TCS Daily


Goodbye, Jelly Bean

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - October 26, 2006 12:00 AM

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.

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16 Comments

The design change was it's downfall...
...If I'm wrong, please correct me (I can't find it in
Google), but for many years Ford had 5 of the top 10 American made cars. The Taurus was one of them. It was the car of choice on X-Files. As a matter of fact, according to the X-files drinking game:

http://www.webtender.com/handbook/games/x-files.game

you took two "sips" of whatever you were drinking if Scully or Muldor were driving something other than a Taurus.

However, when they made the drastic design changes, the popularity of the Taurus seemed to sag, and I don't recall that it was able to hold it's position in the top 5.

Actually, the Taurus probably isn't going to be the only thing changing / disappearing at Ford. One of our local dealers is closing and service at another is not what it was 10 years ago.

I will say, however, that I prefer the look of the Ford trucks to that of the Dodges.

Hi my name is Bosco and I am a recovering Taurus owner.
I had a 1991 Taurus GL for 10 years, basically all of my 20s. I know it was a popular car, but I feel like it was a transition car for people who were used to big vehicles but felt a need to downsize. It had good pep for a 3L V6, good room in front, good trunk space too. The power assist steering gave a more fun feel for the road. My previous cars were a home restored 66 Chrysler and an 83 Ford Econoline van, so the Taurus was a real downsize for me.

Maintenance-wise... Brakes and struts were its weak points. If I'd not done the work myself, I'd have spent more than half the purchase price of the car on brakes and struts over its life. And to be honest, if I didn't enjoy auto work, it woulda been worth it. The front struts were the worst home mechanic job imaginable.

I traded the Taurus in on a Mustang GT in 2001. They couldn't keep the Mustangs on the lot, so I had to pay over invoice on it, and got $800 for the Taurus. I'm sure someone in Guatemala is having a blast with my old Taurus now... The Mustang is way more fun, but it's my second car now. My primary car is a Blazer, and that's why I think the Taurus faded off at the end of the 90s... People want bigger vehicles. Even at $3/gallon, gas is damned cheap for more than half the population. Big vehicles are more flexible and more comfortable. The Chevy equivalent of the Taurus -- the Lumina -- has seen the same demise. The Impala, on the other hand, is a powerful car, with decent back seat room, great trunk room, and sporty styling.

My Taurus is the only car I ever had that I got over in 5 minutes. The morning after I got the Mustang, I came down to the garage and opened the door and thought "WOW, this is awesome", not "where's the Taurus?".

taurus american?
If people are lamenting the demise of the American car industry, it gets worse. I've read that the original Taurus design actually came out of the ford Germany office, and was not american at all. RE the Volkswagen though, I guess that in India Tata Motors is working on a new one for 2008, and it's supposed to be good too, not a Trabant or JUgo. I guess they already make a sedan that sells for $6000 over there. But like many practical cars already available in the rest of the world, they're not imported into the States.

Sad situation
The taurus won over my dad (a decidedly mopar guy) in 2002. It was the feel and drivability of the car that got him. He was looking for a slightly used vehicle as a car for my mother and a good road trip vehicle. He looked at several makes and models and found several he liked. But the 2001 Taurus was the third car he drove, and he kept coming back to it.

He told me it wasn't the cheapest, it didn't get the best gas mileage, it wasn't the one with the most bells and whistles. It was just comfortable to drive and was the best all-around in the price range he was looking at.

It has proven to be a good buy and a very nice car. It will be sad to see the "Jelly Bean" go.

My '99 wagon is more than a jellybean
It's a catfish.

I mean, power-wise, it does go. It do de job. there's always about a two-second hesitation and then that Duratec v-6 growls and attacks the road.

Steering-wise, it is like a cow.

I would definitely buy another Taurus. It's not expensive but as the article says, comfortable.

In the US, we don't require our cars to be engineered just right, or run forever ('cause we want a new car once in awhile) they just have to have good cup holder placement and run well enough.

I spent some time in Sweden a long time ago. You didn't see that many rusty old cars. Even the old Volvo Amazons were in good shape. I think it was because cars were expensive and not easy to get, and so were licenses. By contrast, myself at that age, took having a car for granted. I had a little Datsun we fixed up with spray paint primer and named "the fog." Not a lot of kids my age had licenses in Sweden, but my friends all got theirs at age 16, automatically, except for a couple of weird ones.

I had a Ford Galaxy with a Cleveland 350 engine. Party boat. Too bad I slid it into another car one icy day, I loved that car.

My dad always had a Ford truck, until this last time when he surprised me and bought a Chevy. He liked it better, I guess.

So now I'm about to hand my Taurus wagon over to my kid. She's saving up bumper stickers for it. We always kept it up, and now it's just having a possible steering system problem. I don't hesitate to let her drive it anywhere she wants. I'd get it a new windshield because it's full of tiny pits from a wind storm, but the body hasn't rusted one bit or anything.

