Up, Up and Away

Would you like to ride in my beautiful… Lexus

Lexus SC. Image: The author.

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.

Image: Carnichiwa.com

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.

Calty’s proposal made it into production form relatively unscathed. SC styling prototype. Image: Carnichiwa.com

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.

Image: The author

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.

Image: The author

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.

Image: The author

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.

Image: The author

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.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

19 thoughts on “Up, Up and Away”

  1. Yes, and besides all that, it wasn’t a bad drive either. The bonnet was rather long in an old-fashioned way from the inside driver/passenger perspective, but the V8 was a real smoothie. I think its rather sharp sales nosedive following initial success was due more to the dying out of the two door personal car market than anything else. Fashion killed it, so then Toyota replaced it with a lump of fried dough as compensation and to confuse the public as to what they were getting at, the SC430, a convertible with a powered folding hardtop about as alluring to gaze upon raised as that option for a 1958 MGA. Awkward. Just as refined mechanically as the earlier SC400, but looked ridiculous by comparison. The less expensive contemporary Solara was a boondoggle with scuttle shake, a rare Toyota mis-step.

    1. It’s funny in a way I don’t see this car as a competitor to the C126 Mercedes SEC, but more of a replacement to the C107 SLC. They were aiming straight into BMW and Mercedes territory with this car, perhaps even hoping of stealing some sales from Jaguar. But if the SC300/400 is an amalgamation of all of the above, I’d say they were looking at the R129 SL for the SC430. Demographically, they were after the Miami and Beverly Hills set, and what they needed was an SL with some extra room. Unfortunately, what Toyota ended up with was a resurrected 1958 Ford Thunderbird, steel roof and broken promises and all.

  2. Good morning Bruno and thanks for bringing us the design story behind the SC, a car I’ve always really liked. Your piece prompted me to look again at images of the car:

    I hadn’t noticed it previously, but the rearward position of the front axle is rather unusual for a RWD car, which gives it rather a long front overhang. Still, it’s a minor criticism of a very distinctive and well resolved design.

    1. To use a favourite expression of this place, I think the radii are just a tad overdone on this car, they should’ve turned it down about 10-15% or so to add some stringency to the lines. As is, there’s something bloaty and too much better used soap over it, like the old Jaguar MkX. We’re talking subtle changes here, but I can’t shake the feeling it simply lacks the je nais se quoi of for example a Pininfarina design. By keeping much of the car unadorned, they are letting the shape of the car tell the story, the clean lines and meticular shutlines really makes it look like a solid quality product. The classic proportions makes the car but the detailing is slightly unremarkable, except for the front the car is quite undefined. Nissan lifted the rear of the car for their S14 Silvia, there’s something Oldsmobile going on with the sail panel and rear lights, and the mid section could’ve been any Corolla or Solara coupe of the mid-90’s. Ferrari had to delay and redesign their 456 because what they had initially planned to launch looked almost exactly like the BMW 850, another slightly bloated and undefined design. Being slightly conservative, it was probably for the best Toyota played it safe, but if they wanted emotions they could’ve benefitted from sending the car to Pininfarina for a subtle make over.

  3. This was the first Lexus I ever saw. Way before Toyota launched Lexus in the UK. I remember seeing lots of badge engineered imports in London.

    I never could tell if it was a Lexus or Lexus-badged Toyota Soarer when parked up. Badges were often gold I noted.

    The SC430 that followed was abysmal.
    I borrowed one for a holiday to Spain thinking folding roof would be great. Engine was great in fairness.

  4. Here’s the song from which Bruno’s piece takes its title, very redolent the late 1960’s:

  5. Surely the most beautiful Lexus (although that´s not saying too much) and, at $31,500 for a I6 with manual transmission, a bargain even in 1991 . An E36 325is cost about the same; probably the only matter where the BMW would be ahead is in the “fun to drive”, and that´s all.
    It wasn´t sold in Europe but a good few arrived here as “personal imports” from US, and in the UK, the RHD Soarers imported from Japan.
    A shame its succesor looked so ridiculous…

  6. Daniel, I have an idea for how you can while away some hours this cold and wet weekend. Back in the 90s (I would hazard a guess at 92-95 there was a small ad in the back of Car magazine. I’m certain that I didn’t dream this, for a car which looked very much like a Soarer but with a different nose, and advertised as an Allard (it certainly had an Allardish grille). I think the address (no www back then) was on Wigmore St, so when I was next in London I toddled round to Wigmore Street, but no sign of any Allards to be seen.
    I’ve never been able to track down any mention of this since, but as you are the recent recipient of a large collection of Cars (as opposed to cars)…
    If you have a shed with an armchair I’d be happy to come around and do my own research!

    1. Yes! Thank you Charles, there have been so many times over the decades when I’ve doubted my sanity, but at least I can cross this occasion off the list.
      Daniel, I can still come round for a read though, can’t I?

    2. Well remembered, Andy, although the Allard-Lexus mash-up was something I would try hard to forget! It was neither marque’s finest hour, to say the least:

      How anybody thought there would be a market for this mule is beyond me.

      And yes, you’re very welcome to come round. It’ll be an excuse to get some biccies in. (They’re no longer allowed in our house. 😭)

    3. I remember such an ad – only a front-end photo of a green car with a pair of bonnet-mounted headlamps, so that must be this specific prototype, slightly different than the two ones already posted:

    4. That’s an exceptionally precise memory you have! I couldn’t even get the donor car correct…

    5. Maybe very off-topic, but one of the german barbarians south of the North Sea is just asking himself what are biccies…

    6. Haha, biscuits Fred! Though could also encompass cookies and sweet wafers.
      I was thinking dark chocolate digestives Daniel, or Waitrose do a fine flapjack cookie? And thank you.

    7. Good suggestions, Andy, although Fred will, I hope, be gratified to know that the BEST BICCIES EVER (IMHO!) are actually German:

  7. Wouldn’t the best way to make a Lexus Allard in line with Allard’s heritage be to take a Lexus V8, and build something like a Caterham around it?
    I agree the path chosen did not bring great results…

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