1986 Ford Taurus
1986 Ford Taurus. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The 1970s and early eighties were not pleasant times for the American automobile industry. It was striving to meet tightening fuel economy legislation brought on by the 1973 oil crisis, and struggling to comply with increasingly stringent emissions standards. On top of these challenges was intensifying foreign competition, particularly the Japanese automakers.

The result was that Chrysler was brought to its knees, then rescued by government loan guarantees negotiated by its new chairman Lee Iacocca. Ford was also in financial trouble, and in 1980 General Motors incurred its first full year loss since the 1921 post-First World War recession.

While Chrysler was recovering, and GM was reorganizing, Ford was experiencing a changing of the guard. This occurred in 1979 when career Ford executive Philip Caldwell was named chairman and CEO, taking over from the retiring Henry Ford II, and becoming the first person who was not a direct descendent of Henry Ford I to hold the top post in the company’s 76 year history.

It was a seminal event for the Ford Motor Co. because under chairman Caldwell, and new president Donald Peterson, Ford would break out of the mould of square, stodgy cars. They gave chief stylist Jack Telnack free rein, and the ultimate result would be the all-new 1986 Ford Taurus. There was also a corporate twin, the Mercury Sable.

1992 Ford Taurus
1992 Ford Taurus. Click image to enlarge

Both Caldwell and Peterson came to their posts with European experience where slippery cars like the Citroen and the groundbreaking Audi 5000 demonstrated the benefits of aerodynamic efficiency. Ford’s first foray into aerodynamics came with the 1983 Ford Thunderbird and its twin Mercury Cougar, and the new compact Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz.

But these were preliminaries for the big breakthrough that would arrive on December 26, 1985: the all-new 1986 Ford Taurus. In a glitzy presentation held on the Hollywood MGM soundstage where such legendary movies as Gone With the Wind and the Wizard of Oz had been filmed, Ford revealed its $3 billion gamble.

It was an almost bet-the-farm decision to launch such a radical car into the very important, and relatively conservative mid-size family sedan segment. But as it turned out, the public was ready for something more exciting than the staid, upright Ford LTD that the Taurus replaced. With the arrival of the new Taurus the LTD suddenly looked old fashioned.

The Taurus came in sedan and wagon versions, and the organic, flowing Audi-like lines, flush glass and headlights, and integrated bumpers, gave a commendable coefficient of aerodynamic drag of 0.32 for the sedan, and 0.34 for the wagon. A wheelbase of 2,692 mm (106 in.) and an overall length of 4,785 mm (188.4 in.) made it a happy compromise of space and manoeuvrability.

1998 Ford Taurus
1998 Ford Taurus. Click image to enlarge

The Taurus and Sable were the same mechanically, but had styling cues to suggest their slightly different market targets. While the Taurus’s grille area had only a small egg-shaped opening with Ford’s blue oval badge in the middle, the Sable received a full-width, glowing “light bar” across the front. Also, for a more formal appearance, the Sable sedan had only two side windows, with the back window wrapping around a little. The Taurus had three side windows.

Power came from a newly designed, transversely mounted 3.0-litre, pushrod, 140 horsepower V6 which Ford called the “Vulcan.” It drove the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. A 2.5-litre pushrod four, with a five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic, would also be offered, mainly as a fleet special. It would not prove very popular, and was discontinued in 1990.

Strut-type coil spring suspension was used all around on the sedans, but in the wagon, to eliminate the space-eating tall strut towers from protruding into the wagon’s cargo area, there was a lateral link, coil spring rear suspension. Steering was by rack-and-pinion, and its quick ratio of 2.6 turns lock-to-lock contributed to precise handling.

2007 Ford Taurus
2007 Ford Taurus; photo by Michael Clark. Click image to enlarge

The Taurus’s performance was quite competitive. Car and Driver magazine testers were very enthusiastic about the Taurus, as were other motoring publications. C and D (4/86) found that the V6 would accelerate the 1,475 kg (3,251 lb) Taurus from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 9.8 seconds, and push it to a top speed of 184 km/h (114 mph). While not tire burning, this performance was competitive in its class.

A high performance Taurus, the SHO, arrived in 1989 to satisfy those seeking more speed and sharper handling. Powered by a Yamaha-built, 3.0-litre double overhead cam, 24-valve V6, it was certainly faster. Its 220 horsepower would, according to Car and Driver (3/89), sprint it from zero to 96 km/h in 6.9 seconds, and reach 221 km/h.

SHO sales fell below expectations, however, in part because it came with only a manual transmission. An automatic would eventually be made available, although it would take five years.

The Ford Taurus was a brave venture for Ford, and one that paid off well. The Taurus became one of North America’s top selling mid-size family cars. After a successful 20-year run that included several freshenings, the last Taurus rolled off the assembly line in 2006.

Editor’s note: The Taurus name will return on a restyled version of the Ford Five-Hundred sedan in the 2008 model year. The Ford Freestyle crossover vehicle will also re-emerge as the Taurus X. Both Five-Hundred and Freestyle vehicles are based on the first-generation Volvo S80 platform.

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