In 1989, Toyota shot for the moon. Cars will never be made like this again.

(c) carsbase

We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do these other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” These are the much quoted words of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1962, pledging his country’s commitment for the Apollo space mission.

The Apollo programme cost $billions and was only a qualified success, insofar as it did not precipitate a more widespread and far-reaching programme of space exploration. It did however succeed in demonstrating what the American government could do when the finest minds were provided with almost unlimited resources to achieve a clearly defined goal. Which of course was the primary object of the exercise.

Equating 1989’s Lexus LS400 with the Apollo mission might be viewed as a bit of a giant leap, but the parallels are compelling. Because it too was a cost-no-object programme to take on the very top echelons of the American and European motor industry and illustrate what keen brains, the best resources and a clear unambiguous brief could attain.

(c) bildata

By the late 1980’s Japan had largely transcended a reputation for bland econoboxes, producing some of the best engineered, most ambitious designs of the decade. Constrained by stringent import restrictions and therefore no longer content confining themselves to the cheap seats, Japanese carmakers embarked on ambitious upmarket model lines.

There was certainly no doubting what celestial object the Toyota Motor Corporation had in their sights when the ‘Circle F’ programme was initiated in 1983. A three pointed one from Stuttgart would be Toyota’s North star, the brief being to create the finest possible vehicle, employing the most advanced technology and materials.

The lengths to which Toyota engineers, lead by Ichiro Suzuki and Shiro Sasaki went to became legendary. The engine alone; an alloy-block 4.0 litre V8 with four overhead camshafts and a 32-valve head (with lightweight aluminium cam followers, to reduce valvetrain inertia) came about only after 973 prototypes had allegedly been evaluated. Machining tolerances for all the power unit’s moving parts were reduced by 50% for smoothness of operation as was the use of hydro-pneumatic engine mounts.

The gearbox’s ECU ‘spoke’ to that of the engine, so that during upchanges, the engine management system could momentarily retard the ignition, reducing torque load on the transmission, making shifts smoother. Similarly, the engine was inclined rearwards, allowing the two-piece driveshaft to be mounted entirely in-line, minimising mechanical loss, wear, vibration and stress on the final drive unit, which itself had been specifically designed for quietness in operation.

Durability of both the mechanical and bodily variety was prioritised, with most body components being fabricated from corrosion-resistant materials. The bodyshell was claimed to be the stiffest in production, with welds being 1.5 times stronger than rivals. Laser-welding techniques were employed for the first time, allowing visible weld seams to be eliminated in obvious places like door apertures. Furthermore, sound-insulating sandwich panels were welded into the double skinned bulkheads to prevent noise from entering the cabin.

Even matters as seemingly inconsequential as panel gaps were meticulously considered. Computer gauged, shutlines were designed to be slightly asymmetrical, engineers discovering that slightly tapered gaps allowed for perspective changes in the human eye. Seemingly nothing escaped Toyota’s obsessive attention to detail. The wipers were designed in such a way that their angle altered in response to an increase in vehicle speed and that not only the bumpers, but the indicators too were designed to absorb 5-mph impacts.

Luxury and comfort were not neglected either, with two years being spent establishing the ideal tanning method, leather grain and texture for the seating, while the wood trim was finished by piano-making craftsmen at Yamaha.

This mind-boggling level of detail was for good reason. The car Toyota had benchmarked was not the contemporary S-Class then in production, but the one which would launch several years after the LS400’s debut – a car which was billed as a technology showcase and symbol of Daimler’s engineering might. To help ensure Lexus’ acceptance in the market, Toyota initiated their most stringent inspection procedures at the Tahara assembly plant, and a level of customer service both in sales and service that redefined the sector.

While its reception in the US was more considered (and broadly enthusiastic), European observers were treated to the unedifying spectacle of the press turning somersaults to find fault with what was a crushingly capable, finely honed product. The best they could manage was to criticise its styling for blandness (broadly speaking, it was as well formed as any Sacco-era Mercedes), its cabin for a certain lack of plushness (not everything required huge swathes of felled tree) and a slightly inert dynamic nature – (Lexus hadn’t set out to produce a BMW). It wasn’t their finest hour.

(c) autowp

But even if the industry cheerleaders remained unconvinced, the carmakers themselves saw matters with more clarity. Lexus sent shockwaves through the business, giving even the mighty Stuttgart-Untertürkheim pause, even if to a greater extent Mercedes was (over?) confident of their ability to prevail. Nevertheless, it was clear they were rattled. Suddenly, an S-Class wasn’t so reassuringly expensive.

