COAL: 2001 Ford Taurus SES – Another World

Nothing in life is perfect.  Keeping that snippet of wisdom in mind really helps put things in perspective for my ownership of our 2001 Ford Taurus.

Enough of such introductory statements.  Let’s jump into why I say this…

From the web; Marie’s was a twin

When Eileen was born in early 2002, Marie had her 1996 Ford Escort two-door and I had my 1996 Ford Thunderbird.  Neither played well with having to put a carseat in the back; while we denied the need for a different car for a while, suddenly one day denial was longer an option.  Marie, still experiencing pregnancy related physical issues, had really struggled to get Eileen’s carseat in the Escort after a pediatrician’s appointment.

So it was time to do something different.

My approach was to shop based upon acquisition cost plus personal experience.  There were a slew of Taurii at work as fleet vehicles and my thoughts were depreciated price combined with known behavior in harsh use conditions should result in something practical and financially prudent.  Nothing is perfect.

If you want to keep car salespeople on their toes, take a screaming baby with you.  They will go out of their way to accommodate you.  We ultimately bought the Taurus at a modest sized Ford dealer in Smithville, Missouri, just north of Kansas City.  Eileen having a screaming fit for Marie manufactured food really stimulated their hospitality.

The sales manager at that time was the personification of nearly every negative car dealer stereotype except he wore jeans and cowboy boots instead of nylon pants and white vinyl shoes.  I had test driven two identical Taurii – right down to color – with the one I chose having a few thousand fewer miles.  The seats were pristine.

However a few days later upon taking delivery I noticed mild burn holes on the front passenger seat which had not been there previously.  I politely pointed this out to our salesperson.  My mistake; I suppose I should have made a bigger deal of it, but screaming infant and mealtime were upon us, as was their closing for the day.

The sales manager called the next day.  He said they could fix the seat for something like $150.  I nicely pointed out this had happened during their ownership and after we had made a deal.  I requested a fix or exchanging the seat as I didn’t have a preference.  He rudely stated he didn’t change seats out.  In turn, me being me, I told him that’s his prerogative, but I could stop payment on a check and dump a car off on his lot if that’s what he wished.

They fixed the seat, no charge.

So what about the Taurus itself?  It was a year old program car (such a nice euphemism for “former rental car”) with 21,000 miles and the 3.0 Vulcan V6.  It had been titled in Colorado when new.  Absolutely nothing exciting, yet roomy enough and fairly comfortable.  The price was around $12k or $13k; I really don’t remember anymore other than arguing over $25 with said sales manager.

Maybe that was why he didn’t want to fix the seat.  Who knows.

However, it was one of Ford’s “Certified Used Cars” or some such, meaning it was in good enough condition for Ford to extend the warranty beyond what they would have done on a new car.  Really, it always seemed Ford was cutting their own throat with this, as a year old Taurus at 60% of original sticker price and a longer overall warranty was a much better deal than a new one.  Similar seemed to be the case with the entire Ford lineup.

This chestnut colored Taurus entered into our lives during our time in St. Joseph, Missouri.  Marie and I really liked that color and had looked far and wide for one.

Let’s take a detour and talk about St. Joseph.  I’ve mentioned it many times over the years, so it only seems fitting to do the town a bit more justice.

Soon after being founded by Joseph Robidoux in 1843, St. Joe soon found itself as the last bastion of civilization for those headed west on the Oregon Trail in the 1850s.  A few years later, the notoriety of St. Joseph grew due to being the home of the Pony Express and for being where infamous outlaw Jesse James was murdered.  Its population peaked at 103,000 in 1900; it currently has a population of 72,000 (down from when we moved there in 2001) and is the eighth most populated city in Missouri.

Marie and I truly enjoyed the town itself, with many there being truly fantastic individuals.  Sadly a select few of the inhabitants tainted our otherwise rosy thoughts.

One of the more unique behaviors we saw was (among some in our orbit) a prevailing opinion St. Joe’s status and influence was comparable to that of Kansas City or St. Louis.  KC Proper has a population of 508,000 with the metro area having 2.2 million.  The St. Joseph Metropolitan Statistical Area, as defined by the US Census Bureau, has a population of 127,000.  This isn’t exactly comparable and it also reflects how quickly, and how dramatically, the area immediately outside of St. Joseph becomes rural as the MSA covers 1,600 square miles.

However, to be fair, St. Joseph does have the third largest manufacturing economy in the state, behind St. Louis and Kansas City.  Further, Herzog Transit Services is based there; one of Herzog’s subsidiaries is TransitAmerica which claims to be the largest privately owned commuter rail operation and maintenance service in the nation and also claims to move 35 million people annually.  Locally, Herzog is also a highway construction company.  In addition to the Herzog owned companies is the News-Press & Gazette Company, which owns the local ABC affiliate; this same group also owns various network affiliates in Southern California and multiple other states.

