Lexus LS 400 rendering by Niels van Roij

Refinement, Purity and Balance: the Lexus LS 400 is a Design Icon

The 1989 Lexus LS 400 was the first ever product launched by Toyota’s luxury brand. Aimed squarely at the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series, the benchmarks in the segment, the full-size vehicle was positioned to take a share in the luxury car market. And that it did! It blew away the established Germans on multiple levels.

Development of the luxury sedan, codenamed F-1, began in 1983, and the process extended over five years at a cost of over $1bn US dollars — a serious amount of money, especially at the time. In 1985, a team of five designers led by chief designer Kunihiro Uchida set up camp 50 miles south of Los Angeles, California — then the largest new car market in the world — to glean insight from buyers of luxury cars.

“We wanted a combination of the best aerodynamics and elegant style. But as a designer you can’t determine unilaterally what constitutes elegant style,” Uchida has stated, recounting the development phase of the LS 400. “You also have to learn what the customer means when they say ‘style’. To do this we felt we had to go and live in North America, to get to know our most important customers.”

Lexus LS 400 rendering by Niels van Roij

Lexus LS 400 homage render by Niels van Roij

This homage render is of the first generation Lexus LS 400, shown without the optional front lip spoiler or fog lights (to showcase its clean design and horizontal stance) but with the slightly larger wheels, which housed the larger brakes. Though these wheels came a few years after the introduction, I find they’re a bit more confident in their design.

The LS 400 is an interesting car, which set the foundation for the Lexus brand we know today. I find the very first generation to be the most pleasing aesthetically. It’s better proportioned, more honest and pure than the facelifted models and new generations that followed. Those all manage to look clumsy, vertically orientated and heavy. The 2018 model is an obvious exception — although that is a radical new take on Lexus design and does not link to the calm ’89 LS in any way.

Back to 1989: this generation LS 400 is a clever, balanced design. The often heard comparison between the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class of the day is made too fast. The human brain is hotwired; one sees what one wants to see and especially what one knows. This car deserves better. I think a bit more respect for this car and its design is due.

Indeed, the Lexus brand did not take an overly bold stance with their first vehicle in the segment, but it definitely has a character of its own. The LS 400’s volumes are consistently rich, the surfacing clean and the design has plenty of clever findings: the clean C-pillar, the one-piece rear door window, the wraparound bumpers and the horizontal stance. The design team has translated “the Relentless Pursuit of Perfection” pretty solidly in the bodywork.

Interesting documentaries about the creation of the Lexus brand and the LS 400 can be found on YouTube (we’ve included one above), including good info on its development — a must watch! [And if you lived in the US at the time, the commercial below is probably permanently etched in your mind – Ed.]

Lexus champagne glass commercial (1989)


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