A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Motor Trend Classic.
Allow me to set the stage by turning the clock back 30 years. The United States had just won a four-decade-long battle with the Soviet Union. We were exhausted by the constant threat of mutually assured destruction. While victorious, our collective psyche was still used to having an enemy, a distant, far-off nemesis that was not only our foe, but just possibly our technological superior. We needed, it seems, an Other. The surging might of the Japanese industrial juggernaut filled that particular archetypal niche well. Your Walkman was made by Sony. You junked your Zenith in favor of a Mitsubishi big screen. And the constant oil bath on the floor of your garage had you thinking of ditching the LTD in favor of a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. My family replaced our wretched 1985 Chevrolet Malibu with a 1992 Nissan Maxima.
Popular culture soon began to reflect this new fear. Look no further than the 1986 Michael Keaton flick Gung Ho, where a shuttered American car factory is reopened by a Japanese automaker whose ruthless management forces the lazy Americans to work harder for less money. No paid overtime for you! And, of course, wounded everyman John McClane’s wife, Holly, worked for the Nakatomi Corporation in 1986’s Die Hard. Or what about judging a book by its cover, such as the 1990 scare piece “Yen!: Japan’s New Financial Empire and Its Threat to America.” I remember local news running stories of domestic dealerships offering the opportunity to beat an import with a baseball bat for the low price of $10.
Nowhere was this new threat felt more strongly than in California. Even as a somewhat dopey high schooler, I was aware of the fear. The Japanese bought Pebble Beach. They bought Laguna Seca. A businessman paid $15 million for a Ferrari 250 GTO. Another paid $1,000 for a piece of tuna(!). Because of the recently ceased Cold War, our Southern California aerospace industry was floundering. Many of my friends’ parents were suddenly jobless. A recession—mild by today’s standards—set in. Yet, Honda and Toyota kept selling more and more cars. And those scary Japanese weren’t satisfied. They were going full tilt after the big boys, the mighty European luxury and sports cars.
I wish I had kept a diary as a teenager so I knew the exact date, but I’ll never forget the night. My father took me down to the then-brand-new Lexus dealership. The event was the unveiling of the Lexus LS400. “Forty-thousand dollars for a Japanese car? Are they flipping nuts?” Of course, Dad never said “flipping.” And there, up on a turntable, sat a two-tone white-and-gray sedan, spinning peacefully under the lights to the bemusement of the gathered crowd. Bits and pieces of conversation are burned forever into my mind. “It’s so quiet you can’t even tell it’s on.” “They say it’s faster than a BMW, more luxurious than a Mercedes-Benz, and cheaper than both. And it’s a Toyota, so it won’t break.” Starkest of all were the row after row of malaise-era Cadillacs sold by the same dealership. They were now officially moribund and obsolete.
Around the same time—this would have been the autumn of 1989—the buff books I devoured four at a time were publishing photos and reports about a sleek, mid-engine sports car from Honda. If the reports were to be believed, the car, badged Acura in America, was to take on the very best from Europe and at a lower price. Only the new Corvette ZR1 would be anywhere near the performance bargain of the upcoming NSX. So said Honda, at any rate. “Today’s Ferraris are dinosaurs,” Honda’s Nobuhiko Kawamoto declared. “[They] are big and impressive, but they have not adapted to the needs of the times, and eventually that may be their downfall.” Within months, the first driving reports started showing up. This Honda/Acura was good. No, it was better than that—it was great. Ferrari, Porsche, and Jaguar had been put on notice. The all-aluminum NSX—partially developed at the Nürburgring—was better in every way.
