By on July 9, 2012

The autoclave. A giant pressure cooker that limits the Lexus LFA production to one per day

Behind a nondescript garage door in the Motomachi plant in Toyota City is LFA Kobo, the LFA Works. Here, 170 men and women chase the holy grail of car making. Their mission: How to make a car super fast, super light, super safe, and affordable. They have mastered the first three. On the affordable they are still working. The holy grail is being chased in a supercar, the $375,000 Lexus LFA.

LFA Chief Engineer Haruhiko Tanahashi

Until today, this door was closed to the media. One magazine, Japan’s Car Graphic, was lucky to be invited in 2010 when the workshop still geared up for work. After series production started in December of that year, access to the LFA Works was limited to a privileged few. To be admitted, serious amounts of money had to change hands. The buyer of a $375,000 LFA was offered a tour of the premises – strictly without camera. Today, this veil is about to lift. In a five day series, we will show how the LFA is made, who makes it, and most of all, why.

At the door, I am greeted by Haruhiko Tanahashi. Tanahashi is Chief Engineer of Toyota Motor Corporation’s Lexus Division, and he is the proud father of the LFA. Ever the proud father, he likes to talk about the birth of his child.

It started in a bar.

The Lexus LFA was born where many great ideas come to life:

In a bar.

“My boss and I sat in a bar in Hokkaido,” remembers Tanahashi, “and I told my boss about the dream I had. I wanted to make the ultimate sports car.” At this point, bosses usually call for the check, or the submitter’s personnel file. Tetsuo Hattori, at the time the top vehicle engineer at TMC, replied “why not” – and ordered another round in celebration.

“February 10, 2000. – In Shibetsu, Hattori approves study of a real sports car.” So reads the first entry in Tanahashi’s diary that until this day chronicles the development of the LFA. In sparing sentences, kept on an Excel spreadsheet, Tanahashi follows the incubation, birth and first steps of his life dream.

After receiving a nod from his boss, Tanahashi did not waste time and did not want to risk a change of mind at his superiors. A month after the bar visit, the diary shows the first meeting of a quickly assembled working group.

Satellite view of Shibetsu Proving Grounds

 

“Baby sports cars are bad.”

On July 6th, Tanahashi is back in Shibetsu.

Shibetsu is where Toyota has its proving ground. Up at the northern end of Japan, and only 400 miles from the shores of Siberia, Shibetsu provides long cold winters and short, temperate summers. It also is far away from prying eyes.

“July 6, 2000. Evaluation drive in Shibetsu” says the diary. “Director says baby sports cars are bad.” This will be a grown-up sports car.

A year after the decision in the Hokkaido bar, the team arrives in Shibetsu with a first prototype for winter testing. The prototype is made from aluminum alloy, and aluminum alloy remains the chosen material all the way through 2005. Many more sports cars were driven across many tracks. First contact with a carbon-fiber monocoque car was made when the team tests a McLaren F1, but Tanahashi decides to stick with the aluminum he knows than to go with the carbon fiber he doesn’t.

First concept of the LFA

In 2005, Tanahashi’s project was still under a tight cover. It also was a favorite target to be killed.

Every year, the project had a near-death experience. “Each fall, there is a big company review at TMC,” says Tanahashi and polishes his wire-rimmed glasses in thought. “Each year, we were about to be kicked off the cliff. Our sports car featured prominently on the list of projects to be killed.”

Hugely expensive and with no promise for profits, it was an inviting target no controller could resist.

The LFA remained alive because it always found a savior amongst Toyota’s top brass. “The timing was right,” says Tanahashi, “Toyota was on a steady rise and very successful.” A few years later, the project would have been stillborn.

Workers fit carbon fiber fender to LFA


The carbon decision.

In the spring of 2005, Tanahashi was agonizing over a tough decision. The LF-A had been shown as a concept at the Detroit Motor Show where it had caused dropped jaws. The car had been on the Nürburgring in Germany with good results – and of course it was caught by paparazzi. In 2005, the car was not too far from final.

However, the car was made from aluminum alloy. To this day, carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) is used only sparingly, even on the world’s most expensive cars. The Bugatti Veyron comes standard with carbon fiber disc brakes, a few one-offs have carbon fiber body panels. A BMW M3 may have a carbon fiber roof, an Aston Martin DBS may sport a few carbon fiber parts. Tanahashi was not averse to using some CFRP for body panels, or maybe for the LF-A’s bathtub, but he wanted to otherwise stick with aluminum alloy.

