Automotive History: The Ford Taurus Almost Had Rear Wheel Drive

(More from David Halberstam’s “The Reckoning”)  Having excoriated Ford’s finance guys for skimping out on E-Coat, today we turn the tables and find a very unlikely hero in the battle over whether the new Taurus should be FWD or RWD. And another one who advocated for Ford’s turn towards a radical new styling direction.

Pictured with the 1984 Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz are the four members of the Office of the Chief Executive (from left) Board Chairman Philip Caldwell, Executive Vice President Will M. Caldwell (no relation), President Donald E. Petersen and Vice Chairman William C. Ford.

Let’s take a look at the second example first. On the left in this picture is Phillip Caldwell, the first non-Ford to run the company. He was the ultimate “system” guy, meaning someone who always played by the rules and generally avoided taking any risky or extreme positions. He was the Chairman of Ford of Europe, which was Henry Ford II’s favorite duchy, as it was much less complicated and mostly devoid of the intense politics of the mothership. In Europe, Henry was a star, and it fed his growing need for a certain kind of attention as well as his new jet-setting habits with his second wife, Christina.

Iacocca and his sidekick Bill Bourke, a product genius who eventually was squeezed out because he would fight for his product ideas too vociferously even to Henry, both disliked Caldwell, and deemed him too vanilla and dispassionate. But after Henry fired Iacocca in 1978 (another story in itself), he did not want another swashbuckler. Thus Caldwell became President in 1978, and CEO in 1979, and then Chairman in 1980.

Caldwell was a control freak, and every activity, meeting, and even his daily departure from the office was highly orchestrated. Here’s how the last one went:

“The moment he was ready to leave at night, his secretary would pack his attache case and call down to his driver, who would be waiting in the garage of Ford headquarters. Then she would deposit the case in the executive elevator, in which it would travel down to the garage by itself. The chauffeur would enter the elevator, pick up the case, and put it in the car. A little later, Phillip Caldwell would descend, empty-handed. He would then remove his suit jacket and pass it to the driver, who would spread it carefully on the seat so it would not get wrinkled. There was considerable speculation on the part of his senior colleagues about why the attache case went down first, and they eventually came up with this conclusion: Caldwell thought that if people saw him going down the corridor with his attache case, they would know he was going home and would no longer work as hard in his absence.

Caldwell was also a non-smoker, a teetotaler and even drank no coffee or tea. That rubbed Henry the wrong way, but he soon got over it, as he was burned out from 35 years of having the heavy burden of the company on his shoulders. And Caldwell was not going to rock his boat.

But he made life difficult for all his subordinates, as he would essentially wear out the product and manufacturing guys by endless questions and new demands for answers, and in the process keep new projects stalled seemingly forever, until they just died from entropy. The product guys loathed him as a consequence.

But in 1980, as Ford was going through its worst crisis yet by far, due to having too many out-of-date big cars that were dying on the vine, Caldwell shocked everyone by a total turnaround: he suddenly pushed the designers for a completely new look, and pushed them hard.

When word got to Jack Telnack, designer of the ’78 Mustang, that Caldwell wanted a new and bold direction he and the others in the design studios were suspicious. But it was genuine, and it led to the aero look, a design revolution for Ford.

Early on in the program Caldwell asked: “Are you reaching far enough. Are you really different”?

It wasn’t just Caldwell either; new President Don Petersen went to see Telnack’s early models of the new 1983 Thunderbird, and asked him point-blank: “Is that really the best you can do? Would you really want to drive that yourself?” “No,” Telnack answered. “Then show me what you can do.”

The development of a new mid-size sedan that would eventually become the Taurus and Sable became the centerpiece of the new thrust. The 1983 Thunderbird and 1984 Tempo were the precursors, and involved considerably less development time, since the T-bird was really just a new exterior body on the previous T-bird’s hard points, and the Tempo was essentially a stretched Escort. But the heart of the market was in the mid/full-size sedan, and here’s where Ford needed to not hedge their bets as they had with the T-bird and Tempo.

Thanks to the unwavering encouragement of both Caldwell and Petersen, the question of the new sedan’s styling direction was established early on, and started with preliminary concepts like this Probe II, and soon became ever-more radical. But the question as to its underpinnings was not yet finalized. The company was essentially divided between the factions that advocated FWD and RWD.

Lou Veraldi, the chief engineer on the program, who had played a key role on the Fiesta, Ford’s first FWD car, was obviously totally in the FWD camp. But two key executives, both of whom hoped to succeed Caldwell as chairman in a few years, were on opposite sides of the table, and most surprisingly, each on the side one might least expect.

Phillip Caldwell, Don Petersen, Red Poling, the three fathers of the Taurus

Don Petersen was the president of Ford, and was a serious car guy and product man. He was spent a lot of time at Bob Bondurant’s high-speed driving school, which resulted in Mustangs being the school car there. And Petersen advocated for RWD in the new sedan, which seems inconsistent with his progressive and product-oriented rep.

Meanwhile, Red Poling, head of NA Operations and whose background was in finance, championed the more innovative and expensive FWD. He had the difficult task of reducing Ford’s fixed costs during this time of crisis, and was of the school of Ed Lundy. But he was also gunning for the top job, and knew he needed to prove that unlike Ed Lundy, he could handle operations. The Taurus was a vehicle for him to put his name on an exciting new product. And he rightfully pointed out that GM’s huge commitment to promote FWD was leading the public to increasingly expect that feature in new cars.

How to explain Petersen’s anti-FWD stance? Essentially the opposite reason for Poling’s position: he was known as the consummate product guy and had gobs of legitimacy in that role, but here he was trying to show that he could also be a cost-cutter: skipping FWD would save almost a billion and a half in costs. Ford was in the depths of its worst crisis, and he wanted to show he could be frugal too. One is tempted to say that it might also have been because he knew that RWD lent itself better to high performance versions, like the Mustang GT and LTD LX that he had championed. But he probably kept personal preferences like that to himself.

Ford Europe did quite well with its new RWD aero cars, the Sierra (1982) and the Scorpio (1985) here with Bob Lutz. Presumably Petersen has something similar in mind, and not just another new body on the aging Fox platform. It’s something to speculate about, and there’s no doubt that a RWD Taurus SHO would have been a more balanced and effective high performance sedan.  The Taurus on the left is seen here with Louis R. Ross, who succeeded Poling as NA Operations head.

The sales and marketing people increasingly sided with FWD too, for understandable reasons. By the time Poling made his presentation to the board in 1982, its future looked increasingly secure, as a FWD sedan. As to Petersen, his objections disappeared quickly, and he became an enthusiastic supporter of the FWD Taurus.

In the spring of 1985, not long before the launch of the Taurus, Caldwell hit retirement age, although he hoped to stay on. Henry Ford would have none of that, and named Petersen as Chairman. That was hugely welcomed by the product people, as Caldwell was never liked, despite his support on the Taurus. Petersen was an exceptionally bright and interesting personality, and remarkably, he was the first to rise to the top having essentially avoided ever being in any of the political camps at Ford. He just refused to play that game, thanks to his exceptional self control. He was in every way the antithesis of Lee Iacocca. I profiled his tenure at Ford here some years ago. Petersen was my kind of CEO; if only there had been more.


Related:  1986 Taurus: Good Role Models and Clear Objectives Create a Breakthrough Car   Ed S.