The complete God, Guts, Heartbreak & Headaches: The Start of Lexus blog series is now available as a free e-book:

#80 – 1990 Car of the Year

by | Feb 13, 2017



At the 1989 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, we had introduced the Lexus LS400 amid all the chaos surrounding the name. Since then we had secured the name, launched the car with rave reviews, and met our initial sales goal of 16,000. At the 1990 show, Chief Engineer Suzuki desperately wanted to start the year off by winning the Motor Trend “Import Car of the Year” award.


At the time, Motor Trend had two awards. One award for domestic manufacturers was called the “Car of the Year.” It had significant advertising and publicity value worth millions. The “Import Car of the Year” award had less marketing value because of the word “import” carefully placed in its title. Nevertheless, Suzuki-san was determined to win the award. Our worst nightmare would be for the Lincoln Town Car to win “Car of the Year” honors and the Infiniti Q45 to get “Import Car of the Year.”


The Lincoln had little competition that year. Chrysler did not submit a car because the new Chrysler Imperial wasn’t ready. GM’s entries were uninteresting mid-size sedans.


Motor Trend reviews of the Town Car were encouragingly mixed. “The Lincoln Town Car may have once been the car we said we’d never be caught dead in; in fact, that’s probably the only way we would be caught in one—at our own funeral.” Motor Trend went on to say, “Many sales are going to be to buyers who may never make another purchase before heading to their Great Reward.” But they praised the Ford designers for appealing to the younger buyers without alienating the older ones, declaring the styling of the Town Car as “a definite step forward.”


In the unfortunate event that the Lincoln Town Car would get the “Car of the Year” award, we desperately needed the LS400 to get the import award instead of the Infiniti Q45. The technical department fine-tuned the LS400 that was given to Motor Trend to be absolutely certain Lexus put the best possible LS400 up for testing. The engineers even went to the extent of putting nearly 2,000 break-in miles on the car before shipping it to Motor Trend because it would improve the quarter mile time.


The LS400 was a groundbreaking effort on the part of Toyota engineers to build the finest car ever produced. The car was receiving rave reviews from all the automotive press and outselling the Q45. It was the foundation for launching an entire new dealer network. How could it miss?


Motor Trend hosted a luncheon on Thursday, January 11, 1990 at the N.A. International Auto Show to announce the 1990 winners. The Lincoln Town Car that looked like a boat and rode like a boat was named “Car of the Year.”  It was a travesty.


It got worse. The Motor Trend “Import Car of the Year” was awarded to the Nissan Twin Turbo 300ZX.

#&!? I was heartsick for Suzuki-san and Toyota’s engineers who had worked so hard only to be bitterly disappointed.


“Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick, but a sudden good break can turn it around.” Proverbs 2:12 (MSG)


We had no time to be wallow in pity. We had a huge sales challenge. Lexus needed to sell 60,000 vehicles: 40,000 LS400s and 20,000 ES250s. How could we instill a positive “can-do” attitude throughout the Lexus organization—proving that this goal was possible to achieve? We used a book written by a kindergarten teacher in 1910.


(To be continued in “I Think I Can”)