Then, Tanahashi hit a wall. The benchmark for the LF-A was the Nürburgring Nordschleife, that part of the Eifel racetrack in Germany that separates real sports cars from also-rans and dragsters. To get the car around the track faster, it had to shed weight, but Tanahashi was out of options. Making most of the car from CFRP promised a weight savings of 220 lbs, but CFRP was insanely expensive, and the change would have thrown the development of the car back by years. Most of all, CFRP was an unknown quantity.

In 2003, a development team at Toyota had begun research on CFRP. First results looked promising, but not much more. Trading the known entity of aluminum alloy for promises was a gamble Tanahashi was not willing to take. Then, something horrifying happened.

“Okamoto-san tapped me on the shoulder, and said, get over it, just go with carbon fiber,” Tanahashi recalls.

The LFA consists of 65 percent carbon fiber and 35 percent aluminum

Kazuo Okamoto was R&D Chief at Toyota. He had another shock in store for Tanahashi:

“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.”

Toyota does the opposite of many global companies. At Toyota, the mantra is insourcing. “Our company culture is to bring all important functions in-house,” explains Tanahashi.

This worried him a lot. CFRP is a young art and science. Some of it literally is black art. Know-how is scarce. Specialist companies are bought just to get to that know-how. Yet, Tanahashi was told to develop it all in house, and yesterday.

His dream of a sports car was to be ready in a few years, and Toyota had barely done two years of research into CFRP. Tanahashi was not just back to square one. He found himself back to a square somewhere in minus 10 territory.

Tanahashi shows the different grades of carbon fiber used in the LFA

Time is money.

Tanahashi did cast around for help. He discussed his predicament with engineers of Fuji Heavy Industries, and they basically told him that the plan was insane. “That engineer would normally budget 10 years just for the research,” reminisces Tanahashi. “We did it all in one year.”

“The ideal material for a car body is very strong and very light,” says Tanahashi, “but usually, these parameters are at odds with each other. If you want both strong and light, if you need high rigidity and low weight at the same time, then you have no other choice than CFRP.”

However, when you think you have the strength and weight conundrum solved by using carbon fiber to build your car, you quickly run into an especially nasty problem:

Money.

Carbon fiber composites are some of the most expensive materials used in car making. Not because the ingredients used in CFRP are particularly dear. It is because CFRP parts take an inordinately long time to produce. A stamping machine can produce a metal car part in seconds. A similar part made from CFRP can take a day. The autoclave, a giant pressure cooker in the LFA Works, is the only machine there that runs day and night, and nevertheless, it only has the capacity for one car per day.

The orange hood protects the oil cooler during assembly.

Time is money, and CFRP uses way too much time. Even a moderately sized car factory can churn out 1,000 cars per day. The factory does not have the time to wait all day for a part to be ready. Running 1,000 giant autoclaves and 1,000 expensive sets of dies and molds in parallel is likewise out of the question.

Suiting up for the cleanroom

This becomes quickly obvious as we enter the heart of the CFRP manufacturing process. We stand in front of a clean room that is used to build the strongest parts of the LFA. Brain surgeons suit up in a more casual manner than our small group. We don coveralls, shoe booties, hats. This is not for our protection. The intricate parts that are produced behind the airtight doors are being protected from us. We get vacuumed for dust. While our small group suits up, let us use the time for a quick course on CFRP.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment of The Making Of The Lexus LFA:

Monday, July 9: From A Bar To Bar None. How the LFA was born, and why it is made from carbon fiber.
Tuesday, July 10: In The Clean Room. Where the LFA is made from the strongest and most expensive type of carbon fiber available.
Wednesday, July 11: Call Me Names. How the LFA really received its name.
Thursday, July 12: Balance Of Power. We watch the V10 engine go into the LFA.
Friday, July 13: Exam Week. We examine Chief Engineer Tanahashi about how the LFA influences future cars, and what will come after the LFA.

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45 Comments on “The Making Of The Lexus LFA Supercar: Who, What, Where And Most Of All Why. An Inside The Industry Report, Chapter 1: From A Bar To Bar None...”


  • avatar

    This is outstanding, Bertel and just another reason TTAC has become the top car blog. We’re eagerly awaiting the next installment!

  • avatar
    Oren Weizman

    Cool

  • avatar
    Sam P

    Looking forward to the rest of the series (and awaiting the inevitable comments from an B-segment econocar driver that all sports cars are expensive and wasteful, etc, etc).