However, at Browns Lane, the LS 400’s arrival was described to this author by a former insider as ‘chilling’. Because while BMW and Mercedes traded on qualities of performance, dynamic prowess, perceived quality but above all, snob value, Jaguar’s primary USP of supreme NVH suppression had been conclusively annexed and it would take a massive effort to get it back.

Quickly, Lexus carved a significant and lucrative niche for themselves in the US market, taking a significant percentage from domestic marques, but never quite hitting the Germans where it hurt. This however was not the case for Jaguar, who perhaps of the imports, suffered most in the US from their encroach. In Europe meanwhile, where heritage counted for more, the situation was rather different, Lexus gaining respect, if not sales.


Yet even if we are prepared to consider the LS 400 a hugely expensive shot into the brave o’erhanging firmament; one which didn’t (and couldn’t) recoup its vast investment, it – alongside Honda’s NSX announced the same year, succeeded in fundamentally changing perceptions of the Japanese industry. After this, nobody was prepared to underestimate them again.

Furthermore, in LS400, Toyota created one of the most perfectly realised series-production automobiles ever. That it is still viewed with a certain condescension in some quarters speaks eloquently. But herein lies the problem with perfection (or close approximations to it). It leaves so little to fixate upon. Perhaps Lexus ought to have engineered in a few flaws, but of course, that isn’t how you get to the stars.

Source: Lexus UK.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

51 thoughts on “Moonshot”

  1. This LS looked most typical in pearlescent white with chrome alloys and golden badges. It shouted ‘US market’ from every detail. It clearly was intended to first of all appeal to US customers and that’s what it did.

    In most of Continental Europe there is/was no big market for such expressively US oriented cars and therefore it didn’t sell there in large numbers – something nobody could have expected anyway simply because the car was targeted at different customers.

  2. I think Dave is correct in pointing out that the main commercial interest of Lexus was in the US: I have however the impression that Lexus had/has a larger customer base in the UK than in Continental Europe, and, if this impression is correct, it would be interesting to understand why.
    In my limited experience I noticed a really substantial fault in the way of selling the car in Europe, i.e. the lack of an appropriate dealer network, because Toyota for prestige reasons wanted to maintain a separate one, not mixing the proletarian Toyota badge with the luxury Lexus badge.
    The result, however, was a really sparse network.
    Nobody among the possible customers of such a car, who normally were business-oriented people, wanted to be annoyed with distant dealers, who made it a difficult task just to have the car serviced .
    I think that afterwards Toyota gave the possibility of having a Lexus serviced by Toyota dealers, but apparently it did not help.
    One could also add a total lack of advertising, rendering the car a virtually unknown object.
    Only a marginal part of this already marginal market could be interested in it, and they were the ones in particular situations: for example in Italy count Marzotto of the Marzotto textile industries was a keen Lexus driver, in order, I suppose, to bring a distinction between him and the many A8, S Class, 7 Series present on Italian roads in those days.
    Another industrialist, Cadillac driver supposedly for the same reasons, changed to a Lexus LS.
    Not much to provide satisfying selling quotes: the vast majority of the possible customers stayed with their A8, S Class or 7 Series.

  3. I have never considered the Lexus LS as a car designed to appeal to European senses. I have always thought of it as having been designed to appeal to Americans because of the films I have seen it be featured in. In addition, I have heard automotive journalists state multiple times that the Lexus brand was essentially developed to be the Japanese equivalent of Mercedes-Benz. I think however that the statement is a bit condescending because it diminishes the attention to detail that went into the engineering of the Lexus LS. I must agree that while being a near embodiment of perfection, the Lexus marketing strategy did render the LS almost invisible. It is a shame really that it never caught on. I have often had my own issues trying to differentiate between the LS and the W140 S-Class, surely that must say something about what they were trying to achieve.

  4. There were quite a few ads in the magazines in the Netherlands of this car, so at least in my country it wasn’t completely invisible. This wasn’t reflected in the sales however. I do think it was more aimed at the US market as suggested here. Also the colour schemes available especially for the interior seem to point in that direction.

  5. There´s no question in my mind this is the kind of car Vincenzo Lancia would have aimed for if Lancia had still be independent in 1980-something. The car is a compromise – all cars are – though it compromises at a really high level. It´s pretty much the Concorde of cars because the points where it excelled won´t be surpassed. And as Eoin points out, the car changed perceptions in a fundamental way. Which car do I think is more likely to run and stay running – Jaguar, Fiat, BMW or Toyota? Answer: not the first three.

