By on September 22, 2012

I’ve been seeking out Japanese luxury Junkyard Finds lately, so this fairly straight example of Toyota’s personal luxury coupe of the 1990s seemed worthy of inclusion in the series.
The early SCs were USDM-ized Toyota Soarers with either the Supra’s 3-liter 2JZ six or the 1UZ V8 from the Celsior/LS400.
My ’97 LS400 has this engine, and it’s smooooooth. It wasn’t incredibly powerful (just 256 horses), however, which was something of a weak point for the sporty-looking SC400.

Just like most other 15-plus-year-old German and Japanese high-end machines, when an SC gets a bit battered or develops some expensive mechanical problem, it just isn’t worth keeping alive. I see a lot more LSs than SCs in the self-service yards these days, but the SCs aren’t particularly rare in this context.

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57 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1994 Lexus SC400...”

  • avatar

    And here I was thinking that these cars were amazingly “over-engineered and built” – “just plain unkillable” – “pretty fast for today and amazingly quick for then.” I mean I could have sworn that this was the only car that “can literally out-diesel a diesel when it comes to longevity.” After all, isn’t “maintenance under the hood surprisingly user-friendly”? The ideal car for “reliability freaks”… right?

    Why was I thinking all that… Oh wait – I think I might’ve learned that here:

    And now you tell me it’s “just like most other 15-plus-year-old German and Japanese high-end machines”… and “isn’t worth keeping alive.”

    I sure hope that you and Steve didn’t come to fisticuffs over this one!

    • 0 avatar

      They were remarkably well built, but still needed maintenance. Unfortunately after a couple of trips through the corner buy here / pay here dealer, and were on their 4th or more owner many people just didn’t do it. They drove them until it wouldn’t go at all, then when handed the repair estimate that included all the stuff the previous owners didn’t do, they’d scrap em.
      Death by negligence has probably killed more good cars than all accidents combined.

      • 0 avatar

        “Death by negligence has probably killed more good cars than all accidents combined.”

        Very wise, that maxim should be hanging in every used car lot and local shop in the country.

    • 0 avatar

      Good article — thanks!

      I came close to buying a used SC300 in the late 1990’s. The SC400 is nice, but I prefer the SC300 as it was available with a stick shift. Automatic only for the SC400 unfortunately.

    • 0 avatar

      The problem with these kinds of cars is that after ~20 years, a lot of weird things start to constantly break. Fixing them is basically death by 1000 cuts. It can get very difficult to find parts, and it’s hard to justify spending anything on a car that would be totaled if it was bumped in a parking lot.

      I have a 93 Lincoln Mark VIII that I’m about to put on Craigslist. I hate to get rid of it because I love the car and the drivetrain is perfect. It has 165k miles, the engine doesn’t burn a drop of oil and the rated 280 hp seems very conservative. I could drive 500 miles away and be confident that it’d get me there and back. However:

      – The linkage between the key and the ignition switch broke. Fixing it would involve dismantling the steering column, so I ended up unbolting the switch and working it by hand.

      – The air suspension randomly drops the rear end to the ground.

      – Part of the exhaust is rusted out, and replacements are no longer available. I’d have to have use junkyard parts or have something custom-fabricated.

      – The AC crapped out, probably because parts of the refrigerant lines are badly rusted.

      – It has a horrible shimmy at highway speed. Most of the front suspension is new, I’ve had the tires replaced and repeatedly balanced, yet it still feels dangerous.

      – The stereo usually doesn’t work. The amp is connected to the head unit with what looks like an Ethernet cable, and uses a 6-volt turn-on signal. It’s not worth messing with.

      – I had to replace a module that controls the engine cooling fan and fuel pump, and was only used in 93-95 Marks. It was expensive and hard to find 5 years ago; I highly doubt it’s any easier now.

      – The blower motor speed controller died. I ended up hard-wiring it instead of spending $120 on a new one.

      – There are like 50 more broken/quirky things.

      Even though it’s a great and (mostly) functional car, and the engine could easily go another 100k miles, it would cost more to pass inspection and make it livable than it’s worth.

      • 0 avatar

        Does Mehta need a parts car?

      • 0 avatar

        Indeed. In addition to the typically niggling stuff common to cars of this type, Lexi of this era also have several very common problems that aren’t cheap to fix unless you can do you own work, or have a connectin to cheap shop labour.

        Power steering pumps typically start to leak at around 100,000 miles or so and due to their location the leak typically drips down onto the alternator below, taking it out. The starter is located in the centre of the “V,” under the intake manifold. The going rate for this is around $1200 around here (IIRC, book time is something like 7 hours). Suspension busings are also quite expensive on these and the LS.

        As a former mechanic and owner of a high mileage LS400, I can see these are great cars, but were I not able to fix it for pennies on the dollar, it would have been scrapped long ago.

