The original Lexus SC was so much weirder than you remember. Or I could say that designing it was weirder than you’d imagine.
Welcome back to Auto Archives, the show in which we dive into my personal collection of Car Styling magazine back issues. These issues are packed with never-uploaded-online pictures, sketches, and interviews. I wish I had time to go through every page.
The Lexus SC300 and SC400 of the early 1990s are classic machines of the Bubble Era. The Japanese economy was booming, Japanese car companies had money to burn on engineering—over-engineering—their cars, and they had the competitive markets and high sense of pride to build some of the most advanced, robust cars the world had ever seen. Hell, products of the Bubble Era, like the 2JZ seen in that SC300, are still go-to choices for gearheads today looking for well-made parts.
But better engineering from Japan didn’t start in the late 1980s and early 1990s, though we lionize that period. Already in the early 1980s, Japanese cars were pretty much caught up with the rest of the world in terms of engineering. You can look at the Nissan FJ20 engine as a nice case example for it. Japan was getting rid of its live axles, its single-cams, its carburetors.
What it wasn’t getting rid of, though, was dowdy styling. Even through Japanese engineering was right up there with the best of them from the early 1980s on, Japanese cars themselves looked blocky and square, and pretty frumpy in most cases.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the evolution of the Toyota Soarer, the third-generation of which we got as the first Lexus SC. The first one looked like an oversized Corolla AE86. The next one looked like the one before just a bit smoother, even though it had all kinds of cool engineering, like a straight six by Yamaha or a retractable metal hardtop.
It wasn’t until the third generation car, our Lexus SC, that the styling matched up to the engineering. What once was derivative was bold and new. What once was blocky became smooth.
How smooth? Well the team at Toyota’s California design HQ, CALTY, went so far as to eschew straight lines altogether, instead filling balloons with plaster so that they’d set into completely organic forms. I happened to have a full breakdown of the design process in an old copy of Car Styling magazine, and it was a treat to see how CALTY’s smooth design merged, to some degree, with the stern, almost Saturn-like face of Toyota’s Japanese proposal. It may have become the smoothest, most... sensual... car of its era.
I grew up always looking past the Lexus SC as too heavy to be a sports car, too plain to be a luxury car. If only I’d known.