The best cars come from the best times….But as soon as I say it, I know it’s not strictly true, and I can think right away of a half dozen great cars that were designed in hard times; and I’m sure that the readers of our Japan Car Direct blog can think of many more.
But still, there is some truth to it, that the best cars come from the best times, and the Toyota Z30 Soarer (which was marketed overseas as the Lexus SC300 or SC400, depending on engine size) is a perfect example of a beautiful, fine quality machine that comes from those good times past, when there was freedom of design and boldness in pushing boundaries.
At the end of the 1980s Toyota was riding high. They were confident, deservedly so, and penny pinching and cost cutting were not yet being looked upon as unquestioned virtues. Quality was king, and we can see that now when we look at the 25-plus-year-old Toyota cars that we are exporting these days to the USA and Australia. (25-year-old used vehicles from Japan clear the easy import rules for those countries so that it’s simple for you to do a direct self import from Japan.) These good used cars from the 1990s and 2000s look really nice and just seem to last and last. They really, really were well made. I watched many of them being built at Toyota’s Higashi Fuji plant. (More on that later.)
And Toyota had the bucks to try new things. They were not hemmed in by money fears, that’s for sure, and how the Z30 Soarer came to be designed is a perfect example of the boldness and confidence and freshness of those days. I’ll make the story brief.
Balloons Filled with Plaster.
This plus this
I kid you not; although I over simplify dramatically.
What happened was that Toyota gave the job of designing the new Soarer to their California design studio (Calty Design Research Incorporated); a bunch of free thinkers if there ever was one. These guys have done the concept work behind, or in other ways been involved in, a number of very successful and very good-looking Toyota cars; like my gorgeous and muscular S205 Celica GT-4, a beautiful car, inside and out.
Now when Toyota gave the concept work to Calty, there was a guy working there, a certain Erwin Lui. He’d been a musician (I’ve done that), a taxi driver (I’ve done that, too), even a car parking valet (well, I’ve never done that, but I’ve been a grease monkey), and then somehow he got himself accepted to the Art Center College of Design. (That’s never happened to me! And why not? Because Erwin Lui is a brilliant and talented designer and I am not.)
When he was working on the Z30 Soarer, it was indeed the best of times in many ways. In later years Lui commented that Calty had been given a sort of carte blanche freedom by Toyota and that designers were encouraged to “Go in your sandbox and play.” Lui played with plaster and balloons, seeking natural and pleasing shapes that could inspire a car of exceeding beauty. He succeeded. In spades.
Then Toyota gave the muscle to back the beauty. As we mentioned in our previous post in this Best Toyota Luxury Cars to Import from Japan series, on the NA (normally aspirated) side, Toyota gave the Soarer either the powerful, bulletproof, iron block, three liter straight six 2JZ-GE
or the even more powerful, four liter, aluminum block V8 1UZ-FE.
(Have a look back at our second post in this series here to learn more about how Toyota engine codes worked at the time.)
Now the three liter Soarer was sold overseas as the Lexus SC300 and the four liter Soarer was the Lexus SC400. Targeting the Lexus SC at the American luxury sports car driver was a bold move in another way, too, because it risked failing with the Japanese customer base. Let me explain. You see, Japanese car buyers are very “tax sensitive.” We have set car tax classifications here based on vehicle weight, exterior dimensions, and engine size. If a car goes a millimeter, a kilogram, or a cubic centimeter outside a given tax class envelope, we have to pay a bigger bung to the government. Japanese car buyers don’t like doing this (does anybody?) and many will reject a car simply for tax reasons. But with the Lexus SC / Toyota Z30 Soarer, Toyota decided to throw tax class concerns out the window and let the car find its natural weight and size, and then give it the engine size it needed for generous power and performance.
And what happened in the ever-so-tax-sensitive Japanese market? The beautiful, powerful, luxurious, and very high quality Z30 Soarer sold quite well. And since the cars were so well built, I see many on the roads here in Japan today (time of writing: early 2021). They are always looking good and are clean and treasured. And now, when you buy a good used Z30 Soarer / Lexus SC, you benefit from all the build quality, power, beauty, and freedom that are part of the Soarer. That are the Soarer. Somehow I think that the name “Soarer” is so well chosen for this car because, as you drive the car and own the car, you do soar freely above the mundane, the boring, the bland, and the world of tax classifications.
Blast the Pants Off Them
When I was at the Toyota Group’s Higashi Fuji plant, there was this guy, same age as me, a total performance car fanatic; he’d been a car mechanic and had worked up to a position in a performance garage where he worked on cars like Ferraris. (I tell you true.) They also tuned track cars in that shop. One day, he threw it all over and joined Toyota. He then became a production engineer. He never married and so he always had too much money. So he bought cars. Any car he wanted to try. Then he’d sell it and try another car. He went through a lot of cars (finally settled on the AE111, interestingly enough). Now, there are three versions of the Z30 Soarer here in Japan, the two that we’ve talked about: the four liter V8 (Lexus SC400), the three liter straight six (Lexus SC300), and one that we haven’t talked about, the Soarer GT-T. It’s got a parallel twin turbo (1991 to 1996, single turbo from 1997 to 2000), intercooled, 2.5 liter straight six, the mighty 1JZ-GTE. My car fanatic friend had them all, although not at the same time. I remember his comment on the comparison between the SC400 and the SC300: Not so different, really, in terms of performance on the street; but the GT-T? “Oh, that was quick.”
