Curbside Classic: 1985 Toyota Cressida – The Proto Lexus

(first posted 7/14/2011)     Every “overnight success” has a much larger back story than most people care to know. It’s become pop history that Toyota’s Lexus division took the country by storm immediately after its 1989 introduction. Opportunity, meet preparation. But there was an historical antecedent to the new luxury champion that is fading from our collective memories, and that is today’s CC . Lest we forget, let’s look back at a model that was definitely more than the sum of its parts, the 1985 Toyota Cressida.

Ask just about any Baby Boomer, X’er or Millennial what car epitomizes mechanical excellence and implied social status and a large majority will quickly answer “Lexus”. Now heading into its 23rd year, Toyota’s buy-up division has managed to stake out the high rent district that was once occupied by Cadillac, Mercedes, and in sportier nick, BMW. Aspirational cars, the lot of them.

Detroit, Stuttgart and Munich politely smiled when Toyota announced plans for a new, upmarket marque in 1988 at several tony auto shows and press previews, but they clearly were not worried. The Big Three (and Fatherland Two) had money, power and friends in the right places (inside the beltway on planet Washington). Besides, in the mid 80’s Detroit, at least, was still trapped in the Japanese=Cheap Crackerboxes mindset that would blind them to the reality that the ground was shifting directly under their feet. The favorable demographic tsunami that was coming in (affluent postwar baby boomers in their peak earning years) could either lift all automotive boats or drown the losers in a sea of red ink and erode the slipping, but still strong, brand loyalty beyond repair.

For Toyota, the calculus was the old crisis/opportunity conundrum: keep building entry level, low margin starter cars and earn a meager return (and soon see competitors from lower wage nations tear off their piece of the sales pie) or go upmarket and build a more expensive car for about the same cost as the price leader. The famed “Toyota System” of production ensured that efficiency would be world class and quality would be second to none. The real challenge would be adapting the final product to Americans tastes and desires enough to justify a premium car price while spreading the fixed costs over mid priced, bread and butter models.

Toyota had gotten a hint that this nascent market existed and could be expanded after it introduced the clean sheet 1981 Cressida. The Cressida had been the company’s flagship model in the U.S. since 1976, and in its first iteration, did solid business, but never threatened any luxo-barge maker with extinction. Obsolescent styling, an old fashioned 2.6 straight six and a high price made the very first Cressida an also ran in the market.

The new for ’81 Cressida however, came as a shock and surprise to the U.S. car market. Quietness, a smooth new fuelie 2.8 and stunning quality showed that A) Toyota could build a luxury car that was a game changer, and B) Detroit’s idea of wallowing, pillow sprung, unreliable gas guzzlers was wildly out of step with the times. It was also about this time that GM dropped its execrable 350 Diesel into a LOT of premium price Buicks and Cadillacs. Those buyers were “persuadable”, to say the least, after wrestling with the cars alarmingly bad quality and GM’s arrogant response.

By this time (1984) Lexus was more than a concept, but less than a car. The project had been greenlighted by top Toyo management, but a lot of hard work lay ahead before a salable product would hit the streets. Toyota was probing for clues to what the public really wanted in a premium car. Sport suspension or boulevard ride?  Front wheel or rear wheel drive?  The answers could make or break a billion dollar model.  Manual transmission option? BMW had one, even Mercedes installed a few stir –your-own shifters in its sport 190’s. Questions like these needed a test mule to answer and Toyota found that they had one already in production and on the market.

Almost forgotten today, the 1985 Cressida was a sensation in its debut year. Sporting a striking new body and lots of high priced, high margin options like a CD player, electronic shock absorber adjustment and transmission power selection, the angular body fairly screamed sport/luxury. While most other manufacturers were rounding off the corners and melting the edges away, the Cressida (and Maxima) were spare, angular, no nonsense designs with flat planes of sheetmetal, with just enough brightwork and excellent four corner visibility.

There was a manual transmission option, but apparently few buyers opted for this setup. A premium price tag and competition from a striking new Nissan Maxima that also seemed to have been milled out of the same billet of metal didn’t make things any easier for product planners at Toyota City. No matter. The third generation Cressida’s sales jumped by 25%.  Toyota was on to something big.

‘The 85-88 generation in many ways marked the high water mark for Toyota’s flagship in the U.S. Its successor model was smooth and refined, but beware of the engine that succeeded the 5M GE.  The new 3.0 L 7M GE installed in the ’89 has an appetite for 25 dollar head gaskets…which cost about $1200 labor to install. The same engine was installed in the Supra, and owners report that that model also suffered from the malady.  It’s a designed-in flaw.

Lexus wasn’t quite ready for its debut and its success was by no means a sure thing, so Toyota released the fourth generation Cressida for the 1988 model year.  Sales held steady in the year before the car was made redundant by the debut of the LS 400 and ES 250, then sank like a stone.  By the end (in 1992), less than 4000 Cressidas were retailed in the U.S.  The kind of buyer that looked at the Cressida was shopping in the dealership next door.

This ’86 is still an everyday driver that we spotted in Rossville, Georgia. The owner reports that it is reliable as sunrise and only needs a regular oil change and basic maintenance to keep its silky 2.8 straight six purring.