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Lexus: The luxury car that was nearly named after the villain from Dynasty
SINGAPORE celebrates turning 54 today, but Lexus has a milestone of its own to mark. Come next month it will be 30 years since the brand's first car went on sale after a tumultuous gestation involving, among other challenges, a lawsuit that nearly killed it before it was born, and a soap opera villain.
That car, the LS 400 was designed to sock the likes of BMW, Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz squarely in the eye, but it knocked them flat on their backs instead. In the USA, where the idea for Lexus actually took shape, the LS 400 managed to outsell its direct competitors within a year of its launch.
Not unlike Singapore, Lexus is something of a come-from-nowhere story. It was conceived when the notion of a premium Japanese car simply didn't exist outside of Japan. "The idea of Japanese luxury was almost blasphemous," says Brian Bolain, the general manager of Lexus International.
Yet, that is the very reason the LS 400 was needed in the first place.
Toyota had become the USA's leading foreign brand in 1975 but saw buyers trade up from its reliable mass-market cars once they grew wealthy enough. Tired of watching customers defect to Mercedes and gang, Norman Lean, the chief operating officer of Toyota USA at the time, pestered his Japanese bosses for something upscale. "We need something bigger, and we need it today," he wrote to HQ.
His plea reached chairman Eiji Toyoda (the late nephew of founder Sakichi Toyoda and current Toyota boss Akio Toyoda's first cousin, twice removed), who threw his weight behind the idea.
In February 1984, he assembled a 15-man planning team for a secret project codenamed "Circle F", for "flagship". Eventually, 1,400 people toiled on the new car for half a decade, building 450 prototypes that covered 4.3 million kilometres of testing between them.
The project spawned the LS 400, but crucially it also set down the one characteristic that seems to set Lexus apart from other car makers: a sense of obsessiveness.
For example, engineers invented a new kind of fibre with hollow strands so the car's carpets and mats would be lighter. Net weight savings per car? Just 900 grammes.
In fact, if any engineer wanted to make a change to the 1.7-tonne LS 400 that would raise its weight by more than 25 grammes, they had to personally ask its chief engineer Ichiro Suzuki for permission.
But such attention to detail is how the Lexus could accelerate more quickly than its rivals, yet use less fuel and offer a quieter cabin.
If anything, things are even more demanding at Lexus these days, not least because Akio Toyoda personally evaluates every new model.
"Honestly speaking, he is not like a company president. He's like a car guy. As a matter of fact, I talk to him on the track or the test course more than in his office," says Koji Sato, the brand's chief engineer. "He's never satisfied."
Engineering still drives the brand (one version of the new Lexus LS has two transmissions, just to make it feel more natural to sensitive drivers), but it has tried hard to add design flair.
Lexus' early cars were "not quite so expressive, some could even say boring," says Koichi Suga, the general manager of its design department. The current cars' bold lines and humongous front grilles are meant to excite as much as what's under the bonnet, he says.
"Now we offer vehicles that get your pulse racing when you look at them and when you drive them."
But if the last 30 years gave Lexus clear goals, the next decades look hazy; electric propulsion is a technological speed hump while self-driving tech could be a dead end for private car ownership.
Chief engineer Mr Sato says there is no magic bullet and that car makers must offer "a portfolio" of powertrain choices. Lexus and Toyota are planning to launch 10 electric cars between them by 2025, and are also working on hydrogen fuel cells for the longer-term future.
But in October, Mr Sato will unveil a now-secret concept car at the Tokyo motor show that will shed more light on Lexus' take on the future. It will be fully electric but with a twist: every wheel will have its own motor, and controlling the power to them individually will give it the kind of agility that present cars can't match. "It will be like nothing available today," he says.
That would be true to Lexus form, since the same could be said of the LS 400 in 1989. But while Lexus ponders its next move, at least it won't have to sweat about the one thing that vexed the Circle F team 30 years ago: what to name their new luxury brand.
Toyota faced disaster when, just months before the LS 400's first public appearance, database operator Mead Data Central sued to block the use of "Lexus", arguing that if the new brand tanked it would damage the reputation of its own Lexis database product. Toyota appealed and won - just three days before the LS 400's launch.
"Lexus" itself was derived from a list of 219 possible names, including such gems as "Alexis", "Calibre" and "Vector". Toyota loved "Alexis", but Joan Collins and her masterful portrayal of the scheming Alexis Carrington in the 1980s' soap hit Dynasty convinced them to soften it to "Lexus". That's just as well, because naming the new brand after a villain would have been a shame, given how the LS 400 turned out to be such a hero.