Born of Frustration

The creative apex of Toyota and Lexus’ latterday ambitions – we examine the LF-A’s backstory.

The LF-A at home on the track – but presumably out of petrol. (c)

With Lexus celebrating thirty years of production (though only fifteen in Japan, where until 2004 they were still Toyota) the Japanese firm are keen to share some of their three decades of stories. They are to be congratulated on their openness. Exactly five hundred Lexus LF-A’s were made over a two year period which equates to one built per day after holidays. By hand too I might add, no production line for this exclusive halo-car. As to their cost… we’ll come back to that shortly.

The Lexus Fuji-Apex was a true supercar from every conceivable angle but the car’s birth proved difficult. In fact for its short life, drama and tragedy clung to the cars flanks, fortunately bowing out on a high, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.

Kiichiro Toyoda initiated Toyota as a carmaker. His son, Shoichiro expanded the business and currently grandson Akio is the main man. But no engineer is Akio. He was assigned to business school – Babson College in the US providing him a Masters degree. And whilst related, his rise was not that of nepotism; Akio joined the ranks learning the Toyota way on the production line as well as the office. His father would play an informative role on weekends, when they would head out in all manner of cars he brought home. Opinions and technical dissection were sought of Akio from an early age.

Along with cousin Eiji, Soichiro wanted to enhance the product by developing new standards. These would fundamentally change the industry throughout the 1980s. To compliment production and research, one invaluable investment proved to be the Shibetsu proving ground. Encompassing corners from international race tracks, accurate electronic monitoring, a high speed bowl and a V-max strip, engineers and test drivers could hone the cars away from almost everyone. Opened in 1984, the Soviets mistook the densely forested area for a military facility… but it led to initial thoughts of a car to test the track to its limits: a supercar. 

Celica GT-4 developer, Haruhiko Tanahashi had been belting round Shibetsu in 2000. Over lunch, that supercar conversation was struck up and first scribbled on a napkin. With this skunkworks idea germinating, more clout was necessary to get board approval. Chief test driver Hiromu Naruse, who leapt at the opportunity to build a front mounted, mid-engined car with an exceptional chassis had an eye on that help; step forward Akio.

Toyoda was then head of Lexus China, but being family, his input would lend weight to the project. Business brain aside, Akio possessed racing ability along with something the car industry requires more of – enthusiasm. With Tanahashi and Naruse testing the current crop of supercars, to ascertain what about them was super, Akio soon realised this could be not only a halo car for Lexus but a brand defining design too. That weight gained momentum.

But internal hostility almost brought matters to the point of abandonment. The board saw costings and were displeased. The engineering side foresaw huge difficulties with materials and no opportunity of using them in Toyota’s everyday cars. The LF-A had few supporters but Akio remained resolute and sought assistance from trusted brand and advertising specialist, Atsushi Takada.

His dossier, bypassing surveys and customer analysis went straight for the jugular and in 2001 made it through but with one strict caveat: an exclusive car to be halted with the 500th made. Compromises having been made in order to receive the green light were now consigned elsewhere.

Materials testing and development meant the first prototypes were built and tested in 2003 and simply never stopped. If a particular part part could be lighter, stronger or simply better, make it so. A list of 500 must-haves was drawn up and adhered to. The total cost of the project is top secret. I’m guessing at several small countries’ GDP combined and multiplied by 9. Probably.

With every 72° V10 engine built and signed off by a solitary engineer and each car hand-built in Motomachi to perfection, even with their own Shibetsu track, more testing was sought and the omnipresent Nurburgring was the location for many pounding laps. Naruse pushed hard for this venture. With his subsequent experience of the Eifel Mountains “Grün Hölle” enhancements came thick and fast along with another plan; that of racing there and potentially causing embarrassment to the Germans. 

Setting up Gazoo racing, Akio and Naruse wished to enter the twenty four hour race there to that old adage of racing and selling. Akio put his money where his mouth was by entering the 2009 Nürburgring race with two race prototypes, driven by one Morizo, his own choice of pseudonym. It was also the name of a cartoon character for the Aichi World Expo.

Sadly, a driveshaft problem and subsequent fire halted the car driven by Naruse, Armin Hahne and André Lotterer. Morizo’s car had a high of 14th overall position before ending the gruelling enduro fourth in class and 87th overall. Hardly the drubbing they chased although ironically an entirely different car was conceived here, the Aston Martin Cygnet with then AM boss Ulrich Bez. 

But other results were forthcoming. With the world realising it was the boss man racing, orders came in. August 2009 saw Akio Toyoda’s rise to the Presidency of Toyota Motor Corporation and sixteen months later, in mid December 2010, the very first production LF-A formed part of an inaugural celebration with team members and Miss World 2007, Riyo Mori along for the ride.

