Curbside Analysis: 1986 Taurus: The Most Important American Car Since The Model T

The Ford Model T’s place in history is well secured. A fairly orthodox design, it revolutionized the automobile industry–and the country–by being highly affordable, thanks to an efficient production line and the economics of scale. As such, it essentially set the template of all popular-sized American cars to come: traditional RWD architecture and conservative mechanical design embellished by flamboyant and ever-changing styling, GM’s colourful contribution to the formula. Some cracks in that formula appeared shortly before the Taurus’ appearance, but none that so completely changed the game, and in such an enduring manner. 

The Taurus created the template for what has become the new standard American sedan, as typified by the more recent best sellers such as the Camry, Accord, Altima, Fusion, Malibu and Sonata: American-size roomy, comfortable, efficient, aerodynamic, good handling, a choice of (typically) two engine sizes/power levels driving the front wheels, of course, and a growing awareness of the importance of quality in all aspects of the car. Its dynamics, integration and balance were unlike anything that had been sold before in the US; a highly complete package of which its design was only one significant factor.

GM had a head start in redefining the new American car, starting with the 1980 X-Bodies and their evolutionary successors, the 1982 A-Bodies.  The full-sized fwd H-Bodies arrived in 1986, the same year as the Taurus.

All  of them had certain merits, but GM’s massive move to FWD and more compact cars was also massively flawed from a number of perspectives, most of all their design: they were still trying too hard to look like the traditional American car, inside and out. And they generally failed in attaining the complete and organic and balanced ride, steering and handling envelope that the Taurus managed to achieve. GM was reinventing GM cars, not the car.

As today’s Taurus CC makes clear, the general direction of the Taurus’ development was not just a quick imitation of the 1982 Audi 100/5000, or any other specific European car. Ford had committed itself to a new aerodynamic course before the Audi appeared, but undoubtedly the Audi’s appearance must have been heartening. But given the time frame (three years ahead of the Taurus), the specific design of the Audi undoubtedly contributed to the final Taurus design to some degree or another. The evidence is too obvious.

We can debate the details of the Taurus’ design, but what can’t be disputed is that the Taurus was the first American mainstream car to fully embrace well-established European design and other principles, in a decisive manner. These originated with Citroen’s definitive DS of 1955, the mother of all modern sedans, even if its hydro-pneumatic suspension and a few other details didn’t quite make it into the mainstream.

Over time, its fundamental principles came to be increasingly adopted across Europe, and by the time the Audi 100 appeared, it was hardly revolutionary; in fact its basic design is nothing more than an evolution of the 1967 NSU Ro80 (except for the pesky rotary, of course). And the Taurus also owes a substantial tip of the hat to the Ro80, as do so many other cars. Considering that some twenty years separate these two makes the Taurus look considerably less revolutionary.

Well, it wasn’t really, except for in the US, which was still struggling to emerge from its long design hibernation otherwise known as the Great Brougham Epoch. Ford had embraced it more fully than anyone, and it almost took the company down. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, so why not spin the rudder a full 180 degrees?

The Taurus truly was the game-changer in the post-war US market, because it was the first complete and wholly modern car, no longer paying any debts to the past, or stubbing its toes trying to move into the future, as GM did repeatedly. It was hardly perfect, although it served well enough. But most of all, it convincingly proved that the old traditional American sedan model was truly dead, as much as we may miss it (or not).

The fact that the Taurus lost its way later will go down as one of the major mistakes of the modern era. But its legacy lives on, including in its effective successor, the Fusion. And although cars like the Chrysler 300 have shown that aspects of the traditional American sedan still has appeal, it’s likely that the Taurus formula will be with us for quite some time.  Only fifty more years, and it will surpass the Model T’s.