28 December 2016

Why aren’t 1992-2000 Lexus SC 300/400s worth more?

Before long, cars from the 1990s will be as collectible as those from the 1960s. A number of short-run, highly individual models superseded the boxy 1980s and the key change came in 1990.

The Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 paved the way for sports cars, boasting 375 bhp from a 32-valve double overhead-cam (DOHC) Lotus-designed V-8 engine, and a top speed of 175 mph. Toyota astonished the American luxury market (and disappointed Mercedes-Benz and BMW) by introducing the 1990 Lexus LS400 V-8 sedan, capable of 150 mph in reliable serenity.

Lexus didn’t rest, launching the high-po SC400 luxury coupe in 1992. Both models showcased elegant controlled lines, with low coefficients of drag and they were both powered by a fuel-injected 4.0-liter, 250 bhp DOHC V-8. Car and Driver timed the SC400 to 60 mps in 6.7 seconds.

Luxury fitments included a four-speed automatic transmission; power disc anti-lock brakes; power steering, seats and windows; door locks with remote; air-conditioning; cruise control; leather interior and even an optional factory radar detector. The SC400 coupe succeeded in the niche grand tourer market selling 19,212 units in 1992.

Part way through the 1992 model year the $32,000 SC300 coupe was launched, with a three-liter, 225 bhp, DOHC six-cylinder engine, also found in the Toyota Supra. Not nearly as popular, the SC300 automatic still recorded 7,074 sales the first year, and a rare five-speed manual gearbox option added 1,601 more units. The five-speed would be offered through 1997, but never found many takers, with only 3,883 built in total. Needless to say, these are hard to find today. For the record, only one SC400 was built with a five-speed, for Jim Press, the President of Toyota North America at the time.

Twenty-five years later a surprising number of SC400/300 models survive. This is partly due to the initial buyers’ nature. They were mostly upper-middle income, middle-aged or older Japanese car loyalists. They had grown used to dependable Toyotas and were buying the best leather LazyBoy recliner they could find, planning to keep it indefinitely. Those who leased and flipped their cars every three years were disappointed. As a realtor friend said in exasperation: “I sold my Lexus after five years with 180,000 miles on it, and the damn thing is STILL running around town.”

The SC coupes, with their long hood, sloping windshield and short deck have worn well aesthetically. But their very nature seems to be working against them in the market. They’re very dependable and smooth, but lack a 50-year heritage like the Chevrolet Corvette, Mercedes-Benz SL or Porsche 911. Worse still, most period automotive journalists confused Japanese reliability with soullessness, a notion that still poisons Asian cars’ collectability for some.

All of those emotional arguments aside, ironically, it’s the cheaper SC300, equipped with a five-speed manual, which is currently the most desirable SC. This is because a manual Lexus SC300 is essentially a luxury-spec Toyota Supra; a fact not lost on the tuner market, hence the difficulty in finding an unmolested five-speed. Yet all SCs are presently at the bottom of their price curve. Good eary-‘90s cars can be picked up for $5,000 or so and if they have been maintained, 200,000 miles is no big concern. However once repairs are necessary, the equation goes wrong quickly. Expensive cars have expensive parts. If there is no aftermarket – and there is little for luxury cars – dealerships can be frighteningly expensive.

Since SCs are barely on the collectible radar, wrecking yards have little call for parts, so they don’t save many cars. It’s a vicious cycle – at least for now. Few aftermarket parts, few cars in wrecking yards. So if you want an SC400 or SC300 (especially the five-speed version) you must buy the best car you can find. Preferably one-owner and with all available records.

In fairness, the SC400 and SC300 have a spectacular record for reliability and even replacing a timing belt won’t break you. For example: ever wonder where all the Infiniti Q45s went? Timing chain tensioners and chain should be replaced around the 100,000 mark. That’s an extremely involved job, and can cost as much as $5,000. Considering that the very best 1990s Q45 costs that much in first class shape, the risks aren’t worth it.

Be mindful that when cars are cheap and parts are expensive, maintenance is frequently deferred. Buy the best car you can and pay for a pre-purchase inspection. It will be money well spent if you can overlook a currently unsexy nameplate and lack of heritage. The right car should still be running when SCs appreciate.