  • avatar
    felix

    Wonderful reporting Bertel! Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    Guess I’ll be the first one to make a wasteful comment…

    To me it’s absolutely clear that Toyota has no shortage of talent. But I can’t help wondering if Toyota’s focus on building the Ultimate Sports Car and the most advanced and reliable hybrid bar none took away their best and brightest. Leaving behind the rest of the engineers who didn’t quite make the cut to deal with the bread-and-butter.

    I can’t think of any other way to explain how the same company that can produce the LFA can also come up with cars like the latest Camry and Corolla.

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      The Corolla is old and needing replacement, but both it and the Camry are extremely impressive engineering given the economies of scale and cost-focus involved. As Bertel has pointed out in the past; building a cost-no-object supercar is easy. Building a good car which millions can afford is much, much more difficult.

      • 0 avatar
        mike978

        Juicy – I agree with you and Bertel’s original statement about it being “easy” to build a cost-no-object car compared to a car that is affordable. However this series of articles is lauding Toyota for doing something previously stated as easy.

        Plenty of other manufacturers do same mission “Their mission: How to make a car super fast, super light, super safe, and affordable.” So what makes the LFA any better than cheaper, just as safe and fast supercars from the likes of Aston Martin, Audi, Lambo, Ferrari and Porsche?
        As to the Corolla plenty of other companies have made better (fuel economy, space, driving dynamics, interior quality etc) compact cars that are just as cheap. So Felix’s comment is valid.

  • avatar
    LennyZ

    First picture. That is some sub-woofer!

  • avatar

    I’m guessing that the main focus of the LFA program is not to build a supercar but rather to reduce the cost of making CFRP components. Toyota isn’t the only one working on commoditizing CFRP. Ford and Dow recently announced a joint research project and the Oak Ridge National Lab is looking into cheaper alternatives to DuPont grade polyacrylonitrile as a precursor. I seem to recall that McLaren is also working on making CRRP parts cheaper and faster to produce.

    Bertel mentions how long it takes to make CFRP parts. That’s only the fabrication. Getting from acrylonitrile fibers to pure carbon strands is also a multistage sequence involving, chemical, thermal and mechanical processes.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t forget SGL and BMW

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      “I’m guessing that the main focus of the LFA program is not to build a supercar but rather to reduce the cost of making CFRP components.”

      Exactly – and there is the potential of profiting from IP related to any new processes developed in the program. They could end up getting royalties from not only auto manufacturers, but other industries like bicycle frame makers and aerospace companies.

  • avatar
    tresmonos

    Great stuff, Bertel. High quality, informative, and ‘unobtainable’ information. Love it.

  • avatar

    Awesome article.

    Meanwhile, at Jalopnik,

    • 0 avatar
      Flybrian

      Exactly. Why are you covering this bogus car instead of dissecting an article in a British rag about Lindsay Lohan’s rented Porsche?

      /sarcasm.

      Excellent article, Herr Schmitt. I have but a passing interest in Toyota, but I’m already enthralled. Thanks again for breaking up a boring rainy week!

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Awesome article, Bertel.

    This reminds me, at least to some extent, of what I have read about the Prius project. Risky project, stretch goals, a Do It Yourself ethic and the engineers got considerable freedom to use their own initiative.

    The most significant difference is that the Prius project had a short time-to-market requirement and the LFA time-to-market is much less important.

  • avatar
    isucorvette

    Fascinating article! The engineering prowess that went into this machine are top notch; however, I have one issue with the LFA. Lexus used extensive amounts of aluminum alloy and CFRP yet the curb weight of the LFA isn’t that impressive. For instance, (according to Road and Track data sheets) the LFA weighs 3580lbs yet the Corvette ZR1 weighs 3325lbs and doesn’t fully utilize the exotic materials. Why does a purpose built supercar with extensive amounts of CFRP and aluminum still weigh so much?

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      As a wild guess, I would venture build quality. Everyone who’s written about the LFA mentioned how well-put together it was, with attention to detail that verged on fetishism. It might be more heavy as a result, but it will also deliver the expected level of quality for $375k. Instead of just randomly exploding in flames like certain Italian brands might…

    • 0 avatar
      icemilkcoffee

      Agreed. A lot of work to get to an unimpressive outcome.
      Typical Toyota. – they try to brute force everything like the Romans leveling moountains to build roads.