Another oddity was the “which high school did you attend?” topic.  With so many having lived nowhere other than St. Joe, it seemed as if there was no realization one might be from another world.  Twice while living there someone in conversation asked me which of the two high schools I attended.  When I disclosed I hadn’t attended either due to being a transplant, the response was “Oh” and both times the person turned and walked away. One was a woman in her seventies, the other a guy in his early thirties.

If you watch this clip (start at 0:25) it does rather sum up my response to those two events.

However, to be fair, many of the people we met in St. Joseph are among some of the best we’ve ever known.

The more a person can become acquainted with their town, the better.  So one night in 2004 or 2005, I immersed myself into a side of the city I had not experienced as I rode with a St. Joseph police officer on the evening shift.

Marie had signed me up for the “Citizens Police Academy” as she said I needed to get out of the house and meet some people.  Other participants over this multi-week session included several local television and newspaper reporters along with a few businessmen and housewives.  We got to see pictures of a recent murder scene, do mock traffic stops, and learn of procedure.  Topping off the session was a ride along with an officer.

At that time, the City of St. Joseph was hot-seating their patrol cars.  While I was waiting outside (this was in June) with the officer coming onto his shift, an Impala rolled up.  That officer got out, we jumped in, and off we went.

The officer soon received a call to a location near the Patee House Museum.  It seems some kids were hiding behind cars parked at the curb and shoving a weighted down baby stroller into oncoming traffic to watch the reaction.  As the officer was wrapping up his coaching and counseling session, he received a call about a disturbance north of downtown.

Off we went, lights and sirens at full blast.

While I’m not sure what the situation was, other than a lot of people in the street yelling and cussing at each other, we soon left and went down the street to a ramshackle looking building.  The officer went inside and brought out a rather rotund man in handcuffs.  As soon as he got in the car, the arrested man farted quite loudly.

Back at the station, I got to see where everyone was booked in the middle of a large room that had holding cells around the perimeter.  It was not too far removed from what one could see in the movies.  One woman, who was quite animated, kept screaming about how she was going to die if she didn’t get…something I couldn’t determine.  There was a nurse attending to matters and I highly suspect these two had met before.  What the nurse told that woman is stuck in my memory: “Honey, let me know when you are going to die and I’ll give you an aspirin so it won’t hurt.”

What a digression.  St. Joe is a great town, but like most others, it isn’t perfect.  This experience, along with some of the others I have relayed about our time in St. Joseph really did introduce me to another world.

Out of the box, we made a fair number of trips in the Taurus.  A month after purchasing it in September 2002, we made the 1,000 mile round trip to Cape Girardeau and the Illinois side of the Mississippi River so extended family could meet Eileen.

We visited Kansas City often for a variety of reasons, such as a few trips to Children’s Mercy Hospital.

The day before Thanksgiving in 2004 Eileen, at age 2, had her tonsils removed.  They had been causing obstructive sleep apnea.  It was the Taurus that hauled us there for all the appointments and the surgery – with a snow storm happening on the way to the hospital.

Holding Eileen while she was given a sedative and then carrying her to the operating room was gut-wrenching.  I felt like the most horrible person to ever draw breath, like leading an innocent lamb off to slaughter.  That poor sedated child had no clue what was happening and didn’t have enough spark remaining to say anything.  All Marie and I could see where her scared eyes.

Since Eileen wasn’t a voluntary napper, at one point Marie began taking Eileen on daily trips to the small town of Savannah, about ten miles north of St. Joseph.  Invariably, the sitting still would eventually put Eileen to sleep.  I’ve joked half the miles we put on that Taurus were due to these trips.

That Taurus worked out well for such purposes.

Ford did us a huge favor with the keyless entry for the Taurus.  Hitting the key fob would cause a loud “clunk” when locking the doors and a hollow sounding “clank” when unlocking the doors.  As most children likely do at some point, Eileen had a phase of extreme resistance about getting into her car seat.  After a time or two of this happening, Marie got inspired.  She would hold the key fob behind her back and quickly lock and unlock the doors, saying “Uh-oh, Eileen, I think the car is getting mad.  Do you want the car to get mad?”.  It worked like a charm as Eileen would scramble into her seat.

Near the Laura Ingalls Wilder home in Mansfield, MO. I think Marie was doing a 19th Century theme; I wasn’t. It was muddy and that Corolla had been clean when we parked.

However, Ford did us no favors with that particular Taurus.  While it was always reliable, it had several un-endearing traits.  How about spark knock / pre-detonation on anything other than 91 octane fuel?  Or how about taking fits of having minimal power while alternating with times of running like there was no tomorrow?  Or, my favorite, how about routinely returning less than 20 mpg on the highway, with one tank of mixed driving netting us 12 mpg?  Our all time high was 24 mpg (which happened exactly once) on a car the EPA rated at 25 mpg highway.

