I’ve seen my share of vehicle manufacturing facilities, and many are alike. Some are more heavily roboticised than others, many are remarkably pristine environments, most are sprawling sites best traversed by buggy, and each runs to a rigorous regimen.
Not surprisingly, Toyota’s Motomachi plant is all of these things. The site’s ground was broken in 1958 as the first passenger car manufacturing facility in “the Orient”, and production of the Toyopet Crown began the following year.
The site covers 1.59 million square metres, making it much smaller than Volkswagen’s 6.5 million sqm Wolfsburg plant. But, as one of about 16 Toyota plants dotted across the relatively tiny islands of Japan – most of them in the eponymous Toyota City, Aichi – and even more in other countries, Motomachi is just one part of a massive operation.
Around 8000 people work at the plant, which turns out something like 60,000 cars each year – according to the most recently offered numbers, from way back in 2011.
Now, the plant that spawned a legend is home to the latest luxury tourer: the Lexus LC, built in the same spotless white space.
In October, as part of a wider trip for the Tokyo motor show, I had the opportunity to visit Motomachi and see the LC twins – the V8-powered LC500 and the V6 petrol-electric LC500h hybrid – begin their journey to showrooms and owners around the world.
Rolling in off the highway, my first experience with the plant is a uniquely Japanese one, as members of staff file out to wave hello, greeting their Australian guests to the historic site.
Armed with an earpiece for the translated words of final assembly division chief Hirohisa Onome, who it turns out, speaks perfectly good English – in that very Japanese way, he felt his English was terrible and did not wish to bother his guests – I begin my tour of the polished facilities.
My first sight, on entering the ‘shed’ where the LC is built, is a final stage of production but certainly the best possible introduction: the intense, focused hunt for imperfections in the now-complete vehicle’s body and paintwork.
Moving the car into a glass-walled inspection booth flooded with bright light from dozens of LED bars, Motomachi workers in aprons and white-soled sneakers pore over every panel, checking the paint quality and thickness.
That’s all par for the course with any special model, of course, but it’s also especially important to Lexus. Particularly with its new shade dubbed ‘Structural Blue’, which took eight months to develop – off the back of a 15-year study into paint technologies. The new hue and finish was inspired by the Morpho butterfly, renowned for the deep shimmer of its blue wings.
Lexus builds 35 examples of the LC each day, and every single one of them is built at the Motomachi plant.
The assembly line moves at a rate of just four millimetres per second and, although there is still a robot or two on site, most of the work is done by hand – as befits a $200,000 luxury car.
Signalling their increasingly rare humanity, each takumi master craftsman and skilled worker calls out – loudly, clearly, proudly – upon completion of their part in the build of each car. The shout? “Yoshi!”. ‘All right’.
Many of those working on the LC transferred over from the LFA project, which, for buyers, is surely a little thrilling: I might not own an LFA, but the fellas who built my LC have one hell of a résumé.
Each worker at the plant spends about 20 minutes on every car – a lifetime in any conventional plant – and a regularly updated whiteboard in the air-conditioned facility shows efficiency rates are almost always above 99 per cent. Indeed, when I asked about the three 98s on the board, Onome-San seemed a little embarrassed.
Tablet computers are used to guide each phase of production, mounted at every station. All nuts are tightened by hand, and the tool itself sends data to the tablet, ensuring and recording correct torque.
The facility itself is painted white, from floor to roof, helping workers maintain their focus. It’s an old cliché, but you probably could eat your lunch off that floor. I didn’t try, but only because I’m certain my hosts wouldn’t appreciate me dirtying their spotless workspace.
All of this is part of the company’s monozukuri process: supreme craftsmanship married to advanced engineering and systems. Yes, the Japanese long ago cottoned onto the West’s obsession with having conventional concepts distilled into their succinct language. (Amusingly, the word only translates to ‘manufacturing’, but, like many Japanese terms, it has taken on deeper meaning.)
For decades, Lexus has borne the burden of being seen by its detractors as “a Camry with leather”. It’s a dismissive call, rarely fair and wilfully ignorant of the economic realities of the market. But, with the LC, Lexus shows it is hommono, the real thing.
I leave Motomachi thinking, more of this, please, Lexus. More of this. Let’s start with an LC F?
Back onto the bus, we roll out to Haneda airport as Motomachi staff assemble once more to wave us goodbye.
BUT WAIT! Catch my ‘Facebook Live’ video tour of the plant, right here.