      • 0 avatar
        GT500SVT

        Unimpressive?? The 99.9% of the critics who called this one of the greatest exotic supercars ever and the greatest car ever from Japan must be dumb?? It was declared winner over 599 GTB HGTE, 599 GTO, Lamborghini Aventador, Mercedes SLS AMG, Nissan GTR etc. in various comparisons.

        So either all of the people who actually drove this car and gushing with praises are idiots or you.

    • 0 avatar

      While the ZR1 Corvette may not “fully utilize the exotic materials”, it still is pretty trick in terms of material science. The ZR1 gets a dedicated hydroformed frame that’s made completely of aluminum, unlike the stock Corvettes whose frames are a mix of aluminum and steel. It’s also different than the Z06 chassis, with some magnesium stiffening panels. The Z06 has CFRP fenders, floors and wheel housings. The floors, btw, still have balsa wood cores. To that the ZR1 adds a CFRP roof, hood, fenders, front splitter, and rocker panels.

      So while the Corvette may not be quite as exotic materials-wise as the LFA, it’s also not exactly chopped liver.

      • 0 avatar
        Trend-Shifter

        In hindsight the LFA team could have learned a little from the Corvette. Corvette has lower priced models that create some economies of scale. This is accomplished through good design and pulling components from the GM part bin.
        That can build the business case, not just a build a one time halo car.

        Then the same Corvette team can build higher end variations off the same platform in lower volume without impacting the overall business case.

        Corvette will go away if they drift from that business model and try to go further up market. Bang for the buck is the Corvette mantra.

        That is the same reason we get Shelby Mustangs and Boss 302s but not Ford GTs.

        I love this series and admire the LFA.

    • 0 avatar
      GT500SVT

      Lexus LFA is a “full luxury” exotic supercar. It contains far more luxurious amenities than any Corvette variant down to 13 speaker Mark Levinson system. Lexus has stated if the buyer opts to delete all of the luxuries (a no cost option), the car can easily shed 200 lbs without all of the luxury features.

    • 0 avatar
      tekdemon

      I suspect quite a bit of weight has to do with it being a Lexus and being equipped like a Lexus and not like a race car…it’d probably be pretty easy to get lots of weight off of the LFA if you start removing all the luxury stuff.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Hats off to Toyota. Willing to go to the cutting edge of technology.

    Not the first time they do this. As KixStart has mentioned, the Prius was another high risk project, which has paid them handsomely.
    If they master the technique, then Toyota may become synonimous with CFRP, as they are now with hybrids.

    Speaking of hats, with that cap, Tanahashi-san looks like one of those japanese parents hanging out in little league games at a ballpark

  • avatar
    redliner

    The LFA is not the best car by the numbers, but it commands respect from an engineering standpoint. What I wouldn’t give to have lunch with Tanahashi. My brain would explode!

    Thank you Bertel very much for this series. Enjoying it!
    Honest, insightful, original content. Interesting without resorting to trite internet memes and “LOOK! MASSIVE (insert super car) CRASH!” Something that other car sites could only dream of. (I’m thinking specifically of that one that starts with a “J” and ends with a “K”)

  • avatar
    juicy sushi

    Thank you Bertel for these articles. It is very interesting to get a look into the process at the bleeding edge of what these companies are working on. I can’t wait to see where Toyota is able to take things when they combine their composite knowledge with their pôwertrain knowledge and try and build an everyday car for the general market. The LFA is really cool. Building a Camry/Corolla with that stuff and hybrid/fuel cell technology will be mind blowing.

  • avatar
    Oelmotor

    Toyota…Nichts ist Unmöglich!

    Okamoto-san…”get over it, just go with carbon fibre.” A true R&D person and he probably laughs at the “bean counters” for trying to stop him.

  • avatar
    espressoBMW

    I think the LFA needs to be seen in more international racing series like I(A)LMS, GT, etc. so it can establish some credit that lives up to the engineering prowess. If it wants to compete with the long-established super cars in the showroom, it should compete with them on the track. I realize they are not having trouble selling one per day but if they want the LFA reputation to hold up against the others, they need to show it has what it takes.

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    Although I think the LFA is hugely over-priced and underperforming, and the use of CFRP is a dead-end technology and a huge waste of money; I like the engineering culture where an engineer can propose an interesting project, and be able to lead the same project to fruition.

    If GM had an engineering culture like that they wouldn’t be in the shape they are in .

    • 0 avatar
      Flybrian

      GM has a long history of strong engineering. Its the corporate culture that builds the wall around it.

