Picture this: You’re the top decision maker responsible for continuing the saga of a beloved institution. Tasked with keeping the flame of interest lighted for years to come, you design a product that wows critics upon initial release but is soon scorned by the general public and experts alike. Your legacy is still secure, but nevertheless diminished. I’m not talking about George Lucas, or any one individual, actually. I’m talking about the team at Ford. The folks who sculpted the automotive equivalent of the Star Wars prequels upon an unsuspecting public.
Twenty years later, its easy to conjure up a visceral emotional response to this portion of the Taurus and Sable tale. Ford bungled their chance to maintain leadership in an important segment of the market by betting the farm on an idea instead of a proven concept. It’s also somewhat understandable why they did so; cracks were showing in the once infallible reputation of the design that electrified the industry upon its debut in 1986; the Camry and Accord were more competitive than ever; and Chrysler debuted the “Cab Forward” LH cars to much fanfare in 1992.
But to let the development team behind the new Taurus off the hook for the final design would be misguided. The group had a lot of external stressors underlying every move they made, but they were too envious for their own good. Dick Landgraff and company come off as jilted exes fresh out of a failed relationship; jealous at the Accord for the demographic it brought into dealer showrooms; stung that another American automaker was receiving all the attention for their products instead of their own. An air of haughty arrogance led the team down the path to the dark side.
Would Lew Veraldi, the man largely responsible for the success of the original Taurus, have made the same mistakes in regards to the design? Not likely. Veraldi’s design calculations were based on known entities: established European nameplates that were equally praised for their looks and their driving dynamics. Here’s what those automakers were doing in the early to mid 1990’s:
The E34 and E39 5-Series featured evolutionary styling and enough improvements to garner positive critical acclaim upon their introduction. Motor Trend enjoyed the 1997 5-Series so much they declared the car their Import Car Of The Year.
Audi largely continues to do the same.
The Japanese luxury upstarts also emulate their already established competition, with Lexus gaining immediate praise for its attention to quality.
There was no Audi, BMW, Lexus, or any other luxury make in the design studio with Landgraff and company. Just the Camry, Accord, and the 1992 Taurus. The new Team Taurus wanted to strike out on their own and pioneer a new design trend, wholly rejecting anything resembling a traditionally boxy design. Although market research showed consumer interest in more adventurous shapes, the desire to create a bold, fresh design trumped nearly everything else along the way.
Note the exotic locales and extremely nice houses featured in this ad
This immense tunnel vision created delusions of grandeur that led to even more blunders while the Taurus was being developed. Just who did Ford want to buy the Taurus? Varsity Captains! Yes, successful jocks with a beautiful wife and kids, living the American Dream. I wish I was kidding, but Ford really did create a profile of the Taurus buyer based on those guidelines, despite the fact that their own research concluded the average Taurus buyer was older, less educated, and earning less money than their model mid-size buyer. Those Shiny Happy People opted for the red-hot Explorer instead.
Research also pointed to customers liking the trunk space of the 1992 Taurus. Unfortunately, the 1996 model had a smaller one, four cubic inches of less space,to be exact. Now that number was still impressive – but reliance on the elliptical design meant the trunk opening needed to shrink too. Not a great way to keep repeat business.
What greeted the prospective Taurus and Sable buyer upon sitting in the driver seat was this, the Instrument Control Panel. Well intentioned as it may be, it was another jarring departure from what customers were used to. It was a lot to take in, and after the 1996 redesign, many buyers opted to go for the Camry and Accord instead.
In all fairness, Ford wasn’t alone in buying into the oval themed design trend. But no other automaker had as much at stake, and rival companies put their elliptical designs on vehicles aimed at much smaller, more niche markets. None of Ford’s contemporaries went as far with their designs either.
The Volkswagen New Beetle, king of the rounded design theme, makes a splash in 1998. Of course, the Beetle is low hanging fruit; its new looks kept the same shape as its iconic predecessor, and its always been a popular car in a relatively small segment.
Volkswagen’s nostalgia cash-in also featured a decidedly more buttoned down interior compared to the Taurus.
The Beetle’s close relative, the Audi TT, was more groundbreaking. But like the Beetle, its interior combines new elements with a traditional center stack.
In terms of four door sedans, Nissan’s Altima was the closest mainstream car a buyer could purchase that resembled the styling direction of the Taurus, but in terms of sizing, the Nissan didn’t compare favorably to any car in the mid-size segment.
Not surprisingly, the Japanese sedan had an relatively tasteful interior.
Infinti’s J30 bears more than several similarities to the Ford, but notably softens its ovalness in key areas.
Not the rear end though. That trunk is so down on itself it needs a Zoloft.
Chrysler fielded the strongest case for rounded exterior designs, but the LH platform vehicles were clearly full size, lacking the wide appeal of the mid size segment.
Their interiors also closely resembled both the first and second generation Taurus.
The cloud cars (Cirrus, Stratus, and Breeze) sold in decent amounts, but never reached numbers achieved by the big players in the mid size segment. Their size left them on the smaller end of the mid-size segment as well.
The Neon featured completely circular headlights like the Taurus, but garnered praise for features other than its design, like its class leading powertrain, large interior, and a low starting price.
Chrysler’s minivans embraced the ovoid theme just as much as the Ford, but never sacrificed interior room, and offered useful features like dual sliding rear doors. The built in height advantage, a feature shared with sport utility vehicles, was another plus.
Even in Ford’s own lineup, the ovoid was not embraced so wholeheartedly. The Contour and Mystique models also suffered from pricing issues over a year before the third generation Taurus went on sale. The canary in the coalmine went ignored.
Perhaps the biggest sins committed by Dick Landgraff and company were simply ignoring the big picture items carefully considered by the original Team Taurus; that a successful car is a comprehensive undertaking incorporating established design principles that allow form and functionality to coexist. That they also ignored the history of the Taurus as a value leader in terms of pricing was icing on a terrible tasting cake.
Ford chose designs trends that were being employed at other automakers for niche vehicles – Audi and Volkswagen – and those whose outsider status gave them the creative spark to try something untested – Chrysler and Nissan. One common thread among all these vehicles however, is their utility beside their design; all of them offered something of value without much compromise. The Taurus did not.
My 1997 Mercury Sable GS, pictured here in 2007
Despite all the bile of hatred heaped upon you in the preceding paragraphs, I do think the third generation Taurus and Sable are solid cars, and I still find myself admiring them. The team did truly develop a good handling car with a smooth ride, and portions of the interior like the Instrument Control Panel were constructed with quality materials, while being ergonomically sound. Aesthetically, I approve of its design, but my bias comes from owning one for eight years. Plus, a high school senior looking for a good value on the used car market in 2004 was worlds away from the buyer shopping for a new vehicle in 1996.
We have the benefit of hindsight in evaluating how the oval design theme was ultimately a brief fad. Twenty years later, some of the elements of the elliptical school of automotive thought have translated into successful, popular designs. But the Taurus did too much, too fast. It was the wrong car for the wrong time. That the Taurus flopped so spectacularly – never again matching the Accord and Camry in total sales, and relying on fleets to boost already disappointing numbers – is a clear indication of customers distaste for the design.
In creating the Star Wars prequel trilogy, George Lucas developed films with great special effects, but left out key features which made the original films such enduring cultural masterpieces. Although not quite as dramatic, the team redesigning the Taurus did the same.Their fundamental misunderstanding of the Taurus legacy permanently diminished the reputation of arguably the 20th Century’s greatest automotive success story.
A special thanks to Eric Forman for the Taurus ad scans.