  6. While I appreciate that they’re wonderful cars and that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I wish they had made it look less like a Mercedes-Benz – it needs some character of its own.

    In a way, the endless refinement just emphasizes the lack of originality – ‘We haven’t got any ideas of our own, but we can take what you do, and do it much better’.

    Another candidate for ‘I wish they’d gone to a design house’. That said, Lexus have established their own style, now, and I’d certainly have a Lexus in future (budget allowing).

    Anastasio – re Lexus’s relative UK popularity, I think that may be based on a positive attitude to Japanese goods in general in the UK, especially cars. The Japanese provided a welcome contrast to our own products, and later tie-ups (e.g. with Honda) and inward investment by Toyota and Nissan may have generated wider goodwill.

  7. Interesting point, Richard. I think if Vincenzo still had been around he’d done it with a bit more style, though

  8. Fixating upon the LS400’s styling I fear somehow misses the point. The car’s achievements were broadly speaking, invisible to the eye, but could be felt by, not only the first owner, but also the fourth or fifth. Also, while I perhaps used to hold similarly pejorative views about the Japanese carmakers, I have come to realise that to suggest they merely copied their rivals is to vastly underestimate their achievement. They certainly didn’t emulate them in terms of durability and reliability. What were they supposed to do anyway?

    As regards the style of the car – a subject I elected not to talk about in detail for reasons stated in the first line of this comment – again, what were they to do? Had they gone to any of the major Italian carrozzieri, what would they have got? Pininfarina: a facsimile of the Alfa 164/ Peugeot template perhaps. Bertone under Deschamps? Heaven only knows. ItalDesign? Well, you get the gist – none of the big name styling houses were at their creative peak at the time.

    Anyway, as a disruptor, Toyota played it safe and was probably correct in doing so. Infiniti, by contrast, came up with something more stylistically divisive and suffered for it. A more recent example is Tesla, who hardly scared the horses with the Model S design.

    Like many, I initially thought the LS400 was bland. But it’s a car that isn’t obvious about its appeal and I have come to appreciate it, not only for the incredible engineering achievement it embodied, but also for the subtle appeal of its appearance, which seems more correct to my eyes than ever.

    I might also add that Toyota had very good reason targeting Lexus at the US market. It was until recently the world’s largest market for these kind of motor cars. They were also astute enough to realise they would never surmount the inbuilt snobbery of the European customer. A snobbery that was (to be kind) compounded by the good gentlemen of the press.

    1. I don’t think it was snobbery.
      It’s about different target customer groups and according expectations.
      Just figure out why somebody who had come to the conclusion that this was the car to buy

      should go for one of these

      Remember this was the time when BMW management refused to have cupholders fitted to their cars because a BMW was a place to drive and not to sip coffee – a perspective their American design director changed fundamentally.
      At the same time the Lexus got a steering wheel swinging out of the way so an obese belly could get behind it.

    2. Eóin, I think your last paragraph captures Toyota’s thinking at the time precisely. The US market tended, with considerable justification, to regard premium foreign marques as manufacturers of cars that were better designed and built, more reliable and simply more prestigious their domestic competitors. US buyers were, however, less strongly affiliated to a particular marque or country of manufacture and more likely to judge the new Lexus on its on merits than were prospective European buyers. Those that did were hugely impressed with, not only the car itself, but especially the quality of a sales and after-sales experience that was hugely superior to that of its competitors. It was that, as much as the car itself, that quickly built up strong brand loyalty, to the extent that Lexus was able to sell rebadged Toyotas (the ES300) to buyers who valued the service even more highly than the product.

      Regarding the design, yes, it was rather anonymous, but Lexus had no back catalogue to draw upon and, sensibly, went for discreet understatement rather than try to invent distinctive design tropes at such an early stage in its development. It’s interesting to compare the original LS400 with the contempory Toyota Crown and Century:

      Both, while well built and generously specified, were rather upright, formal and old fashioned, and unmistakably Japanese. The LS400 was deliberately lacking in any national characteristics or design tropes, truly a clean sheet design. I actually like it a lot, with one reservation: the door skins incorporating the DLO in a single pressing looks a bit rudimentary for such a car, even if they were very effective in reducing wind noise. The lower window line is also a bit uncertain, not quite straight, but not obviously curved either. These are minor criticisms and the original LS400 was a highly significant car in the impact it had on its competitors, driving up the quality of the product and, in particular, expectations of service.

