Sometimes those sleep deprived, middle-of-the-night Craigslist spelunking sessions end in the discovery of a true unicorn—something that appears to be perfect and pristine on the outside, an ideal fit for your garage and your dreams. But even if you hit on such a vehicle, it can hide dark secrets within. This was one of those times.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an unrepentant fan of the first generation Lexus SC. Its styled-by-science curves made it the car that was just ahead of the time when it was made. The model was optioned with one of two of Toyota’s most robust engines, the 2JZ inline-six that would serve as the holy grail to fanboys the world over, and the 1UZ-FE that became the blueprint of every high output Toyota V8 ever made after that point.
I’d owned one for a while and modified it to within an inch of its already short life, but I wanted one that was not only a good stock example, but one of the best examples of the model throughout its near decade-long production run.
On a late night half-conscious Craigslist bender, I saw it. It was a silver 1999 Lexus SC400 with a near perfect black interior and Nakamichi audio system. That combination alone made it as rare as rooster braces.
It had the VVT-i version of the 1UZ-FE V8 engine that produced 290 horsepower, mated to a five speed automatic transmission with a gated shifter. Coincidence or not, it was located just three hours away from me, for the low price of $2,900.
This was the one.
Without much hesitation, I made a mental note to pester the seller as soon as I woke up. After speaking with what I understood to be a buy-her-pay-here lot, administering a verbal pat down and convincing myself that they were probably legit, I asked them to ship me the car, handed over the cash, and waited for my new Lexus.
After I got the car and gave it a once over, three things happened. First, I parked it and left it alone for a time period of more than two years but less than six.
Second, I thought of various projects I could accomplish with this relatively clean example, ranging from a Mercedes M120 V12 swap with an eight speed automatic from a Lexus IS-F to a 2JZ-GTE VVT-i with full standalone engine computer and a manual six speed from a BMW 330i. It was the subject of many a sleepless night spent on forums with threads that seemed to go nowhere, which led me to the third thing: I gave up.
Not in any sort of general sense, but as other projects and cars came and went, I was left asking myself whether it was worth putting effort into a car that would, at the end of the day, still be a ratty old Lexus with looks ahead of its time, but way behind that of the current year.
After delivering all my cars to my new house in Florida and staring at my driveway that now had a seven-strong fleet, I made the decision that this was the most expendable car that I owned. It had to go, for the sake of my sanity, my marriage, and the precious room for future projects.
The one hiccup in the plan was, during the trip from the Garden State to the Sunshine State on the back of an aging Hungarian’s 18 wheeler, the Lexus developed a bit of an issue.
A quite sizable exhaust leak had made itself known to me and anyone else within the surrounding half mile radius whenever I managed to fire up the dusty 4.0-liter V8 engine.
As the reputable seller I imagine myself to be, I couldn’t simply leave this as a problem the next owner would address - I had to make an effort to at least thoroughly diagnose the drone before even thinking of putting this car on the market.
Thankfully, my new four post lift made it possible to survey the damage on the underside of the car, but looking back, an argument can be made that I was better off not knowing.
As the car went in the air, I could already see tinges of the corrosive mess that lie underneath.
A large portion of the rear subframe, known as the K-member, wasn’t just rusted, it was missing. It had decided that life down south wasn’t its thing and got the fuck out of Dodge while the gettin’ was good.
It was so extremely corroded that slight pressure with my finger rendered the rather thick stamped steel into something with the tensile strength of a wet gas station ass gasket.
The exhaust revealed itself as soon as I looked at the rusted-through exhaust, with the flanges blown out something fierce. It wasn’t a matter of what to replace, but what parts would be spared from the total rebuild that needed to occur on this otherwise stellar example of ‘90s Japanese luxury.
The rear subframe, which housed the rear differential and suspension, wasn’t any better, with everything made of a corrosive metal resembling the aftereffects of a messy divorce: toxic, jagged, leaving an unmistakably salty taste in your mouth.
While there weren’t any components that needed immediate replacement, the entire car needed a wire brush and rust treatment a good three years ago.
The now visibly battered SC might have been up to the task of possibly to driving some short distances, but knowing that my suspension geometry was relying on thin rusting metal slivers was a huge liability.
The upside is that the car would be worth much more with these issues fixed, but the downside is that vaccine resistant strains of Tetanus might be a part of my near future.
Stay tuned as I make this car road worthy and make it into something that the next owner can not only drive without worry, but appreciate as the genuine super-cruiser it deserves to be.