20 Reader Comments

  • 1
    R. Michael West Sacramento, CA January 4, 2017 at 16:38
    This article is spot on. I have a 1993 SC400 with 45K miles. It sits in a barn appreciating every day. Very nice looking car, with surprising acceleration and cornering capabilities. Was considering the SC430 when it first came out, but once I saw its lack of room and complex convertible mechanism, I stuck with what I had.
  • 2
    Gordon Raleigh, NC January 4, 2017 at 16:51
    I have a 2nd owner 1998 Lexus SC300. This is a great cruising car, that can drive at 70 mph all day. Seats are very comfortable. The 3.0 Strait 6 has nearly the same HP as the 4.0 V8. I picked mine up two years ago with 75k and it had 90k now.
  • 3
    Darryl Toronto January 4, 2017 at 17:01
    As an owner of a '95 SC400 in mint condition I look forward to the day when these cars are more appreciated. The design has aged very well and people often think it's much newer than it actually is. I will also say that when I tell people about it - even car people - they often confuse it with the less-loved hard-top convertible SC430 that came after it. Which is unfortunate because the SC400 and SC300 are much better looking and driving cars IMO. Since they also share a platform and suspension with the Supra of the era, they actually are decent driving cars too even though they are decidedly a GT car, not a sticky performance machine - which I'm just fine with. And when that 22 year old V8 purs to life again this Spring at the touch of the key I will continue to enjoy its silky-smooth performace in perfectly air conditioned comfort....trouble free.
  • 4
    phil auldridge TX January 4, 2017 at 17:30
    I installed a Supra Twin Turbo engine in my SC300 (it was one of the rare ones with 5 speed manual tranny). As most people know, the Turbo engine is virtually identical from the block down, so it was a bolt-in job for the most part (don't ask me about the wiring for the Turbo ECU). The 450HP turbo engine (running at 18PSI boost) turned an old lady's car into a Mustang killer.
  • 5
    JohnU Kitchener ON January 4, 2017 at 18:32
    There is a house up the street that has three of these. Two V12 Jags live in his garage (and one in his driveway) so the SCs live on the street, even in the winter. Some rust on a couple of them. I feel like he is one of the few SC400 hoarders in the world...
  • 6
    Jerry Narberth PA January 5, 2017 at 13:06
    A good friend with a mid-90s SC400 died in June 2017...lived in Tampa. He spent $$ on Lexus dealer refurbishing about 5 years ago. If anyone in FL is interested, send me your email at jerrys2k@comcast.net and I will connect you. It's BRG over grey leather...love the car. I'm sure that a good deal could be negotiated with his son.
  • 7
    S Symonds CA January 5, 2017 at 15:25
    I own a '92 SC400, and an '02 SC430, both of which I'm keeping. The SC400 has 253k miles on the original engine and trans, just regular maintenance. She's still a joy to drive. My SC430 is wickedly wonderful with 125k miles and the hardtop convertible is very, very fun in California. I love my coupes! p.s. I also have a 1961 Ford Thunderbird convertible and it's power top is just like the Sc430's.
  • 8
    Kirk H California January 5, 2017 at 19:28
    came across 95 sc300 w/ 5spd. my 15yr old is into tuners and asked me to try and purchase this 2jz car. original owner 180k, fit the criteria of the original buyers of these cars. bartered work for pink slip because he purchased a new lexus. tags paid for 1yr, full tank of gas and new tires. customer just down the street used to autocross. had a set of 18x10 PF01's with fat hankooks. bartered work for them. i drive it daily instead of my diesel truck or the wifees too expensive to maintain german money pit. all of my vehicles are straight 6's, two with turbos and two without. my preference is the lexus.
  • 9
    JOHN COOK Henderson NC 27536 January 5, 2017 at 10:31
    Interesting comments re: 1990-2000 CARS. I HAVE TWO 1991 MERCEDES 500SL's CONVERTIBLES W/HARDTOP 78,000 80,000 miles ANY NEED TO "HOLD ON TO THEM" OR SELL NOW? ABOVE AVERAGE CONDITION AND DRIVE DAILY. JUST HAVE NO NEED WITH "GRANDCHILDREN" NOW!
  • 10
    bill california January 5, 2017 at 12:12
    Great cars, we considered one. A better choice is the Lexus SC430. Very fast and reliable; a retractable top too. We have a 2004 with only 51,000 miles. It looks new. Got it 5 years ago for under 30k. The big problem is finding one in decent shape and reasonable mileage. Out here at least they are not rusted, but have usually a LOT of miles and are either very nice or beat up....nothing in between
  • 11