    3. Dave: The target customer for Lexus wasn’t a BMW customer. Infiniti tried that, and we all saw how that went. The 7-Series (and the E32 in particular I’d suggest) was a vehicle with a very strong, well defined personality and a far more dynamic mien than any of its putative rivals. You also I note, contrast a distinctly flattering image of the Seibener (a car of obvious visual appeal) with a somewhat less than ideal one of the Lexus. Nice.

      But realistically, how many potential BMW customer cross-shopped? Only if they were not particularly interested in what BMW were offering, which was less sybaritic, more, shall we say, assertive? But if, as you suggest they had already fixed upon the Seven, they were hardly going to change their minds. Anyway, I would assert that buyers in the US placed convenience and comfort over dynamics, which weren’t of much use to them.

      I would also point out that lots of luxury car owners on either side of the Atlantic are on the more generously upholstered side. It tends to be a function of ‘good living’ according to my hardly scientific observations.

      I recall a conversation with a former Jaguar product strategist who told me that their US importers were constantly berating them for not fitting cupholders or providing things like additional drop-down sunvisors. In the sunshine states in particular, these mattered. There were many features American customers wanted, some of which were legitimate asks, but not deemed necessary by engineers back in Britain or Germany. I don’t require cupholders in a car, but plenty seem to like them. Heaven knows why. Was it so awful that Lexus gave the customer what they wanted?

    4. Having levelled a minor criticism at the design of the LS400, I thought I’d give it a more conventional (for a 1989 luxury car) door window treatment. Here’s the starting point:

      And this is where I ended up:

      More conventional but also more like an S-Class, I suppose.

    5. I had no intention to contrast photographs of different quality, I only needed a picture of a Lexus with golden lettering and couldn’t find another one. The pictured 7 is unusual in having a badge on the bootlid, most of them came without. Most of the US Lexi I saw had the (optional at extra cost) golden lettering which should explain the idea of different target customer groups. There was a ‘Palm Beach’ LS 400 special edition of a Florida dealer with golden wheels and ivory vinyl roof. Except for the crude way it was made it didn’t look out of style on the LS but as hard as I try I cannot imagine an E32 (or a W126) with a vinyl roof.

      There’s nothing wrong with giving customers what they want. It’s just that Lexus gave US customers what they wanted and therefore made a dent in sales numbers of Cadillacs and Lincolns but didn’t succeed in Continental Europe because customers there wanted something different.

  9. It frankly amazes me that Lexus have only been round for thirty years. It somehow feels more. I’ve never managed a drive or ride in one so cannot possibly comment but a memory from eons ago was a youthful Clarkson balancing a pound coin (possibly a glass of water ) on the engine and revving the nuts off it which caused not a murmur. Of the handful seen in the metal, all I could see then was a big car. Not ostentatious, not shouting but a plain large automobile. No bad thing.
    Not wanting to bash the Brits but can you imagine a West Midlands shop floor on a Monday morning being asked to knock up the 73rd batch of prototype engine parts, never mind the 1000th? I can’t.
    Lexus and this model in particular areCreatively impressive. Industrially shocking. Culturally diverse. No bad thing

  10. I’ve just spotted something rather intriguing about the LS400 image I posted above: the front and rear alloy wheels’ spokes point in opposite directions. (The front points anti-clockwise and rear clockwise.) I thought it might have been some Photoshop trickery, but not so: the Lexus badge in each wheel centre is correct.

    That style of alloy wheel was the standard fit item on the car. Looking at other images of the LS400 online, some cars have matching wheels, others have opposing wheels, like this example:

    Did Lexus equip the car with two wheels in one orientation for one side and two in the opposite orientation for the other side so that, when fitted correctly, the spokes of all four wheels pointed in the “same” direction. If so, that was amazing attention to detail. It’s a shame that this subtlety was lost on many owners (or, more likely, tyre fitters) who mixed them up!

    I wonder if the LS400 had uni-directional tyres? This might explain the wheels.

