The arrival of the Lexus LS400 in 1990 was evidence that the Japanese could build a serious luxury sedan, but stylish coupes were another matter entirely. In 1991, Toyota tried to challenge all preconceptions with a sleek new 2+2 coupe intended to face BMW, Jaguar, and Mercedes on their own terms. It didn’t quite succeed, but it was a unique and memorable design with an unusual story behind it. This is the history of the 1992-2000 Lexus SC and Toyota Soarer.
COUPE DE GRACE
Even as its flagship LS400 sedan went on sale in 1989, Toyota was already considering the next steps for the Lexus brand. Plans included a new entry-level sedan to replace the underwhelming ES250 and a new midsize sedan, the GS, to slot between the existing ES and LS models. The most interesting development, however, was the conception of a Lexus coupe.
Big premium coupes and convertibles like the Mercedes SEC and SL, Jaguar XJS, and BMW 6-Series occupied a small but lucrative market. They sold in modest numbers, but well-heeled buyers were willing to pay a sizable premium for their distinctive styling, making such cars very profitable. They also served as style leaders for their brands, adding luster to the rest of the line.
Several other automakers had recently tried to break in to the high-end two-door segment with mixed results. Cadillac’s Pininfarina-styled Allanté roadster and Buick’s two-seat Reatta had failed to lure buyers away from the established European leaders despite significantly lower prices. The Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Continental Mark VII lacked the cachet or sophistication to appeal to BMW or Mercedes buyers, while Honda’s Legend coupe was more of a two-door sedan than a posh sports coupe. Still, the coupe market remained a tempting target.
Nissan, which launched its Infiniti brand in 1989, had clearly thought the same thing. Shortly after the debut of the Q45 sedan, Nissan introduced an Infiniti coupe, the M30. An Americanized version of the Japanese-market Nissan Leopard, the M30 was upright, boxy, and sedanish, with bland styling and unexceptional performance. Unsurprisingly, it made no particular impression on coupe buyers, and Infiniti dropped it in short order.
Toyota had several options for developing a Lexus coupe: They could do as Mercedes had with its S-Class coupes and simply offer a two-door version of the LS400 sedan, but the LS400 had already drawn criticism for its unadventurous, derivative styling. They could create a Lexus version of the big Toyota Soarer luxury coupe, a home-market rival of the Leopard, but the existing Soarer was an old design and its prospects in the U.S. market looked grim. The third option was the most challenging: creating something entirely new.
Understanding the tastes of the U.S. market had always been a challenge for the Japanese automakers, whose designers and engineers often had very different values than their American customers. In the sixties and early seventies, Nissan had benefited (whether they appreciated it or not) from the insights of Yutaka Katayama, head of NMC USA, whose tastes were more in line with those of the American market. Toyota, for its part, decided to seek American help. In 1964, the company hired Strother MacMinn, a teacher at the Art Center of Pasadena, California, to train Toyota designers. Although MacMinn agreed to help, he warned Toyota executives that training stylists in Japan would not be enough. To understand American sensibilities, he said, Toyota’s designers needed to live in the U.S.
In 1973, Toyota leased a warehouse in El Segundo, California, near the Los Angeles International Airport, and established the Calty (from “California Toyota”) Design Research center, whose first production design was the popular 1978 Toyota Celica coupe. Encouraged by this early success, Toyota moved Calty to a larger studio in Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles, and hired a new design chief, former Ford stylist David Hackett. Hackett and his team, which included Calty’s first junior designers, would be responsible for many of Toyota’s later American-market designs.
Assigning the design of the Lexus coupe to Calty was a natural choice. When Toyota had studied the upscale American market to prepare for the launch of Lexus, their researchers had rented a house in posh Laguna Beach, California, a few miles south of the Calty studio in Newport Beach. Since Southern California would be a major market for the new coupe, Lexus management judged that Calty’s designers would be more in tune with buyer tastes than the stylists back in Nagoya. Rather than Americanizing a Japanese design, the Calty design would become the basis for the third-generation (Z30) Japanese-market Toyota Soarer.
Located thousands of miles away from the conservative traditions of both Japan and Detroit, Calty designers had developed a certain flair for the avant garde. Its staff was small and quite young — Wayne Lui, who led the Lexus coupe project, had been hired straight out of design school back in 1982 — and they were always looking for ways to think outside the box.
