Rec. Reading

 

September 16th, 2004

Farewell to the Taurus

Its fate written, another former star slowly fades

Lew Veraldi, Father of the Taurus

Lew Veraldi (1930-1990), Father of the Taurus

Taurus itself was a name bequeathed to the car on account of both Lew Veraldi and his chief planner John Risk having wives born under that astrological sign!

The 1st-generation: 1986-1991. Designed by Jack Telnack under Lew Veraldi, the Atlanta/ Chicago-built Taurus was a revolution in the heretowith mundane U.S. mainstreamer segment.

Internally codenamed
DN5, Taurus and Sable were launched on December 26th, 1985, timed to come after other manufacturers' new launches and thus more likely to be given their due.

Ford need not have worried. Rave reviews from the enthusiast press followed.

Motor Trend
named it Car of the Year for 1986.

Car and Driver placed Taurus on its 10 Best list five times, in every year between 1986 and 1990
In those heady, earlier days, the Sable had barely any common body panels with the Taurus! It seems so hard to believe, now
SHO, the 'halo' Taurus, debuted in 1989 with a five-speed manual and 3.0-liter twin-cam V6.

Four-cylinders were dropped across the regular Taurus line-up.

Honda's Accord took the top-sales spot from Taurus for 1989. It would continue to lead through the close of 1991


The 2nd-generation: 1992-1995. For $650 million, Ford re-skinned the Taurus/ Sable. Most body panels were different from the older car, and a passenger air bag was offered for the first time.

Despite the lack of a complete redesign, Taurus would recapture its sales spot from Honda's Accord (briefly lost in 1991), and would continue to fend off all comers through its replacement in 1996.

Ford finally placed an automatic transmission in the
SHO for 1993. Engine capacity was upped from 3.0-liters to 3.2-liters, but horsepower remained the same at 220.

Paradoxically, the next-generation would be criticized for the lack of a stick-shift


The 3rd-generation: 1996-1999. Internally codenamed DN101, designed by Doug Gaffka under Dick Landgraff, and launched at the 1996 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the $2.7 billion Taurus/ Sable yet again went for a different look.

Drawing on the cab-forward idea that Chrysler's LH- cars had been pushing since 1993, the new Taurus presented a friendlier face to buyers. Yet it was not as universally accepted as the first had been. That base prices were up by $1500 did not help.

Regardless, at the end of 1996, the Taurus remained America's top-selling car.

Taurus/ Sable may have seemed smaller than before, but they had actually gained 5.4 inches in length and 2.4 inches in width.

Finally, a new V6 was available: the 24-valve, 3.0-liter, 185hp Duratec unit supplanted the old 3.0-liter Vulcan.

"It sounds like a pair of pliers to me,"
program manager Dick Landgraff complained to author Mary Walton.

"Sometimes I wonder how we get into these boxes. (Cadillac's) 'Northstar' sounds fantastic... Northstar... follow the North star.

"And we've got something called 'Duratec!' "
For 1997, the SHO re-emerged, powered by a 235-bhp Yamaha 3.4-liter twin-cam V8. Once again, there was no stick-shift.

That year, for the first time since 1991, the Taurus ceded its top-seller status to another: Camry
It was as related to the road car as a shark to plankton, but the NASCAR Taurus debuted for the 1998 Daytona 500, becoming the first four-door sedan body style in big-time stock-car racing in more than three decades. The Thunderbird, you see, had been killed.

Oddly enough, the sporting Taurus would also be gone in a year.

Taurus continued to be the best-selling domestic nameplate, but in overall figures it had been passed by the Camry


The 4th-generation: 2000-present (and beyond, for fleets). Once again, we got a facelift - and, again, it was more conservative than the car it refreshed.

Ford is cagey about calling the
Five Hundred a Taurus replacement, but the truth is that Taurus will soon exist largely for fleet sales which would otherwise hurt the Five Hundred's status

Ford Five Hundred

For the 2005 model year come the FWD/ AWD Ford Five Hundred and Freestyle.

The Taurus and Sable sedans will dwindle off into the ignominy of fleet sales, and the wagon - effectively replaced by Freestyle - will be dropped

Swivel your head during your morning drive to work, and a Taurus or two will inevitably come into view. Perhaps you drive one. In all likelihood, you regularly see hundreds of Taurii in a single week.

Not, perhaps, that you might notice.

Although they never reached the planned 550,000 units per year, the Taurus/ Sable have become almost as ubiquitous as Ford's accountants and marketers had hoped, perhaps (at least in part) at the expense of their image. Certainly, sales to fleets have added to the figures, but taken away some of the shine.