The Birth Of Lexus
In 1981, the Reagan administration foisted the protective (and, in hindsight, stupid) Voluntary Restraint Agreement (VRA) onto the Japanese automakers. The VRA limited Japan to selling about 1.7 million vehicles in the U.S. The math was easy. Sell 1.7 million cheap cars, or go upscale and launch Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus. In 1983, Toyota CEO Eiji Toyoda called his top executives into his office and pitched an idea. His idea, a secret project called F1, had the lofty goal of producing a luxury sedan that would challenge the very best in the world. If successful, such a car would net Toyota a whole bunch of yen, and, more importantly, redeem the face lost when the Japanese automakers accepted the VRA. However, the F1 had to be perfect. It couldn’t just be better than the competition in some ways; it had to be better than the best in every way. A huge gamble, no doubt. Looking back, you have to admire both Toyota’s hubris and Toyoda-san’s brass cojones.
Over the next five years, the Japanese behemoth pumped more than $1 billion dollars into project F1. The F, in this case, stood not for “Formula” but for “Flagship.” At its height, F1 employed 3,700 of Toyota’s top engineers, split into 24 engineering teams. They built 450 mules and 900 test engines and logged more than 1.5 million development miles—incredible numbers by any standard. Toyota bet that gasoline would once again be cheap and plentiful, so it started work on the F1’s heart: a 32-valve 4.0-liter V-8. Producing 250 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, the engine was very potent by the standards of the day.
Moreover, it was incredibly smooth, refined, and quiet. Toyota also decided that the Americans who purchase BMW and Mercedes-branded vehicles would never stoop to purchase anything with a Toyota badge, no matter how good, a lesson Volkswagen failed to heed when the German giant tried to sell the most excellent Phaeton to us Yanks some years later. In May 1987, Toyota settled on a name for its new high-end brand: Lexus.
Acura NSX: Setting An Industry Standard
In 1986, Honda launched its Acura brand in the U.S. While not nearly as ambitious as Toyota’s F1 project, the resulting Legend and Integra models were very good vehicles. Still, they weren’t dominant. In fact, the Legend targeted the Audi 4000 (of all cars), and the Integra was a souped-up Civic mostly launched as a hedge against Acura dealers having to struggle with just one model. (Personal side note: the hedge worked, as my father got my mother a 1986 Integra after I dragged him to the Acura dealership over his “flipping $20,000 for a Japanese car?” protestations.) Blame it on the high-riding Nippon zeitgeist of the time, but a year after Toyota initiated the F1 program, Honda also decided to build a clean-sheet halo vehicle. Only it wasn’t going to have four doors. And the world had never seen anything like it.
The number of Honda-claimed industry firsts in the subsequent NSX (short for New Sportscar Experimental) is staggering, more than 20 in all. It’s the first production car to feature an all-aluminum monocoque, including both specially heat-treated (and dent-resistant) body panels, as well as extruded-aluminum chassis elements. The suspension was also all aluminum, and the combined weight savings from the alloy construction compared with traditional steel was about 500 pounds.
It was the first production car to feature four-channel ABS, the first mainstream application of electric-assist power steering, and the first consumer vehicle to use titanium connecting rods for its high-revving, 90-degree 3.0-liter V-6 that produced a then-impressive 270 hp—that’s 90 ponies per liter, a shocking sum back in 1991. Perhaps most important, the NSX was the first car Honda offered in the United States to employ the most excellent VTEC variable valve timing system. Moreover, like the Ferrari 328 it initially targeted (and, later, the 348), it was mid-engined. Not only that, but the gas tank was located between the driver and the engine, so that, as fuel levels fell, the car’s balance didn’t budge.
As Honda’s president of R&D, Hiroyuki Shimojima, said at the time, “It must be the most sophisticated and modern sports car in the world.” He added that Honda’s new exotic would “establish entirely new levels of performance, refinement, driveability, and reliability.” The Acura NSX then, was Honda’s chance to show off its F1 chops, and, unlike with Toyota, we are talking about Formula 1. Honda employed no fewer than three F1 drivers to help develop the NSX. The first was Satoru Nakajima, a Japanese racer involved with the early chassis tuning and endurance logging. The next driver to lend a hand was none other than legendary Brazilian champion Ayrton Senna. He’s credited with convincing Honda to significantly stiffen the Acura NSX’s chassis. Honda was so thankful, it gave him not one, but two NSXs. American driver Bobby Rahal also helped in the development of Honda’s first rear-drive car since the decidedly non-F1 S800. The resulting praise was hyperbolic.