Both Wayne Lui and design chief Dennis Campbell thought the Lexus coupe should have a flowing, organic shape, eschewing both the sedan-like character of the Mercedes SEC and the angularity of the previous Soarer. Rather than beginning with sketches and translating them into clay models, as is customary in automotive styling, they developed early design concepts using plaster-filled balloons. Once they had established a basic shape, they moved directly into clay. Throughout the process, the designers worked almost entirely with three-dimensional models rather than flat renderings, very unusual for automotive designs.
T. Okada, head of product planning back in Japan, was not thrilled with either the unorthodox approach or its early results, but he gave Campbell and Lui permission to develop their design into a full-size clay model. To their relief, when they presented the clay to him six months later, he was very pleased with it. Their work also found an enthusiastic supporter in the coupe project’s chief engineer, Seihachi Takahashi, who would become an important ally.
THE ART OF NO COMPROMISE
The problem with allowing designers to indulge themselves is that at some point, their work must be translated into a practical, producible car. Many automakers make their designers entirely subordinate to engineering; the stylists can’t even get to work until they have a validated ‘package’ of dimensions and engineering parameters. That approach ties designers’ hands, but it also helps to ensure that their designs allow room for engines, passengers, suspension components, and other important details. By contrast, if stylists work without a package in mind, as was the case with the Buick Reatta, their designs often end up being painfully compromised — if not ruined — in the translation to production.
Lui and Campbell’s coupe proposal seemed very likely to go the way of the Reatta. As designers often do, they had pushed their initial design as far as possible, expecting that they would have to make substantial compromises further down the road. Seihachi Takahashi, however, loved the design so much that he became determined to build it with as few compromises as possible. He flew Lui to Japan and put him up in a hotel to personally oversee the “productionizing” of his design.
It was a difficult process. The coupe’s complex curves were very difficult to produce and some of the platform’s hardpoints — the unalterable dimensions dictated by the suspension, the height of the engine, etc. — actually fell outside the dimensions of the clay model. The Lexus LS sedan’s 1UZ-FE V8 engine, which the coupe was supposed to share, didn’t fit under the hood. The rounded edges of the nose didn’t leave enough room for headlights, even with compact projector-beam units. The grilleless nose, meanwhile, didn’t admit enough air to the radiator to prevent overheating.
Inevitably, Lui was ultimately forced to make some changes to the original design, but not many; he actually offered to make more, but Takahashi wouldn’t let him. Instead, the engineers rearranged or redesigned many components to make them fit. The engine got a new air cleaner assembly to fit under the low hood. To address cooling problems, a duct was added under the nose to channel under-bumper airflow into the radiator, and an unusual hydraulically controlled cooling fan replaced the conventional electric unit. To deal with the headlight problem, the high beams were separated from the main beams and moved inboard, giving the coupe its distinctive ‘nostrils.’ Okada said that the coupe was the biggest production challenge Toyota ever faced, but it was also the least-compromised car they had ever built.
THE SPORTING LEXUS SC
As a rule, big coupes tend to look sportier than they drive, but Takahashi wanted the Lexus coupe to have a genuinely sporting feel. While it rode a shorter, narrower version of the LS400′s platform sharing as much of the sedan’s basic hardware as Takahashi could manage, the coupe’s suspension was significantly firmer, with bigger wheels and larger brakes. It had far better body control than the sedan and a noticeably stiffer ride. The Lexus version of the coupe came only with a conventional suspension, but Japanese-market Toyota Soarers were available with air suspension, four-wheel steering, and later a complex active suspension system, none of which were offered on the Lexus. Toyota subsequently adapted the coupe’s platform for the 1993 Supra sports car.
The Lexus coupe had two engine options: a new version of the Supra’s 2,997 cc (182 cu. in.) 2JZ-GE straight-six mated with either a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual or the LS00′s 3,968 cc (244 cu. in.) 1UZ-FE V8, mated only with a four-speed automatic. The Toyota Soarer initially used offered the V8 and a 2,491 cc (153 cu. in.) 1JZ-GTE twin-turbo six, underrated at 276 hp (280 PS, 206 kW); the normally aspirated 2,997 cc (182 cu. in.) 2JZ-GE was added to the line in January 1994. The coupes were no lightweights — a well-equipped V8 model weighed around 3,700 lb (1,680 kg) — but they were about 200 lb (90 kg) lighter than the LS400 with shorter gearing for better acceleration.