    1. Daniel: that´s two things that indicate your own attention to detail. Earlier you made a point about the door frames. This aspect of car construction is seldom considered. At least, I had not considered whether Lexus´ decision to tailor the car this way at all. Do you have another car in mind of an example of how it could otherwise been done? Now you draw my attention to it, the only line on the car I don´t like is the cut of the front door shut line into the base of the A-pillar (seen from front three quarter).
      About your revised side glass view: here we have another delightful example of how in car design the parts and whole are inseparable. The revised version has a disharmony between the base of the DLO and boot; maybe it needs a small but clear radius on the trailing corner?
      I see the small curve in the base of the actual DLO. I think this is a necessary bit of optical trickery like entasis but horizontal. Well spotted – I´d imaged it was a boring straight line. The designer has bent it a bit to “correct” it. My intuition says that a literal straight line would be too neutral and might look bent the wrong way.
      The photo of the Crown suggests that the Lexus LS400 was supposed to be a Toyota Crown – doesn´t the LS just look like the next-generation of Crown? (I like that Crown very much!). It looks very robust and solid. Probably very rare…

    2. For a very, very large number of crystal clear and sharp photos of the 1989 Toyota Crown V8 click on this
      This car is simply astonishing – pretty much as well-finished as the contemporary Century but smaller. Notice that the interior and exterior is verging on baroque. It shows though that Lexus were very, restrained in handling the LS400 and did a super job of tuning the car to Western taste.
      I will address my question for Daniel myself: the LS400 needed frameless doors, of course.
      Was this possible to do without causing noise in the car? Answer: possibly not, not even for Lexus.

    3. The first generation Lexus ES300 had frameless windows. But still had a full B pillar, like the GM Colonnade models of the 1970s.

      My 1990s ford Thunderbirds both had direction wheels for left and right. It was a nice detail that a lot of more expensive cars missed.

    4. Angel: that´s a nice detail on the T-bird. Your edition was a very likeable car. These caught my eye when I lived in the US in the early 90s. They look pleasing, are big and comfy but not bloated. The low window line is the kind of thing I miss in current cars. I imagine the car feels very airy inside. V8, I assume?

    5. Good morning, Richard, and thank you for your comments. Having played with the LS400 and read your thoughts, I now properly appreciate the subtlety of that curve to the lower DLO line. If you allow your eye to follow it rearward, it sweeps up gently to connect visually with the bottom edge of the rear window and the rear deck. My straight line finishes too low and I don’t think that even a radiused rear corner would have been entirely satisfactory. Thinking about it further, it is specifically the shut line on the C-pillar that I read as “non-premium” as it deprives that pillar of the necessary visual heft one would expect in this type of car.

      Lexus persevered with the one-piece door pressings for the second generation LS model before changing to this for the third generation:

      Ironically, this is one of the cars I had in mind for an alternative door window treatment, not frameless, but having slim separate metal frames with bright trim. This car was, of course, a facsimile of the W140 S-Class:

    6. Hi Angel, that Thunderbird is, as Richard said, is a very pleasant design, and comfortable too. An acquaintance of mine who moved to Los Angeles bought one and I travelled in it a few times, although I never noticed the wheels. I wonder if they eventually got mixed up, like the Lexus above, because owners missed that subtle detail.

    7. Lexus lost their focus with the LS430. I believe it is a very fine car; the design lets it down enormously. It is a mushy blend of elements much as the last Carina was a mix of vague ideas. Whereas the first LS400 has a clear idea well expressed the LS430 shown above clearly does not. The proportions are wrong; whereas the first car is long and low, the second is a bit too tall and, overall, bloated. This was a management problem – whooever had the vision to see the Mk1 through had probably retired and the successor was only going through the motions.

    8. Richard: I had a SuperCoupe and a V8 pretty much identical to the picture. The SC was powerful with an extremely high torque engine, but crude and noisy with a rough shifting Mazda truck transmission. The V8 was the first gen sohc and a very refined and comfortable vehicle.

      My observation was that those cars were mostly run into the ground and junked. There are now very few left on the road.

      I eventually ran into parts supply problems. It was an orphan platform for Ford after 1996 (1998 for the Mark VIII), and the parts supply ran out even before the legally mandated 10 years. eg fusebox.

    9. Daniel: on the directional wheels, they were marked, but not prominently, and the OEM tires were not directional. I noticed because of switching back and forth to winter tires. A beast like a manual transmission SuperCoupe in Ottawa freezing rain without proper winter tires would be deadly !