Naturally, asking any local Ford dealer about such phenomena resulted in having my intelligence questioned.

So my automotive eye kept wondering but my wallet overruled it.  I had no car payment, enjoyed having no car payment, and since Eileen was born we have lived off my income alone.  So the Taurus stuck around.  But things got weirder.

One night we were nearly home after a trip to Kansas City.  Stopped at a red light, I noticed the oil light flashing meekly when idling in gear.  The local Ford dealer drove it cold around the lot and said, in so many words, I was stupid.  I told them they should challenge themselves and listen to what customers said.  Taking it back to the dealer in Smithville, my apparent stupidity was corroborated.  So I tried a large Ford dealer in Kansas City.

The first round of taking it to this dealer resulted in nothing, although they were more believing in what I said.  Not satisfied, I got up early one morning and drove back to Kansas City, allowing the engine to be at prime operating temperature.  I made sure the oil light was flashing as it had been, then drove to the dealer.  I drove into the drop-off bay, put it in park, and left it running.  The service manager I had been working with was standing there.

I told him to take a look.  Things then went quite smoothly; I got a new Ford Focus as a loaner.  They had that Taurus for two weeks.

What was wrong?  At 57,000 miles the crankshaft bearings had excessive clearance and it was causing the oil issue.  It seems Ford had had a batch of bad crankshaft bearings on the 3.0 Vulcan engine, of which this Taurus was among those so equipped.

That extended used car warranty kicked in, as all this work only cost me $100 for the deductible.

At the in-law’s house, giving Marie and Eileen a ride. The Taurus is in the background.

Sometime after that, in late 2006, we moved across the state to Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood home of novelist Mark Twain.  We were wanting to get closer to at least one side of the family, so when the opportunity arose to be roughly an hour away from Marie’s parents, we seized it.

Remember a few installments ago how I mentioned being afflicted with gastric reflux?  Well, by late 2006, it was really bad.  My voice was hoarse more often than not and, when it wasn’t hoarse, it was gravelly sounding.

Soon after moving into our house in Hannibal, we received a snowfall of eight to ten inches depth.  Upon clearing the driveway, I could not talk when I came back in the house.  It seems removing snow caused me to bend just enough often enough that my stomach contents had overwhelmed my voice box.

While my gastroenterologist and I agreed about wanting to avoid surgery, it seems I had gone as far down that path as possible.  The surgery is called Nissen Fundoplication – and there is nothing fun about it.  Granted, I could have skipped it, but quality of life was greatly hindered and it simply further predisposed me for esophageal cancer.  So I went under the knife.

The surgery caused me to lose fifty pounds in thirty days.  I was pale and looked emaciated for a long time; the surgery knocked me on my butt for about a year.

An interesting aside about this.  Due to my rapid weight loss and inability to eat nothing other than small portions of baby food for weeks, I was rather weak.  One day while I was off Marie, Eileen, and I took the Taurus to meet my parents at the planetarium in St. Louis.  Due to this starvation induced weakness I was in a wheel chair.  While I was sitting there my father scolded me about how I needed to call my sister more often.  Really? Who just had the surgery in which there was a possibility of dying on the table?  Who needed to be calling whom?  It seems I may have made mention of that, to no avail.

Some things in life just aren’t meant to be understood.

We sold the Taurus in early 2009, right before Cash-For-Clunkers.  Had we known, and had we waited, we could have gotten a lot more for it.  In our ownership we never could determine the cause for the pre-detonation issue nor could we determine the cause for its atrocious fuel mileage.  However, that car was as reliable as the sun, as it always started and got us there.  After a point I rationalized it all, saying an old work horse just needs an inordinate amount of food with the tradeoff being no bad surprises.

Other than the one time with the crankshaft bearings, that Taurus never did give us any bad surprises.

However, one day Marie had had enough.  When I got home, she simply said it was time for the Taurus to go.  So it went.  It had around 95,000 miles at the time and we sold it to a girl who had just totaled out her Chevrolet Cavalier in the Hannibal High School parking lot.

I saw the Taurus a time or two around Hannibal after that.  My inkling was that car didn’t have a long life ahead of it, but we had had our use from it.  Its various issues did sour me on Ford to a palpable degree as there was no reason for such a common car to have so many various vices.

Postscript:  As luck would have it, about six weeks ago Marie was in Hannibal and ran into the mother of the girl who bought the Taurus.  It seems she got six years of hard use out of it before she graduated college and bought a new car.  As the mother said “that poor car was pretty much finished”.  I have no idea how many miles it had on it by that point.

(Author’s Note:  Another World aired on NBC from May 4, 1964, to June 25, 1999.)