      • 0 avatar


        I was assuming the starter took this one out, given that ridiculous practically-inside-the-engine design. I’ve never seen a car where a ‘simple’ starter job was more difficult.

        Other than your points, they’re great cars, but those points can become a big deal when one or more rolls around on a beaterish example.

      • 0 avatar

        FuzzyPlushroom: Yeah, I’ve never understood the reasoning behind this either (I get that it’s for packaging efficiency, but I don’t see how the benefits outweight costs to the eventual owner down the road).

        I will give Lexus this though: The Cadillac Northstar has the exact same starter location, but the starter is just the same normal little GM starter found on pretty much every FWD GM engine of the era. These are good units, but defintely not the paragon of reliabilty. The Lexus OTOH, took the time to produce a model-specific gear reduction starter that is probably twice the size of those found in other Toyota applications. So it seems they did at least try to make it as reliable as possible (on my personal car it went 263,000kms). I’ve always thought that was one of neat little differences in commitment to overall quality/engineering between lexus and other cars of this era.

      • 0 avatar

        Yep. With a 20 year old car, you have to keep up with repairs or they’ll quickly get out of hand. My parents had the 1991 (I think) Mk7. The suspension is an air bladder system. The weak spot are the pneumatic valves which are like $50 that, when they fail, will turn your car into a lowrider. They’re very easy to replace yourself. However if you take it to the dealer, they’ll tell you it’s an $800 repair.

      • 0 avatar

        Wait, a Ford from ’93 had that many problems?

        Sounds like the typical $800 car to me.

      • 0 avatar


        I can relate, and wouldn’t be surprised to start seeing more SCs and LSs fall into junkyards.

        My family had an LS400 for a few years It had many of the LS400 common issues, and was also the culmination of three owners’ worth of deferred maintenance, before my dad bought it off a used car lot at a Ford dealership on impulse, with no research on the specific car, or the model.

        Here’s a list of things we fixed over the years:
        – Power steering pump (A remanufactured one)
        – Water pump (impeller separation)
        – Timing belt
        – Engine mounts
        – Hood struts (We used a golf driver to prop it up)
        – Shocks (they were so bad, the front wheel would scrape the fender lining on a hard turn)
        – Front fan bracket (cracked and a pulley broke off)
        – Alternator (VERY expensive–I suspect the reman pump dripped on it)

        Not to mention various pieces of interior trim fell off. At some point, the AC condensor fan relay wiggled loose. I pushed it back in, AC blew cold again, but shortly afterwards, it discharged itself into the atmosphere. Never did get it 100% fixed before selling the car.

        We never got the tie rods or ball joints replaced because we didn’t know that probably would have fixed the super floaty numb steering. I didn’t find out about that being a fix until after the car was sold. We basically just thought it drove like that normally.

        The most unusual thing I remembered about it was how FRAM oil filters would sometimes trigger the low oil warning light.

    • 0 avatar

      You thought that a Lexus was invincible because you read it on the internet?

  • avatar

    Most aren’t worth keeping on the road after 15 years? I hope that’s not true. I just bought a 97 ls400 @150k that needs some scheduled maintenance, and my plan is to get another 75k or more out of it. Not likely? it sure is smooth. I feel like I could throw run flats on it and it would still float with nary a jolt!

  • avatar

    I’m just old enough to remember back in the day when these were lauded by the buff books for their smoothness, reliability, and performance. I’ve often wondered why I haven’t seen more survivors on the streets, and was recently clued in when I saw my first in ages, riced out on southbound I75 by the Chrysler headquarters.

    Still like the looks of them, though. Very clean lines with none of the brutish/bulky overstyling of most vehicles today.

    • 0 avatar

      I see SCs everywhere in the SF Bay area. I don’t know enough about them to know exactly how old they are with a quick glance, but it looks like the SC line is far more common here than in the Boston area.

  • avatar

    I really want to uncork one of these motors and drop it in a malaise era Celica.

  • avatar

    Yep, once the car, even as nice as this, gets passed down the food chain from original owner, to second or third owner – the cost of a major repair sidelines the car.

    I know that Toyota parts can be expensive, as well as servicing a more complex vehicle – but it is a shame. As a personal luxury car, the SC400 is a classic.

    • 0 avatar

      Just finding Toyota parts is a chore, I had a Tercel and I could never find any factory hubcaps nor body trim for it, at least anything reasonable.

      Its not from being foreign either, I own a Volvo and parts have been very easy to find.

  • avatar

    I’m more interested in the first-generation Accord next to it. I’ve seen maybe two of those in the last 15 years.

  • avatar

    I also remember the color mags loving these cars. If I remember right, 250 hp was pretty good in 1994. Though it wasn’t an out and out sporty car, I remember it didn’t embarrass itself either.

    Very clean design, I always enjoyed these cars, haven’t had a chance to drive one though. The good years of Toyota here.

