Brands attempt to move upmarket all the time, but few succeed to the degree Lexus did with its first luxury car. I was 9 years old when my father traded in his 1988 Saab 900 Turbo for a new 1991 LS 400. I would invite my fourth-grade classmates over to the house and ask my dad to start the car—you could not believe it was actually running unless you looked at the eerie “ghost” dials. The Lexus was silent. It seemed so soft, so fast and quiet, that it was all that much more unbelievable when I told my friends the price.
The brand’s ethos can be traced back to engineer Ichiro Suzuki, tasked with heading Toyota’s secret luxury-car program in the 1980s, and his series of “impossible targets.” The resulting car, the 1990 LS 400, managed 23.5 mpg, weighed 3700 pounds, made 250 hp, and had a top speed of 155 mph. It was the quietest sedan ever sold, faster and roughly 25 percent more fuel efficient than the BMW 735i or Mercedes 420SE, for $10,000 less.
Lightness was crucial; 4000 pounds was the hard limit, and any feature that added more than 10 grams required Suzuki’s personal approval. Lexus employed Formula 1 technicians to reduce engine tolerances by one-third, designing and testing more than 900 prototypes in the process. During assembly, workers had to wear booties and lab coats in the factory to keep the cars clean, a technique McLaren uses today. For the 1980s, it was next-level.
Peter Egan, when he reviewed the Lexus for this magazine, recounted sitting in the passenger seat, flipping through a CD binder, completely unaware that the driver was doing 130 mph. He later wrote, “I had never before made a casual music selection while going more than two miles per minute. A near absence of wind noise and mechanical commotion, along with excellent directional stability, made the new LS 400 the calmest, quietest car I’ve driven at high speed. The Lexus V-8 and its nearly vibration-free driveline simply set a new standard for combining horsepower with civility.”
Owners were just as happy with their cars. A Road & Track customer survey reported 96 percent of Lexus buyers rated service and repairs either good or excellent. The previous high score, set by Mercedes, was 77 percent. My father was one of the satisfied—his car never broke, and the service department was incredible. They always had extended business hours and a brand-new loaner if we needed it. His Lexus stayed looking virtually new, even though Pops didn’t know a thing about cars. He kept the LS six years, through 1997, when it became the high-school runabout of a young, aspiring gearhead. I couldn’t break it, either. Over time, for Lexus, and specifically the LS 400, durability became the virtue that ultimately surpassed every other quality.
ON DECEMBER 1, 2014, I was sitting on a beach in Hawaii. It was my birthday, and my new girlfriend, Hanna Stein, and I were on our first vacation together. I got an email from my old friend Rob Ferretti with the subject line, “Who wants to take this to 1M?” A Craigslist link led me to a tired but reasonably straight-looking 1996 Lexus LS 400. The seller was asking $1400. The car had five previous owners who had put a collective 897,000 miles on the odometer.
The wheels turned in my head as I stared at the ad. The LS was newer than the one I had in high school, but it was fundamentally the same car as my dad’s. It was even the same color, with the optional, real gold-plated-badge package. It seemed so close to a million miles, as close as I’d ever find one like it for sale. And that car, I decided, deserved to make it all the way.
A cursory investigation by my Florida fixer, Vinny Russo, revealed that the car started right up, drove straight and true, and that all the accessories worked. Furthermore, the valve covers had never been taken off—the 1UZ engine had driven the distance to the moon and back twice, but it had never been opened. I convinced Hanna that our second trip together should take place immediately following the first. I had bought myself an almost-900,000-mile Lexus for my birthday, and I, er, we needed to drive it 2500 miles home to Venice Beach, California. Off we went to the land that vehicle-safety inspections forgot: Florida.
From 10 feet, you’d guess the car had 150,000 miles on it. We’d learned that the first owner had a run-of-the mill three-year lease. The second owner bought it from the original dealer and kept it local for a year, but owner number three was the real road warrior: dude managed to put more than 700,000 miles on the LS in 12 years. We’re guessing some kind of traveling salesman, as the wear on the front seats was significant compared with the rears.
