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Taurus approaches the end of its road

The once-innovative Ford sedan falls by the wayside after 21 years.

October 26, 2006|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

The Ford Taurus, which entered the world as a revolutionary new take on the American automobile, will exit Friday as a forlorn reminder of things gone wrong with the American auto industry.

As Ford Motor Co. struggles against cutthroat competition from foreign brands and the soaring costs of its labor and manufacturing systems, the car that once rescued it from collapse is being tossed out after years of neglect.

It's a victim, analysts say, of the shift by Ford, along with other American automakers, to more profitable pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles in the mid-1990s. As foreign manufacturers led by Toyota Motor Corp. of Japan continue to grow in the U.S. while Ford and its domestic rivals shrink, the glory days seem distant indeed.

The Taurus, introduced Dec. 26, 1985, was a hit from the start, thanks to a design that stood out as cutting edge by, well, rounding off the edges. With its aerodynamic jellybean shape, which contrasted with the sharp corners and creases typical of other models of the day, the Taurus quickly rose to the top tier of passenger cars.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Ford Taurus: An article Thursday in Section A on the end of Ford Motor Co.'s Taurus said Galpin Auto Group's Ford dealership was in West Hills. The company's name is Galpin Motors Inc. and the dealership is in North Hills.

"You can't overstate its impact on American car culture," said Mike Hudson, an analyst at Edmunds.com, a Santa Monica-based online automotive information provider. "It was in virtually every other driveway in the late '80s and early '90s."

Ford's marketers could stand with its designers in taking credit for the car's quick takeoff in the marketplace, as an innovative lease program made the mid-size four-door attainable to anyone who could come up with the $199 monthly payment.

That was a lot of people, said Jim Graham, owner of Santa Margarita Ford in Rancho Santa Margarita, who had just become a dealer the year the Taurus was introduced.

"It put my two kids through college," he said.

So many Tauruses were built and sold that it's hard to find an American older than 15 who didn't have one in the family or have a relative or neighbor who owned one. Ford had sold 6.95 million through September, placing the Taurus second in the U.S. to the original revolutionary mass-marketed Ford, the Model T, at more than 15 million.

Warren Christensen still has his Taurus, a red 1994 station wagon he bought used in 1996.

The 63-year-old Los Angeles resident has put about 225,000 miles on the car, many of them logged on family camping trips in which the Taurus was transport and shelter for him, his wife and their three sons.

"The best times in our family memory are associated with that car," said Christensen, a publisher of self-help books for artists.

Middle son Alec, 17, now drives the wagon, using it as daily transportation to John Marshall High School in Los Angeles and for hauling his surfboard and buddies to the beach on weekends.

Although the Taurus became best known as a family car, there also was a hot-rod version called the SHO -- for "super high output" -- that was sold from 1989 through 1999.

It helped bring Ford new fans -- performance enthusiasts such as June Han, a 26-year-old Cincinnati resident who headed the now-dormant Taurus Car Club of America and has owned three SHOs.

She said in an e-mail exchange that she had mixed feelings about Ford's decision to end Taurus production.

"I find it very ironic Ford is axing the very car that saved them in the mid-'80s. But I'm glad Ford is discontinuing the car, as it was painful watching this once-great model be used for nothing more than rental car and fleet duty."

Taurus sales for the last few years have been primarily to car rental companies and government and corporate fleets -- and only to rental firms since Jan. 1 -- as Ford has sought to replace it in the retail market with three new models: the Five Hundred large sedan, the Fusion mid-size sedan and the Freestyle crossover utility vehicle. Together, though, their sales don't come close to those of the Taurus in its heyday.

Ford was in trouble in the 1980s, when then-Chief Executive Philip Caldwell decided that the Dearborn, Mich.-based company needed something daring to rekindle buyer excitement.

"The Taurus program was one of the few times Ford has turned its designers loose," said George Peterson, a Ford executive at the time and now head of AutoPacific Inc., a market research firm in Tustin.

"It's an example of what happens if you are up against a wall and allow the good people you have to do what you hired them to do," said Peterson, one of many industry experts who believes that Ford needs to take similar chances to build its way out of its current run of red ink. "They came out with a game-changing product, a new benchmark."

Caldwell wanted a car "with a strong design statement, and he gave us carte blanche to do something," said Jack Telnack, retired vice president of design for Ford and head designer of the Taurus.

As a former chief of Ford design in Europe, Telnack had been exposed to interesting design trends, including a softer aerodynamic shape introduced on the 1983 Audi 100 by its German manufacturer.

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