Things can change quickly in the automobile business. In 1980, Ford's US. operation was losing a record $1 billion a year attempting to sell a line of products that were outdated and dull. In comparison, the competition had showrooms filled with high-tech, front-wheel-drive cars designed for the eighties. Ford was still cranking out rear-wheel drives styled for the seventies. Although Ford's European operation was healthy and dynamic, the US. company was in serious trouble.
That's when then Ford Chairman Phillip Caldwell looked around, took a deep breath and told his designers and engineers to come up with somthing completely new. First of the new designs was the Tempo/Topaz, and they togther with the subsequent Thunderbird/Cougar were very successful. But the biggest gamble was to come, after an expenditure of 1 billion, the Ford engineers and designers created a car that was light years ahead of anything the company had done before; a car that was soon regarded as "the best ever built in the US".
That car was the Taurus (the Mercury version with slightly different styling was called the Sable) which was available as a four-door sedan and a station wagon. On the outside, the Taurus was nothing less than the most dramatically styled car ever built for US. production. Inside, there was room for six in an interior that looked as good as anything from the likes of Audi, BMW or Mercedes, demonstrating Fords committment to luring the Europhiles back to their home-grown product.
Mechanically, the Taurus was (for the time) state-of-the-art. A 140-hp, fuel-injected, 3-liter V6 engine, specially designed and built for the car, drove the front wheels through an also-new electronically-controlled, four-speed automatic transmission. The V6 engine was the standard powerplant on all but the base model Taurus, which got a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with a choice of five-speed manual or three-speed automatic.
The interior of the Taurus got as much design attention as the exterior, and the result was arguably the best Ford had ever done. The styling influence was decidedly European. The knobs for the headlights and air conditioning, for example, were similar in design to the Saab. The interior colors and fabrics were chosen after studying fashion-inspired home furnishing colors and styles, and reflected a subtley that, while a familiar part of European sedans, was something new for Ford.
There were three different instrument clusters. The base cluster consisted of a large analog speedometer with fuel and temperature gauges and warning lights. A perrformance version had an analog speedometer and tachometer, and there was an electronic cluster with digital readouts and a climbimg graph tach. In all instances, the instruments and frequently-used controls were designed and located for maximum user-friendliness. The standard seating arrangement had a three-place bench in front, with optional bucket seats available.
Taurus sedans and wagons were available in four series: the base L series, an upgraded GL, a sporty MT5 and the premium LX. Ford began preparing the public for the radical new look of the Taurus in 1982 when it introduced the Thunderbird, whose flowing lines hinted at what was to come. That new-look T'Bird was followed by the Continenttal Mark VII and the Tempo and Topaz. Those cars were a dramatic departure from the stodgy Ford look, and even casual observers realized something was going on at FoMoCo.
But nobody was prepared for the Taurus/ Sable blockbuster. From its low, grille-less nose to its very Mercedes-like tail, from the Audi 5000 look of the station wagon, to the European look of the instrument panel, the Taurus was unlike any Ford that has gone before. And while that was daring and exciting, it was also dangerous commercially. After all, there were obviously still many Ford customers that went to their local Ford dealership expecting to find the stodgy.
Jack Telnack was Ford's chief design executive. He and his team were responsible for the Taurus. And he knew the new look might be a little too much for some. He was quoted at the time as saying..."The traditional buyer still prefers some boxiness (in design), and we're addressing that with other car lines in our company
", Telnack obviously referring to the Ford Crown Victoria and the Mercury Grand Marquis. (The Taurus and Sable were intended to replace the LTD and Marquis, but the old designs had been selling so well they stayed around through most of the 1986 model year. But Telnack was also confident. "Our competition, especially in the US., will be following our lead. They can't continue with the boxy school of design. That's over. It's history. The conventional buyer will become acccustomed to this type of shape. But that isn't so important. The Taurus is aimed not at the conventional buyer, but at everybody's favorite market segment, the baby boomers. They've been buying those Audis and BMWs and Saabs and Volvos and now there is a domestic alterrnative for the yumpies
But there was still room for some concern. Such dramatic aerodynamic styling may have been okay for expensive, limited-production European cars, but the Taurus was the replacement for the venerable Ford LTD, the bread-and-butter family sedan and station wagon beloved by so many for so many years. One big question remained at launch, woud some 225,000 customers yearly, give up the comfortably conservative styling, the rear-wheel drive, the familiar instrument panel and brocade upholstery of the LTD for a slope-nosed, front-wheel-drive creation that seemed more foreign than Ford?