You don’t put 700,000 miles on a car without meticulous maintenance, so let’s assume that, up until about 2012, the car was probably in pretty good shape. Owners four and five showed the LS no love. They clearly just bought a cheap car and did the absolute minimum required to keep it roadworthy, and in some cases, they performed janky feats of engineering. There were spreader clamps shoved inside the rear springs to combat sagging, and the white paint was mostly Krylon, chipping in places. It was in a state of extremely deferred maintenance and likely contained at least one biological hazard.
The damnedest thing happened after that: over five days, Hanna and I uneventfully saw the country together. We learned our way around a few quirks and made a to-do list for home, but we made it, and I owned a genuine, 900,000-mile, $1200 car. Both Hanna and I grew fond of the LS: it was comfortable and quiet, delivered the fuel economy promised on the window sticker, and held every souvenir we could find. We made up backstories for every chip, crack, or mark of wear. We began keeping a list of states we’d seen together, which continues today.
The LS endeared Hanna to me, as well. We were still in a new relationship, and she didn’t know or care all that much about cars, but she found my appreciation for this old barge’s journey metaphorical. If I could commit to the silly game of putting 100,000 miles on this car and see it through, maybe that meant I could commit to other things, too.
Nine hundred thousand miles may be 90 percent of the way to a million, but we’re still talking about putting 100,000 miles on what was, for me, a sixth car. I have never personally put that many miles on any one vehicle, and after two back surgeries, I was not about to start. Fortunately, my idea to shepherd an aging Lexus to the only milestone that matters caught on with a few people, who offered to help. I know some folks who write, talk, and make videos about cars, and they lined up to road-trip the LS.
In preparation, I had as many things fixed on the car as I could find, including the steering column and shaft, shocks, springs, bushings, and brakes, and a full fluid flush and service. I replaced a missing A/C duct, several fuses, and a radiator. I also got a commercial insurance policy so that other people could drive it worry-free. Lastly, I prepared a logbook and asked that anyone who borrowed the car take notes on where they went, what they saw, and how they felt about it.
THE FIRST 20,000 miles went smoothly. The LS visited more than a dozen national parks, much of the American Southwest, Texas, Oregon, Washington State, and Idaho. Borrowers, including a racing driver, two photographers, and my friend Thad’s retired schoolteacher mother, consistently reported how happy the car was between 80 and 100 mph. A few of them visited the same locations by coincidence. How many restaurants, fuel stations, and hotels all over America would this car see more than once in its life?
The first few pages of the Lexus Log include more than 20, 300-plus-mile days. “Feels like maybe 100K miles. You can’t believe the odometer is accurate,” wrote one road-tripper at the end of a 500-mile haul. “It doesn’t tick, knock, vibrate, or smoke, and even in this faded condition, feels like a luxury car.”
Thanks to my media friends producing a flurry of content, the LS became a minor celebrity. YouTube channel Regular Car Reviews turned it into a meme. MotorTrend did its figure-eight test with it, and Everyday Driver, another YouTube channel, used it to lap Miller Motorsports Park. It paced a Lemons race. The Petersen Automotive Museum put it on display. The more fun people had with the LS, the more encouraged I was to do whatever it would take to actually get it to a million miles. I figured, as long as the engine remained sealed, the game would continue. If I blew the engine, it was over.
At 930,000 miles, the transmission stopped downshifting on acceleration. An inspection revealed that dirt and grime were all that were holding the gearbox together. Around $3700 later, the LS 400 was back on the road with a 30,000-mile transmission warranty.
Between 2016 and the end of 2018, I didn’t see much of the Lexus. Having run out of media to lend the car to, I arranged for fans to pass the LS to each other, sometimes thousands of miles from me, to use as they pleased. Some took road trips. Others had long commutes. Others still just saw the Lexus as, believe it or not, a temporary upgrade from their daily driver. Two Lexus engineers took it on the Hot Rod Power Tour and returned it in better condition than when it left. It towed dead race cars, climbed Pikes Peak and Mount Washington, and helped kids move into college dorm rooms. Lots of people slept in it—some, perhaps, in every meaning of the word.
Three separate borrowers—Aaron Gold, Robert Moschowsky, and the Bulgarian travel bloggers Adventureholix—put more than 10,000 miles each on the LS 400. They contributed their own time and resources to minor repairs along the way. Many others took trips well into the four figures.