    • 0 avatar

      If I remember right, 250 hp was pretty good in 1994.

      Yeah a base Corvette was 300hp IIRC, so 250 wasn’t shameful. A 4.0 V8 Olds Aurura made 250hp.

      • 0 avatar

        250 was very good back then. My old 1996 Fleetwood got 260hp out of the 5.7L LT1, which was supposed to be GM’s post-malaise, performance small block. At the time, that was indeed considered fairly powerful.

    • 0 avatar

      They were maybe a squeak down on power. 250hp wasn’t a shameful number in 1994, but I wouldn’t consider it “very good” either.

      Most of the competition at the time was in the 270hp-290hp range.

  • avatar

    Whenever I see a SC400, I’m immediately reminded that this was the same model that James R. Jordan Sr (Michael Jordan’s Father)was killed over in a car jacking gone bad.

  • avatar

    The door hinges on these things was a work of art. You could probably lift that whole car by that thing!

  • avatar

    This and the Lincoln Mark VIII, at least in my mind, really defined what a luxery coupe was in the 1990s.

  • avatar

    One of the more common cars to find on my local list of Craig when searching “needs work” are the LS and GS with the LS being the more common.

  • avatar

    Just saw one yesterday on the street. It had about a $300 purple paint job. I wasn’t in the beat part of town…

  • avatar

    Would love to have one with the inline-six. I think virtually any car will last 3-400,000KM if maintained. If the car is paid off, then what’s the big deal about $2,500 in service/repairs each year, as opposed to $5,000 in payments each year? Cars like this Lexus were so well built and with better materials that they stay looking and driving like new a remarkably long time.

  • avatar

    I purchased my daily-driver 95 LS400 two years ago with only 80K on the clock, for only $10K out the door. The car was clearly pampered by the previous owner- fortunately for me.

    It now has 102K. The timing belt and thermostat have been changed. I only use Mobil 1 synthetic oil and change it religiously evry 6,000 miles. The trans and diff get Mobil synthetic fluid as well.

    I also have a Ford F250 diesel 7.3 pickup, so the Lex gets a break on evenings and weekends.

    • 0 avatar

      You only change it every 6000 miles? I do mine every 3000 with full synthetic, at least my diesels and other cars worth synthetic(S4, GS-R, Grand Prix GTP, etc)

      And you use your big truck on weekends and evenings, and the SC daily? That sounds twisted. :D

  • avatar

    The trouble with beat SC, GS, or LS vehicles is that they use a little too much gas to viably stay on the road as transportation appliances, and most fans of the marque know that paying more for a nicely-kept example will end up being cheaper than trying to restore a crappy one.

    That’s how SCs like this one end up in the yard.

  • avatar

    I had one of these as a company car in 1996. I really didn’t like it. It was a hand-me-down from the owner’s son and two years old when I got it. As unimpressed as I am with Lincoln Towncars, I preferred the ones I had before and after the Lexus. The SC400 was faster, and it certainly attracted a lot of attention in West Palm Beach. It was also upscale enough that I didn’t have pet police officers inquiring as whether or not I was in need of assistance whenever I was waiting for my garage door opener to do its thing on North Ocean BLVD.

    The downsides were that it drove like a really fast(or at least really fast for a) Buick. The shocks seemed like someone had drained them compared to the TMS Bilsteins on my BMW. I never found a comfortable driving position. The spastic auto-adjusting power antenna committed hari-kiri between oil changes. The rear tires were similarly short lived, in spite of Palm Beach not being a place riddled with curvy roads. The trunk was silly-small too. The attention it attracted was attention I could have done without. Everyone had a ‘my neighbor had his head blown off when he stopped for gas in West Palm’ story at the time, and here was exactly the car that Florida tax men wanted. I had to stop at all those nice gas stations too, as the car returned 8-12 mpg in my hands. Nasty looking streetwalkers would try to get in any time the car came close to stopping. It didn’t even have the awful gold trim, just overly-showy lace spoked BBS imitations with polished lips. I was glad to be done with it.

  • avatar

    call out to ultramatic . . . . .
    “Very clean lines with none of the brutish/bulky overstyling of most vehicles today.”
    If a car maker produced a model today with such clean, no-nonsense styling like this, it would be universally condemned as boring, vanilla, and bland.

  • avatar

    I purchased my SC400 new in the beginning of 1994. It is now almost 19 years old and has 120,000 miles on the odometer. Everything works except the CD player. Over the years, I have had remarkably few problems with it. It was my daily driver until just a couple of months ago, when I bought a 2013 Lexus GS350 F-sport. I have a bike rack on the SC, so I still use it to drive to cycling rides two or thre times a week. Other than tires and batteries, the only problems over the years have been a water pump, a window regulator, an alternator, and a few power steering issues. Until I had the SC, I purchased a new car every two or three years, numerous Porsches, Mercedes, and Datsuns (remember those?). Until it was approaching its twentieth birthday, I really had no desire for a new car. It still feels great to drive, with adequate power, excellent cornering, and a firm ride that reminds me of my last Porsche 911. And last, but not least, it gets 23-24 MPG with 100% city driving. It’s a great car that I may keep forever!