Dampening those celebrations was the tragic news of Naruse’s death. Aged 67, he had been testing at the Nürburgring and on completion that day had left the track only to be involved in a fatal road traffic accident. “In terms of product development and friendship, he was my right hand man and I feel so lonely without him” stated a deeply upset Akio. Adding insult to injury, Toyoda suffered more heartache just weeks later when his trusted confidant and high end officer Takashi Hata succumbed to a degenerative bone disease. 

As part of a memorial, fifty Nürburgring editions of the LF-A were made.

The late, lamented Naruse-san. (c)

With the original price for a road going version being around $375,000 and today’s values heading higher, I’ve yet to see one on the road and won’t be holding my breath to see one anytime soon. The car must have been a huge loss-maker for Lexus though its influence maintains that initial momentum, both in today’s LC500 as well as production techniques and materials handling expertise gained.

Those who adhere to the Shinto faith believe that every twenty years sees the renewal of nature, a chance to pass on skills to the younger generation. We therefore conclude this potted history with words from the main man himself.

In the 1960s we built the 2000 GT sports car. In the 1980s we had the Supra. In 2000 the 20-year cycle should have continued but too many people at the time were interested in volume and sales, not in a special car. So we missed the turnover and now it has been 30 years. We will never catch up but in 20 years’ time we will come up with another new supercar. It will serve as a challenge for the next generation.

Author: Andrew Miles

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

8 thoughts on “Born of Frustration”

  1. Thanks Andrew, I’m usually not very interested in supercars and also this one somehow passed my attention so far – but reading its story was interesting nevertheless. With the personal stories behind it, it turns from a machine hardly relevant for my motoring ambitions into a piece of automotive history I can relate to.

    By the way, and sorry for the nitpicking: it should be “Eifel” (with double f it turns from German region into French engineer) and “Grüne Hölle”. Not easy with the dots, I admit, for someone not used to them.

  2. Nitpicking comment: the “Grüne Hölle” has nothing to do with Paris’ Eiffel tower but is located in the cold and wet Eifel region of Germany.

  3. Good morning, Andrew. Your fascinating piece prompted me to visit the Lexus UK website, to acquaint myself with the company’s offering in the UK. I was amazed by the breadth of the range, comprising ten distinct models (a hatchback, three saloons, four SUVs and two coupés). My amazement stems from the near invisibility of the marque in my part of the UK, where the only model I ever see is the NX medium sized SUV, and even that is a rare sighting. Lexus sold a mere 12,405 vehicles in the UK in 2018. Global sales in 2019 were about 765,000, compared with BMW’s of over 2.5m. This disparity must be enormously frustrating for a company whose vehicles are beautifully built and exceptionally reliable.

    I wonder what it is that holds Lexus back relative to its German peers? Surely the Lexus marque is well enough known and respected after thirty years on the market? Is it the company’s commitment to hybrids (Lexus only offers two models, both coupés, in non-hybrids form) or antipathy towards the rather polarizing styling that turns potential buyers away? Or it simply that Lexus doesn’t have a strong and clearly defined brand image amongst potential buyers who are not that interested in automotive matters?

    Incidentally, I drove an NX for a couple of days eighteen months ago and found it a rather frustrating vehicle. It was quite handsome and beautifully built, but the hybrid powertrain, which was smooth and quiet when driving gently, quickly became strained when trying to push on. The ride was also unsatisfactory, bring too hard over poor road surfaces.

    1. My impression is that in Switzerland there was a certain presence of Lexus 10 or 20 years ago, but it has diminished since. The first IS was quite popular, for example. What has happened? I guess it’s a mix of increased brand snobbery (German is de rigueur around here) and more polarising designs.

    2. Lexus was the leading luxury brand in the USA until 2011, when both Mercedes and BMW passed it.

      The F30 launch in North America in 2012, crappy 4 cylinder engines and all replacing the inline 6’s – it didn’t dent BMW’s gains.

      I regard that as BMW’s “Cadillac Seville” moment – the new models were decontented crap and sales went up !

  4. What a truly fabulous car.

    Not detailed in this story is how many times concepts turned up at motor shows – normally this would be seen as a way of assessing opinion and influencing the final design, but Toyota resolutely went its own way. The motor show appearances seemed to have more to do with bouncing the company into signing off the project.

    Certain limited edition Aston Martins and Ferraris employ the same layout but the LF-A still stands apart. The fact that it looks a bit odd only adds to its appeal.

    I have never seen one on the road either, I assume most are cosseted garage queens, listed by owners as part of their investment portfolio and never driven in anger. But I hope at least some are still enjoyed as they were designed to be – it is apparently a rather wonderful driver’s car.

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