    Jim OC January 6, 2017 at 18:26
    I've read that Bill Gates' favorite car was a 94 SC400. Out of all the cars he could have, the SC is his pick. Fun project: drop in a Toyota GZ-FE V-12 for a sweet sounding tire roaster. The engines came from the Japanese-only Toyota Century limousine and appear on Ebay periodically.
  • 12
    Richard New York January 8, 2017 at 18:24
    I have to disagree with idea that mostly upper- middle class "Japanese car loyalist" bought these cars. Lexus got a lot of attention back then from former and current Mercedes, Bmw, Jaguar and Audi buyers and owners. The tremendous success of LS 400 (looks,refinement, price, and build quality) forced interest in the 2 door coupe. Then once they got a look at it, that was it. THERE WAS NOTHING ELSE on the road that looked like this thing back then. I believe the term is "drop dead gorgous" inside and out. Then complimented with the silky V-8 upfront and hot rod exhaust note in back. By 2000 Lexus I think added a slight modification to the air dam , rocker panels, and close to 300 h.p. Toyota/ Lexus has never looked back. Today hind sight is not always 20-20. So influences are lost, but there's is no doubt like the (Honda/ Acura) Nsx, this car also helped to change it's segment in the industry. Truly a great car!
  • 13
    Jukka Luoma Helsinki January 10, 2017 at 03:14
    Years back I tested an SC430 for my newspaper and found it clumsy and impractical. It had a fine engine, of course, but Lexus missed the ball here.
  • 14
    Bonnie Leonard FL March 17, 2017 at 11:15
    Picked up a 92 SC300 with factory 5 speed in Dec 2016 for $3500. Slowly redoing interior. The A/C, body and paint were in good condition. Previous owner had modified exhaust to single 3" which sounds incredible! Also installed coil over shocks. Had to raise the car about an inch so it would go over speed bumps. Should finish up the interior work this summer for a full investment of $5500. Think I will be buried in this car! So much fun and comfort.
  • 15
    Tony Wilson NYC March 20, 2017 at 14:56
    I got a 95, SC400 years ago and restored it to like new condition. I also picked up a 95, SC300 5 speed. The Sc300 has about 20K in performance mods and should soon be 700+ hp. I will drive both cars forever (I'm old).
  • 16
    Garen Indy March 25, 2017 at 20:03
    Owner of a 2000 sc400 lots of mods Aka my baby pearl, and a 98 sc400 getting a 2jz/single manual swap just because I can! Both vehicles are as solid as they could be both maintained and moded by me, I love the way they drive, look, handle, comfort, all the gadgets I can't even stop but I will. Best cars I've ever owned. #Lexxium on cl
  • 17
    Robj Dallad March 25, 2017 at 00:49
    Ihave picked up a 95 sc400 and I and rebuilding it and giving it a candy paint job sunburst orange it will be the only one with this color
  • 18
    MK 10065 April 4, 2017 at 02:48
    I have one too, an SC300 with a factory 5 speed transmission. Not used that much, since its a '95 version imported from Japan with about 33K miles on it, and the third one I have owned happily. I do not like the Lexus line replacements for these much at all. Gorgeous older car and it will do well for years with not much maintenance $ at all--although I do baby it. Have yet to meet someone who does not love it.
  • 19
    Tiger Smith Atlanta April 7, 2017 at 12:38
    I first time I saw one was in late 1991, I was sitting one night with some friends at a curbside patio bar and a brand new '92 SC400 passed slowly by. I instantly fell in love. I swore that I would have one. I have always thought that it was the most timeless automotive design of any car since then. I had always wanted one but never got around to buying one. A year ago, I was one my way buy a new car when I saw a Royal Jade Green '92 400 for sale. My favorite color for them. It was in the lot of a very reputable Lexus shop where it had been serviced for by the original owner since the factory warranty expired. 104,000 mile garage queen for 25 years. perfect condition and every receipt since new. it was built in April of '91 and sold on Sept. 26th of '91. #7820. I have owned everything from muscle cars to classics and streetrods over 40 years. This is the best car I have ever owned! I just wish I had bought one the next day in 1991. The best way to describe it is "...buttery smoothness.". Those of us that own one know where that term comes from.
  • 20
    Jim G Naples April 26, 2017 at 16:33
    I have 92 SC300 5 Spd. Bought it new, always garaged, almost perfect shape with 85,000 mi. I wonder what it is what it is worth?

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