Ford’s Taurus Redesign Provides Fascinating and Disturbing Portrait of American Industry
The 1996 redesign of the Taurus mid-size sedan held both a real and symbolic importance for Ford Motor Co.
The original Taurus, introduced in the mid-’80s, is credited with saving the company from an economic tailspin. By 1992, it was the best-selling car in the U.S.
But then the Taurus began losing market share to mid-size imports from Japan--the Honda Accord and especially the Toyota Camry. To regain the ground it had lost, Ford had to produce an automobile of comparable, if not superior, quality at a competitive price. The company would spend more than $2.7 billion on the challenge, creating a new Taurus and retooling its factories to assemble the 1,775 major parts that would go into each car.
Journalist Mary Walton was given unprecedented access to the people involved in all phases of the redesign, from Dick Landgraff, who headed the project, to Dora Ramirez Alarcon, who sewed seat covers for a supplier in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Some sections of this fascinating and disturbing portrait of American industry in the ‘90s read like a bad “Dilbert” cartoon. Huge amounts of time, money, energy and goodwill were squandered as people sat through endless meetings, fought turf wars and battled over major issues and minor details with equal vehemence.
Many of the problems grew out of the conflicting demands placed on the team. The decision to change the shape of the headlights to give the front of the car a “friendlier” appearance sounds simple enough. But could the new shape accommodate bulbs that would meet federal standards? Could reflective backing material and lenses be found at reasonable prices? Could the suppliers guarantee the necessary quality and quantity?
(A crisis would occur when a subcontractor failed to deliver seats that met the agreed-upon specifications, to cite one example of the kind of things that could--and did--go wrong.)
The new Taurus design also called for a smaller trunk, but a golf-playing executive argued--ultimately successfully--that a four-passenger car should have a trunk that would hold four sets of clubs. That larger trunk ended up altering the shape of the car and adding to its total weight--which in turn affected the fuel efficiency and made it that much harder to meet federal emissions standards.
Once the prototype was developed, teams of employees endured the sweltering heat of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., to measure how long it took the climate-control system to transform the interior temperature from an estimated 160 degrees to “comfortable.” Other teams tested heaters in the bitter cold of Bemidji, Minn.
Climate and road tests were conducted in secret to prevent the media from revealing anything about the Taurus before Ford deemed it appropriate.
The 1996 Taurus received mixed reviews in the automotive and mainstream press. And despite a gargantuan publicity campaign--and almost immediate rebates of up to $600--buyers stayed away in droves.
At a base price that began around $19,360, the Taurus was perceived as too expensive--at a time when Ford couldn’t meet the demand for its $30,000 Explorer sport-utility vehicles.
The initial lackluster response to the new Taurus set a pattern that continues to this day. When the final sales figures for 1998 were tallied, the Toyota Camry had edged out the Honda Accord for first place. Taurus came in third.
Charles Solomon can be reached at email@example.com.