This is a cracking story, so grab a coffee and settle down for a few moments.
Way back in 1990, I was still in my 20's and had recently been appointed to a role as a Training Manager at Toyota GB in Surrey. Ice, Ice Baby was at number one, Nelson Mandela had been set free and we were still marvelling that the Berlin Wall had come down the previous year. I loved my job, and it was a fabulous time to be working for Toyota, as we were preparing to launch a whole new luxury car brand onto the UK market - Lexus.
From memory only around 30 Toyota dealers had initially been selected to offer Lexus, and I was lucky enough to be part of the team tasked with training those dealers on how to present, sell and service the new car. It was a real "hearts and minds" program, and to understand why, I should give you some background.
Back in 1990, Toyota were seen as "dull, but worthy" - Jeremy Clarkson famously described our cars as "Motoring domestic appliances." In the UK, we had a strong and loyal dealer network, who were mainly owner operated and who had grown over the years as the marque became more successful. Toyota was very much a retail product, with most cars being bought by sensible, family types.
With Lexus, we were suddenly entering a completely new market. Not only was the new car going to be much more expensive than anything previously sold, it was also likely to be bought by business people. Moreover, we were trying to enter a premium market where brands like Jaguar and Mercedes Benz had a 50 to 90 year head start on us! The press and the public in UK were sceptical that Lexus would ever become successful. History was to prove them all wrong.
Our plan for the training was based around letting the people who worked in the dealers experience the car and it's competitors, and then talking about the type of service this new breed of customer would demand. We assembled a small fleet of the main competitors:
Each of us on the team had the opportunity to drive the cars for some time, to become familiar with them and to understand their "feel." I loved the Mercedes - it felt so solid and comfortable, and had an imperial presence. The BMW was amazingly nimble for a large car, and the Jaguar lived up to it's billing as a gentleman's club on wheels. We universally disliked the Scorpio, it was simply outclassed in this company.
And then the first Lexus arrived into the UK
When I heard that the car had arrived, I almost ran down the stairs to find it in one of our training bays. It was dark metallic green with tan leather. I'd been told it was almost full UK specification, apart from the fact that it had the US-only Spec air suspension. For UK, a market that is more handling than ride biased, we would use coil springs on the LS from launch.
It's probably quite hard to imagine the impact that first LS 400 had back in 1990. These days we take so much for granted - even Skoda can produce a car with perfect panel gaps! But that was the first thing that struck me about it - the build quality was just so far ahead of anything that had been produced before. Every part of the car was perfectly made, every gap even, nothing moved or rattled. It really did feel as though it had been carved from a solid piece of metal. Even compared to the Mercedes, it felt in a different league,
And then there was the interior. The instruments were revolutionary, lighting up from a black screen when the ignition was turned on. And there wasn't a single thing missing from the equipment list. In those days you didn't even get a radio as standard in a BMW, but for the Lexus, there were no "optional" extras.
For weeks, I would sneak into the bay on my breaks and turn on the ignition to look at the instruments.
I can remember my first drive - I had to take the car to Park Lane for some kind of photo shoot. After driving the Mercedes, the Jaguar and the BMW for the previous few weeks, I was able to draw a direct comparison. It was faster and it was dramatically quieter. In almost every area, it was the better car. It filled me with confidence because the engineers in Japan had done something truly exceptional, and that was the only way Lexus would ever be able to compete with the established brands in that market.
It would take many years for Lexus to really crack the UK market, but the fact that the whole thing was based on a truly exceptional product meant that they would do so. In the US, a much less "badge" oriented market, it would happen much faster.
Soon after the launch, I left Toyota and went to work for Ford Motor Company and then Volkswagen UK. But I'm sure you can tell from the story above, that being part of the launch of Lexus was a career highlight for me.
Eventually I left the UK and the motor industry behind, did plenty of other things for ten years, and then became a writer. Naturally, I started spending time on social media.
I found several old industry friends and journalists via Twitter, and spent time time with them reminiscing about the old days and just generally talking cars with them.
One person I connected with was Scott Brownlee who is Head of PR at Toyota and Lexus. We never worked together, but we do have many mutual acquaintances and we're both petrol heads. We've become good online friends, and he was kind enough to arrange for me to test drive a Lexus GS450h last time I was in UK, and you can read my report by clicking that link. Scott did an amazing job online through Toyota and Lexus' recent recall troubles - sharing information with the world and representing his company in the best possible way.
A few months ago, he mentioned on Twitter that he was in the process of buying a very early LS 400 as part of the 20th birthday celebration for the brand. I told him the story of the original green car, and we both idly wondered what had happened to it. I moved on and thought no more about it.
Another of the people I talk to a lot on Twitter is Simon Harris. Simon is deputy editor of Fleet News, a huge industry publication in UK. As you can see from his avatar, he's a classic car nut and he drives a Jensen.
Last week he sent some pictures of his Jensen via Twitter, and I was admiring the condition of the car. I've often considered buying an old Jensen, so I did what we all do. I Google'd "Classic cars UK" to see what was available and how much one would cost. I clicked on the site that came up number one, and looked at several examples.
With my dream Jensen in mind, I absent mindedly scrolled through the menu and was surprised to see Lexus amongst the Morgans and Lotus'. So I clicked through and saw this:
I'm probably one of less than half a dozen people in the world who would know that the car in the advert was indeed the very first Lexus into the UK - it was the air suspension that gave it away.
I sent the link to Scott and a week later, I got this back:
Now, is that not the most absurd set of coincidences you can begin to imagine?
My head hurts when I start to think about them. The fact that I connected with Scott and Simon in the first place. That I was on Twitter when Simon sent his car photos out. That I had time to look at Jensens for sale. That the website in question was number one in Google. I could go on.
It's an amazing story, and I'm so pleased to have been a part of it. I can picture the car now, back where it started life at the Toyota Technical Centre, being put back into perfect condition.
Scott's promised me a drive, which I'll enjoy.
But what I really want to do is sit in it, turn on the ignition, watch those incredible instruments burst into life from the black screen and remember being 29 and working on the most exciting project of my life.
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