Three Decades of Redefining Luxury

In 1989, Lexus burst onto the scene — to the joy of its customers but to the consternation of its competitors. Thirty years later, the luxury brand is still redefining sophistication and performance.

August 21, 2019
And So It Begins -- The first shipment of LS 400 sedans arrives in California after making the journey from Japan.


In May of 1989, Lexus gave a select group of auto writers their first look at the LS 400 at Toyota’s offices in Cologne, Germany.
 
The German press dubbed the preview the “Disneyland Tour,” in honor of Neuschwanstein Castle — the inspiration for the theme park’s iconic structure and a stopping point for the journalists en route to Munich. But Automotive Industries called it, “the nightmare, because that’s what Toyota has created for the world’s luxury class carmakers.”
 
Thirty years later, a little of both are still true.
 
Quantitatively, Lexus rose quickly out of seemingly nowhere to more than hold its own against venerable nameplates like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Cadillac in the luxury vehicle sales wars. But qualitatively, its impact on what it means to deliver a true luxury experience was the stuff of fairy tales. Thanks to that potent combination, the success of Lexus will no doubt go down as one of the most remarkable accomplishments in automotive history.
 
You could easily fill a book, or two, with the many twists and turns of this amazing story. And, in fact, some people — including Lexus’ own Paul Williamsen — have done just that.
 
But if you only have time for the Cliff’s Notes version, you’ve come to the right place. What follows are some highlights along the timeline that, hopefully, will convey a sense of what makes this singular brand so special.

 
A Technical Marvel -- The LS 400 sedan disrupted the established luxury automotive order by establishing new benchmarks for top speed, fuel economy, coefficient of drag and internal noise level.

1983 — TMC Chairman Eiji Toyoda gives the go-ahead “to build a car that is better than the best in the world.” A planning committee was soon formed and handed a clean slate without financial limitations. The project, dubbed “Circle F” for flagship, was launched in total secrecy.
 
1985 — A team of designers and engineers head to Laguna Beach, an upscale Southern California community, to immerse themselves in American luxury culture. A new concept of luxury emerges: simple, clean and smart. Meanwhile, Chief Engineer Ichiro Suzuki sets the performance targets: a top speed of 155 mph, fuel economy of 22.5 mpg, a coefficient of drag of 0.28, and an interior noise level of 58 decibels at 60 mph. His engineers’ response? “Impossible!”
 
1986 After 14 full-scale models (most Toyota vehicles needed only 5-6) and about 450 test cars, every performance target was achieved. All told, more than 1,400 engineers and 2,300 technicians had a hand in the LS 400’s development.
 
1987 — The crucial decision is made to sell the car under a completely separate brand and dealer network. In addition to an initial investment of up to $5 million, each prospective dealer had to commit to the groundbreaking Lexus Covenant and such principles as “do it right from the start,” “anticipate and seamlessly meet our customers’ needs in every thought, word and gesture” and “treat each customer as we would a guest in our home.” Some 1,500 applied but there would be fewer than 100 Lexus dealers at launch. Meanwhile, “Alexis” emerges as the front-runner from among 219 brand names suggested by an image consulting firm. But concern over confusion with the conniving Joan Collins character of the same name on “Dynasty,” a wildly popular prime time soap opera at the time, leads to a shortening to Lexis…and then Lexus for its luxurious and high-tech sound.
 
1988 — Saatchi & Saatchi, Toyota’s ad agency, creates Team One just for Lexus. After getting a full immersion in the product in Japan, the lead on the account scribbles onto an airline cocktail napkin the phrase: “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.”
 
1989 The LS 400 gets its first public viewing at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Later that year, Lexus sets the price at $35,000, $10,000 less than a Mercedes 300E and $19,000 less than a BMW 735i. In August, the first cars begin arriving at dealerships. Among the early buyers was Bill Gates, who goes for the optional built-in cellular phone feature. However, the dream start comes to an abrupt halt in December when Lexus decides to recall all 8,000 LS 400s on the road due to three safety-related issues. Nearly all repairs are completed within 20 days — forever cementing the Lexus Covenant’s three core tenants: doing it right from the start, having the finest dealer network and treating each customer as a guest in home. Every car got a wash and a full tank of premium gas. Due to the extraordinary response, Lexus turned a negative into a positive and sells more units in December then it had in October and November. This marks a defining moment for Lexus’ legendary customer service.
 