  11. Hi anastasio,

    I find the UK and Ireland much more receptive to U.S tastes and trends than continental Europeans. For me the shared language is key: perhaps they simply understood and learned more abut the LS400 because english-language related articles were a lot more prevalent since it was mainly reviewed by U.S outlets. Also, I think English people can be a bit left-field with their choices and are, in general, a bit more adventurous than their continental neighbours, I think we can see it with food, fashion, etc…

    1. This is in response to this bit:

      “I have however the impression that Lexus had/has a larger customer base in the UK than in Continental Europe, and, if this impression is correct, it would be interesting to understand why.”

  12. I think this car really did change perceptions about luxury Japanese saloons because I remember noticing and loving the car at a time when luxe saloons from Japan weren’t so attractive. I remember everyone harping on the notion that it looked like a Mercedes and while the influences are clear and at times not so subtle I thought it still managed to look different. That rear window without a quarter light is very uncommon ! Overall I think the car had this solidity aspect perfectly executed but it still looked more dynamic and svelte than the equivalent Mercedes, maybe because of the DLO that has an airy feeling due to uninterrupted glass ?

    1. I was thinking along the same lines – it’s actually quite a dynamic design, in spite of the extreme calmness it conveys (a thing that is very, very missing in car design today). The DLO contributes a lot to that, I would say. Daniel’s example proves this. The slight upward bend, the soft kink at the back, the rear doorframe which gives the whole a slightly forward leaning stance – all this contributes to an air of movement and lightness. Without changing anything on the proportions and the outline of the car, Daniel’s modification makes it a much more static, planted affair – just a bit too W140 for my taste.

    2. Hi Simon,

      Yes it does look relatively ‘calm’, that Japanese Zen thing and all that 😀

  13. One other thing I think could have helped was the adoption of the LS400 by the U.S rap community as a valid answer to Germans equivalents. The car did feature on a number of rap videos, a feat the U.S Peugeot 604 never achieved. They’re tons of lyrics and rap videos that reference the LS, and Lexus, as a firstname ,for newborns even began trending. Which got me thinking that the ‘Lexus’ name was a very good find. Some names resonate more than others and I think can really help shape the perceptions we have of a brand. Lexus, with the inverted ‘Luxe’ word might have caught the attention more than Infiniti for example, I think there’s a tediousness to saying ‘Infiniti’, it just doesn’t roll of the tongue like ‘Lexus’ does. This might seems like small details but I think they have a bigger influence than we think but maybe it’s not an easily study-able or quantifiable science.

    I agree that the lack of communication about the car in Europe was baffling but to me this has been a very Japanese shortcoming for a long time: I was always perplexed at the sparcity of adverts for Japanese cars and the lack of any memorable one, be it on T.V or in the papers. and when they did advertise in magazines for example it was always a cheap looking thing with a really uninspired slogan. But I always thought there’s this strange things with Japanese carmakers whereas they don’t know how to capitalise on their own successes, throughout history I think they had hugely successful cars but always seemed at pain manage their replacements, with the design, USP, format, etc… going all over the place when the original car was well received in the first place. I think this has only recently starting to change and it’s perhaps helped by the more cosmopolitan input in Sales, Marketing, etc…

    1. I’am not saying that the average C.E.O looks up to Snoop dogg or lil’ Pump for inspiration when it comes to replacing their cars but the car’s appearance in music videos might’ve helped its ‘cool’ factor a little bit.

    2. Good morning, NRJ. Is it true or just an urban myth that Lexus is (almost) an acronym of “Luxury Executive United States”? If true, then it’s very clear where the LS400 was primarily aimed.

      I wholly agree about the strength and appeal of the Lexus name, a simple, strong, two-syllable word, pronounced phonetically, with strong association to “luxe”, luxury”, whereas Infiniti has four syllables, looks mis-spelt, and is associated only with something very intangible and unimaginable.

      This got me thinking as to whether the audible resonance or otherwise of the name influences the success of the marque to any great degree. Almost all current marque names have no more than three syllables, the outliers being Alfa Romeo, Mitsubishi, and Mercedes-Benz, but only if you add on the Benz suffix, which would be rather pretentious in everyday conversation. Do people say “Alfa” or “Alfa Romeo” in conversation? I’m not sure.

      If there’s any substance to this, then poor old Autobianchi never stood a chance!

    3. In fact I think the LS400 is a perfect example of Japanese carmakers struggling to be consistent style-wise for a long time. Despite its Mercedes-inspired looks I really think the LS stood on its own, had a somehow recognisable and original shape compared to its rivals and the subsequent replacement models could have capitalised on that by refining the design while keeping its peculiarities. Instead we got a series of replacement cars moving away from the original theme entirely and the Germans have shown that consistency and slow design evolution is perhaps often the key to success….and high residuals. There seemed to be some errance style-wise which was a shame because they were I believe pretty consistent when it came to quality, engine evolutions, etc….

