We introduce something of a Japanese (and Toyota-based) micro-theme for the month of February, with an appreciation of a much maligned Grand Turismo from 1999.
No, this is not some Only Connect quiz show number sequence type thing. These numbers actually refer to a decade long tenure (including concept) run of a V8 motor who on its first day of public showing sold six examples. To which do we allude?
The Lexus Sports Coupé 430, a forgotten car, a misjudged one (in my eyes), and now mellowed in middle age.
So why the SC430 and why now? Simply because I recently witnessed one, wafting by. Sitting at a junction on a rare cold, dry, cobalt-blue sky day, a silver SC hewed past, roof down and (male) driver smiling. The V8 was inaudible due to my windows being most firmly closed and the Bālānescu Quartet on the stereogram darling, I smiled too.
Smiling drivers are rare; nearly as rare as SCs. Using Mr Herriott’s 2015 piece as a reference point which at the time suggested SC production had ended six years previously, I sought a better overall understanding.
Currently an almost moribund niche, wind back twenty years to see Lexus aiming for a bigger slice of the then lucrative pie. Heralded as the “Jewel of Lexus” and bringing a “higher level of prestige” according to Chief Engineer Mr Yasushi Nakagawa when the concept was revealed to the world at the Tokyo motor show in 1999. It took until the 2001 Geneva show for the wider European clientele to observe these most feminine of curves, deliveries beginning that summer.
But the November held British Motor Show in 2000 was the place for those lauded six sales, before pricing had even been printed. Just seven short days later, Lexus GB had taken over 200 firm deposits of the £51,000 coupé. That fulfilled Great Britain’s quota within a week. The Queen’s Highways too would accept the coupé from the summer of 2001.
Lexus’ own Europe Design studio head, Sotiris Kovos had offered those short overhangs (890mm front – 1005mm, rear) on a long wheelbase (2620 mm), and with an overall length of 4515mm, the proportions are ostensibly decent. On 18” wheels that imbue a machined surface or a detailed part of a watch face, the SC looks quite assured on the tarmac. The machine had been competently balanced with a front/rear split of 48:52.
Sculptured with the French Riviera in mind, not Norwich as it happens, as research had shown the Riviera populace preferred products of high quality, simplicity, character and sophistication. I’m sure a resident of Norfolk’s largest town would feel the same. Perhaps a might chillier there.
Nakagawa believed that the car had real presence; a compact cabin, a powerful underbody, a strong face that projects forward motion along with elegance. As to the car’s rear, he wished for one volume – and got that in spades. And to the overall look, he wanted a car that looked good roof up as well as roof down. Good on ‘yer, Chief Engineer! With him so far.
Trips to the past bring to the forefront the speed of technology. Mention of Electronic Control Units and these being formed in a ‘daisy chain‘ in order to assist the BEAN (Body Electrics Area Network) and the equally receptively titled AVC-LAN (Audio Visual Communication Local Area Network) to keep absolutely everything in tip top electronic order. And the stereogram is quite excellent, apparently. What no Apple Play?
The SC’s suspension is also electronically controlled with an adapted and enhanced version of double wishbones from the GS saloon. Nakagawa then reveals his thoughts of how the car should feel. “I want to glide into corners then accelerate out, no vibration, no scuttle shake, roof down. This car was always designed from the start as a convertible.”
A new name now appears, Jos de Boes, who was based in the Lexus Brussels Vehicle Engineering section. “Driving in Europe is totally different to the rest of the world; higher sustained speeds, later braking, harder acceleration. First priority is stability, then that magic carpet ride that makes the car a Lexus. We aimed for maximum comfort and stability at 220Kph roof down – throw in that V8 noise for fun times!” This seems a million miles from our friends who pound the Nurburgring, endlessly searching for that perfect lap time. I’m with de Boes here, too.
Now here is where I divulge my initial misgivings about the SC. My misspent youth was far less sophisticated than now: why, there was no DTW. Only magazines and winter nights of Top Gear on TV where, sadly, the SC was mortally wounded without any chance of appeal. They loathed the SC: therefore so should I. And I did: for years. Run flat tyres? Are you kidding? Hideous! Cue overused Clarkson rhetoric.
What changed? What altered my perceptions of this, let’s face it, handsomely equipped, comely coupé with a rear wheel drive V8 aboard? We salivated over German and British variations on a theme with gusto; what is there so radically different?
I got older, mellowed: opinions and outlooks alter. And there’s more.
For starters, probably the badge. Lexus GB were a mere baby compared to those mighty rivals with history. People still wanted heft and known arguments. This Japanese upstart might have put those same rivals nose’s out of joint with the LS, but what did they know of a coupé that looks girly? The shape is feminine but it is a female possessing charm, intellect and unmitigated beauty. Not a mistress, more the high flyer with absolutely no time for wasters.
Inside, the passion continues with time spent at the Yamaha factory to glean techniques on using real wood mouldings used in their instruments. Birds Eye maple or walnut wood were expertly manipulated, complimenting the leather, encompassing a clean, natural blend of materials. Ironic that most journalists (and some buyers) thought them plastic; the advertisement team worked overtime to try and address that misnomer. And plainly failed.
Did you realise that the cup holders are wooden? Thought not, so let Nakagawa explain deeper. “The wood and leather integrate into a cosy, living room feel. Opulence like this cannot be found in any rival car.” And follows with, “The instrument cluster is easy to read and fuses style with technology.”
As we’re seated comfortably, there is a ointment-fly to deal with. That standard leather and wood mix steering wheel: it would take a long time to love this part. Be that it is crafted with more love and care than a joiner in a retirement home could muster, barring the correct shape, it’s a Family Fortunes rejection noise from me.
But receiving the high-pitched “ping” noise of approval goes to the roof. More from Nakagawa-san. “With the Soarer Aero Cabin we tried and failed to get the whole roof to open, with the SC we embraced open minded-ness (he apparently said this whilst chuckling) in order for the driver and passenger to experience the wonders of open top motoring one moment and be safely tucked away from the elements when the weather turns.” Does saki come in pints? Whatever, get this man a drink of something.
Mercedes opened the fancy closing roof account with their technical marvel and engineering nightmare on the SLK. Lexus naturally copied it but also added some finesse. These are the nine roof point sequences:
1. Fully closed. Driver activates hardtop control switch. 2. Luggage compartment front is unlocked and the side windows automatically open. 3. The front of the trunk lid opens. 4. Roof begins to lift and fold rearwards. 5. Package tray behind seats opens. 6. Roof folds into storage compartment. 7. Package tray folds back into place to leave clean appearance. 8. Luggage compartment closes. 9. Fully open. Driver enjoys the sunshine.
Unless in Norwich.
We gushed over the Mercedes. We barely noticed the SC. How rude.
Roof up, the Cd was 0.29. Once open, an air deflector in the head restraints warms when necessary. No fancy name though, points lost to Germany. Centre console lap jets warm those parts of the body other vents cannot reach for comfortable cruising, roof down in those cobalt-blue sky cold days. A windscreen sensor measures the power of the sun, compensating for those Riviera temperatures accordingly. Clever stuff but already done. This car is bringing little new to the fight.
But I like it so. I admire the Lexus way, their philosophies, their skills and engineers. I like the style in which they work and that eastern mystery that all adds up to a completely different looking car. I’m left field, akin to the SC. Deal with it.
Part 2 follows.