1990 — Lexus airs what would come to be known as an iconic ad featuring a pyramid of champagne glasses on the hood of an LS 400. The voiceover: “Even at the equivalent of 145 miles per hour, the Lexus LS 400 is designed to stir the soul…and not much else.” It’s soon followed by another commercial where a hand places a ball bearing in the seam between a car’s body and trunk. The camera pulls back to reveal the ES, an upscale midsize sedan that joined the LS as the brand’s first product offerings. Meanwhile, the traditional arbiters of automotive luxury are beginning to feel the full effect of Lexus’ incursion on its turf. Time magazine says, “Lexus performance sent shock waves through the global automotive industry. BMW and Mercedes have seen their U.S. sales dip 29 and 19 percent respectively…at an estimated loss of $1 billion each in revenue.”
 
Super Sleek -- After launching with a pair of sedans, Lexus expanded the line with this cool coupe, the SC 400.

1991 — Lexus adds a third vehicle, the sleek SC 400 coupe. By year’s end, Lexus becomes America’s top-selling luxury import, outpacing Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
 
1993 — A fourth vehicle, the GS 300 midsize sport sedan, joins the lineup. And the Lexus Certified Pre-Owned Cars program is launched.
 
First of Its Kind -- Lexus essentially created the luxury SUV segment with the introduction of the RX 300. It would go on to become the brand's best-selling vehicle of all time.
 

1998 — Lexus once again breaks new ground, introducing the first luxury SUV, the car-based RX 300. Motor Trend names it its Sport/Utility Truck of the Year and it soon becomes the brand’s most popular vehicle.

1999 — The brand achieves cumulative sales of one million units in the U.S.
 
2000 — Lexus becomes America’s No. 1 luxury car maker, surpassing the 200,000-unit sales mark for the first time.

 
BMW Challenger -- In 2001, Lexus ventured into the sports sedan segment with the introduction of the IS 300, shown here in Sportcross trim.
  
2001 — The IS 300, a direct competitor to the BMW 3 Series, bursts on the scene. Meanwhile, the ES 300 and RX 300 become America’s best-selling luxury car and SUV, respectively.
 
2003 — The RX 330 rolls off an assembly line in Ontario, Canada — the first Lexus made outside of Japan.
 
2004 — The RX 400h becomes the world’s first luxury hybrid vehicle.
 
Hollywood Star -- This one-off concept of a 2054 model year Lexus was created for the Steven Spielberg-directed movie "Minority Report."
 

2005 — Lexus announces its intention to move into the rarefied air of the exotic vehicle with the reveal of the LFA super-premium two-seat GT sports coupe in Detroit. That same year, Lexus begins selling vehicles in Japan — the brand’s first market outside of the U.S. Fourteen years later it has gained a foothold in more than 90 countries worldwide.

 
2009 — Cumulative RX sales top 1 million, solidifying the SUV’s status as the most successful luxury vehicle in history.
 
Born to Run -- The LFA served as tangible proof that Lexus could rise to the level of the world's most advanced exotic performance cars.
 

2010 — The first of only 500 hand-assembled LFA production vehicles arrives in America.
 
2011 — The brand introduces its now iconic spindle grille in a world premiere of the GS 350 at the Pebble Beach Concourse d ’Elegance.

2013 — In a concerted effort to bolster its performance credentials, Lexus unleashes the first-generation RC F coupe in a world premiere at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
 
2014 — At the Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, Lexus unveils the all-new NX 200t and NX 300h — smaller luxury crossovers to complement the groundbreaking RX.

 
A New Standard -- Lexus once again raised its design and performance game with the introduction of the stunning LC 500 in 2015.

2015 — The LC 500 luxury coupe makes its world premiere in Detroit, raising the brand’s already lofty design bonafides even higher. Considered to be a symbol of Lexus’ future brand direction and visionary focus, the LC 500 elevates the design, performance and technology offered in a Lexus, combined with unparalleled customer experience. Later, the first U.S.-built Lexus, the ES 350, rolls off the assembly line at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky.
 
2017 — Lexus Sport Yacht concept revealed in Miami.
 
By Land...and Now by Sea -- Lexus took on a completely new challenge with the creation of the Lexus Sport Yacht that went on sale earlier this year.

2018 — Intersect by Lexus, described as “a place where creative minds meet and share ideas; where inspired people intersect with sublime expressions of culture to experience amazing,” opens its third global location in New York City.
 
2019 — Lexus sells its 10 millionth vehicle worldwide and celebrates its 30th anniversary. Happy Birthday, Lexus!
 
By Dan Miller

Sockios Alert! How many dealers were selected to represent the Lexus brand in 1990, its first full year of retail sales? In what year did Lexus sell its one-millionth vehicle in the U.S.? Email your answers to driverseat@toyota.com by the end of the day. Answer both questions correctly and you'll be entered in a random drawing to win a pair of Sockios. The 50 winners will be notified by email. Good luck!

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