No Fixed Abode: The Machine That Changed the World

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
no fixed abode the machine that changed the world

Oscar was orange; Grover was green. Agent 007 has no gadgets. Kramer was an agoraphobic named Kessler, and George was cooler than Jerry. It’s common for television shows (and long-running film series) to change in ways that become permanent and significant parts of their identity. When the original episodes or films don’t quite match up in retrospect with what people have come to expect, it’s called Early Installment Weirdness. “The first Puppy Bowl,” the TVTropes site reminds us, “did not have a Kitty Halftime Show.”

There’s plenty of Early Installment Weirdness in the car business — I can still remember seeing a 1953 Corvette for the first time, maybe when I was seven or eight, and saying “That’s not really a Corvette” to my father — but when I saw a very early Lexus RX300 in a parking lot last night I realized that Lexus in general, and the RX series in particular, really takes the cake in this area.

Which is important, because the RX300 is, in many ways, the machine that changed the automotive world into the “later installments” we know today.

Yes, that’s a direct reference to the famous book about Toyota’s “lean production” that has achieved ludicrous momentum in the tech world over the past few years. Every software shop from Hyderabad to Cleveland now faithfully, and idiotically, replicates a cargo-cult version of the “standups” and “kanban methods” that were designed to work on a factory floor.

The “standups” are particularly miserable: Toyota’s version was best understood as a five-minute meeting where any potential issues in a given assembly-line department would be sorted out before the shift began, but under the corrupting influence of IBM, Accenture, and other “body shops,” the concept has degenerated into a 45-minute hellscape of offshore “engineers” mumbling a list of their miniature accomplishments out of a speakerphone while everybody else shifts from leg to leg and attempts not to fall asleep.

On the plus side, if you’re a contractor you get paid to attend.

The original RX300 was conceived not that long after the above-mentioned book was released, some time in 1993. It’s scary to think how far ahead of the curve Toyota was at this point. Ford had just signed off on the facelift that would create the mega-popular 1995 Explorer out of the already popular 1994 model, and the industry was still very much obsessed with the pickup-based SUV. The only dissenting voice came from Jeep, which had the more-or-less unibody Grand Cherokee in showrooms. That was, however, a completely bespoke platform designed as much for off-roading (ugh, that leg-crushing wheelbase!) as it was for the “school run.” Land Rover, of course, would debut the Honda-Civic-based Freelander around this time, but I don’t think anybody cared about it — and I say this as a formerly quite devoted owner of a Freelander.

I think the genius of the RX300 comes from two decisions. The first is obvious: make it from a Camry instead of a pickup truck, thus enabling it to beat its competitors in NVH, dynamic qualities, spaciousness, and fuel economy. It was such a winning formula that it has basically no detractors 20 years later. If you want an SUV with truckish roots, you’ll have to buy full-sized.

The second decision wasn’t quite as inevitable, even in retrospect: make the RX300 a Lexus. This wasn’t a forgone conclusion. The RX300 was sold in Japan as the Toyota Harrier, a nifty tip of the cap to how the thing seemed to perch uneasily on its wheels the way a bird, or VTOL fighter jet, trembles on its legs. It could have been the Harrier here as well. There was no existing product in the store-brand lineup to conflict with it; the Toyota SUV lineup had a massive hole between the RAV4 and 4Runner that was later filled with the RX-derived Highlander.

By introducing the RX300 as an upscale product, however, Toyota took a risk that paid off in spades. The RX300 was the hottest thing in Lexus showrooms from the moment it arrived, massively increasing the brand’s volume. Just as importantly, the extra profit baked into the RX put hundreds of millions of dollars into the company’s coffers. Eventually, the vehicle would go on to reshape Lexus stores in its own image. It seems impossible to believe in retrospect that the primary reason to visit the “L” dealer in 1990 would have been the purchase of an expensive S-Class clone. Today the LS sedan accounts for less than two percent of the brand volume while the RX and its siblings take the lion’s share. The RX series is the best-selling Lexus in history, period, point blank, total.

Which makes the Early Installment Weirdness of the 1998 model even more hilarious. It had no “Lexus styling cues” because at the time there was no such thing. Its headlights looked similar to, but were not, the ones used in the 1992 ES300. That was it. Everything else was sui generis. Overseas, you could get a Harrier with a stick shift and a four-cylinder engine; there are people who have stick-shift RX300s in this country but I can’t come up with any authoritative sources for manual-transmission stock in dealers of the time. The RX was available with a cloth interior, which most dealers rejected out of hand but which made the car more livable in summer. The FWD-only model was remarkably popular despite the marketing, which was chock-full of outdoor motifs. It seems particularly ridiculous now, but the early brochures featured a few shots of an RX300 doing what can only be called “mudding”, blasting through a soggy field and throwing dirt clods higher than its own roof.

