In 1986, before it became a social pariah, ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi was given the job of coming up with a name for Toyota's new luxury spinoff brand.
They came up with 219 names. You can only wonder how bad most of them must have been when you see the shortlist of five. Four of them - Chaparel, Calibre, Verone, and Vectre - sounded like aftershaves from Anchorman. The fifth, Alexis, was deemed to be the best. Unfortunately, Alexis was also the name of an unpleasant, cement-haired, Zeppelin-shouldered character from the soap opera Dynasty, so a separate image-consulting firm was engaged to tweak the winning word into another made-up one that would more accurately reflect the exact combination of elegance, luxury and flawlessness Toyota was aiming for.
That word turned out to be Lexus, and the LS400 that silently glided onto the US auto scene in 1989, six years after the Circle F (for Flagship) project was begun, was an entirely worthy representative of the new brand's lofty ambitions. Pioneering laser welding techniques and near-surgical tolerances scared non-Lexus industry bigwigs. GM boss Bob Lutz used to tell a story about some of his line workers trying out a Lexus quality control technique. The GM guys had heard that Lexus tested air-tightness by pulling a car off the line on a Friday afternoon and shoving a live cat into it. If on the Monday morning the cat was found to be dead, or nearly dead, that was good. The GM lads tried it with a Chevrolet. Come Monday morning the cat was nowhere to be seen.
That may be an urban myth, along with the notion that Lexus stood for 'Luxury EXports to the US' and the rumour that Lexus engineers were helicoptered out to service cars in more remote areas of the States. but what was very real was Toyota's absolute determination to succeed with Lexus. Not just for the sake of the new brand, but also to establish an alternative buying opportunity for American baby boomers who were growing out of their everyday Toyotas and then having to 'go German'. To capture these new buyers, the LS would set new standards in customer service. Extreme quality would be backed by extreme care. Brake light recall? Sure: please allow our technicians to carry that out at your home, throwing in a valet and a full tank of fuel at the same time.
One year after the LS400's US launch at the 1989 Detroit show, and armed with a formidable package of luxury, refinement, and 155mph performance from its 240hp 4.0 litre V8, it was released in Europe to do battle against the S-Class, the 7 Series and the Jaguar XJ. At a loss-leading price of £35,000 it was a big hit among those members of the executive class who weren't badge-conscious. One of Britain's most credible monthly magazines declared the LS to be superior to both the S-Class and the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, which was still a luxury benchmark then, while an American mag's biggest complaint was to do with the difficulty they had experienced in finding any faults.
The efforts Lexus went to in search of monastic hush bordered on the obsessive. The propshaft was engineered for zero vibration. The wipers would change their angle of attack at higher speeds. For those times on your journeys when, for whatever reason, you didn't want the LS's standard-fit eerie silence, there was an ace sound system with the option of a even more superb Mark Levinson setup.
In terms of model progression, a revised version of the 400 came out in 1992 featuring new steering and suspension to counter press complaints about US-style over-assistance and floatiness. Two years later, in 1994, a full gen-two car was released with a lengthened and strengthened body, even better sound deadening, dual-zone climate control, more revisions to the suspension and brakes, and a new 260hp power rating. Another facelift came in 1997, bringing 280hp and a 5-speed automatic gearbox. In 2000, the 400 was replaced by the 430.
Today, you can easily pick up an LS400 for under £1,000. Given the car's fine reputation for reliability and quality, such bargain basement prices seem puzzling. Are there hidden nasties lying in wait for the unsuspecting buyer? Let's whip off our rose-tinted Lexus-branded sunglasses and dig in.
Bodywork & Interior
Knocks, rattles and creaks are to be expected in any 30-year old car, but most LS400 demo drives today will have you wondering what sort of pixie dust Lexus was using back in the early 1990s because the suppression of noise, vibration and harshness on a decently-maintained car is likely to shock you even now. In general the rust protection on these 400s was excellent, and especially so for a Japanese car of that era. Some say that the metal used on the first cars was of a thinner gauge. We can't confirm that, but we do know that corrosion on the chassis or via a stone chip needs to be sorted before it gets a hold. Front wing inners have been known to go brown or perforate. Any water in the (very large) boot will have entered via a blown boot seal.
On the inside, the steering wheel that comes to meet you when you insert the key and the 'floating' needles in the Optitron instrument display are novelty factors that never grow old. The wheel rim and that monster gear selector will naturally show signs of wear, and those clocks needles can disappear, but there are specialists around who will sort that out for you.
In terms of acreage, there's at least as much leather in an LS400 as there is in any of the competition. The style and feel of the cabin is undoubtedly more American than European, though, with that slightly shiny leather that you might find on a kitchen stool in an Arizona ranch. The moo used on earlier cars seems to wear out a bit more readily than later stuff too.
Some of the interior colourways looked dated and too 'Japanesey' even when they were new, but if you can overcome any sniffiness about the visuals you're unlikely to feel short-changed on the really important thing, which is comfort. The memory seats are huge and pillowy, the headrests and seatbelts are electrically adjustable, and both front seats are heated. All the seats were revised for extra comfort in the 1992 gen-two car.
No electrical system in any car will last for ever, and although there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the ones in an LS400 last longer than most, there's no getting away from the car's complexity. Check that the electrical comfort features (steering wheel, seat memory etc) and the door locks (including the boot and glove box) all work. Keys are expensive to replace. On post-1998 cars especially you really need the master key with three buttons to be present. Try to avoid the temptation to steam-clean the engine bay.
