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Taurus approaches the end of its road

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.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 27, 2006 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.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

“I felt that soft, rounded aero shape was our way to break out” in the U.S. market, he said.

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The Taurus succeeded because “it was just different enough to be perceived as advanced without coming across as outlandish,” said Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

(A prominent skeptic was Lee Iacocca, who had once run Ford but at the time of the model’s launch had become president of rival Chrysler Corp. He derided the Taurus as the “potato” car.)

The Taurus also succeeded because Ford took a bold step and assembled a multidimensional development team to plan it. Almost 1,000 people -- from design, engineering, marketing, manufacturing and other Ford departments -- developed the car in a collaborative effort. Engineers from Ford’s Europe operations, for example, convinced the team that the car should have a sportier, more European ride and handling and a fuel-efficient V-6 engine instead of the typical gas-guzzling American V-8.

The process brought new perspectives to what had been a closed system in which each group worked on the car sequentially rather than cooperatively, resulting in a finished product that often was damaged by compromise after compromise, Telnack said.

The approach even caught on in other industries.

Alan Mulally, the former Boeing Co. executive hired last month as Ford’s CEO, has said the aircraft company adopted the Taurus team approach in the early 1990s, when it designed the 777, a wide-body jet credited with reviving Boeing’s fortunes.

As it turned out, Ford itself abandoned the system soon after the Taurus’ launch with the death of its patron, Lew Veraldi, the model’s chief engineer.

As buyer preference switched to pickups and SUVs in the cheap-gas 1990s, Ford “put no money into that product for the last several years,” Telnack said of the Taurus.

“They just let it go,” he said. “It’s criminal.”

Ford dealers sold more than 263,000 Tauruses in the model’s first full year, when it had a base sticker price of $10,500 (about half what the 2006 goes for). Sales peaked at nearly 410,000 in 1992, when the Taurus became the bestselling car in the U.S., knocking Honda Motor Co.'s Accord off its perch.

The Taurus lost the crown in 1997, after a disastrous redesign the previous year -- an oval theme that proved to be too much “jellybean” for many customers -- had killed much of its appeal, enabling the Toyota Camry to take over.

During its long run, the Taurus overcame automatic transmission problems in mid-1990s models, and troublesome V-6 engines that plagued several Ford models from 1986 to 1995, to maintain a reputation as a generally reliable model.

Even with the life nearly squeezed out of it, the Taurus has remained Ford’s bestselling passenger car, thanks to strong fleet and rental company sales.

Now, the car that some say was almost as influential as the original Model T is likely to disappear pretty much unremarked upon except in news articles and by the 2,100 workers at an Atlanta assembly plant where the last Taurus will roll off the assembly line Friday. The factory has been targeted for closure, a victim of Ford’s scramble to slash costs by shuttering 16 North American plants and eliminating 30,000 manufacturing jobs.

Ford’s most successful salesman says he won’t miss the Taurus.

“It did its job,” said Bert Boeckmann, president of Galpin Auto Group, whose dealership in West Hills has been Ford’s top retailer for 13 years.

“It was a very strong name for a lot of years, but now it’s mostly for fleet sales,” he said. “Demand for any new car usually drops after a few years unless it’s continually being improved, and Ford just didn’t enhance it much in the last years.”

Still, don’t think of the Taurus as a failure.

“It was designed for a broad demographic, but in the intervening two decades car designers are slicing up that demographic into many little niches,” said sociologist Peter Hoffman, director of urban studies at Loyola Marymount University.

“The market has changed, and it’s time to move on.”

*

john.odell@latimes.com

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

What a trip

Priced to move

The base model 1986 Taurus cost $10,500.

Well rounded

Its “jellybean” contour stood out from the crowd.

Mass appeal

Ford has sold nearly 7 million Tauruses.

*Through September

Sources: Ford, the Associated Press


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