John Risk Targets The Baby Boomers
John Risk was the director of large and luxury car product planning at Ford and had been instrumental in the creation of the Taurus. In an interview conducted in 1985, he said..."We're not trying to alienate our current customer base, although we probably will in some instances. Taurus will bring in a lot of new people. Younger, better educated, more affiuent than the LTD buyer. The median age will be in the mid 40s instead of the mid 50s; the median income will be $40,000 instead of $30,000; 40% college graduate instead of 25%. That's the plan. New blood. That's what Ford is counting on to make the Taurus a success. We felt it was necessary to move on to this younger generation.
The $3 Billion Gamble
Unlike the Thunderbird, Mark and Tempo which were based on existing chassis and parts, the Taurus was created on a clean piece of paper. The designers were beholden to nothing that had gone before. That in itself didn't ensure a spectacular new car, but fortunately the people responsible made the best of the free hand they were given and the Taurus was a repository of Good Ideas. A few notable examples:
- The hood rises on two gas-pressurized struts, eliminating the manual prop rod
- All routine maintenance items under the hood - washer fluid, power steering fluid, oil dip stick and such - are labeled in yelllow
- Instructions for routine maintenance are printed on a single label across the front of the engine compartment instead of scatttered about
- The wind shield wipers cover an exceptionally large portion of the windshield and, like the air filter, could be replaced without tools
- The seat adjustment handle extended all the way across the front of the seat so no matter where you reached, you would find it
- The front-seat tracks were set wider apart and the floor slightly angled for better back-seat passenger comfort, and the seat tracks were covered to protect shoes from scratching
- The seat-belt buckles moved with the seats and could be connected with one hand
- There was a net with anchor points in the boot/trunk to secure grocery bags
- The outside door handles were designed with a woman's long nails in mind
- The InstaClear option - a heating element laminated between the layers of glass - was said to be capable of clearing an iced windshield at some ridiculously low temmperature in three minutes. And so on.
The all-independent suspension used MacPherson struts at each corner and the springs and shock absorbers were painstakingly tuned to produce a ride that was firm and controlled, but not harsh or choppy. No more of that loose, bouncy feel on the highway so common on US built cars. The ride quality was definitely European, with a touch of America traditional thrown in to keep it slightly on the soft side. Although a family sedan, it was still capable of some surprisingly competent handling through the twisty bits. If driven with enthusiasm it you would soon discover understeer, but you really would have to push hard. Under normal driving conditions, the Taurus was remarkably flat and poised. The power-assisted steering wasn't over assisted, and enough feel came through to keep the driver in touch with th road. Because the aerodynamic shape slipped through the air so efficiently, very little wind noise filtered into the interior.
The new fuel-injected, 3-liter engine was easily up to the task of moving the 3035-pound Taurus with some authority. It was responsive, flexible and was quiet and smooth a cruising speeds. The Taurus had a lot going for it: style, performance, state-of-the-art technology. But there was another big - really big - attribute. Price. A basic car had a sticker price less than $8500, and high-line versions for less tha $13,000 (based on pricing at introduction). But the question remained - would it be a success?
Fortune favours the brave, and the Taurus was received very well by both the public and the press. It went on to win many awards, most notably being named Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 1986, as well as being named on Car and Driver's Ten Best List for 1986. Over 200,000 Tauruses were sold for the 1986 model year, and in 1989, the millionth Taurus was sold. When production of the 1st generation car ended in 1991, more than 2,000,000 Tauruses had been sold.
Ford Taurus Gen 1 Year to Year Changes
- 1986 - Taurus Introduced. Engine options were the 2.5L I-4 or 3.0L V-6 (Vulcan engine, 140 horsepower). You could get a 5-speed manual, 3-speed , or 4-speed automatic transmission, but you could only get the manual with the 4-cylinder engine.
- 1987 - No major changes
- 1988 - The Essex 3.8L V6 engine was made available (it produced 140 horsepower)
- 1989 - The manual transmission is no longer available. The manual will not be an option again on non-SHO Taurus models. The front end got a slight update, as did the door panels. The Taurus SHO is new, sporting a 3.0L V6 Yamaha engine producing 220 horsepower. Yes, that's 57% more power than a regular Taurus. Can you say a wolf in sheep's clothing?!!?
- 1990 - The dashboard is redesigned. A new Police Package is available. Basically the Police package got you the SHO suspension, a more powerful 3.8L Essex V6, and a few other little things.
- 1991 - The 2.5L I4 & 3.0L V6 now use sequential fuel injection instead of throttle bodies or multi-point injection. This is the only year an SHO Plus vehicle was offered. It had cosmetic things like a hood bulge, badging, etc.