Despite its potent engines and firm suspension, neither the Lexus nor the Toyota Soarer lacked luxury features. The Lexus coupe offered much the same equipment as the LS400 sedan, including its distinctive electroluminescent instruments. Soarers could be even more lavishly equipped, with digital instrumentation, satellite navigation, an in-dash television receiver, and a back-up camera, options that at that time were little known in the U.S.
The Lexus version of the coupe, known rather prosaically as the Lexus SC (Sport Coupe), debuted in the summer of 1991 and went on sale that fall as 1992 model. Only the V8-powered SC400 was available at launch; the six-cylinder SC300 appeared about a year later.
Press reaction to the Lexus SC was enormously positive. Most critics liked the sleek styling and were impressed with the SC’s performance. In October 1991, Car and Driver clocked an SC400 from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than seven seconds and reached a redline-limited top speed of 145 mph (233 kph). That was on a par with the Mercedes 560SEC and BMW’s outgoing M6/M635 CSi and more than a second quicker than an Lexus LS400 sedan. The SC300 was not much slower than its V8 sibling, particularly with the rare manual transmission. (Turbocharged Toyota Soarers, meanwhile, were quicker than either SC and became popular as pursuit cars for some Japanese police prefectures.)
The SC’s handling was just as sporting. The LS400 had sacrificed cornering ability for a smooth ride, but the coupe felt decidedly more Germanic. The SC was too big to be a nimble slalom-carver like a Volkswagen GTI, but it had impressive grip. Both Car and Driver and Road & Track felt that the SC’s brakes were somewhat over-matched by its weight, however, and wondered if the ride might be a little too stiff for its well-heeled customers.
Those customers at least had no reason to kvetch about the price. When the Lexus SC400 went on sale, its starting price was $37,500, actually cheaper than a 1992 LS400. The 1993 SC300 started at only $31,100, which was a veritable bargain in this rarefied class. Despite the stiffer ride, the coupes were just as solid and well assembled as the sedan, which made them among the highest-quality automobiles in the world.
BURSTING THE BALLOON
The Lexus SC sold well at first, although it was not a runaway hit. First-year totals were 12,695 SC400s and almost 8,000 SC300s, which was not bad by coupe standards. Still, the SC fell well short of the new Cadillac Eldorado, which was comparably priced, but less polished and considerably less powerful. Worse, sales sank almost every year. Combined production fell to a little over 16,000 in 1993 and just under 12,000 in 1994, dropping to around 5,000 units a year by 1996. A modest but unappealing facelift in 1997 didn’t help, nor did the addition of a more powerful V8 engine and five-speed automatic in 1998. In 2000, its final year, the SC sold only 631 units in the U.S.
The Toyota Soarer did somewhat better, but not by much. Its sophisticated air suspension and active suspension variants sold in very limited numbers and most were discontinued well before the end of the model run.
Why didn’t the SC sell better? Rapid price escalation probably played a role. Like the LS400, the Lexus SC’s highly competitive initial price swelled rapidly, driven partly by the strength of the yen relative to the dollar. By 1996, the SC300′s price had climbed to more $44,000, while the SC400 started at more than $52,000. That represented 40% increase from their debut, tough to swallow for basically unchanged cars. Moreover, the market for all coupes was shrinking dramatically in the mid-nineties. The SC’s Toyota Supra platform-mate never sold more than 3,500 units a year in the U.S. and Toyota withdrew it in 1998. Even the venerable Ford Thunderbird expired in 1997, a casualty of the growing American infatuation with trucks and sport-utility vehicles.
We suspect that Lexus SC’s sleek lines also left it in a difficult position in the marketplace. The SC400 was much racier than a big Benz or Jaguar coupe, perhaps a little too racy for conservative customers. At the same time, it was a little too big and too luxurious for sports car fans and the Lexus brand didn’t have the sporting cachet of Porsche or even Corvette.
THE SECOND GENERATION
Lexus redesigned the SC for 2001. Unlike its predecessor, the new SC was the work of Toyota’s Brussels design center, rather than Calty. It was no longer a two-door coupe, but rather Lexus’s first retractable hardtop. Dubbed Lexus SC430, it was smoothly styled, but awkwardly proportioned, far less pretty than its bullet-like predecessor.
Like its predecessor, the SC430 sold relatively well at first — about 14,000 units per year in both 2001 and 2002 — and then dropped off quickly. By 2008, U.S. sales had fallen to fewer 2,000 per year and as of this writing, it appears that 2009 will be its final year. Lexus has implied that the SC430 will not have a direct replacement, with its place in the lineup taken by a new IS coupe.