The power-steering pump leaked several times, allowing fluid to murder the alternator. At 900,000-plus miles, everything is a wear item, so we did several sets of plugs, wires, filters, bushings, brake pads, and rotors, two sets of shocks, and a bunch of fuses and lightbulbs. In 100,000 miles, it was towed due to stupidity twice but only had to be towed due to breakdown once. Fast-forward to March 2019, four years and change after I received Ferretti’s email. I was on the side of the road, late at night, with blue lights flashing in my mirrors. The friendly Georgia trooper asked if I knew how fast I was going. I answered that I did not.
“Eighty-nine in a 65.”
I started to laugh, and he asked what was so funny. I pointed to the odometer, indicating 999,780. Just 220 miles from a million, and the LS’s comfortable cruising speed was still 90 mph.
“You gotta let me have this one, sir. I’m so close.”
The cop was impressed with my quest. He let me off with a warning, and I proceeded toward the car’s destination, not 50 miles from where I bought it. The actual crossing of a million miles was, in such a perfect way for this car, totally uneventful. Because the digital odometer actually freezes, permanently, at all nines, I quickly flipped over to the trip odometer and clocked off one more mile before calling it official.
For Hanna and me, going to Florida all those years ago for the Lexus was one of our first real travels together. We have since seen a lot of the world, a bunch of it with the LS. Two weeks after the car froze on nines, Hanna and I were married in a perfect ceremony in New York; our entire relationship, from first adventure to marriage, framed by the presence of the Million Mile Lexus.
I LEFT THE car in Florida, but the logbook came home with me. In it are incredible stories of adventure, love, exploration, uncertainty, and fear. Every one worked out just fine. That the book contains so much and only covers a tenth of what the Million Mile Lexus has seen is staggering. One of the hundred-plus pages in the volume is simply a list of places that Ana and Anton of Adventureholix traveled. They saw more than 40 states by Lexus.
This is not the first car to make it to a million miles. It wasn’t even the first car to cross the marker that month. But my LS 400 is unlike so many of the machines that make it to that milestone. For a car to reach seven figures, it typically requires someone like Irv Gordon, the recently deceased caretaker of the world’s highest-mileage car: a 1966 Volvo that he drove to more than 3 million miles. It requires an owner to take a car, purchased new, and just crank out the distance, performing maintenance religiously.
The virtue of this ordinary Lexus is that it reached a million miles not because of a fastidious human, but despite the lack of one. Yes, one of the five previous owners is ultimately responsible for a majority of the miles, but the four others used it as a normal car with no special treatment for longevity. As owner six, I loved and maintained it, but I have a logbook full of entries, many of which are from people I’ve never met, who basically did whatever they felt like doing with the LS. I never gave anyone special instructions. I never had to hand out a cheat sheet with a bunch of do’s and don’ts. It was just a car, like any other, except vastly more durable.
Ichiro Suzuki and his team reimagined the luxury car 30 years ago with an entirely new set of standards for speed, sound, and quality. Nowhere in Lexus: The Relentless Pursuit, a 250-page book on the LS 400, does it mention extreme high mileage as a goal. Lexus was focused on the experience of the first customer, but the production LS 400 was so incredibly well refined, so smooth and vibration free, so well engineered, that over time, when the luxury world moved on, the car’s real virtue became durability.
The #MillionMileLexus project was a joke that became a game, a game that became a meme, and a meme that became an internet celebrity. When it was a joke, people wanted to laugh with me, to watch it fail. When it became a game, people wanted to play along. When Regular Car Reviews turned it into a meme, the online world joined in and spread the word. And finally, when it became a celebrity, it enjoyed all the trappings that celebrity brings: loving care, free stuff, and friendly recognition wherever it went.
I think about 9-year-old Matt, asking his friends to place their hands on a car that idles so smoothly, it doesn’t feel like it’s running. I didn’t have the words back then, but I wanted to share that kind of engineering with my people. If you told me then that 25 years later, I’d be doing the same thing, just with an ancient, crusty Lexus, rather than with the pristine example in my dad’s driveway, and that it would be printed in the pages of my favorite car magazine, I’d have told you what so many told Ichiro Suzuki: impossible. Because he proved them all wrong, so could I.
You Might Also Like