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