    4. People say “Alfa” and “Alfa Romeo”, interchangeably. Monteverdi is a lovely name – better than the cars it was attached to. It´s easy to say and sounds attractive. Lamborghini is another four part name. They do okay, don´t they?

    5. Fair point, Richard, Lamborghini is the exception that proves the rule. During its pre-Audi stewardship era, Lamborghini was famous for its “excess all areas” philosophy, so its reasonable to assume this also covered the number of syllables in its name.

      Being difficult to pronounce, or non-phonetic, is another issue. It was the silent “w” in Daewoo that did for that marque, not the rubbish cars. Mind you, they still buy plenty of Awedees in Pewjoes in Ireland. (Before anyone accuses me of making fun of my fellow countrymen, at least they know how to pronounce Porsche and Lidl correctly.)

    6. Daniel – the first reference I can find, from June 1990, refers to a ‘luxury export to the US’. Whether that was truly the origin for the name is a matter of conjecture but I am inclined to give contemporaneous(ish) accounts a fair bit of weight in matters like this.

      I don’t think there is any doubt about whom the LS400 was primarily aimed at. From the same piece, allow me to quote Wheels editor Phil Scott:

      “By pure co-incidence, on the same day we gaze, somewhat perplexed, at the rococo interior and baroque prow of the Park Avenue, a five-man design team from Toyota is moving into an architect-trendy mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Laguna Beach, California. For the remainder of May and June, 1985 they study America and America’s lifestyle. They visit San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Miami and New York. They talk to potential buyers, observe social habits and fashion. They then go home to Nagoya to design Flagship 1, later known as Lexus, designed to show America that maybe, just maybe, the Buick Park Avenue can be bettered…”

      Notwithstanding all that, this car made a big impression on youthful Stradale in still-rather-small-horizon Sydney, circa 1990. Not least because, as part of its launch, Lexus reserved priority parking for Lexus owners right opposite the doors of the Sydney Opera House, which seemed to be as good a reason as any to badger my parents to chop mum’s Ford Laser in for an LS. Prioritised for the US it might have been, but it simply blew everything out of the water when it dropped in Australia, at a simply astonishing price. I would have to go back and check the exact numbers, but suffice to say it was a marked differential between it and the Euros, with the benefit of a patently superior device into the bargain.

      I never really concurred with the general consensus on this car’s styling as ‘bland’. Discreet and understated, yes – but I never have trouble identifying an early LS400 in traffic. I actually agree with some of the comments above that reference the contemporary Toyota design language from the Crown and Century; there are also references to the final-generation Cressida, another outstanding car although largely forgotten today. I agree the styling of the first-generation LS has held up extremely well, a big step forwards from the rather unrefined ‘first-gen aero’ models of the early-mid-1980s, and reflective of the new wave of frighteningly competent Japanese metal that seemed to emerge virtually non-stop for about three years straight in the wake of the ’89 Tokyo show.

  14. Good morning Daniel,

    I never heard of Lexus standing for this but I really am no experts, despite my attempts to pass off as one. You explained very well why Infiniti doesn’t sounds so right. I think it’s a difficult subjject wether the audible resonance of a brand name has any weight in its chances on the market. For certain brands, even if the name itself is hard to pronounce or unfamiliar it’s the history attached to the brand and the connotations associated with it that does the job I would think. Some names are difficult in appearance or too long but are very pleasant to say nonethelss (Alfa Romeo, Mitsubishi, Autobianchi even,….)

    For me, it’s certain that names have a bigger influence than we generally think. Sometimes, around me, it seems people love saying the name of the car they own, almost as if the name sounding right (or cool, or distinctive, or clever, etc…) in conversation was a factor in their buying decision even if they’d never say so. Despite the name being sometimes ridiculed at launch, to me the Qashqai was one of those cars. It is perhaps a difficult alchemy, some cars have genius names but they never catch on. It’s a cruel, cruel world Daniel.

