Lexus LFA - Click above for high-res image gallery
On January 21, Toyota played Show-n-Tell with the first Lexus LFAs to arrive in the U.S., inviting a representative from Club Lexus to witness the stylized drama of uncrating the $400,000 supercar. While we can't be certain, perhaps it was the King-Lear-esque howls and gnashing of teeth from the non-invited (our own form of stylized drama) that convinced Toyota to do it again. So we headed to the Fujitrans warehouse in Carson, California to watch the LFA star in its own kabuki performance. Minus the make-up.
Photos copyright ©2011 Drew Phillips / AOL
Typically, Toyota tires take their first turns on American tarmac at Terminal Island at the Port of Long Beach. And typically, since it has its own car carriers (called ROROs, for 'roll-on, roll-off') that it gorges with cars in Japan and then disgorges here, the company controls the entire process.
Not so with the LFA. Paul Williamsen, the national manager of Lexus College, told us that packing a single LFA in a single, sanitized cargo container was a process created solely to safeguard the coupe. "We didn't want the door of a Yaris to ding an LFA," he said. "And stevedores are paid by the car when they unload a carrier," and such potential haste would be bad manners in a $400,000 objet. Toyota cedes some control of the operation, then, because it doesn't own the cargo ships that haul the sea cans. It does, however, request that the containers be placed low and inside the overall load, "so it has a buffer of other containers and is less likely to get bird poop and other contaminants inside."
Yet the container treatment means that the LFA can't be unloaded at Toyota's port facility at Terminal Island. "There's no way to open a shipping container at the dock," Williamsen said. "There's nothing at cargo hauler level."
Enter Fujitrans, a shipping company that is part of Toyota's partner network but not owned by Toyota. The intermodal containers are transferred from the ship to a semi, then hauled to the Fujitrans facility in Carson.
There, the semi backs up to the loading dock, where all "ramp angles have all been verified for the car, protractors out," and the uncrating begins.
When the doors are opened, the first thing we noticed was that the car wasn't covered. Willamsen said because the LFA's enamel paint takes weeks to thoroughly dry, it was decided to ship the car uncovered. The dust that settles on it during the journey won't get embedded in the paint, whereas the adhesive from protective sheets or the fabric of a closely-fitting cover could mar the finish.
The second thing we noticed was the pink pallet. They were designed by Toyota's logistics arm in Japan to exclusively haul the LFA. Each one has a unique serial number, and they are color-coded by region - Costa Rica, for instance, got a black pallet to support its sole LFA. Why did America get pink? Because an employee in Japan who'd been with the project since the beginning made it so. They are reusable, so when the facility acquires five pallets they are sent back to Japan.
Next a (Toyota) forklift pulls up to the container, a chain is wrapped around the pallet crossmember and attached to the load apron, and the LFA is slowly drawn from its sheath.
The LFA is tied down race-car style, with the straps running over the wheels, not the suspension members. Lacking the bulky structures on the average car, the LFA's suspension isn't suited to enduring the potential load factors experienced in transport.
The front wheel braces are unbolted on their sides, then both angles of the rear wheel braces are unbolted. Purpose-built ramps are attached to the rear of the pallet by a bolt, then the bolt is taped over. Speaking of wheels, Williamsen told us that yellow calipers are a popular option among the six available colors because on a Porsche 911, yellow means it has carbon brakes (even though all LFAs have carbon brakes). In Japan, though, it is metallic gold calipers that are popular.
After unbolting the wheel braces there's a walkaround inspection. A few blemishes are discovered on this Pearl Blue LFA. Somebody's gonna have some 'splainin' to do...
A mat is laid down by the driver's side door and an office chair pulled up. A worker sits and dons gloves and shoe covers, then opens the LFA door, lays a fresh cloth over the sill, and delicately gets in so he can pop the rear glass.
Beside him, the passenger seat is leaned forward because the VIN on an LFA is etched on a steel plate attached to the carbon fiber floor under that seat. So, yes, any time anyone – even the police – need to see the VIN, the passenger seat needs to be moved out of the way.
Sitting on the passenger seat is a certificate in a plastic sleeve. Every LFA that leaves the factory is taken to Toyota's Higashi Fuji test track for testing. The certificate tells the owner how many miles were put on the LFA during the testing - this example has 119 miles - and is signed by the general manager of the quality control process.
The worker gets out, again delicately, lifts the rear glass, lays another fresh cloth over the C-pillar, then leans into the cargo area to unlatch one of the two panels along the front bulkhead. Underneath is the battery, which he hooks up.
He gets back in the car and starts it, then pulls off the ramp, slowly, to behind the double-yellow line. He turns the car off, and the job is done. The LFA will be driven down the loading dock to ground level and driven into an enclosed carrier that's from Toyota's old IndyCar racing fleet.
Parked in its second home, the LFAs will be taken back to Terminal Island for processing. "The EPA and DoT don't care about containers, Customs does," said Williamsen, "so a car hasn't officially landed in the US until the container is opened and the paperwork is done. It's bonded until that point."
Nor is the LFA finished being prepped for its owners. When unboxed in Carson it is accessorizeed with little more than plastic sheeting over the seats and the certificate from the quality control general manager in Japan. After it has returned to Terminal Island and gotten its papers – officially become a U.S. citizen – it is taken to finishing school: it receives a thorough inspection, an owner's manual, a deluxe car cover, a digital trickle charger, welcome and how-to videos created by Lexus College, and has items like the wheel center caps applied. Only then is it taken to the customer's dealer of choice, anywhere in the country.
The LFA's warehouse dance will be recreated up to 171 times – that represent's the U.S. share of the coupe's total production run of 500. For those of you on the fence, a few units remain up for grabs. And just so we're clear, by "for grabs" we mean for $400,000, natch...
Photos copyright ©2011 Drew Phillips / AOL