Remembering the Lexus that almost killed competition
1989’s LS 400 sparked a paradigm shift for luxury vehicles, writes David Booth.
I recently spent a couple of hours trying to come up with precisely the right word to describe the impact Lexus had on the auto industry 30 years ago. I started the process with “groundbreaking,” which, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, means “original and important.” “Leading-edge” certainly described the original LS 400.
Finally, it dawned on me that the LS 400, the actual car that did all this innovating, groundbreaking and spearheading was all of the above.
In the luxury segment, there is a distinct delineation between the era before the LS 400 went on sale in September 1989 and after. It may be hard for those now flocking to BMW and Mercedes-benz to comprehend, but there was a time when German luxury cars — not to mention their American counterparts — were truly horrible. Gloriously unreliable and not nearly as luxurious as rose-tinted glasses remember, a BMW or Mercedes of the day would burn out its electronics on a regular basis, crack trim bits as if they were taco shells and challenge your wallet with a muffler replacement. Jaguars and Cadillacs, meanwhile, would do all that and raise the ante with the occasional — OK, frequent, if you owned a Jag — blown transmission and/or leaky radiator. I won’t even bother describing the misery of driving Lincolns of the day.
In one brilliant flash, that all changed. It’s impossible to exaggerate the rapidity with which Lexus came to dominate the North American luxury market. At its introduction in 1989, its competitors denigrated it as mere parvenu. Worse yet, it was a Japanese upstart that could not possibly hope to challenge the true luxury offered by European and American stalwarts. By 1990, the LS had become the bestselling large luxury sedan in the land.
By the end of 1991, it had become the No. 1 purveyor of luxury vehicles in North America. Mercedes-benz sales dropped some 19 per cent, and BMW’S 29 per cent.
So, how did Lexus do it? Well, quality control bordering on the obsessive-compulsive was certainly a good start. Reinventing carpet so that its individually extruded fibres were hollow just to save a grand total of one kilogram might be a good example. Building an engine cradle as stout as a Formula One car of the day — the LS 400’s 4.0-litre V8 used six-bolt main bearings, when weaker two- and four-bolt arrangements were the norm — just so a commercial could be made with Champagne glasses stacked on the hood as the engine revved to 145 miles per hour — might be another.
But among the many stories of the company’s relentless pursuit of perfection, my favourite is how Lexus built LS 400 door trims.
According to Paul Williamsen, now the company’s global head of marketing planning, all Lexus assembly-line workers had to undergo special training to install interior trim panels. Lexus’s production engineers weren’t satisfied with “associates” just pushing panels into place. They wanted proof they were correctly installed, insisting that a properly fastened fastener emitted a very specific tone.
So the entire department was trained to listen for a precise sound. No matter how sturdy the assembly might seem to be, no “click” meant no go. There’s a reason the LS 400 was the first car to register fewer than
100 problems per 100 cars in JD Power’s Initial Quality Survey.
What luxury intenders now take for granted was not always so. Pretty much every superlative of the modern luxury car experience was instigated by, or a result of one car — the Lexus LS 400.