When Lexus burst onto the automotive scene in 1989, it brought with it two cars. There was the ES, which was a re-badged and slightly more luxurious Toyota Camry. And then there was the LS, or more specifically, the LS400. It was a car so advanced, so intelligent in design and in engineering that it stunned the automotive world. The ES existed because executives decided that going to market with one car, the LS, was a bad move. The ES wasn’t really a Lexus. The LS was though, and it was a car like no other. This new brand, that seemed to spring up out of nowhere, brought the fight directly to the big boys such as the S Class and the 7 Series. And it won the fight. It was that good.
During its development days, the LS project was known internally as ‘Circle F’. The brief was simple: create the world’s best luxury saloon. The act of making that brief a reality, however, was not so simple. Circle F utilised 60 designers, 1,400 engineers, 2,300 technicians and approximately 200 support staff. Toyota, the parent company of Lexus, was taking no chances with the LS project. It had to succeed. ‘Pretty good’ wasn’t going to cut the wasabi.
The LS (which stands for Luxury Sedan, in case you’re wondering) project started in 1983. Remarkably, there was no specific budget, nor was there a deadline. Chief Engineer, Ichiro Suzuki had the keys to the sweet shop, and he could run wild for as long as he and his team liked. And this is why the LS was such a success when it finally launched in ‘89/ ‘90. No deadline meant the Lexus team finished when the car was done, not when they were told it had to be done. Nothing was rushed, no corners were cut. Suzuki and his team were permitted to only stop when they had satisfied themselves the car was ready. That’s not an approach you get these days.
Before the ball got rolling, Lexus bought S Class Mercedes-Benz models, BMW 7 Series models and others so it could rip them to shreds to see what made them tick, but more crucially, to see where Lexus could better them. These cars were dissected, so every screw, every fixing, every panel and every part was inspected in great detail.
Interestingly, Lexus had no interest in launching the LS on home soil (though it would, but badged as a Toyota Celsior). Lexus was to be a global brand, but with America and Europe being the primary goals. This is where luxury cars sell. Lexus as a brand didn’t actually exist in Japan until the early ‘90s.
Anyway, back to the LS. Over the course of the car’s development, some 400 prototype cars were built, while a frankly incredible 973 prototype engines were created. Why so many? Because Lexus knew that the engine would be the heart of this car. It needed to be revolutionary. It couldn’t just throw any old V8 in there and hope for the best.
The final engine was the now legendary 1UZ-FE, a 4.0 quad-cam V8. It was nothing short of a work of art. The crank was a five bearing item, the aluminium block housed cast-iron cylinder liners for strength, there were four overhead camshafts that activated 32 valves and those cams had aluminium followers so as to reduce inertia. That was a world first. So too was the decision to reduce machining tolerances by some 50% to ensure smooth running. And then, on top of all that, the engine was mounted on hydraulic-pneumatic mounts.
When the engine was running, you could barely tell. Lexus marketing material famously showed an LS400 running, but with a tower of champagne glasses sitting atop the engine. Marketing fluff, surely? Well, Top Gear’s Chris Goffey tried it himself, and it was a very real feature. Engines aren’t that smooth now, thirty years on.
The automatic gearbox was also all-new (Lexus might have been Toyota’s baby, but the LS used no Toyota parts). It had its own ECU, so it could have words with the engine’s ECU, so as to ensure smoother shifting. The whole engine and gearbox were tilted back, so as to make the driveline more direct, and the rear differential had more teeth than you’d expect, so as to deliver maximum smoothness by having less slack.
As you’d expect for a car of this class, the suspension was also an engineering triumph. Featuring a complex double wishbone design at each corner, the LS400 handled flawlessly. The setup of the suspension resulting in a need for less steering effort which helped increase the mechanical life. As for the driver, they had speed-sensitive power steering.
The body, while admittedly not the most exciting, was also engineered to extraordinary levels. Lexus could have taken what the designers had settled on and simply built it, but that’s not the Lexus way. Instead, engineers looked at how they could improve upon traditional construction methods. As such, the four-door body of the LS was stiffer than anything in its class, the welds were 1.5 times stronger than the industry standard, though that may well be down to the fact the LS was the first production car to utilise laser welding technology, which allowed up to five sheets of metal to be welded in one sitting. Blimey.
Once Lexus had a car it was happy with, it didn’t stop there. The LS400 was subject to over 1,700,000 miles of testing. The testing was done on a global scale, exposing the new car to temperature highs and lows in the extremes. It saw the car tackle varying terrains, climates and altitudes. It was thorough, to say the least.
The LS400 was unveiled as the 1990 model at the North American Motor Show in January 1989. The reception was something of awe and bafflement – just where had this incredible flagship car come from? Apart from being a feat of engineering, it was also the ultimate in luxury. The cabin was dripping in technology, such as cruise control, climate control, electric tilt and slide steering, a dash-mounted CD changer (‘89, remember), high-grade leather and more space than its peers. The LS400 took luxury and pushed the notion even further.
On the road, the press fell in love with it. Despite being slightly bigger than an aircraft carrier, the LS400 was compliant, it was agile and thanks to 250bhp, it had plenty of shove, which didn’t run out until it hit 155mph. It was astonishingly quiet, too, with testers reporting that the cabin noise was a mere 58db. The LS400 was not a new car from a company ‘having a go’. It was a proper, bona fide contender in the luxury market.
Sales were impressive, thanks in part to an ‘early bird’ price of $35,000. It was such a bargain that BMW accused Lexus of selling at a loss just to undercut the rivals.
However, in an unfortunate twist, the initial 8,000 cars sold had to be recalled due to an issue with the brake lights. This was a huge blow for Lexus, which was a small fish in a very aggressive pond at this point. However, Lexus instead saw it as an opportunity to further impress. The cars were recalled, they were serviced, they were valeted and they were delivered back to the customers with a full tank of fuel. And thus, the reputation of Lexus customer service was cemented.
The LS400 is still a car that impresses. It’s still, thirty years on, an example of how to build a car. It’s now also a proper classic, but one that will, if maintained, never let you down. It might not be the most economical choice these days, but if you can live with the thirst, the LS400 could easily be the last car you ever need. It was, and still is a triumph. One of the automotive greats, in fact.