In honor of yet another landmark vehicle turning 25, let’s all raise a champagne glass to Lexus, Japan’s most luxurious marque. Now, set that glass down atop a pyramid of other glasses stacked on the hood of a dyno-strapped LS 400 and gas it up to 145.
This was the way Lexus introduced itself to the world — with a tower of stemware balanced above its 250hp V8 humming at full tilt, serenely unperturbed as the sedan reached Autobahn speeds. Toyota USA was established on October 31, 1957. Thirty-two years later, in October of 1989, it would change the face of the automotive world once again. The Lexus LS 400 is officially a Japanese nostalgic car.
The Birth of Lexus
In many ways, the story of the LS 400 is the story of the Lexus itself. It was the culmination of everything Toyota had learned over 50 years in the automaking business. At debut, showrooms offered only two models, the LS 400 and the ES 250. The latter was a very Japanese execution of the popular V20 Camry, called the Camry Prominent in Japan, featuring boxier styling, two-tone paint, and sashless side windows.
The LS, on the other hand, was designed from scratch. Naysayers often condescended Lexuses as “just rebadged Toyotas” but the truth is that the LS was the other way around. It was developed as a Lexus first, then rebadged as a Toyota Celsior (Latin for “supreme”) for the home market. That’s because in Japan, there was no Lexus. The nameplate was created specifically for the west, and the LS’s entire purpose was to take on the best luxury cars in the world.
The Lexus project began in 1983, a top secret program within Toyota called Maru F. “F” stood for flagship, and though commonly translated as Circle F, “maru” is also the Japanese word for zero. That may seem strange to western ears, but in Japan the concept of zero isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, because on any journey mile zero is the starting point. When zero is invoked, it means that what you’re embarking on is going to be really, really spectacular.
Why a separate marque? Toyota had learned the hard lessons of its 2000GT. Upon introduction in 1967, the grand tourer matched world’s best in everything from engineering to drop-dead gorgeous lines. But it came with a world class price tag too, and the west simply couldn’t stomach paying Porsche scratch for a Toyota.
President Eiji Toyoda wasn’t about to make that mistake again. It must have pained him, however, to know that he was about to pour $1 billion into the best car his company would ever build, yet to succeed it could never wear his family’s name.
Toyota deployed a team of researchers to the US, studying the habits of luxury car buyers. The yet-unnamed sedan’s chief rivals would be European blue chips favored by a new class of customer borne out of Gordon Gecko-era supply-side economics. Toyota had to woo the yuppie, and so it did what Toyota does best: obsess over every last detail.
For example, the trait that most defines the LS is quietness. In the definitive book The Lexus Story, author Jonathan Mahler describes how engineers went on a wind noise eliminating rampage, repeating wind tunnel test in excess of 50 times with microphones buried in various parts of the body. Steel valve lifters were replaced with aluminum ones. Vibration-absorbing resin was inserted between double-sided sheetmetal to form the cabin. Every extraneous shape on the exterior was shaved down. And when that wasn’t enough, engineers turned to the undercarriage, aero testing even the suspension, resulting in noise reducing golf ball dimples on the A-arms.
This level of fanaticism honed the car at every stage. While most models go though five or six full-size clay models, the LS’s chief engineer Ichiro Suzuki commanded 14. Over 100 were crash tested. A whopping 450 test mules were built, and 2.7 million test miles were driven before the first LS even rolled off the assembly line.
If you were alive in 1989, you might recall the general atmosphere, in which many were rooting for Lexus to fail. Preliminary sketches leaked to magazines spawned accusations of a Benz copy. Mercedes was the main luxury brand offering a V8 (the LS’s chief rivals from BMW and Jaguar offered only sixes or V12s at the time), and it was said the grille and hood looked too similar to that of a 420 SEL.
In person, that argument was much harder to make. The LS’s lines looked both old school stately and modern at the same time. Unlike its rivals, the body was almost entirely smooth, with none of the scoops or aero add-ons popular in Japanese design of the era. Thicker chrome than your typical Toyota, tighter panel gaps and a cosmically deep 6-layer paint job, unheard of at the time, added to the sense of overall quality.
The LS’s whisper-quiet cabin was a study in Japanese minimalism and service, with nothing you don’t need, and everything you do positioned exactly where you expect it to be. With Japan’s fondness for bonkers digital displays in the 80s, you might expect a discotheque of flashing lights on the dash, but no. Just two simple, traditional, round-faced gauges sat front and center, embellished by a unique backlighting in which even the sweeping needle had an impossibly thin florescent tube embedded in it.
A ride in the LS was like gliding by in your own personal cloud. It was floaty like an American land yacht’s, but double-wishbones at all four corners meant the handling was still there when you needed it. The DOHC 4.0L V8 is so buttery you wondered if it was made of silk rather than aluminum and, more importantly, it out-powered the European competition.
The icing on the cake, however, was that Lexus offered all of this at the astoundingly low price of $35,000. Engineers had even spent countless hours ensuring the LS achieved 22.5 mpg so the government wouldn’t be able to slap it with a gas guzzler tax. It came in thousands below the competition, and the goodness-to-dollar ratio was so lopsided that BMW famously accused Lexus of selling the LS below cost.
Move for move, Lexus had shot down every critique lobbed at them. Even a brake light recall two months into the launch — a seemingly disastrous ding on a new brand built on Toyota’s legendary reliability — was turned into a positive when service techs paid house calls to every last LS owner to fix the issue before Christmas. They even provided car washes and full tanks of gas for the trouble, cementing Lexus’s reputation for customer service.
Lexus had knocked it out of the park, but there was just one tiny flaw, one that no amount of engineering could fix. In Part 02, we’ll see what that is, and what Lexus can do to change that.