Rare Rides featured its first Lexus recently, the SC 400 which stood as the brand’s first coupe offering. Today we’ll check out the more important flagship of the Lexus brand upon its introduction in the early Nineties: the LS 400.
Toyota knew it was go big or go home when it came to a luxury offering in the North American market. Its only premium type cars on offer previously were the Corona, and its replacement the Cressida. The Cressida was dated, too slow, not large enough, and not luxurious enough for North American consumer tastes. At home, Toyota offered the Crown and the Century, but those large sedans were also conservative and focused on the demands of the upper-crust Japanese customer (a consumer who was loyal to a domestic car).
In entering the North American market, Toyota would have to pitch its luxury brand to a consumer base not accustomed to thinking of Japanese cars as luxurious; a consumer base that typically bought its luxury cars from established domestic players or the Europeans. Cognizant of the ask ahead Toyota started the development of the LS in 1983, as a super-secret project called F1. The F1 was intended for export, a product not directly for a Japanese audience.
The F1 took five years in development, and cost over $1 billion when all was said and done. The car that resulted was an all-new vehicle with a new V8. Toyota paid special attention to things European luxury sedans had, like a quiet cabin, the ability to tour at high speed, and effective aerodynamics.
The new brand to market the F1 was created in 1986 and called Lexus, and the large sedan the company would sell called the LS. By May 1987 all designs were frozen in place. The production version LS did not share parts with other Toyota vehicles, nor a platform. Its new 32-valve 1UZ-FE V8 was 4.0 liters in displacement, and good for 250 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque: Impressive figures at a time when German V8 engines produced around 200 horses. Its suspension was modern, an independent double-wishbone design. There was an air suspension as an optional extra. The design was quieter inside than either flagship offering from BMW or Mercedes-Benz, with a higher top speed, lower coefficient of drag, and lower curb weight.
Crucially in contrast to European and American competition, most features on the LS were standard. Said expansive standard features combined with a low base price of $35,000 to draw in customers. The base price was thousands cheaper than European competition but came with a disclaimer. $35,000 was the ask for an LS with cloth seats, a version with very limited availability that most dealers didn’t stock. Lexus’ main concern at the outset was keeping quality high and pricing low to make up a lack of brand heritage, and thus no snob appeal to the BMW-Jag golfing type customer. Chris Goffey did a nice comparison review on Ye Olde Top Gear back in the day. The LS stood out starkly for its standard equipment against Euro competition in the UK, which often didn’t offer air conditioning, a catalytic converter, or eight cylinders for a comparable price in 1990.
The plan worked, and the LS was an instant sales success which cemented the brand as an outlet of quality and reliable luxury in the eyes of consumers. The initial LS remained on sale through 1992, as a refresh debuted in 1993 in response to customer and dealer commentary. Said revised LS remained on sale through 1994, at which point a second generation arrived for 1995. Gen two was larger, more powerful, and more Avalon-ish looking (I really like the refreshed ’98 to ’00 look below). You probably know the rest.
Today’s Rare Ride is for sale in the hamlet of Orange County, near downtown California. With 22,000 miles since new, it’s in spectacular condition with California-appropriate gold badging and grille surround. The seller asks all the money for this rare condition LS: $23,000.