Sometime this week, probably Friday, the last Ford Taurus will be built at the Ford Motor Co.'s Hapeville, Ga., assembly plant.
You know the Ford Taurus, don't you? The car that brought the jelly bean look to automobiledom? Well, if you look around you, it won't be long before you see one. You'll have to concentrate though, because they do blend in to the automotive population. And you certainly haven't heard a lot about the Taurus in recent years. Ford seemed to lose interest in the car about a decade ago despite the fact that it has been an excellent seller for the ailing company.
Ailing indeed. The $5.8 billion loss reported this week is evidence of just how deeply in trouble Ford is. The company's market value has dropped close to 50 percent since 2001.
And now it is killing off one of its bread-and-butter cars.
Ford has sold more than 7 million Tauruses and over 2 million of its slightly more luxish clone, the Mercury Sable, since the car was introduced back in 1985. It was America's best selling car for five straight years - 1992-97. Those are pretty good figures. And given today's segmented market they compare pretty well with Ford's legendary Model T, which sold somewhere around 16 million copies between 1908 and 1927.
Let's pause here for a moment and note that the best selling vehicle in Ford's history is not a car but a truck - the Ford F-Series pick-up truck, with over 25 million sold. According to www.Automotoportal.com. Ford pickups are currently the best selling vehicles in the world and the second-best selling of all time. We'll get to the best selling car of all time a little later (it is not the Volkswagen Beetle).
I am not a "Ford man." I have never owned a Ford product. But I developed a grudging fondness for the Taurus that grew into respect as its initially iconoclastic "jelly bean" shape grew more sophisticated and pleasing and the car proved itself through several iterations.
Every once in a while I see a 1986-7 Taurus on the road and, well, they look a little odd and tired and way short on aura for such a ground-breaking car. But that is precisely because the original Taurus became such an imitated car. It was the shape of things to come, and those things have already come.
To imagine the impact of the Taurus when it burst upon the automotive scene back in 1985 you have to go back in memory and take a hard look at the mid-80s American cars. Even in company glamour shots it begins to sink in how dreadfully stale most of them were - all angular lines going nowhere, laden with gimcracks and sagging vinyl cladding, plastic chrome "accents" and baroque badges slapped onto sail panels.
Every once in a while you may see one of these cars flatulently smoking its way along the road. Think 1986 Dodge Diplomat, or hunchbacked Buick Skyhawk; Chevy Celebrity Eurosport or Ford LTD. Or take a marvelous clean-lined design like the 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and see what the car wearing that name had become by 1986.
Ford chief designer Jack Telnack's design (which certainly took some styling cues from the 1982 Audi 5000) swathed the 106-inch Taurus wheelbase in smooth, flowing sheet metal - all compound curves and flush glass and fared-in door handles; very little chrome and - heaven forfend - no radiator grille. It was decidedly daring in its day.
It is said that when the Taurus was dramatically unveiled to the automotive press on a Hollywood sound stage in January 1985, there was stunned silence when the cylindrical curtain around the car lifted. Then the crowd broke into applause, cheers and whistles and rushed the stage.
The jelly bean moniker stuck almost immediately. Down south, Tauruses became known mockingly, then somewhat affectionately as 'taters. Older Ford customers who loved to look out over the long flat horizon of a square, fat Crown Vic's hood, balked. But younger customers loved it. The Taurus definitely pulled Ford out of a financial crisis and heralded a new era of smaller, smoother, slicker, wind-tunnel designed cars. Everybody started talking about "drag coefficients" (the Taurus's was 0.29).
Ford had sunk $2 billion into the Taurus program and the gamble paid off, helping Ford revitalize itself and meet the growing threat of foreign competition. Telnack's design was fresh and intelligent. The Taurus was not a sexy car but an appealing one.
That appeal was chiefly to those hundreds of thousands of car buyers who are not into burbling pipes, flying gravel or the "excitement" of the road. They want a "nice car" that will get them and their families or their sample cases from point A to point B. They want reliability, reasonable quality, comfort and economy. They are not out waxing and wiping down their "babies" each weekend. These are buyers who want to get in and drive and not be annoyed or embarrassed by their car. Taurus was their car and it still could be.
That's why the demise of the Taurus seems a bit puzzling.
Look at the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. They do not excite. But they deliver. They deliver all of the above - quality, reliability, blah, blah, blah. Both these cars surpassed the Taurus in sales in 1997 and have hardly looked back. In January of this year Ford essentially stopped selling the Taurus to the general public, concentrating on rental fleets and company cars. Why didn't Ford try harder with the Taurus?
It seems that Ford really had something in this popular car, something worth preserving and improving and staying with for the long run. They've shown they could do it. Drive a 1986 Taurus and a 2006 (as I have) and you are struck by the incremental improvements, the smoothing, the honing, the refining of the car. The jelly bean has taken on a fairly sophisticated and crisper look as it has become better-engined, better equipped, more sumptuously appointed. Build quality has improved markedly.
Sure there were a few unfortunate detours, like the weird "ovalmania" that overtook the design in the 1996-99 models. But the 21st century Tauruses have refined themselves with the pleasing Coke bottling of the side panels and a nice blend of compound curves fore and aft. It is a pleasant design, very together, very reassuring to that significant mass of motorists who don't need "adventure."
I'm just another auto enthusiast. A common consumer. What do I know? Maybe Ford is right. Maybe buyers will flock to its new Fusion and Five Hundred. But one wonders what might have happened if Ford had taken half of the billions put into those two new models and spent it to build on the faith the public had already shown in the Taurus by concentrating on making it a better and better car.
All of which brings me to the world's best selling car, alluded to earlier in this article. It is the Toyota Corolla, the little brother of the popular Camry. Toyota launched this small compact back in 1966. The early models were austere to say the least, but they proved to be amazingly rugged and reliable. Toyota constantly poured money into this little car - improving the quality, adding features, refining its design and integrating it into the bloodlines not only of the bigger, pricier Camry and eventually Avalon, but also the corporate luxury flagship Lexus.
The Corolla does not wow anyone with its looks. It's easily lost (like the Taurus) in a mall parking lot. It is not a "performance car," but if performs beautifully at being, dollar for dollar, one of the best automotive values in the world. Its sales figures speak for themselves - 35 million Corollas sold and counting. (The VW Beetle sold 21,529,464 over a period of 60 years.)
Corolla's success is a tribute to sticking with a good car, building on the good will it earned and making it better and better. I believe General Motors has the possibility of doing that with its bread-and-butter Chevrolet Impala - already a good car and good seller. And I believe Ford could have done it with Taurus.
Ralph Kinney Bennett is a TCS Daily contributing editor.