Automotive History: 1986 Ford Taurus – Good Role Models And Clear Objectives Create A Breakthrough Car

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In November, J.J. Abrams had this to say about how George Lucas conceptualized Star Wars:

  Think about what he was able to stir up, the questions he was able to ask—exactly the right questions—the idea that he was able to create a world that clearly went so far beyond the boundaries of what we were seeing and hearing. This, to me, is one of the greatest things about Star Wars.

Is the Taurus the automotive equivalent to the first Star Wars film? In some ways, it was. The groundbreaking car wasn’t just revolutionary due to its styling or the unorthodox team created to develop it. The folks at Ford distilled the essence of more expensive vehicles to develop an experience never before encountered in the mid-size segment. 

The creation of the Taurus isn’t exactly a new topic here at CC. We’ve covered how its design originated from European origins, and chronicled a broad history of its conception from start to finish. But the Taurus would not have made such a massive impact if not for the philosophical questions guiding the team creating the car. The decision to benchmark the future mid-size with cars far above its price range was just as important as making the car user friendly to middle america.

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Sharp handling cars like the Mazda 626 were never far away during development of the Taurus.

Before the Taurus became a budget European car at American prices, Ford faced numerous issues as development of the Sigma (Ford’s official code name for the new car) took off. Its current product lineup was stale and severely out of date. Competitors from at home and abroad had beaten Ford in developing front wheel drive vehicles, and the executives in charge of turning the company around – namely Chairman Phil Caldwell and Don Peterson – were well aware of the situation, although lower level executives were still unsure that a car driven by the front wheels was a good idea. The first victory for Project Sigma was won by Lewis Veraldi, he insisted from the very beginning that the team develop a car with a consistent vision, which meant the debate had to end with the car as a front wheel drive vehicle. Veraldi, vice president of car development, previously oversaw the development of the first generation Fiesta, and knew front wheel drive was the way to go for Ford’s next project.

Project Sigma eventually became the Taurus because Veraldi wanted a moniker that sounded powerful in hopes it wouldn’t get cancelled by the higher ups, who recently pulled the plug on a number of projects, notably the mini/max program. The anxieties about the existential status of the work assigned to Veraldi and company dissipated rather quickly however, and it became clear that while Don Peterson excelled at managing the more mundane aspects of product development, Caldwell focused more on big picture ideas while the Taurus was being conceptualized.

One of the establishing mantras imposed on Veraldi was relatively simple. Why should a customer buy a Taurus?

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Team Taurus took this question to the absolute extreme. From front to back, top to bottom, everyone behind the project wanted to tackle the less obvious qualities that could potentially set a car apart from its competition, and the minutiae of details customers could see, touch, and feel, all in one package.

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Veraldi also felt the Taurus could accomplish its mission by being best in class. This meant going beyond in every way possible. The interior was going to feature user-friendly controls and a modern design. But the soul of the car – the ride, handling, and overall refinement – also had to be top notch if the bold experiment was to succeed.

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BMW’s 528e was one source of inspiration. 

Sources of inspiration were varied, but one thing was clear: the cars Team Taurus wanted to emulate in ride and handling all hailed from Europe. All of the executives involved in the project had previously been on assignment in the old world in some capacity, so they had firsthand experience with the market and the qualities within each competitors vehicles that set them apart from the American and Japanese manufacturers. Being best-in-class also meant being world class, and the team set about creating a car appealing to global tastes.

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The Toyota Cressida: The Japanese BMW, also evaluated by Team Taurus.

We can all look back and name dozens of models made prior to the mid 1980’s that characterized what Americans had come to expect from their cars. The cushy, floating suspension that ignored bumps and precise steering simultaneously. Team Taurus knew these characteristics could not make it into their car, and they also knew what it took to get a car with a sharp ride and crisp handling. They just had to make sure customers would understand that as well.

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Team Taurus was quite taken with Opel’s Senator.