  • avatar

    How many miles did it have? Then again, I’m quite sure all of these had digital odometers, so we might never know.

    I still see a few clean examples of the SC out there, but they are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule. It’s a shame, since they were so over-engineered and ahead of their time styling-wise.

    It doesn’t help that despite the Z30’s nine-year production run, sales steadily and sharply declined through the run. The Z30 only had three model years of five-digit sales. By 1995, yearly sales were less than half of 1992’s. Styling and powertrain tweaks along the way didn’t help much. By 2000, the Z30 SC was stumbling along pathetically, with only 631 cars sold.

  • avatar

    When this car was introduced, it was compared to the Porsche 928. Back then, this was one very sharp car. And I think the styling has held up well. It’s sad to see such a great car junked.

  • avatar

    Looking at several of the pictures, it’s interesting that this junkyard car has better panel fits than most of what’s in my apartment’s parking lot–or in a typical new-car dealer inventory!

  • avatar

    Remember this was Playboys Car of the Year in 1992. And yes, it was a legit award by real auto journalists and guys who knew how to test a product. Playmate of the Year was awarded the magazines Car of the year. Any help from the Playboy readers out there? Can we have a “where are they know” TTAC retrospective with PMOY 1992 Corinna Harney and what she thought of the car? Maybe this is hers…… “When I left the grotto, Hef gave me this car and it was soo cool!!!”

  • avatar

    I actually had a 1992 LS400 (that was part of a TTAC article way back when. Oh memories.) back a few years ago and this line is so true:

    “Just like most other 15-plus-year-old German and Japanese high-end machines, when an SC gets a bit battered or develops some expensive mechanical problem, it just isn’t worth keeping alive.”

    Three Wyoming winters had taken its toll on the thing and I knew I was staring down the barrel of the infamous “replace the starter” debacle the first gens were notorious for and the car was developing a taste for Chinese food; esp. power steering components (certified Lexus parts were well beyond my meager budget at the time) so I sold it before I was stuck with it and before the interior fell completely apart (winter coats, boots, snow, etc.).

    I see these things on the road here in my new environs in DC; esp. in marginal neighborhoods where they are making their last stop before ending up like this example. I loved mine for the time I had it.

  • avatar

    Oh, I caught the “most” and was worried that mine might be in that category. I do get your point however — maybe mine isn’t problematic. Let’s see how’s she’s running in three or four weekends after I get some new tires on it and take care of the due (but thankfully not overdue!) maintenance items.

  • avatar

    Couple of interesting things about this car:

    It has a hydraulic fan drive. In the US, this car and the Camry V6/ES300 of the early 90s (starting with the 1992 model year) had them — and did not share any components. The US-market LS400 had a big 2-stage AISIN viscous clutch fan and twin electric pushers, but the JDM Celsior had the same hydraulic fan (and no pushers) that the SC400 got here. The fan pump was just replaced with a bearing mount for the viscous fan on the LS400.

    The ES300/Camry setup used twin pumps on a common shaft – one for power steering, one for the fan, with a common fluid supply that would suck the fan drive side dry first if there was ever a low-fluid condition, while the V8s used a completely stand-alone system.

    Toyota had a thing for multiple electronic modules. The SC400 had an engine module, a transmission module, a fan drive module, an instrument panel module, an HVAC module, etc. A US car would roll up all the powertrain functions into one module and use a body electronics module for the “hotel” functions.

    The hydraulic fan drive inspired the similar system on the later Lincoln LS and Nuevo Baby Bird, using the same AISIN motor as the Camry/ES300 but powered by a modified Ford C-III power steering pump. The aborted CDT139 (Jac Nasser, cancelling the CDT139 just as it was getting entertaining: “We’re not doing any more projects with Mazda”. 6 months later: Ford buys controlling interest in Mazda at behest of Sumitomo Bank) that would have been the 1998 Cougar was going to have a similar system.

    Yes, I was involved in that. While I did not write the code, I did write the control logic trees used for it. One bit of weirdness from the Toyota control system that had me perplexed was the inclusion of throttle position in the fan logic. Until we had a tip-in fan flare problem (sitting at light with AC on and fan operating at elevated duty cycle, when the light changes and you accelerated, the fan would speed up and make noise). Then I realized they were looking at TP not as an absolute value but for rate-of-change, and would dump fan duty cycle on tip-in, preventing flare. A quick bit of coding later, and we had it fixed.

    Yeah, this is TL;DR. But my brain needs a break and this was a good outlet. :)

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