Ah, Lexus. Although it needs no formal introduction, it’s difficult even mentioning the brand without highlighting its significance as one of the greatest automotive success stories in history. Prominently debuting with its much-anticipated LS 400 flagship back in 1989, Lexus was not only an overnight success, but unlike Acura and Infiniti, Lexus has maintained this success — along with continuous praise, innovation, and owner loyalty — ever since.
Agreeably, Lexus has always been a brand lacking the history, the emotion, and most noteworthy, the excitement of longer-established luxury marques hailing from Britain, Germany, and the USA. Nonetheless, Lexus is a luxury brand that has crafted a unique image of its own, and one that has triumphed with relatively few missteps in its now 30-year history.
The beauty of the original LS was that it successfully blended qualities of what upwardly-mobile Toyota owners wanted and expected, along with worldly qualities and a strong sense of prestige that made it a global competitor in the luxury field. The latter is something still somewhat unexplainable and something virtually no other luxury brand or even standalone luxury car launched by a mainstream brand in the past 35 years has been able to replicate. In this sense, one might say that Lexus got lucky; in reality, it was the careful execution of the LS 400 that is largely responsible for Lexus’ uncanny aura of pedigree and prestige.
Arriving in mid-1989 after nearly six years and at least half a billion dollars of development, the 1990 Lexus LS 400 was among the most meticulously-orchestrated vehicles ever, certainly worthy of its “Relentless Pursuit of Perfection” slogan. From its very conception, Toyota didn’t set out just to build a competitive world-class luxury flagship — it set out to build the world’s best luxury flagship.
In what’s typically a German fashion of over-engineering, virtually nothing was overlooked, with Toyota engineers painstakingly assessing, contemplating, and ultimately, addressing every element with scrupulous care, building over 450 prototypes until at last freezing the final design in 1987. The pre-production car, disguised as Toyota Cressidas and Crowns, underwent some three-million miles of testing all over the world including on Germany’s Autobahn and an extensive California to Florida road trip completed personally by Toyota’s chief engineer, Ichiro Suzuki.
In its quest to be the best, Toyota took immense effort in ensuring the LS 400 was more comfortable, quieter, and virtually vibration-free compared to the competition. Whereas competitors heavily relied on masking road and wind noise with layers of sound insulation, Toyota tackled this right at the source with the body of the LS. The result was one of the stiffest body shells ever created at the time, with welds some 50% stronger than average and fine-tuning perfected by countless wind tunnel tests with microphones attached all over the vehicle to pinpoint sources of wind noise.
The heart of the LS 400 was its state-of-the-art, all-aluminum 1UZ-FE 4.0-litre V8 engine. Toyota reportedly tested a total of 973 prototypes of this engine before ultimately perfecting one of the smoothest, efficient and vibration-free V8 engines ever, something evidenced by Lexus’s iconic champagne coupe tower commercial. Less technical aspects were also painstakingly scrutinized, including the selection of wood trim for the interior, special mica paint finish, and the choice of interior leather right down to process of its tanning.
The end result was a breathtaking flagship, indeed praised by many critics as the world’s best. Featuring front and rear double wishbone suspension, an advanced computer-controlled 4-speed automatic transmission, and the aforementioned breathtaking 1UZ-FE V8 producing an impressive 250 horsepower and 260 lb-ft torque, the rear-wheel drive LS 400 also included nearly every available luxury amenity as standard, bucking the trend of most other luxury vehicles. Furthermore, the world-class LS 400 not only boasted a higher top speed, greater aerodynamics, lower curb weight, and greater fuel efficiency, it most notably undercut competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz 420 SEL and BMW 735i by around 40%, with an initial starting price of around $35,000 USD.
Although the Lexus LS 400 was a risky gamble, it was met with instant and overwhelming success. Selling 11,574 units in the U.S. before then end of calendar year 1989, its first full calendar year of sales totaled 42,806 by the end of 1990 — greatly surpassing sales of any European competitor. Now the LS 400 was in its own right a nearly impeccable vehicle, but there’s no denying that timing also had something to do with the its success. It may sound cliché but the LS 400 truly was the right car at the right time.