Lew Veraldi devised an experiment to gauge how the buying public perceived ride quality by literally swapping the suspensions of a Ford Crown Victoria and Opel Senator. The testers thought one car would win out over the other; either they’d take the large, American sedan with tight handling, or the smaller car with a softer approach to road feel. Turns out that neither were popular. The team conducting the research did not expect such an outcome, but were not totally taken aback by the results. Their conclusion boiled down to this: taking a large car and fitting it with the suspension of a smaller one destroys its appeal because fundamentally, the styling doesn’t match up with the driving dynamics of the vehicle being evaluated. A car with an athletic stance should look the part. Essentially, the team needed to create a soul for the Taurus and have a consistent vision for every aspect of the car, or the project would end in failure. A sportier vehicle should be more adventurous on the inside and out.

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By now, its apparent the individuals behind making the Taurus a reality rather than a pipe dream were asking the right questions. But the crux of where the Taurus would impact the market wasn’t entirely clear until they arrived at a definitive consensus on its sizing. Taking stock of the current crop of sedans, the team saw an opening: baby boomers starting families that were familiar with Japanese cars and wanted that experience in a larger vehicle.

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Ford already had something like that in its stable, but the LTD was quite large: 196.5 inches in length. That’s almost five inches longer than a current generation Ford Fusion.

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Photo by Mr. choppers, wikipedia commons

The Taurus needed to slim down, but stay larger than the competition. The A-Body Celebrity debuted in 1981, providing the team with a solid template for sizing the Taurus properly. Although their overall length and height were nearly identical, the Taurus bested the Celebrity with a longer wheelbase (106 inches vs. 104.8) and width (70.8 vs. 69.2). For a family car, those extra measurements go a long way towards a superior ride and a more roomy interior.

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The third generation Honda Accord.

It’s easy to see why Ford felt there was an opening they could exploit; The second and third generation Accord were over a foot shorter in length, making them more competitive with the Tempo, at least in size.

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If the Taurus had a spirit animal, it was the Audi 5000 (known abroad as the 100). The German sedan nearly matched the Taurus in wheelbase (105.6) and was only slightly wider (at 71.4) and taller (71.4).

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It makes sense then, that the Audi 5000 and Honda Accord appeared in Car And Driver’s 10 Best in 1986. When the Taurus arrived in 1986, it was the perfect distillation of the two vehicles – offering the nimbleness of the Accord in a bigger package, with the overall refinement and luxury of the Audi 5000S.

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If you think that sounds like I’m exaggerating, I understand. However, the car mags really felt this was the case once they were able to evaluate the Taurus next to the cars Ford kept on hand during its development. Car And Driver’s April 1986 road test demonstrated just how special the Taurus was upon its introduction. The new 3.0 liter V-6 developed for the Taurus didn’t contain any technological marvels, but it was competitive, even with cars outside its class.

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The folks at Car And Driver heaped praise upon the Taurus rarely found within its pages. Some interior bits lacked the sophistication found in the German cars, but otherwise the reviewers found comparing it directly against the BMW 528e and Audi 5000S fair game. To paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden, that was a big freakin’ deal.

By baking German design into the Taurus from the beginning, the team at Ford created a car seemingly from another dimension. In reality, Lew Veraldi and company took the best characteristics of European cars and translated their aura into a modern front-wheel drive family car aimed directly at middle America.

George Lucas emulated Kurosawa samurai films and World War II dog-fighting flicks, and the end result gave us a memorable universe filled with things like the Jedi and the Death Star trench run. What Team Taurus did for the automobile industry was no less significant.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1986 Ford Taurus

Curbside Analysis: 1986 Ford Taurus

A very special thanks to Eric Forman and George Neill, who provided me with the Car And Driver scans for the article. I didn’t use all of them, but their inspiration helped write the article. Thanks guys!

For additional information regarding the development of the Taurus, Eric Taub’s Taurus: The Making Of The Car That Saved Ford is essential reading.