Last Taurus rolls out today

Ford's aerodynamic `jelly bean' wrested sales crown from Japanese imports for 5 years

Up Close

October 26, 2006|By Jim Mateja | Jim Mateja,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- It was Chicago's original "bean" - at least, according to a competitor.

For five years it rode atop the passenger car market, the last domestically designed sedan to do so.

The Ford Taurus was so popular that it took two plants to produce the cars, one in Chicago and the other in Georgia.

Today marks the end of production for the Taurus, for which annual sales once topped 400,000. The last Taurus will roll off the assembly line in Atlanta, and sales this year will total fewer than 150,000.

It's the end of an era, too, because a domestic nameplate isn't likely to again hold the title of the industry's best-selling car. That's not because Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., struggling as they are, won't recover, but because the domestics don't build and market cars the way they once did.

The name of the game nowadays is profitability and flexibility. Vehicle-makers don't want to discount their way to higher sales. They prefer to build several models off the same platforms, shifting production to meet the needs of the moment. So vying for the No. 1 slot isn't possible.

"The days of high volumes years ago were nice, but Ford has restructured, and dealers have restructured to operate leaner," said John Hennessy, a Ford dealer in Calumet City, Ill.

That doesn't diminish the significance of the Taurus to the Big Three, who were smarting mightily in the 1980s from Japanese competition.

It took six years from its introduction in December 1985 for Taurus to become the best-selling passenger car, toppling the Honda Accord.

Its draw was novel styling with a rounded look that was called a "jelly bean" by Roger Smith, then GM's chairman, and a floating Ford logo that served as the grille.

Chicago Auto Show patrons are responsible for the latter. When Taurus made its concept debut there in February 1985, it came in two flavors, one with a traditional grille and the other with the floating logo. Patrons at the show chose the latter.

"The design was a white-knuckle gamble totally different from the square boxes turned out by GM and Chrysler. And it was a shocker, because a car without a grille was thought to be a car without a face," said Joe Phillippi, principal with Auto Trends.

Ford uncorked the champagne in 1992, when Taurus took the sales crown with 409,751 units, about 16,000 more than the Accord. It was payback, as Accord had ousted the subcompact Ford Escort from the top spot in 1989.

To further capitalize on the aerodynamic, or jelly bean, look, Ford spent up to $50 million on incentives in 1992 to lure potential customers into showrooms.

Deposing Honda gave the domestic companies, including GM and Chrysler, something to celebrate.

"Accord was like Notre Dame or the Yankees; it always won," Dave Cole, then chairman for the Office of Automotive Studies at the University of Michigan, said at the time. "Now the underdog has beaten them."

Success was more than symbolic. In 1986, Ford earned a record $3.3 billion, topping GM, which earned $2.9 billion, for the first time since 1924.

Taurus also goes out on top, as the best-selling car at Ford with sales in the first nine months of this year of 147,996 units to 140,830 for the Focus. But it is no moneymaker because of discounts to daily rental fleets.

"We sold more $150,000 Ford GT exotic sports cars at retail than we did Taurus," said Ford sales analyst George Pipas.

That is why it is unlikely that the domestic makers will take the car-sales crown again. They aren't shooting for the 400,000 level of Camry and Accord.

"The domestics have sworn off having to dump cars at discounts into rental fleets to keep the plants going when sales decline," Phillippi said.

Ford, which has posted $7.2 billion in losses for the first nine months of this year, is hurting because it no longer has a car like Taurus that can attract 400,000 buyers.

Ford's Pipas noted that the new approach of building a variety of models off one platform rather than just one in a plant.

When one model doesn't sell, the others pick up the slack to keep the plant open and workers employed.

Taurus has been replaced by a pair of midsize sedans, the Five Hundred produced in Chicago and the Fusion built in Mexico.

Chicago also produces the Mercury Montego sedan and the Ford Freestyle crossover. The Lincoln MKS sedan is on the way. The Fusion plant also builds the Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ sedan.

Taurus and its cousin Mercury Sable went on sale the day after Christmas in 1985 to replace the Ford LTD II and Mercury Marquis.

"At the time, the midsize car market was almost all domestic and dominated by GM," said Joel Pitcoff, marketing plans manager for Taurus and Sable at the time.

Taurus hit the skids when it was redesigned in 1996 to be even more rounded.

There wasn't a straight line inside or outside the car. Tail lamps drooped as if the clay on the concept had melted, a design trait that made the car look smaller than it was at a time when people were demanding bigger cars.

"Taurus went too avant-garde," said Cole, chairman of the Center for Auto Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., "and the decay began."

In 1997, Taurus slipped to third in sales in 1997 behind Camry and Accord. In 2003 it was bumped from third by the Toyota Corolla.

"Taurus didn't keep pace. It started out as a vehicle that broke new ground with a lot of surprise and delight features - the first car with a cargo net in the trunk, secondary sun visors, rear-seat heat ducts, split fold-down rear seats, and rear-seat headrests," Pitcoff recalled, adding that 1996 was only a cosmetic change to the outside. "Once you surprise and delight, you can't surprise and disappoint," he said.

"In retrospect, I suppose Taurus was a victim of benign neglect," Pitcoff said. "If only the car had been kept current. There's no reason the Five Hundred couldn't have been called Taurus."

Jim Mateja writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.