10, 8, 6… (1) (Part One)

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.

Nice road, surroundings and car. Driver not smiling – why?  (c) Media.lexus

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.

(c) Media.lexus

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. 

(c) Media.lexus

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

10 thoughts on “10, 8, 6… (1) (Part One)”

  1. Nice piece!
    i really liked the looks of the car when it came out, and mostly chalked all the hate up to the deeply ingrained cliché that japanese cars lacked soul and were not for enthusiasts, and especially if they were tailored for the american market! (the horror!)

    i can also remember reading a glowing review from some audiophile reviewer back in the day, who thought it had the best sound system ever.

  2. Good morning, Andrew, and thank you for a reminder of an unfairly maligned and now largely forgotten car. My goodness, time has certainly been kind to it. More accurately, it stands as quiet indictment of the shoutiness and over-ornamentation of current designs:

    The shut-line management, particularly around the rear end, is masterful when you consider what a hash Mercedes has made of this in attempting to accommodate a similar folding metal roof on the current SL. The SC’s feminine curves are, perhaps, unfashionably Reubensesque for today’s tastes but, holistically, it holds together very well. The only minor criticism I would make of the example featured in your photos is the design of the original wheels, which look a bit too sharp-edged for the organic curves of the car. The later design suits it better, I think.

    As to its driver smiling, that’s easily explained: there’s a visceral pleasure to driving a convertible with the top down that is sadly unfamiliar to most drivers these days. It’s not best appreciated in traffic in an overcast and grey Norwich but, on a sunny East Anglian morning, driving along open country roads with some of my favourite* music playing, I often find myself grinning like a fool.

    * Don’t ask, it’s too embarrassing to admit.

    1. Daniel,

      A fine and rare example of a facelift that improves upon the original – the wheels and detail changes to the front and rear lights all give a little more definition to the overall shape (shame about the resolutely after-market rear foglights).

    1. Dang! Meant to sort that before it went live. Thanks for your eagle eye, Laurent.

  3. Thanks Andrew. Certainly, a car that deserves reappraisal.

    However, I feel you are straying into unnecessarily combative territory here with your last line: ‘Deal with it’.

    Deal with what? And why? I have no problem accepting that the contemporary Mercedes SL was an inferior car, but that car traded on a reputation and market presence built up over several decades. This is not a simple case of badge snobbery.

    No great surprise that – when circumstances allowed – customers would head first to their local Mercedes dealer to test drive a car they had long desired. The great shame is that Mercedes has squandered this legacy, whereas the contemporary Lexus LC is a rather fitting and gorgeous successor to this car.

  4. It’s definitely mellowed with age. Thought it but brash and ugly when launched, but time had been kind. You don’t see many around so moving into “modern classic” status I guess.
    Looking forward to part 2.

  5. I never liked this car.
    Its blobular and contourless form with Scorpio-like fish face front combined with a fat rear to accommodate its folding tin top was anonymous. The thick and strangely profiled A pillars with the thick cant trail made the windscreen surround look like a plastic kit car and the wheels looked like polished toilet lids.
    No, thanks, give me an R129 any time.

    1. Hi Dave. Lexus SC vs R129 SL? That’s an easy call in favour of the Mercedes-Benz. Lexus SC vs the current R231 SL? Purely on looks, I’ll have the Lexus, thank you. Even the new Lexus LC convertible, which I think looks a bit fat and saggy over the rear wheels, is still far preferable to the horrible, flaccid R231.

  6. I must admit that I had forgotten all about this car so thank you for reminding me. I quite like it although I’m not sure about 25 seconds waiting for the roof to close. I had a SLK that was quicker but when it’s raining hard it seems like a lifetime.

    A very enjoyable article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.