Curbside Classic: 1986 Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable – At This Moment, You Mean Everything

The first-generation Taurus went on sale exactly three hundred and sixty-four days before I was born, so it’s not as though I can draw on my memory . But since I did spend my entire post-secondary education writing research papers on such subjects as the transformation of Germans into Nazis, and how working-class women spent their leisure time in early-20th century New York City, why not tackle the story of the Taurus, one of the most important cars of the whole postwar era?

The fantastic thing about primary and secondary historical documents is that they can transport you right back into the shoes of the figures and ideas of a particular era. The great works of such design will make you aware of the context surrounding a particular event–so much so, you feel as if you actually lived through them. This is what makes Eric Taub’s Taurus: The Making Of The Car That Saved Ford such an essential read with regard to our purposes. And make no mistake: Although I will use other sources, and offer an independent analysis of the Taurus instead of simply reviewing that piece of work, I consider his book the Bible on this particular subject. 

So where do we begin? Let’s first assess Ford’s situation at the end of the ’70s. The company was making bloated and highly inferior products, losing market share to increasingly savvy Japanese automakers and profusely bleeding cash. If something didn’t change soon at Dearborn, the lights were going to go out permanently.

Enter Team Taurus. Actually, Taurus wasn’t yet the actual project name, but the same seeds were being planted right from the get-go. Lew Veraldi, a Ford engineering expert largely responsible for the success of the European Fiesta, was given charge of the Sigma program, the progenitor of Team Taurus. With the support of newly installed CEO Phil Caldwell, Veraldi was given virtually free rein to create a product that would reverse the company’s journey toward Valhalla.

In truth, Ford’s march into the dark was so real that the $3.2 billion devoted to developing the Taurus sedan was literally the last money available to spend. Clearly, this was a long-term project: Sigma was started in 1979; the first serious engineering efforts, albeit preliminary, finally began in 1980.

Early sketch of the Taurus

It really is striking to see how much freedom Team Taurus was given as they created their vehicle, notably in the wake of the cancelled Mini/max project that would have led to Ford’s development of the first American minivan. Only a few things were set in stone, primarily that the car’s size must fall squarely within the midsize class, and that it would be driven by the front wheels.

Aside from that, the path to creating what became the Taurus essentially allowed every member of the team to throw away the book on conventional car design. But they didn’t just throw out the old book and create a new one; Team Taurus leaped from paperback to Amazon Kindle.

With the Taurus, virtually every aspect of creating a car from scratch was collaborative. The previous structure of separate departments was abandoned in favor of a Taurus-dedicated group–and ‘dedicated’ quickly became the operative word, despite some initial apprehension.

With Ford bigwigs Don Peterson and Phil Caldwell supporting their project, Team Taurus went on a fact- finding mission. They wanted to see firsthand what it would take to make a high-quality car capable of running with the best vehicles from Europe and Japan. You might recently have heard the term “World Class” thrown around to describe the 2012 Ford Focus and 2013 Ford Fusion/Mondeo, but these guys had adopted the same concept long before, during the first Reagan administration.

1985 Ford LTD

Exterior styling was among the first ways in which they wanted to distinguish their vehicle. Thus did designer Jack Telnack go to work, eventually creating concepts that made the Ford LTD look like something from the Paleozoic Era. Interestingly, the Ford design studio in Turin, Italy, also was working on some initial sketches.

But the virtues of this potential automotive equivalent to Christina Hendricks had to be more than skin deep. Before long, Veraldi had assembled a whole host of comparison vehicles for evaluation, among them  the Opel Senator, Audi 100, Toyota Cressida and BMW 528e.

The team also wanted to know what was going on in the minds of potential buyers, not in terms of listening to the unwashed masses, but taking and considering their comments within the proper context. Understanding how the customer intended to use the car was a priority–so much so that opinions regarding handling and looks were generally taken with a grain of salt.

This process led Team Taurus to explore ways to make the entire car work toward providing maximum usefulness to its owner. A dashboard cockpit that’s tilted toward the driver, but still keeps controls within the front-passenger’s reach? Check. Window switches and buttons designed to let you know what they worked, sight unseen? Yup. Makes today’s MyFordTouch nomenclature sound that much more ironic.

The same philosophy of innovation also guided engine development; in no way was that more evident than in the creation of the new “Vulcan” 3.0-liter V6. And yes, I know that the engine was probably a shout out to the Roman god of iron, since it featured an iron block and head, but the Spock analogy works. I’ll tell you why.

Its because the freakin’ designers were asked to make the engine look more aesthetically pleasing to Joe six-pack. The end result produced clearly labeled windshield fluid reservoirs, color-coded dipsticks and an attractive intake manifold. Everything Spock stood for was rooted in logic; i.e., Kirk was an attractive guy chasing alien females while trying to charm enemies into not blowing up the Enterprise. What I’m saying vis-a-vis the Taurus is that Spock was the engine and Kirk was the exterior. Also, Spock’s guiding mantra was “Live long and prosper” — which the engine certainly did, thanks to the sheer number of durability tests the company put it through. In fact, that engine would go on to power future Ford vehicles until 2008. And it was all due to Team Taurus realizing what needed to be done.