      • 0 avatar
        KixStart

        Flybrian: “GM has a long history of strong engineering. Its the corporate culture that builds the wall around it.”

        Well, we need somebody to say, “Mr. Akerson, tear down this wall!”

    • 0 avatar
      GT500SVT

      If 7:14 around the Nurburgring lap time is “underperforming” then Lexus LFA is at the top of the underperforming car as every other car is far more underperforming as far as track performance goes. There was never any mentioning of Lexus being developed to be the fastest straight line supercar since it was intended to be raced around the track for 24-hours straight.

      Also, if numbers were the biggest focus for LFA, it would not have all of that 200 pounds worth of luxury amenities in the car. It was developed as a no compromise supercar that does everything exceptionally well.

      If you want best numbers for the best price, get a Subaru STI and put an additional $20,000 upgrading the turbo and suspension and you will get a car that can kill any supercar on the road. You simply don’t understand the supercar business.

      • 0 avatar
        GT500SVT

        Not to mention, Lexus never fit the LFA with hugely grippy racing compound tires. The Bridgestone LFA comes with are far from proper racing compound tires (Michelin Cup, Pirelli Corsa) that nearly every other supercar comes with.

  • avatar
    James2

    The ultimate Supra doesn’t interest me at all, but so far so good.

  • avatar
    Lynn E.

    Thank you for this series!

    Soon new technology gets down to me. I hope to buy a Prius in a few years with carbon fiber panels and automatic braking that will cruise at 110 and get 200 mpg or 35 mph and 300 mpg in LA.

    Seriously, Toyota should have great patents to license to other manufacturers because of this work.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Arigato gozaimashita!

  • avatar
    stuntmonkey

    By bring all of the fab in-house Toyota is essentially creating from the ground up a facility like McLaren’s Paragon Tech Center in England. Think about that for a moment, it took many decades of growth for Mclaren to get to build their super facility. Toyota is recreating that in a test tube with the LFA program.

  • avatar
    Ion

    Except the LFA didn’t best the ACR at the ring. As a matter of fact the LFA doesn’t seem to best anything. If the car didn’t spend so much time in development it would’ve been relevant but now its like the chinese democracy of supercars, a great idea that took too long to become a reality.

    • 0 avatar
      GT500SVT

      LFA = An all luxury exotic supercar built for experience of an F1 racing car with full luxury that can be raced around the track

      SRT-10 Viper = A stripped out, barebones club racer with completely stripped out interior and on racing compound slick Michelin Cup tires.

      Akira Iida recently said in his interview that they never even looked at the laptime of cars that were equipped with racing slick compound tires since LFA was designed to work in the wet as well, which is why their target was only 7:20.

      Put the proper racing slick compound tires on the LFA and it would be a no contest considering how much higher speed LFA was carrying through the corners.

      • 0 avatar
        GT500SVT

        Also LFA has the best engine/exhaust note in the business today, by general consensus. That F1 V10 is something that has to be heard in real life at 9000 – 9500 rpm to be believed.

        If an exotic owner wants the best numbers, he would just simply buy a Subaru STi and put $25,000 into it with increased boost and suspension mods and end up with a car that can kill any exotic supercar.

        However, it has nothing to do with racing or exotic materials or the exotic car driving experience so no exotic owner would ever want to do that.

    • 0 avatar
      MeaCulpa

      And a Riva or a Pedrazzini won’t beat a Hustler/Nor-tech/Cigarette in an race, on the other hand they don’t convey that Bon Jovi listening and gold chains wearing image either. What was I saying? Oh, right, if you do own a New Jersey thrash removal company the Vette or Chrysler is probably the best car in the world, others might prefer some more finesse. It’s also quite arguable if the ACR should be considered a street car, just as it’s arguable if mr Jovi produces music.

  • avatar
    Robert Gordon

    “Behind a nondescript garage door in the Motomachi plant in Toyota City is LFA Kobo, the LFA Works.”

    Again, not wishing to be pedantic on an otherwise ok article – Isn’t a door emblazened with the tag “Welcome to Lexus LFA Work” above the Lexus brand name and logo written in 2 foot tall letters, the very opposite of non-descript?

    It is infact very descriptive of the activities that lie within.

    • 0 avatar

      non·de·script
         [non-di-skript]
      adjective
      1.
      of no recognized, definite, or particular type or kind: a nondescript novel; a nondescript color.
      2.
      undistinguished or uninteresting; dull or insipid: The private detective deliberately wore nondescript clothes.


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