In 1983, Toyota set out to make ‘the best car in the world’ with an epic budget, epic manpower and even-more-epic engineering targets
If it was yellow it might almost look like a New York taxi, but for the forgettable figure it cuts the original Lexus LS remains one of the greatest and most important cars ever developed in Japan. 
It was the 1980s and the Japanese economy was so hot you could hold a wok over it and cook a stir-fry.
Japan had risen from the ruins of World War II to become the planet’s factory floor, including for cars.
Japanese automakers were swimming in yen, their designers and engineers eager to strut their talent against the world.
While that meant for a time ever-whackier concepts – the Tokyo Motor Show started to assume an almost vaudeville sheen as designers competed with each other with ever-radical cars and idea – it occurred to Toyota they needed to mature if they were to be taken seriously on the world automotive stage. 
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In August 1983, Toyota president Eiji Toyoda selected 4000 of Japan’s brightest designers and engineers for project codenamed “Circle F”, F meaning flagship. The goal? Make the best car in the world.
There would be unlimited budget and unlimited time – within reason – and a singular target: crack the lucrative US luxury market, which sparkled for Toyota like a distant beacon on the horizon.
It would not be easy, as the wounded figures of past protagonists would attest. In the US, Mercedes-Benz was king, BMW held sway and Audi’s star was ascendant. But after its own crack, Jaguar was left licking its paws while Honda’s Acura and its Legend sedan was at risk of becoming a legendary flop.
The stakes were high, and Toyota couldn’t launch with any ordinary car. Extraordinary engineering targets were set for Toyota’s rear-drive luxury sedan, including efficiency that would avoid the then US ‘gas guzzler’ tax, but in a vehicle capable of 250km/h – at that time a speed only achievable by Supra. ‘Circle F’ had also to carry passengers in superb comfort, while being effortlessly luxurious and studiously reliable.
The targets were so bold, Toyota’s own engineering director personally distanced himself from the project.
Against all odds, however, they succeeded, producing a rear-drive luxury sedan on an all-new platform and with a brand new 4.0-litre quad-cam V8 producing 190kW and 360Nm, mated to a buttery smooth four-speed auto. Its length? An identical 4995mm to the then all-conquering W126 S-Class it had to best.
There was just one last problem, however. Toyota was too scared to call it a Toyota. Market research indicated Americans thought of Toyota as a maker of budget passenger vehicles. A new moniker was created: Lexus.
Rumours abound even today it stood for “Luxury Exports to the US” but this is a myth – one, notably, Toyota has made little effort to correct. 
The first LS, as Circle F became known, rolled off a Japanese production line in May 1989. It was the wedge that found a crack in the US luxury market, and levered it open for Toyota. Not just the US, either, Australia being only the third market the LS tackled after Japan and America, where it helped launch the brand we know today.
Since then, several generations have followed, but none quite as memorable as the original – as big an engineering milestone as LFA. Even if it doesn’t quite look it.
Have you ever owned a Lexus LS? Or do you own one still today? Tell us a bit about your experience in the comments below.
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Features Editor
Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.
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Copyright 2023ABN: 84 116 608 158
Copyright 2023ABN: 84 116 608 158
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