Although the Calty studio was not involved in the design of the SC430, the California studio has not been idle. Wayne Lui, the original Lexus SC’s lead designer, went on to develop the edgy 2000-2006 Toyota Celica as well as the familiar space shuttle shape of the second-generation Toyota Prius.
The Lexus SC had far less impact than the LS400 and failed to set the standard for its class the way Mercedes’ SL roadsters have defined theirs. Still, the first-generation Lexus coupe is on our short list of Japanese cars likely to become future classics. We must admit to being biased, for we consider the original SC400 to be the best-looking car the Japanese industry has yet produced and one of the finest automotive designs of the past two decades. Unlike a great many modern cars, it’s neither derivative nor self conscious — it just looks good.
The SC and Z30 Toyota Soarer have already developed a certain cult following. They were very solidly built and they are quite reliable, particularly given their complexity. The electroluminescent instruments can be problematic and the V8 requires a new timing belt and water pump every 90,000 miles (145,000 km), but all of the available engines are nearly bulletproof. The Lexus SC/Soarer is far less troublesome than a contemporary BMW 8-Series or Jaguar XJ-S, which can easily become money pits. Furthermore, six-cylinder SC300s and Soarers can use nearly all of the performance parts available for the Supra, offering the foundation for a formidable luxury hot rod.
In January 2004, Toyota global design chief Simon Humphries admitted to Autoweek that the first SC400′s design pushed the envelope in ways that Toyota had not matched since. That isn’t surprising, but it’s unfortunate that Toyota no longer produces anything half as attractive as the original SC400. For our money, neither does anyone else.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our principal sources on the origins of CALTY included Mark Rechtin, “Creation of Calty launched new era of California car design” (no date, Brittanica.com, www.britannica. com/ bps/additionalcontent/18/27447547/ Creation-of-Calty-launched-new-era-of-California-car-design, accessed 19 June 2009), which was excerpted from Automotive News October 29, 2007, and Gary S. Vasilash, “Inside CALTY” (no date, Automotive Design and Production, www.autofieldguide. com/ articles/099902.html, accessed 19 June 2009).
Sources for the SC’s development history included a 1992 Lexus dealer introduction video (posted by “RaySC400,” 29 September 2006, www.youtube. com/ watch?v=-a4-odN2oIU , accessed 19 June 2009); Patrick Bedard, “Lexus SC400,” Car and Driver Vol. 36, No. 12 (June 1991): 48-52; Larry Griffin, “Lexus SC400: Okay, kids, can you say ‘ballistic?’” Car and Driver Vol. 37, No. 4 (October 1991): 109-113; and “Lexus SC 400: Lexus creates the target,” Road & Track Road Test Annual 1992 June 1992: 76-81.
Additional data on model changes, including information on the Japanese Soarer coupes, came from Brian Long, Celica & Supra: The book of Toyota’s sports coupes (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing, 2007); Rob_RA40. “The History of Toyota’s M Engines …,” eds.au.com, Toyota Engine Development, n.d., users.tpg.com.au/users/loats/technical/mhistory/mhistory.html, accessed 16 August 2013; “Lexus SC400 Production History” (n.d., Lexus Soarer Owners Club, http://www.lexusclub.co.uk/SC400hist.htm, accessed 19 June 2009), Toyota Motor Corporation, “Celsior,” 75 Years of Toyota. Vehicle Lineage, n.d. www.toyota-global.com/ company/history_of_toyota/75years/vehicle_lineage/car/id60010294/, accessed 19 August 2013; and “Soarer,” www.toyota-global.com/ company/history_of_toyota/75years/vehicle_lineage/car/id60010598/, accessed 19 Augsut 2013; Toyota Motor Corporation, “New Soarer” [brochure c. 1986], www.toyota.co.jp/jpn/ company/history/75years/vehicle_lineage/catalog/60010557/pageview.html, accessed 19 August 2013; and “Comprehensive Lexus SC300/400 FAQ” by “lex400sc” (27 October 2004, Intellextual.net, http://www.intellexual.net/faq.html, accessed 20 June 2009). The latter was also the source of the Simon Humphries statement in Autoweek, mentioned in the closing paragraph.
Some production figures came from Productioncars.com Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945-2005 and some additional details came from Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, 2nd ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001).