Now I’ll bet the fans of Japanese drift cars (we look at used Japanese drift cars elsewhere on our main site here)
reading this article noticed the Soarer GT-T engine code right away: it’s the same engine as you get in those kings of drift, the Toyota Chaser, Mark 2, and Cresta that blast the pants off pretty well everyone at the drift track. (Look at this dark horse Chaser ready to burn rubber, and burn some pants, too.)
Indeed, the Soarer GT-T is also a spectacular drift car (we talk more about him and the other “heavies” on our main site here), as well as being such a beautiful machine in his own right. He reminds me of how the Toyota Mark II is such a handsome car and yet is one of the best Drift Track Dominators. Have a look here.
Why Buy JDM for Your Used Soarer / Lexus SC?
There’s a lot of talk when Japanese performance car guys get together about JDM (Japan Domestic Market) vehicles vs the overseas models of Japanese cars. On our main site we look at the basics of why it’s often more satisfying to do a direct import yourself of a JDM car from us here in Japan, rather than buy the overseas model off your local used car dealer’s lot, and you’ll find that discussion here.
With many cars it’s not so much the (often) better power output figures of JDM versions, (although as far as the Soarer / Lexus SC400 goes, yes, with the JDM car you will be getting a bump up in power over the overseas model), it’s rather the overall used condition that is so much better. The used Soarers available here in Japan, either from the Japanese used car auctions or from the Japanese used car dealers that we often work with, have much lower mileage on them than most of what is on offer used in the States, Australia, or the UK; in addition, they are well cared for and are very treasured machines. This is typical of almost all cars sourced second hand in Japan.
These Z30 Soarers are becoming classics now, and they can be expected to last a long, long time into the future, so getting the best low mileage, good, clean unit from Japan is a wise purchase, indeed, for lovers of automotive beauty and performance.
And when it comes to performance and tuning, keep in mind that the Z30 Soarer is “sister under the skin” to the Mark IV Supra (the Supra 80),
and that means you’ve got a surprising choice of tuning options and performance upgrades available to you. It also helps to ensure parts availability going forward.
Interestingly, the final production of the Supra 80 was at the Higashi Fuji plant and it finished just before I got there. The Z30 Soarer had also been made at Higashi Fuji, too. Production ended a few years before I arrived. But the successor to the Z30, the Z40 Soarer / Lexus SC430
was in production during my time at the plant and I think that it’s just right to end this series on the Best Toyota Luxury Cars to Import from Japan, by telling my readers a bit about what I saw on the production lines there, as well as a bit of what the atmosphere, the feel of things, was like in that plant that had won so many quality awards.
At Higashi Fuji
When I had my first tour of the plant (and I was to have many, many tours) my first impression was of how clean it was. It wasn’t as noisy as I had expected, either. (Of course, inside the body panel stamping plant it was noisy, oh yeah!) And the whole atmosphere was not one of tension and hyperness, rather it was a place of purposeful activity undertaken at a regular, sustained pace. The people I met there, half of whom were local, were lovely people: dedicated and quietly proud of their work.
The SC430 was built on the same line that other Lexus and low volume cars were made on, but the SC430 was taken off the main line at two points: once to have special welding work done on selected panels (one of the guys in that plant shared a patent for a new aluminum welding system that was key in the making of the SC430), and once, near the very end of the line, to have the special powered hard top installed and tested. This convertible roof also went through its own inspection check, in addition to the whole car inspection job that was the final stage before any car was sent out the door and on the way to its new life.
And the lives of so many of the high quality Toyota cars of the 80s, 90s, and 00s that were built at Higashi Fuji (and at all of Toyota’s factories) have been long indeed, so that a 25 year old used Toyota car from Japan has many years of life yet to go on it. Among all the used cars on the market today, a good condition, low mileage example of a Soarer, of a Crown, a Celsior (LS400), a Century, or any of the other Toyota luxury cars that we’ve been talking about in our Japan Car Direct blog (you’ll find the first post here),
is going to be a winner purchase for you; and that car will stay with you for years and years and give you miles upon miles of driving pleasure.
Personally, I love these good old Japanese cars (I’ve owned and loved a number of them) and I want to give a word of thanks to all our customers and importers who are keeping these great cars alive and in service and doing what cars should do: be reliable, useful, and pleasing.
For us at Japan Car Direct, it’s a daily pleasure finding these cars here in Japan and helping our customers to import them directly home; whether home is the USA or Australia, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, the EU, or any of the many destinations that we ship used Japanese cars to. Contact us and we’ll help you find and import a good one, too.