The 1980s, for better or worse, was a revolutionary decade on many fronts but especially with pertinence to consumerism. Panned as “The Decade of Greed” by many, consumers were spending more, often on luxury goods and services with the intent to outwardly impress, and increasing demand for luxury cars was an immense impact of this. Younger “yuppies” on the East and West Coasts largely flocked to European luxury brands but among middle-aged and older buyers, particularly in Middle America, Cadillac and Lincoln still reigned supreme with strong sales through most of the decade. Yet as the 1980s drew to a close, consumers were increasingly embracing change.
In a world where most European luxury cars suffered from stone-cold interiors and increasingly expensive costs of ownership, and most American luxury cars suffered from gaudy styling traits and embarrassingly poor fit-and-finish, the Lexus LS 400 with its understated styling, inviting interior, and unpretentious image was the perfect vehicle to conquer many of these luxury car buyers as well as the increasing amount of upwardly-mobile Toyota owners, many of whom were baby boomers entering their peak earning years. Sick of the frivolous and flamboyant 1980s, the Lexus LS 400 emerged as the poster child for the clean, contemporary, and uncluttered 1990s.
In addition to its bargain pricing and overall breath of fresh air, Lexus also had a not-so-secret ace up its sleeve luxury brands from America, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere could not match: Toyota quality and dependability. It’s no secret that Toyota largely built its reputation in North America upon its consistently class-leading rates of mechanical reliability, build and material quality, and overall long-term low-cost of ownership and dependability. Versus the often expensive-to-maintain European luxury cars and often shoddy quality of American luxury cars, to many, the Lexus LS 400 seemed like a no-brainer.
Of course, the LS 400 was not without weaknesses. For starters, it was bland. Of course, this is subjective, but there’s little denying that inside and out the LS 400 lacked the visual pomp and circumstance of most rivals, with its tamed exterior styling featuring = minimal chrome and ornamentation, and a sobering interior that while perfectly functional and comfortable, abstained from anything remotely distinguishable. Above all, it was a total newcomer with no real reputation beyond that of which the economy-minded Toyota already possessed.
Alas, Lexus naturally had another answer for those who might have been weary to embrace it, by completely reinventing the dealership experience. Whether then or now, it’s not secret that most people hate visiting car dealerships, for either sales or service. No matter the circumstances, for most, it’s as painful as going to the dentist — it’s inconvenient, it’s time consuming, and most of all it’s hard not to feel like you’re getting screwed.
With the rollout of Lexus, however, Toyota put immense care into the look, feel, and level of customer service of the brand new dealerships for its luxury division, much like the level of meticulous care they put into the LS 400 itself. Everything from the upholstery of leather for chairs, to length of the showroom windows, to the height of service lounge coffee tables was carefully analyzed and dictated, with Toyota even going so far as to implement differing decors for dealerships on the U.S. East Coast versus the West.
Now in the thirty years since the original LS 400 and the Lexus brand debuted, a lot has changed. The automotive landscape is a vastly different one than it was in 1989, most notably favoring car-based CUVs — a vehicle which Lexus had a large hand in creating, yet one that would likely not have existed if it weren’t for the success of the LS — over sedans, and especially large sedans like the LS. Through it all, Lexus has continued the LS’s legacy of innovation, especially in technology and luxury, the latter most notably evident in the high degree of customizable interiors, largely hand-crafted by certified Takumi (匠) artisans.
In a post earlier this year, I outright posed the question of whether the LS even matters anymore for Lexus. That question is still largely up for debate, but one thing is for sure. Although time has seen the once-prominent LS take a diminished, back-seat role in Lexus’ lineup and the marketplace alike, there’s no denying that the original LS 400 was the industry’s poster child for revolution in the luxury car world, and a car that will forever go down in history as one of the automobile industry’s greatest success stories of all time.
Featured Taupe Metallic 1992 LS 400 photographed on Larimer Street in Denver, Colorado – September 2019
1992 Black Jade Pearl 1992 LS 400 provided by Will Jackson and photographed in Macon, Georgia – September 2019