What am I getting? Well, have to say, a Corolla.

Taurus
The Taurus is a very comfortable road car. If you are driving, say, 500 miles, you cannot have a better ride unless you're willing to pay for a luxury car such Mercedes or Lexus. I think the Taurus rides better than the Camry.

I also notice that the Taurus is just about the only 80's American car you still see on the road. This suggests that its more durable than most.

I think it a bad decision on the part of Ford to abandon this model.

comfy except for
noise. After a 500 mile trip your head is tired from trying to listen to the radio above the dull, steady noise. But that is in our '99. They probably improved it.

What about T-Bird?
My recollection is that the T-Bird was reformatted by Ford a number of years before the Taurus, introducing many of the design features that were refined by the Taurus. The T-Bird went from its massive box to a rounder, less angled, and more compact shape. I don't think that it lasted long, but I think that it tested out the design concepts that later made the Taurus unique and popular.

I remember when the Taurus first came out. The split was about 50/50, half loved it and half hated it. I loved its novel design, and it clearly influenced a whole generation of cars. But Ford quickly abdicated its design role to Chrysler, whick later showed much more innovation with its cab-forward, eye pleasing design concepts. Of course, the Germans came in and did away with the innovative designers, preferring more conservative designs, at the expense of Chrysler's best attribute, in my opinion.

In fact, there is nobody with much innovation these days, excepting an occasional concept car that captures the public's imagination. American car design is dead, or at least in a coma. That MUST change if the U.S. is to regain the lead in the automotive market. Today, I would almost never buy Ford or Chrysler (well, except maybe a minivan, or Mustang, if the price is right), although I might consider a GM product where the quality is above average (as in a few of their models). And that is very, very sad.

-Bob

A jellybean is better than a bloated tick
We considered buying a Taurus station wagon in 2001 but then we mentioned it to our then 14 year old son and he said that the car looked like a bloated tick.

We ended up buying a 2001 Taurus Sedan to go with out 1997 Taurus Sedan.

Last year we replaced the 1997 with a Ford Focus and the other month we replaced the 2001 with a Ford Fusion.

Main reason is that the Ford Dealer is just down the street and convenient - but we've had mostly Fords since the early 1970's and I can't complain.

I wish we had bought the station wagon despite our son's unkind appraisal because we just gave him the 2001 and it would have been enjoyable to have reminded him of his comment if we were giving him a station wagon.

Germans are good at some things because of practice
I did a consulting project back in the 70's for a German firm that had a lock on a narrrow market for specially forged thick walled pipe. No one else could touch their quality.

One of the visiting engineers told me without irony that their firm and it's predecessors had been specializing in thick walled open ended high pressure vessel type applications for over a hundred years in Essen.

I later spotted one of the factory names he mentioned in The Arms of Krupp.

Pity...
Having done much travel for business, the standard rental mid-size car was the Taurus for quite a few years. I found them to be generally good cars, though sometimes inconsistently constructed. In contrast, whenever I drove a Camry every car was almost identicle to the last (excellent quality and attendtion to detail).

I for one hope that Ford and GM prosper, but they also need to market high-quality products for the long run, which is what the Japanese have been doing very well.

nope
It is still the biggest knock on the vehicle. They did make it a bit better, But my folks 01 is still not the quietest car on the road.

german practices
Yeah, there are masters of 19th and 20th century technologies, but looks like not the 21the c. ones maybe. They also used to master of chemistry, and even the States still buys certain specialty chemicals from them. But I guess they're also losing out on that lately too because of their stupid socialist governmt policies. They're also stymied by the EU.

I'm not counting Germany out yet - but then I haven't yet read Mark Steyn's book
I'm still hopeful of Europe, although I suspect that what is coming will not be pretty over there.

As to Germany specifically, my understanding is that the educational system there is still fairly rigorous even though the political system has taken a wrong turn relative to the US.

An educated population can propel a country very fast technologically in the current era of open communications.

It's like a mom-truck
Or any kind of a truck. You can haul sheetrock on top of it and the nails and mud and stuff inside.

not arguing, but yet...
I mean, I love a good quality car as well. But I read a book called The Culture Code. The author of it, a French expat who loves the US, figured out why the Chrysler PT Crusier became a success: It wasn't the best built car or the most economical, but it appealed to nostalgia and it had some good features and it was "good enough." I think it was the same way for the Taurus. He said to the Germans, a car ought to be precision engineered and all that. For Americans, it ought to be cheap and handy because we buy new ones all the time anyway. My wagon is old now, and I'm glad because it means I can get me a new one, and someone else can drive a decent, cheap car. Namely, my kiddo.

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