The understand the origins of Lexus, you must first think back to the position Toyota found itself in around 30 years ago. The Japanese company’s frugal Corolla, introduced into America in 1968, had been a huge success. The economical, comfortable and reliable car propelled the company’s sales into the stratosphere and, by the end of 1975, it was the leading import brand in the United States – surpassing even the mighty Volkswagen.
A few years later, however, Toyota had itself a major problem. While increasing environmental concerns and the desire for more efficient and durable cars were keeping its sales buoyant, some customers were leaving the brand.
LOSING BUYERS TO EUROPEAN RIVALS
It transpired that many younger owners were started their automotive journey with an accessible and sensible Toyota but, as their situation improved and they began seeking the finer things in life, they were naturally moving away from the brand. After all, it offered no prestigious, high-performance, maximum-luxury models – meaning that many owners would subsequently trade out of their Toyota and get into an Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
Unfortunately, Toyota had no direct response to these high-end European rivals. While it did have some luxury cars in its portfolio, they were not ideal for the US market. Consequently, the decision was made to come up with an all-new luxury car – one which would serve to lift the Toyota brand to new heights, and one which would set new standards for luxury and refinement.
THE CIRCLE F PROJECT BEGINS
Toyota began work on the ‘Circle F’ project, in which the ‘F’ stood for ‘flagship’, in August 1983. Those involved started from the ground up; studies were carried out to see just how American buyers used their cars and what they expected, while competitors were assessed and performance targets set.
The amount of energy and resources poured into the project was astounding and alone showcased how serious Toyota was. For example, Ichiro Suzuki – the chief engineer of the project – had a team of almost 4,000 people devoted solely to designing and developing the new car. Everything was to be of the highest quality, the highest precision and of the highest capability.
By 1985, the first prototype of the yet-unnamed car burbled into life. The project was some way from completion, however; it was merely the first of 450 test cars that would be built as the company evaluated, refined and improved its concepts. In total, these prototypes would endure some 2.7 million miles of trials.
THE END IN SIGHT
Two years later, the final exterior design of the car had been signed off and the end was in sight. There was, unfortunately, one fairly major sticking point: all of the research and feedback suggested that, in the American market at least, few would be interested in a luxury car bearing a Toyota badge. It made sense, given that Toyota had established itself with affordable and straightforward cars – and that was all its customers were really interested in.
Toyota instead decided to create an entirely new luxury brand to support its upcoming flagship, which would grant it the best possible chance of success. Several names were touted, including ‘Calibre’, but the company finally settled on the luxurious-sounding ‘Lexus’.
A CAR DESIGNED TO ECLIPSE THE COMPETITION
In January 1989, at the Detroit motor show, the new Lexus LS 400 was unveiled. It was, according to early press releases, ‘Unlike any other car in the world’. Its 4.0-litre quad-cam V8, the now-fabled 1UZ-FE, produced a vibration-free 251bhp and 258lb ft in its European market configuration. The LS 400’s performance was impressive, as a result, despite a kerb weight of 1,805kg it could sprint from 0-60mph in 8.3sec and reach 155mph, yet average over 27mpg when cruising at 75mph.
There was no shortage of technological highlights, either; advanced running gear aside, the LS 400 featured cold cathode-illuminated instruments, a top-class Pioneer audio system and a memory function for the driver’s seat, steering wheel, belt height, mirrors and headrest position. It’s telling that many of the things Lexus was doing are still considered luxuries some 30 years later.
All that was a bonus, though: what was really remarkable was the sheer magnitude of the quality and attention to detail present throughout the new Lexus. The bodyshell was extremely stiff, the panel gaps impeccable and the materials and finishes of the highest quality – and it was built to last. These were all traits which, in the long run, would become Lexus hallmarks.
Customers were suitably impressed and almost 3,000 LS 400s were sold in the first month after its launch. By 1991, Lexus had outstripped both Mercedes-Benz and BMW in the sales stakes to become the best-selling imported luxury brand. By 2000, it was the top-selling luxury brand in the whole country.
There was more to the immediate success of Lexus than just the LS 400 itself, that all said. The dealerships and customer care standards were far better than that offered elsewhere, making the ownership experience as pleasurable and as luxurious as the car itself.
Lexus didn’t rest on its laurels, either, and over the past 30 years it has launched myriad pioneering models and technologies. Countless content customers aside, the numbers demonstrated the scale of its achievements and success; thirty years later, its sales nudged over the ten million mark.
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