When the first concept Lexus LF-A was unveiled in Detroit in 2005, it shattered all pre-conceived notions about what a supercar should be. Half a decade and several transformations later, the first car finally rolled off the production line, and it was everything we ever dreamt it to be. Lexus fans at last had a supercar to call their own, and boy, was it worth the wait.
Few people know that the story actually starts in a Hokkaido bar in 2000. Here, Toyota engineer and the father of ‘Project P280’ Haruhiko Tanahashi first raised the idea of producing a sports car with his boss, Tetsuo Hattori. Luckily, the reply was “Why not?” promptly accompanied by a round of celebratory drinks, and the momentous meeting set in motion a development program that rewrote the engineering handbook on everything the industry knew about making high-performance cars.
A simple entry in Tanahashi’s diary chronicles this milestone: “February 10, 2000. – In Shibetsu, Hattori approves the study of a real sports car.” This, the first of many brief diary entries recorded in an Excel spreadsheet, would follow the incubation, birth, and first steps of transition from P280 to the Lexus LFA.
The Need for Speed
As early as July 2000, P280 took the first of many life-changing twists. During an evaluation of existing competition at the Shibetsu proving grounds, Tanahashi was told: “Baby sports cars are bad. This will be a grown-up sports car.” And so on October 6th the decision was made that the LF-A would be powered by a V10 capable of challenging none other than Formula One.
Within the year, a highly motivated, 170-strong team working from a nondescript garage in the Motomachi plant in Toyota City known as LFA Kobo (LFA Works) produced the first prototype, which was promptly dispatched to Shibetsu for winter testing.
Interestingly, the prototype was crafted in aluminum alloy, which remained the material of choice all the way through to 2005. Even though the team considered a carbon-fiber monocoque after driving a McLaren F1, Tanahashi decided to stick with the materials he understood. This decision was largely made due to strict time constraints, which new technology would have tested to the limits.
Tanahashi was not averse to using some CFRP (Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic) for body panels or possibly the tub, but he wanted to stick with aluminum alloy for the rest. That plan soon hit a development wall, and a decision had to be made to keep the project alive.
Better, Lighter, Faster
The benchmark for the LF-A was the Nürburgring Nordschleife, the part of the Eifel racetrack in Germany that every real sports car is pitted against to separate it from the also-rans and dragsters. To get the car around the track faster, it had to lose weight, but Tanahashi was out of options with aluminium alloy. Manufacturing most of the car from CFRP promised a weight saving of about 220 lbs, but the material was prohibitively expensive, and the move would have set the development of the car back several years. But most of all, CFRP was an unknown quantity for the team.
In 2003, a development team at Toyota had begun research into CFRP. The first results looked promising, but not worth trading the known entity of aluminum alloy for. Then in the spring of 2005, after the LF-A had been shown as a concept at the Detroit Motor Show, the project took another unexpected twist.
Tanahashi recalls the moment in his diary: “Okamoto-san tapped me on the shoulder, and said, get over it, just go with carbon fiber.” Kazuo Okamoto was the then R&D chief at Toyota. “He did not just say to make most of the car out of CFRP. He said I should bring the whole CFRP production in-house.” And so the LF-A transcended from an all-aluminum alloy construction to one that consisted of 65 percent carbon fiber and only 35 percent aluminum.
But despite on-going rave reviews, the project’s future was far from certain. Every year, the LF-A was at risk of being cancelled during the annual company review as the team feared the hugely expensive, low-profit sports car could be scrapped at a moment’s notice. Yet somehow, the LF-A managed to pull through every time, because there was always a savior amongst Toyota’s top brass. “The timing was right,” says Tanahashi. “Toyota was on a steady rise and very successful.” Had it been attempted a few years later, the project may have very well been stillborn.
2005 was also a significant milestone in that it was the year P680 was to be officially christened. For the concept that was about to be shown at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Tanahashi needed a name. At Lexus, concept cars for the motor show followed a strict naming regime: LF for ‘Lexus future’ followed by a dash and two letters. After much soul searching, Tanahashi wasn’t able to settle on a good two-letter combination and simply settled on A, thereby naming Lexus’ supercar the LF-A.
Following the global financial crisis of 2008, many pundits questioned whether the LF-A would ever make it into production, but in the midst of this turmoil, Toyota went ahead and registered the trademark, number 77623634, for the name “LFA” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This was the name Akio Toyoda used when he unveiled the final iteration of the LFA production at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show.
Setting the Standard
With official customer orders for the LFA opening in October 2009, it was time for the LFA to return to the Nordschleife, this time as a competitor in one of the world’s toughest endurance races: the Nurburgring 24 hour! After a gruelling 24 hours, the LFA rewarded the team with a first place in its highly contested class. For the established competition this was the first of many defeats at the hands of the new kid on the block. The LFA again notched up impressive class wins in the 2012 Nurburgring 24 hour, and the 4 hour on the same circuit in 2013.
In honor of these wins, Lexus produced the “LFA Nurburgring Package,” which test driver, Akira Lida, used to lap the Nordschleife in 7:14.64 – a time that placed this amazing supercar well ahead of other notable exotica, such as the Ferrari Enzo.
Although the well-heeled and moneyed customers that had snapped up the extremely limited production run of 500 would have still willingly parted with their $350,000 for an LFA, these accomplishments certainly added to the desirability of owning one. But it wasn’t only the reputation of the car that had people laying down their money. There were visible features that also set it apart, such as the digital thin film transistor LCD rev counter, which was needed to keep up with the V10 motor that revved from idle to 9,000 RPM in a mere 0.6 seconds.
Toyota Motor had a well-established reputation for quality with the Lexus brand, but what Tanahashi did with the LFA was show the motoring world that they could build a supercar to trounce the established order. Building one car a day from December 2010 until the last Whitest White Nürburgring edition left the production line two years later, the little garage known as the LFA Works left the motoring world spellbound for years to come.