    1. Could the lack of success of french automakers in the USA and other key markets be, in part, due to their names ?

      I never really thought about it but Renault, Peugeot and Citroen might be a bit tedious to say from a foreigner perspective but without a nice ring to it or attractive connotations associated with it, the way, say, Alfa Romeo,Lancia (Italian, luxurious, sporty) or Toyota and Volkswagen ( code for ‘reliable’, ‘serious’ and ‘quality’ perhaps ?) could have. The French riviera is perhaps considered as beautiful as the Italian Riviera for example but when it comes to cars, each country’s car brand names have very different connotations and images that spring to mind, a dashing young man or a beautiful girl in a Ferrari or Alfa Romeo for the Italian atmosphere and an old farmer in a 2CV or 4L delivering onions with a Gitane in his mouth and a dirty “bleu de travail” for the French scenery.

    2. This MPV has one of my all-time favourite model names:

      But what is it?

    1. It’s strange because it looks like a T6 (?) Caravelle but the rear DLO is somewhat different. I’am not doing any google Image searches as this would be cheating.

    1. lol, that is a memorable name. As you know, the Japanese have lots of those funny double-barreled name, the Boon Luminas springs to mind too.

  15. I wrote a long piece on why Mr Doyle was spot on about the original LS400. Then I binned it, because the comments had gone off into styling critiques which interest me not one jot, unless Mr Herriott has penned the original article or really got into detailed observations in the comments. I have come to the personal conclusion that nobody else has much of a clue as to how to explain the art of design, at least nobody I can understand. I really miss those articles, because they were superb. Without them, I am left to my own devices, which amount in full-depth to: “Do I like it, or not?”

    So far as the LS400 is concerned, when it was introduced, the penny had not dropped in the US that Toyota was such an efficient assembler of vehicles, it made money at $35K retail a unit. The 1990 book, “The Machine That Changed The World” published by Mass Inst of Technology, showed just how far out in front Toyota was at the time. Mercedes received a right rollicking for its massive Rework areas at the end of the assembly line. Apparently it had not occurred to the brains at Stuttgart that product engineering and design is one thing, but efficiently addressing the matter of assembling fault-free products is quite another, let alone sourcing fault-free sub-assemblies from suppliers. Knackered brand new climate control unit in a brand new ’88 300E was the fate that befell my best friend. Taking the dash apart had once taxed the ingenuity of the ex-blacksmith technicians at the local dealer. But as they admitted, after a few dozen you get quite good at it. It looked the business that unit, but was just as breakable as the one in his Audi 200 turbo which looked like amateur hour.

    Toyota were taken aback by criticisms they were “dumping” LS400s on the US market, fuelled by the inability of the Detroit Three to compete, because the concept of Quality Assurance and Just In Time delivery of parts and subassemblies hadn’t hit them, despite the original theory being American. So Toyota happily raised prices and carted the excess off to the bank. That excess, pure playing around money, these days amounts to some $36 billion, it is said. That’s over and above what they need to fund daily operations, and they’re still the number one producer in the world, VW’s handwaving notwithstanding. And there’s nobody who can convince me that anyone else makes such reliable cars. I bet there wasn’t a single LS400 with HVAC problems from new.

    As for the one-piece doors, which I happily admit I would insist on for structural reasons if I were king, their LS400 implementation seems to have been part of the scheme to efficiently handle rainwater with the elimination of gutters. Everyone had a go at that problem during the 1980s, and many of today’s vehicles still sluice water onto the side windows or inside if one has the glass down.

    Toyota invests with an eye to the future, like most Japanese makers, which means no wild hops in technology or engines on a whim, merely gradual development to make things better. The problem that does seem to occur is that styling updates that aren’t worse than the original are difficult to achieve. And unfortunately, since Akio Toyoda has ascended to the Toyota throne, his idea of “excitement” as he calls it, have led to some nightmarish looking vehicles since 2011, of which the only resolved one to my untrained eyes, is the LC500 over which in convertible form Mr Doyle gushed. Haven’t seen it, but the coupe is spectacular in the flesh. It just reeks of quality like no other new car I’ve examined.

  16. I’ve long thought that an original LS400 would be a good car to own, given the mind-boggling effort that went into making it perfect – and I’ve never seen anything to make me think otherwise. One of these days I’ll make sure to read the book on the development; I’m sure it will be similar to the one on the McLaren F1 (Driving Ambition) that I have a copy of, as that had a similar philosophy.

    As for the doors, the trend at the time was to make the doors wrap over the body perhaps for style, or perhaps for water management, I’m not sure. As has been noted, ‘everyone’ has moved back to ‘inset’ doors I think to allow for increased section of the body structure.

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