Lexus: The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection, by Chester Dawson

The amazing story of how a parochial Japanese company shook the luxury car market to its foundations.

This book tells the story of how the unsung manufacturer of lorries and cheap small cars propelled itself to the No. 1 position in the US luxury car market shortly after the launch of its flagship model in 1990

Few people will be able to resist the underdog appeal of Toyota's stunning foray into the international luxury car market, long locked up by the increasingly complacent and arrogant European manufacturers.

It wasn't just the Europeans. The US big three car makers were also producing plenty of poor quality and over priced cars until the Lexus, engineered with a slavish devotion to quality and the most modern technology, left the incumbents for dead.

Lexus' obsession with not just matching the competition but burying it, almost caused the car to be re-invented.

Toyota engineers reverse engineered the cream of existing luxury cars and then benchmarked themselves against the best individual components, rather than merely an individual car model.

Dawson starts with the roll out of the first model and winds down 250 pages later with the company's assault on the European market and learning how to run a global luxury brand.

The majority of the book is not surprisingly devoted to the smash success of the initial Lexus models. By the end of the book, however, Lexus is no longer the uncontested darling of the car driving public.

The Germans and the US engineers had thrown themselves into the fight and have rapidly closed the gap with the Lexus. Lexus has effectively become an incumbent - and existing champions often seem to lack the brazen ambition of the underdog.

Fortunately, after some difficult middle years, the brand achieved an important hit with its line of SUVs.

As a bonus, Dawson touches on many themes to balance the sometimes overwhelming array of facts and figures on almost every one of the 30 models that Lexus produced, as well as detailed descriptions of the engineering prowess involved in making a car simultaneously faster, cheaper to run, and quieter than any car in the world at the time.

Thus the future of factory automation; what the Japanese really thought of the Americans (and vice versa); the setting up factories in China compared to the US factories, and what the most exciting market in the Asia means to Toyota; how Toyota's brand management compares to the likes of Sony or Nissan; how Toyota adapted to Japan's post-bubble woes - all of these are at least touched on to give the more general reader some interesting insights into a industry so crucial to the well being of both developed and developing countries.

One interesting discussion revolves around a Toyota plant - Tahara - which has state of the art automation and resembles a pristine semiconductor chip facility rather than the greasy, blue collar environment one might imagine.

Yet in many ways it is a white elephant, Dawson points out. Production slackened in the wake of the collapse of the IT bubble in 2000. In addition, despite Japan's rapidly aging society, rival firms simply set up shop in China and other cheaper Asian countries, instead of pouring money into automation processes, which however impressive could still not fully replace intangible human skills.

What was it about Japanese culture that enabled Toyota's success? Japan is still the only country outside Europe and the US and their former dominions to have achieved first-world status. But Dawson, despite speaking the language and covering the car industry for ten years in Japan, does not seem happy analyzing the phenomenon from such an angle.

He prefers to stick to facts, and these do provide insights into how the company achieved its success.

For example, Tahara, specifically built to manufacture the Lexus, ended up being built in a remote Japanese location. Thousands of staff had no choice but to uproot themselves from their comfortable suburban homes to a new and much rougher environment - all the while under immense pressure to make the sure the new plant produced the goods.

Yet despite what might seem a slightly inhuman corporate ethic to foreigner readers, when Lexus finally trusts workers in the US plants with the Lexus, they do just as well as the Japanese workers.

In fact, the story of how the Japanese started building cars in the US is hilarious: US unions and manufacturers thought that by forcing the Japanese to make cars in the US, standards would collapse.

The Americans had foolishly believed their own propaganda about so-called Japanese uniqueness.

One quibble concerns Dawson's relationship to his subject. The book rarely takes issue with the Lexus approach and his quotes from company executives are bland.

When personality clashes do occur, he generally avoids giving exciting accounts of what the squabbles were about. It seems he would rather draw a discrete veil over the dirt. In contrast, the well-chosen quotes from many parts of the media and the descriptions of the TV ad used so successfully to sell the car provide some of the best writing.

One writer described the dash of one model as having so much wood one could build a canoe out of it.

Finally, Dawson also devotes a lot of space to branding and marketing. The importance of these issues as Lexus' engineering impregnability becomes eroded through the natural process of the competition catching up, is made very clear.