1991 Lexus SC400 Starter Motor - Our Shed

By: Guy Allen, Photography by: Guy Allen

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lexus sc400 5 lexus sc400 5

How hard can it be to replace a starter motor? Don't ask...

Somehow I knew it was inevitable that the easy dream run with the Lexus-Soarer had to end at some point. The story so far? Some months ago we escaped the depths of a Melbourne winter and flew to the Gold Coast in Queensland to collect the latest ridiculous purchase.

Costing a grand total of $3250, it is a 1991 Soarer Limited (UZZ31 in Toyota-speak), badged as the similarly-equipped Lexus SC400. This was never a direct factory model to Australia (too expensive?), but was popular during the 1990s as a used grey import.

lexus-sc400.jpgThe car that ate the mechanic. Believe it or not, he’s pulling out the starter motor

With 350,000km on the clock, the old coupe is complete if a little tired in some cosmetic areas. The 4.0lt 32-valve V8 (aka the 1UZ-FE) is the same engine that powered the first Lexus – the LS400 – and has a reputation for being unkillable, so long as it’s given some basic maintenance. That’s backed up by a four-speed auto.

This purchase was inspired by our Japanese classic value guide in issue 414 and was living proof there is still a hell of a lot of value to be found out there. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment purchases, where I figured we could have some fun with it and then move it on if we got bored – without busting the budget too badly.

lexus-sc400-engine-bay.jpgIn contrast to the starter, the serpentine belt replacement was easy. Though you do have to draw your own ‘mud map’ to navigate the seven pulleys!

We collected it off the now-retired long-term owners and headed back to Melbourne. Incredibly, most of the very nineties electronics are still working. The three-D dash is just, while the touch screen for audio and climate control still works. So too does the adjustable ride height and damping. Among the casualties are the CD stacker that’s sulking in the boot, the TV (well, we have moved to digital in that time…) and the satnav. Perhaps the problem with the latter is my complete ignorance of Japanese.

Look at that feature list and you very quickly realise this was an incredibly advanced car for its day.

lexus-sc400-belt.jpg

One of the issues we attended to straight away was the tyres. The steering was a little out and, while the car was easy enough to drive, it didn’t feel quite right. A fresh set of Michelins and a wheel alignment dealt with that very nicely.

What really got my attention though was the squealing noises when I went to start the thing. It always got going, but it sounded like someone was torturing a piglet under the hood. A semi educated guess was the starter motor bearings were on the way out. No big deal – just replace the motor.

lexus-sc400-engine.jpgYou pretty well have to gut the thing to get the starter out

Ah, and this is where we strike a little surprise. There is a big online Soarer/SC400 community in the USA and they have a favourite game. What they do is call a mobile mechanic, get a quote for replacing the motor and then stand back to watch the fun. Normally the quote would include maybe one to 1.5 hours of labour, because starters on most things hang off the side of the engine and are dead easy to get to.

And the Soarer? Well, our American friends like to watch the baffled mechanic lose the best part of half an hour just finding the damn thing. Then comes the heavily-revised quote. Try five hours of labour, assuming there are no snarls along the way. Some genius has hidden the offending motor under all the induction and fuel injection plumbing, at the back of the vee at the top of the engine. Un-bloody-believable!

lexus-parts.jpgNew and old – the same part fits the later  4.7lt engine used in Land Cruisers

Here’s trick two. Because this was never an Aussie import, many parts suppliers profess ignorance when you ask for bits. Change your request to an LS400 and the whole problem goes away. In this case there were no issues getting the starter motor, though the first place I dealt with sent the wrong part. You’re generally talking around the $250 mark. Ours fitted a Land Cruiser, which suggests it was also used in the 4.7lt (2UZ-FE) version of the engine. Apart from the awful access, the next hassle was typical old car stuff. This was a job I cheerfully flick-passed to Mick, our columnist at Glenlyon Motors. One day I strolled in to see little more than his ankles hanging out of the engine bay, with the following chorus emanating forth: "Snap! Feck!" "Snap! Feck!" And so on… The sheer age of the car meant that many of the plastics and rubbers  were brittle, with connectors snapping the minute he even looked hard at them. We had to wait for some of the bits to arrive from Japan, but the prices weren’t bad.

Really, the killer with this job was the amount of time required to get it done. Hopefully that will be the last we see of it for another couple of decades.

lexus-sc400-2.jpg

By way of contrast, replacing the serpentine belt was ridiculously quick. Again, it looked horribly complex, with seven – yes, seven – pulleys to navigate. The belt itself was readily available and is used by several makers on lots of models. The trick was to draw a diagram of where it had to go, before removing the old one.

With that done. It was simply a matter of grabbing a 14mm socket, turning aside the spring-loaded pulley close to the centre and pulling out the old belt. Replacement took a couple of goes to work out the method, but really the job could not have been much easier.

Next on the list is to have a look at the slow leak in the front suspension air bags. I’ve heard of a cheap fix, which I’ll admit to if it works. Wish me luck…

 

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