LS400 aircon has a good reputation for keeping going. Heater control panels can go blank or dim though. DIY fixing kits are available but are hardly worth the hassle or expense. The radio aerial might be a little reluctant to hoist itself to its full height but with luck that will just be a lubrication issue.
Engine & Transmission
The 400's 4.0-litre V8 1UZ-FE engine was designed to be the world's smoothest and most efficient V8. Machining tolerances were tightened by up to 50 per cent on industry norms. Cam followers were made of aluminium. It's a fabulous unit even by today's standards, but 30mpg on a cruise and as little as half that in town are very much 20th century fuel consumption figures. LPG conversions have been done, but now you'd have to get your head around the idea of the conversion probably costing more than the car.
If the engine of a car you're looking at is making even the slightest untoward noises give it a miss because the majority of 400s on the market will be running as near to perfectly as could reasonably be hoped so there is no need to shortside yourself with a wonky one. If the car isn't starting easily or seems to be less than millpond-smooth when it is running, that might be down to bust ECU capacitors. It could also be a MAF sensor issue, which can sometimes come about if you've been driving in flood conditions.
The cold idle is 1,500rpm, settling to 500rpm when warm. Timing is by belt. That and the water pump should be changed on a 100k basis. It's an interference type so don't take chances there. You might want to swap the associated gubbins such as the belt tensioner and idler pulleys at the same time, as these can get noisy. Chuffing noises suggest that the water pump is on the way out. Blue smoke means that the valve stem seals and rings are worn. Fixing that will be considerably more than the value of a cheap LS.
Oil has been known to escape from behind the timing cover, which will almost certainly be down to the cam and crank seals. Leaking in the valve cover gasket area typically happens at the 80,000-mile mark.
The LS transmission is a good match for the engine in terms of both sophistication and endurance. It was one of the first trannies to get its own ECU, and the shifting should be silky-smooth. Don't be tempted to leave the oil and filter in place for more than a year.
The age of these cars means that you may experience issues that will be unfamiliar to owners of more modern cars, like exhaust manifold leaks. Parts are not especially cheap.
Suspension & Steering
Journalists searching for things to criticise in the first LS400 soon alighted on the soft ride and light steering, which of course were the very characteristics that LS customers were looking for. In the eyes of many, the revisions to both steering and suspension in the Mk2 400 of 1992 marked the beginning of a process of 'tightening' that took away some of the early car's essential comfort.
Air suspension was an option on US cars at least, but the standard steel set up with double wishbones all round was more than capable of providing a magic carpet ride. The 1,700kg weight of the LS, a good chunk of it ahead of the driver, means that the front suspension takes a pounding. Balljoints on upper and lower wishbones break, as do springs. Clonks from the front when traversing speed humps or negotiating potholes will probably be coming from the front strut bushes, while a groaning that increases in pitch with speed will most likely be the front wheel bearings, though it could also be your nervous mother-in-law. Anti-roll bar bushes can moan too. Steering wheel shake when slowing from 50mph or so will be poor steering alignment or wheels out of balance.
Power steering fluid on your alternator is never a good idea, so keep an eye out for that if you have an early 400.
Wheels, Tyres & Brakes
You can give your 400 a more modern look by fitting the 17-inch alloys from the later 430, but of course you will know that any reduction in the profile of the rubber you fit to any car, let alone a Lexus, will generally not bring about an improvement in ride quality.
Big luxury cars like the Lexus are often left in Drive with the footbrake on even when nobody is moving. That can cause localised heat buildup on the discs, leading to warpage. LS400 front discs do suffer from this.
We started this piece wondering what the catch was with super-cheap LS400s. Now we've reached the end of the tale and it's still not obvious what that catch might be.
Sure, the suspension can catch you out (anybody remember Paul Garlick's LS?), but there's every chance that early cars will have had their underparts replaced by now thanks to generous souls like PG. That means you could still luck into one of the luxury car bargains of the century, as long as you can tolerate the sink-estate image that various gangsta mods have brought down upon the poor thing's head.
The nice point about the 400 in particular, as opposed to the later 430 and 460, is that it is regarded by those in the know as the best LS, offering the best mix of waft and sheer bloody-minded durability with less of the ride nobbliness that (some might say) degraded the later models. One of the design must-haves for the LS was that it should feel the same after 50,000 miles as it did when it was new. One serial LS owner reported that, of the eight 400s and five 430s he'd owned, the 400s were the most reliable, one of them still being 'as sweet as a nut' mechanically despite racking up nearly 380,000 miles. He also noted that Lexus dealers were the nicest he'd ever dealt with.
There are signs that prices of early 400s have bottomed out and are starting to pick up in value. Dealers are now asking between £3,000 and £5,000 for even big-mile cars, and we found one dealer asking £10,950 for a 44,000-mile 1993 specimen, which is hopeful to say the least. Luckily, however, cheap privately-owned cars are still around. A quick scout online unearthed a 1993 93,000-miler at £1,500, a 1997 146,000-miler with a full/new and advisory-free MOT at £1,300, and a 192,000-mile '97 car with a MAF sensor fault for £850.
Find a good car, ideally a post-1994 one, then lob a streaming device in there to become the proud owner of not only the best value V8 on the cost versus reliability graph, but also a level of motoring luxury that still stands tall even in 2020.
You might think that the BMW 7 Series drives better than the LS, that the Merc S-Class beats it on the 'granite factor', and that the Jag XJ whips it on organic luxury, but if you lump all the 400's talents together and add in supreme reliability, it's hard to argue against it as an everyday runaround that will constantly confound any passengers who are asked to put a value it.