, as if to be as unobtrusive as possible. He is very modest.
I still have the SC and Lui’s signature is well preserved. The odometer just clicked over 66,000 miles this year. I’m never going to sell it. For a Lexus, it’s barely broken in.
Some images courtesy of Toyota.