Would you like to ride in my beautiful… Lexus
Filling balloons with wet plaster, squeezing them into abstract shapes, photographing the amorphous images and projecting the slides on a wall may sound like the description of an LSD powered mind trip, but in this case it was a new and unprecedented way to design a car.
In 1987 Toyota started work on project F3, the planned successor to the then recently introduced Soarer Z20. Contrary to the previous Japanese domestic market-only model, the planned new car would also be marketed in North America under the upcoming Lexus brand. Since it was considered essential that the future car be a success in the North American market, the job was given to Calty Design Research – Toyota’s Californian design centre established in 1973.
Not leaving anything to chance however, Toyota instructed their in-house design team in Japan to deliver a design proposal for the new vehicle as well. In California, recent Art Center College of Design graduate Erwin Lui, working under senior chief designer Dennis Campbell, set to work, but not behind the drafting table or CAD computer. Campbell explained in a video interview: “The total design was developed in 3D, as opposed to the two-dimensional techniques we normally use in car design and development.”
In the preliminary discussions, the Calty design team had reached the conclusion that while the eighties were a decade of technology, the nineties would be about emotions. The idea was to balance artistic and technological elements in the design process to give birth to something new.
Erwin Lui filled balloons with plaster and then hand-shaped them into forms as the contents hardened. The resulting shapes looked more like abstract art than anything resembling a car; the next step was making photographs of the balloons from various angles and projecting the hundreds of slides onto the wall, stretching and morphing the images as desired. Lui: “I realized- this is it. This will be the Lexus Coupe.”
When the big day of presenting their design proposal to Toyota management in Japan came, the Calty team were understandably anxious. They themselves may have been convinced their design method had produced the right style for the upmarket coupé, but Toyota’s famously conservative senior executives might see it differently and gravitate towards the safer, more conventional design (both in its method as in its resulting appearance) of the Japanese in-house team.
Toshihiro Okada, Chief engineer of Toyota’s product planning office and responsible for the previous two generations of the Soarer, was sceptical about what Calty’s balloon antics would produce but was suitably impressed when Lui unveiled the Calfornian design. “I was very surprised,” Okada said. “This design had a sense of style that was not just modern and contemporary. It felt nostalgic, elegant, and classic as well.”
His boss, Seihari Takahashi, agreed and was so taken by the design that he instructed that it be put into production as it was – although that would prove to be not quite possible.
Some necessary changes had to do with cost and body stiffness; the proposed small extra clamshell rear doors intended to facilitate rear seat access were deleted for those reasons, as was a B-pillar situated on the interior surface of the glass.
The car’s design was further refined at the Toyota design studio in Japan. Designer Makoto Oshima: “Based on looking at the mock-up sent from Calty I could see that the surfaces and proportions had some areas that weren’t thoroughly analysed but in working together with Erwin I could fully understand the excellence of the original.”
The very pointed and rounded prow presented an engineering challenge: at the time even the most compact projectors for headlights would not fit and pop-up headlights were considered a no-no for this car. In order to retain the integrity of Calty’s design Toyota’s engineers developed a new headlight setup by separating the high beam units from the main headlights which would fortunately only add to the distinctiveness of the Lexus Coupe design.
Several modifications were also required to make the V8 engine fit under the bonnet, the inline six posed no problems in this respect. The body engineers had to devise new stamping methods in order to create all those curvy panels; they also designed special multi-joined hinges that opened the doors out and then forward as well as slightly upwards. The interior of the car was carried out at Toyota under designer Michikazu Masu.
The final result which became available to the buying public in 1991 in Japan and North America was impressive and daring: most competitor’s large coupés were visually quite closely related to their luxury sedan companions but the Lexus SC / Toyota Soarer looked nothing like the Lexus LS400 on which it was loosely based.
A most pleasing (at least to your author’s eyes) detail is the line that runs along the bonnet and swoops under the headlight, in effect mimicking the Lexus “L” logo. It may be thirty years old now but perhaps due to the lack of unnecessary scoops, lines and such it still cuts a dashing figure today, belying its age.
Soarer purists in Japan didn’t warm immediately to the smooth and clean new look, but in North America the car was an immediate home run- glowing press reports and customers lining up to make a new Lexus Coupe their own. Several accolades and awards were won as well, among which Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year- when its debut year 1991 had come to a close, Lexus had sold almost 28,000 SC’s.
After a few years however sales started to fall sharply; the reason for this was rooted in monetary economics: the US$/JPY exchange rate became increasingly unfavourable as the nineties wore on – in its debut year 1991 an SC400 cost US$ 37,500 but by 1996 this had (ahem) ballooned to US$ 52,000. Its six-cylinder companion SC300 had risen from US$ 31,500 to US$ 44,000. In 1996, just under 5000 cars found owners, and by the year 2000 the score had even dropped into three figures.
After slightly more than 82,000 Lexus SC’s produced the car was discontinued in 2000 and replaced by a very different SC that was to be offered in many more regions of the world than before.
Lexus brochures for the North American market have always been very nicely executed items, sometimes even spiral bound as in this 1996 model year, 28-page specimen. The paper quality and chosen layouts do the brand image justice. Real paint samples for each of that year’s eight colour choices are also provided on the last page.
As this generation of Lexus SC was never offered in Europe, printed publicity material is not common on this side of the Atlantic, but a few clicks on Ebay should produce plenty of results located in the USA or Canada, and usually at reasonable prices. However, mind the shipping costs because the lavish production values of these brochures make them weighty and they can incur substantial mailing costs.
Up up and Away is of course the title of the song by the 5th dimension (1967), written by Jimmy Webb and covered in the UK by the Johnny Mann Singers.