The Acura NSX And LS 400 Make An Impression
Our own Don Fuller seemed particularly blown away in his September 1990 first test. “It’s the best sports car the world has ever produced. Any time. Any place. Any price.” Fuller went on to say that the NSX is “more of an achievement” than the 1955 Gullwing and the 1977 Porsche 928, and that the sporty Acura is “far better than any Ferrari or Lamborghini ever built; it makes the Corvette ZR1 look like something contrived under a shade tree.” Just so we’re all on the same page here, the Porsche 959 debuted in 1986, and the Ferrari F40 reared its red head in 1987. Concluded Fuller, “We’ve spent over 100 years developing the automobile. After driving the NSX, it’s been worth the wait.”
The media response to the Lexus LS400 was less effulgent—how could it not be?—but in effect, just as positive. Jeff Karr noted in his August 1989 driving impression that a fearless Lexus elected to launch the car in Germany on the autobahn along with three competitors for comparison: the BMW 735i, Mercedes-Benz 420SE, and a Jaguar XJ6. The new Lexus was better. He sums up his review with “Breathtaking happens to be a word that nicely sums up the entire LS 400. You can bet there are some nervous folks over on the Continent right now.”
That’s precisely why we’re concentrating on these two cars, as opposed to the aforementioned Legend or the then-contemporary Infiniti Q45. While both are good vehicles, no German doctor-engineer ever lay awake at night worrying about those two. But the smooth LS400 and the savvy NSX sent shockwaves throughout the industry. They changed everything, not only challenging the status quo but rewriting it. Driving both cars today, the biggest takeaway is how modern they feel. Sure, a new Camry can get to 60 mph about as fast as the NSX (we clocked the latter at 5.5 seconds back in 1990), and that same humdrum Toyota rides about as well as the LS400. That’s progress. But remember, that progress is a direct result of these two cars happening in the first place. They don’t feel old. Rather, they both feel like the blueprint for what’s now considered normal.
Today’s great cars are as good as they are only because these two were so meticulously built. As historian Paul Johnson would say, they signify the birth of the modern. Perhaps more important, each car is, in its own, perfected way, a time capsule. They’re windows back to a time when Japan looked poised to take over not just the automotive industry, but the entire world. They’re rolling monuments to a mindset that no longer exists. To repurpose a phrase my father used to utter when he showed me pictures of his father’s 1953 Buick Roadmaster, “They sure don’t build ’em like this anymore.”
Massive speculation and overconfidence led to a Japanese asset price bubble, peaking in 1991. Real estate prices in Tokyo reached absurd heights with one square foot of prime space being valued at up to nearly $100,000. When the bubble popped, those goofy prices fell by 90 percent. The myth of Japan as the new master of the universe dissolved, and the Japanese were forced to deal with what became known as “The Lost Decade.” Of course, a full recovery has yet to materialize and the Nikkei stock index finally bottomed out in 2009.
As for the Japanese auto industry, it still sells boatloads of cars. However, the vehicles are by and large simply not as special as they once were. Honda, especially in North America, is not the engineering monolith it once was. Their best product is no longer a high-strung, mid-engine Porsche-smacking sports car. It’s a minivan. Gone forever, it seems, are the days when gearhead, speedfreak teenagers dreamed of VTEC. Subaru’s easily modified WRX nailed that coffin shut.
Saddest of all is the fate of Lexus, a brand that once burned so bright. Today, Lexus appears to have lost its rudder. While it’s true that Toyota spent a decade and several fistfuls of yen engineering the mighty LFA, that hypercar just isn’t as good as the competition. Even if it were, the absurd $400,000 price tag ensures that the Germans and Italians could care less. It is beyond niche. As for the rest of the Lexus lineup, the cars are competitive, but none is best in class. Lexus, it seems, woke a sleeping giant with the introduction of the LS400. We’re still waiting for the second act.