The last remaining hurdle in relation to the car itself  involved nailing down the futuristic design and then confirming that it would be well received. The latter involved conducting numerous focus groups and listening to what Americans had to say, but Team Taurus’s masterstroke was not taking their comments at face value (most folks were shocked and thought the design too radical), but instead using their crystal ball to (correctly) predict that eventually most people would like the styling. Their thinking was validated at the 1981 Frankfurt Auto Show, which clearly signaled a worldwide shift towards aero styling. This time, Ford’s designers were part of that movement, and not copiers of their overseas counterparts.

But Ford also needed to copy their more successful competitors in other ways. Their current assembly quality was about as reliable as Lindsay Lohan or Amanda Bynes, and workers had pretty much no control over their surroundings; whatever went wrong on the line stayed that way. Team Taurus changed that completely, empowering the UAW workers to stop the line if something looked wrong, and listening to their ideas to improve the assembly process. In addition, the Atlanta and Chicago plants that would produce the Taurus were completely modernized.

At some point, the extensive rethinking of every facet of car design and production must end so that the focus can be shifted toward the date when the car would actually be available at Ford dealerships.

Now, literally, came the name game. Originally, the Taurus name was not to have survived beyond the project stage. In fact, Ford’s ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, had made a list of names and submitted their top three for recommendation: In descending order, they were Integra, Orion and Optima. If that isn’t sufficiently mind-blowing for you, consider some of the rejected names that made the semi-finals: Aerostar; Forte; Genesis; Lucerne; Lumina; Spectra; and last, but certainly not least, Tiara. In a parallel universe, perhaps Ford introduced a highly successful mid-size sedan named for an object worn regularly on the heads of girls in the Sailor Moon animated series. Fortunately, the Taurus name polled higher than any other proposed and the team kept it.

Next in line: Finally informing the public of the imminent arrival of the future of the American automobile; in this area too, Team Taurus would rewrite the book.  While there were occasional leaks to the auto rags, there would be a single event, in January 1985, that would blow open the doors and officially introduce the 1986 Taurus and Sable–and one that would rival any star-studded event at the MGM studios. After all, the vehicles were the stars.

But the problem was that there were no vehicles to display. Both Chuck Gumushian, the head of the launch program, and Lew Veraldi wanted fully working vehicles for the event, even at the cost of a cool $6 million. That sum paid for one completed version each of Taurus and Sable sedans and wagons, as well as  display cutouts of their engines.

And thus did the show go on. It was a huge event that attracted the greatest-ever number of people to show up at an automotive press conference. There were space-age videos and futuristic motifs, all specifically designed to enthrall the audience until the Team Taurus members took the podium. The ultimate result was a huge success. The audience was thrilled by the new cars, all of which they could walk right up to and get a hands-on experience. For Team Taurus, the hits kept on coming.

And it didn’t stop there. The press tour for the cars visited the very people involved in their actual production, not only those at the assembly plants, but suppliers as well. The team members spoke directly with them all, right down to the folks manufacturing even the smallest parts. Not surprisingly, the result was greatly boosted morale across the board.

Despite the juggernaut of success that was the Taurus’s development, problems occasionally surfaced. Incorrect metal dies were used to benchmark the parts for the doors, windshields and trim parts. The actual production vehicles turned out did not have the same level of quality as those built for the MGM spectacle. Because of this, the initial sale date was pushed back to the first quarter of 1986, but later  advanced by launch guru Gumushian to December 26th, 1985. (In truth, Ford wanted the Taurus to be eligible for Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award, and to encourage customers with holiday time-off to stroll in and create some viral buzz.)

From this point on, the rest of the Taurus story is pretty much common knowledge. The car was an immediate success despite some teething problems that slipped past the quality control team. For the U.S., it was a revelation that one of the Big Three could still create something worth buying. The Taurus was the first modern mid-size, mainstream sedan, and it sounded the death knell for the full-size market.

It was also quite a shock to the competing automakers: GM had to redo its GM-10 program, which they deemed too similar-looking; Chrysler had no sedan nearly as competitive; and, for the first time in a while, the Japanese had fallen behind in vehicle design.

So what were the lasting effects of the Taurus? Among them were a highly contented 1992 Camry, the new LH program from Chrysler and ultimately, the ovoid 1996 Taurus/Sable redesign. After reviewing the story of the generation-one Taurus, I’m much more sympathetic to the DN101 team responsible for our beloved ovoids. They had literally years less time to develop their car, faced hostility from Ford’s top brass, and inherited the emotional baggage of Veraldi’s magnum opus. Then there was the advanced intel they were getting about their competitors; the team pretty much flew into a collective rage upon realizing how much the LH program was copying from the Ford formula, which is something I forgot to mention in my previous CC.

So I’ll leave the CC commentariat with a question I think is worth discussing. If the Taurus was designed to be a World-Class car, why wasn’t it? Veraldi came from Europe after successfully heading up the Fiesta program. Italian design studios were involved with early sketches of the Taurus exterior, and the end product was a car that clearly could have made it to Europe and other markets. There was a sedan and a wagon,  and even three engine choices available at launch, including one that paired a four-cylinder engine with a manual transmission. That said, why did it take Ford until 2012 to make a sedan designed to be sold in both North America and Europe? I’m looking forward to your input.

 

 [curbside photos by PN]