The interior was remarkably plain, even by the standards of the time. Its design suggested that Toyota wasn’t quite sure whether the RX300 was a car alternative or a minivan alternative, with its high-mounted shifter and complete absence of a center console. Twenty years later, all of these vehicles have a sedan-styled layout that’s been physically lifted a few inches to match the more upright seating position, but the RX350 is more Sienna than ES300 once you open the door and take a seat.

None of this matters. Customers came in droves, most of them of the coveted female variety. When the Highlander appeared a year or so later, it was the second half of a one-two punch. Imitators followed with shocking speed. The Explorer, Trailblazer, and even the Grand Cherokee were exposed as the unpleasantly functional vehicles they’d always been. Within a half-decade, the unibody crossover was the most important passenger vehicle on the market besides the pickup truck. Today, it’s remarkably difficult to buy anything else.

Did Toyota know that the RX300 would change the world? It’s hard to say. Obviously the Highlander was in process before the RX even hit showrooms. They must have known that this was the shape of things to come. I doubt, however, that they, or anyone else, knew how omnipresent the lifted wagon would eventually be, to the point that Ford isn’t going to sell you anything else in the near future and GM will likely follow. Only the strongest of the sedan nameplates — Civic, Accord, Camry, Corolla, maybe Sonata — will survive. For the rest, it’s just a matter of when the plug will be pulled.

Viewed simply as vehicles, the RX and its successors are suppository-shaped, profoundly unpleasant, entirely style-free exercises in cynical marketing. As agents of change, however, they are unsurpassed. We all live in the world that the RX made. Even your humble author is coming around; when I saw that early first-gen the other day my first thought was that it would make a great vehicle for getting up gravel roads to MTB trails in southern Ohio. It’s remarkably compact and lightweight in comparison with its plodding successors. Kind of like the way Jabba the Hut was a person in the original Star Wars outtakes. It wasn’t until later that he became a giant slug creature.

Can Toyota retcon the size and slashing exterior of the new RX to the old ones still prowling the streets? Of course not. That’s the problem with being an automaker. Your Early Installment Weirdness is out there in perpetuity. Why, just look at that very non-Corvette-ish ’53 Vette!

Join the conversation
2 of 94 comments
  • WallMeerkat WallMeerkat on May 24, 2018

    While Rover/Land Rover at the time had a tie up with Honda, the Freelander was based on a reworked Austin Maestro platform rather than Civic. (Honda platforms did underpin the Rover 200/400/600/800 series though)

  • WallMeerkat WallMeerkat on May 24, 2018

    You did make a great point about lean kanban standups though. At best a quick "here is what I am working on" detailing any blockers or suggestions for improvements. At worst an informal discussion followed by an indepth recall of every single detail of the attendee's day, then management micromanaging demanding to know why the complex task at hand - interrupted and context switched by the standup - is running slightly late.

  • Jeff S We have had so many article about gas wars. A lighter subject on gas wars might be the scene from Blazing Saddles where the cowboys were around the campfire and how their gas contributed to global warming or was it just natural gas.
  • Jeff S We all have issues some big and most not so big. Better to be alive and face the issues than to be dead and not have the opportunity to face them.
  • NJRide Now more than ever, the US needs a brand selling cheaper cars. I know the old adage that a "good used car" is the best affordable transportation, but there has to be someone willing to challenge the $45k average gas crossover or $60k electric one that has priced out many working and middle class people from the market. So I think Mitsu actually may be onto something. Call me crazy but I think if they came up with a decent sedan in the Civic space but maybe for $19-20k as opposed to $25 they might get some traction there's still some people who prefer a sedan.However, I just compared a Trailblazer on Edmunds to an Outlander Sport. Virtually same size, the Trailblazer has heated seats, keyless ignition and satellite radio and better fuel economy for almost same price as the Mitsu. Plus a fresher body and a normal dealer network. This has always been the challenge off brands have had. Mitsu probably would have to come in $2-3k less than the Chevy unless they can finance more readily to the subprime crowd.
  • MaintenanceCosts At least on the US West Coast, Waze is perfectly happy to send cut-through drivers down residential streets or to disregard peak-hour turn or travel restrictions. I hope if it's going to be standard equipment the company starts taking a more responsible approach.
  • MaintenanceCosts I'm more curious about the effect (if any) on battery lifetime than range. Drawing current faster creates more heat and if that heat is not promptly drawn away it could affect life of the cells.I agree this sort of thing can make sense as a one-time option but is consumer-hostile as a subscription.