Feature: The Rise and Fall of the Ford Taurus (And Mercury Sable) In American Popular Culture

 

(Originally published 11/17/2012; updated with new content December 2015) What is the measure of success for any given car? Sales figures? Word-of-mouth praise? The status accorded to it by the authors, contributors and commentariat at CC? Or some other factor beyond even those? The latter certainly is true in the case of the Ford Taurus, which was cast in some very prominent roles in American films; after all, the choice of a car for a particular scene undeniably reflects the historical zeitgeist of the day.

That said, where to start? Because chronological order fits my narrative, I’ll use it (albeit loosely, so feel free to offer your own insights or rebuttals as comments). I must also issue a spoiler alert to those of you who haven’t seen any or all of the movies cited, some of which are admittedly pretty old. Anyway, enough with the rambling. Let’s get started, shall we?

Robocop (1987): This classic, set in the fictional dystopian future of Detroit, prominently featured a Taurus. As the human within the cyborg struggled with his new identity, at least he could rely on his go-to vehicle, a Taurus, in his war against the destitute city’s gangs and corporate criminals. At the time, the design of the Taurus was radical enough to be believable as as a futuristic police cruiser. I think Ford offered a police package for production Tauruses, but whether it was Robocop-inspired or not I don’t know. In any case, I guarantee that more than a few moviegoers visited their Ford dealer after seeing the Taurus in action.

The Taurus was also used in Robocop 2. From here it looks like they just spray-painted some GL models and stuck on a less-realistic light bar, possibly due to budget issues. I’ve not yet seen the film; should I?

Apparently there was a Robocop 3 movie, from which this capture is taken. I simply like the image of all these Taurii blazing down the street, and hope you do too.

Next up is 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I may be a bit biased here, since this movie is always playing when I’m wrapping my presents, usually on Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, it’s funny, and the opening scenes feature a Taurus wagon…or is it the Family Truckster II? That’s never made clear in the film, but let’s just assume it is: Visually, it evokes the same ugliness as the first Griswold wagon from the earlier National Lampoon’s Vacation even if the attempt looks pretty half-assed. Let’s examine this particular scene:

What compelled Clark Griswold to block the guys in the pickup from passing him, given that his stubbornness culminates in the Taurus taking flight? Was it some kind of vehicular class difference? After all, Taurus ownership was likely a source of pride for many families (or chauvinistic fathers) considering the car’s then-sterling reputation. Or maybe having Beverely D’Angelo as your wife triggers your Alpha- male instincts in certain situations. I can’t say I’d blame him if that were the case.

Last Action Hero (1993) is a meta take on modern action movies, and a parody of Schwarzenegger movie tropes. Arnold plays fictional cop Jack Slater, a totally fictional movie character that gets magically transported into the real world by lonely movie buff Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien). In this chase scene, Slater attempts to use a 1989 Mercury Sable to stop the villain and bring him back to the fictional world in which they both reside. It has a standard driver side airbag!

 And here is the zenith of the Sable in popular culture, aside from its later use as an effective zombie-fighting tool. Coneheads (1993) was another cherished childhood movie. In a nutshell, an extra-solar family ekes out a living as they unsuccessfully scout Earth for a future invasion, therefore literally becoming illegal aliens. Did Beldar pick the second-gen Sable to symbolize attaining the American Dream, or more because it reflected the advanced technology on his home planet of Remulak?

 After evading the Feds for so many years, the Coneheads find themselves surrounded by immigration agents. How will they escape now?

In true Hollywood (or Saturday Night Live) fashion, the alien ship arrives just in time to whisk the Conehead family back to Remulak!

And what gifts does Bendar bring to his leader after spending all those years on Earth? Well, pretty much whatever was in the car, including a tire iron and the owner’s manual you see here. Then, in reference to the car, come Beldar’s immortal words:

“Ford Lincoln Mercury Sable? A personal conveyance named after its inventor, an assassinated ruler, a character from Greco-Roman myth, and a small furry mammal.”

All these films treated the Sable and Taurus as the icons they were. So when did the fatigue set in?

The first indication is the fantastic black comedy Flirting With Disaster (1996), which combines the typical Jewish neuroticism of a Ben Stiller flick with quotable lines about the status of the Taurus vis-a-vis the contemporary cultural zeitgeist:

Nancy Coplin: “Does anybody even actually own a white Taurus, or are they all just rentals?”

Mel Coplin: “Are you kidding me? This is the most reliable mid-size in America, according to all the big reports.”

Next up: Another great film, The Truman Show (1998)which provided Americans a true caveat about the coming era of reality TV. Again, a Taurus is the vehicle of choice for upwardly-mobile Americans–but is upward mobility what Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) really wants?

Of course not, and he uses the Taurus in an unsuccessful attempted escape from the idyllic community.

A first-gen Taurus is featured in the frat comedy Road Trip (2000) and boy, does the bull get no respect. It’s nerdy-loser owner, one of the few car-owning individuals on campus, is invited to join the cool guys on a road trip to Texas, where one of them intends to intercept an illicit video that might compromise his relationship with his girlfriend. Naturally, the nerd is ridiculed just for owning a Taurus.

In the pre-GPS/smartphone era it was easy to get lost, and when our group encounters a ruined bridge in the middle of nowhere, what do they decide to do? Lets’s see:

Their broad jump succeeds, but the Taurus dies a violent death. Not terribly concerned with the massive property damage they just caused, our frat boys simply search for alternate transportation.

Meet The Parents (2000) is another Ben Stiller movie with Ben Stiller sensibilities. Might he have had an affinity for these cars?  This picture features a green, fourth-gen example as a rental, which his character uses, among other things, to search for the family’s cherished cat after it escaped.

 “Drives a bit better than your Taurus, eh Focker?”  No, the car didn’t get much respect here, either.

Okay, either Stiller just likes Tauruses or the writers were just looking for continuity. Meet The Fockers (2004) also features a Taurus rental car that still doesn’t get much respect. This one takes actual damage for the sake of a cheap joke (always get the rental insurance, folks).

Better to not get any respect than to be put down directly, right? In the dark comedy Broken Flowers (2005), a Taurus–once more a protagonist’s rental car–shuttles Don Johnston (Bill Murray) to his encounters with past loves as he seeks out the mother of their child of whom he was previously unaware.

Don Johnston: “Winston, couldn’t you have rented the kind of car I’d normally drive? I’m a stalker in a Taurus.”

Clearly, that bespeaks a new low in Taurus appreciation in American culture. Where to go from here?

The Taurus name was resurrected from the scrap heap by none other than Conan O’ Brien, who featured his 1992 SHO several times over the years. During this segment on The Tonight Show, he compared the 2010 model to his trusty old bull…but let’s be honest, that’s not a true Taurus up there, now is it?

i844260

As the eighties recess further into the past, more films and TV shows have set their sights on the decade. HBO’s Show Me A Hero (2015) based on the book of the same name, follows politician Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Issac) as he and others navigate the tense atmosphere in Yonkers, New York after a federal mandate requires the city government to construct public housing developments in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods. The show stays partially true to real life, as Wasicsko did in fact own a first generation Taurus, just not with plates bearing his namesake (they were on his second car).

On to the discussion, folks. Did I miss anything? Do you think that contemporary films accurately reflected our zeitgeist through the Taurus and Sable? Am I completely bonkers for even writing this article? Let me know in the comments below.

(Like Tom, I’d be remiss not to mention the Website imcdb.org, which was an immensely helpful resource in providing the numerous screen captures used in this post.)