Indeed, many have forgotten how significant the aero four-door sedans were at their launch in 1986. Ford, too, has probably forgotten how profitable they once were!

The dream of one man, lifelong Ford engineer Lewis Lew Veraldi, Taurus was a $3.2 billion project that represented "all the money we have left at the company," as Veraldi once put it to the president of his alma mater, Lawrence Tech University (Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford, Eric Taub, Penguin, 1991).

Mr. Veraldi died on October 30th, 1990 of a prolonged illness that had barely slowed him down. He was still very much attuned to the needs and aspirations of the car that had been his mandate.

That car lived on as America's quintessential family sedan, regularly interchanging the top spot with Camcord. Ford had done its sums right, correctly calculating that the price of crude oil would fall for 1986 and thus that larger cars would again be popular; that customers of the outgoing LTD would adapt to the Taurus' new look, and that the Sable would distinguish itself enough to be a viable sister car.

In those heady days, Taurus and Sable shared few body panels (despite appearances, much like the E46 3 series sedan and coup). Fruitless, perhaps, but today Mercury has been still further watered down and struggles for every last bit of differentiation it can find.

As it turned out, Veraldi and his team could not fix everything at Ford. The Taurus hung around largely unchanged for far too long. After a jump-start by Dick Landgraff and his own crew for the third-generation, it has once again been largely permitted to rest on its ever-shrinking laurels.

Ford is cagey about calling the new Five Hundred a Taurus replacement, but the truth is that Taurus will soon exist largely for fleet sales which would otherwise hurt the Five Hundred's status.

With the Five Hundred upon us, the Taurus is slowly retreating. Before it is consigned to history, we propose a look back - both fond and fruitful - at the Ford Taurus, at its impact and at the two major, holistic lessons it taught Ford...

Enthusiasts everywhere will be thankful to learn that Mr. Veraldi was privy to the extraordinary success of his car before he died. The company he so dearly loved had entrusted the last of its funds to him, and he in turn trusted his teams enough to get the best from them.

As we will show, Ford got in return a car that should still be a valuable name - a name, incidentally, that was almost Integra, before Ford decided that the project working name worked best among those proposed by marketing

Yet, as it turns out, the name may be immaterial; Ford would do well to follow the original Taurus' more inherent precepts, even almost twenty years later.


Design

Taurus was primarily about innovation - and a quick glance at its exterior confirmed it. If this is difficult to believe, please bear in mind that with ubiquity and the passage of time comes a certain level of disregard, no matter how revolutionary the product.

It might help to think of the period Chevy Lumina, and Dodge Dynasty - or any period import competitor, for that matter. Taurus may have been derided as a "jelly-bean" by some at its launch, but it blazed a path of uniqueness that others were slow to follow. They would, literally, pay the price.

At Chrysler, for instance, Lee Iacocca "had extremely conservative taste" (as then-Chrysler President and current GM Vice President of Product Development Bob Lutz mused recently).

"He liked, just like Henry Ford II, cars with a waterline belt. The belt line had to be absolutely horizontal. He didn't like anything wedge-shaped. He didn't like anything with a curved beltline.

"Whenever we showed anything with a diving hood or a lot of gesture to it, he didn't like it, because in his programming, that didn't radiate luxury or power" (Modern Chrysler Concept Cars, Matt DeLorenzo).

Lutz and Chrysler Vice President of Design Tom Gale finally got their LH Concorde/ Intrepid/ Vision sedans - but not before Iacocca had been proven wrong, years later.

Taurus helped.

"When I joined Chrysler," Lutz continues, "(Iacocca) told me I was joining at a good time because Ford had made a fatal mistake with the Taurus.

"He said all of Chrysler research indicated the Taurus was going to be a hopeless flop because they got 5 on a 10-point scale, whereas Chrysler's new stuff, the C-body Dynasty and New Yorker averaged 7.6

"The problem was, the 5s that Taurus ran were an average of half the population giving it 9s and 10s and half giving it 1s and 2s. That's how you win in this business. The 7.5s meant the Chryslers were everyone's second choice and no one sells second choices anywhere.

"So he was convinced the Taurus was going to flop, and couldn't understand why it did so well and why we had to rebate the C-bodies almost right off the bat" (Modern Chrysler Concept Cars, Matt DeLorenzo).

Indeed, in those early days, Taurus was nothing if not different.

Its designer, Jack Telnack, had spent time at Ford of Europe and had returned to Dearborn enamored with aerodynamics.

Telnack begged project leader Veraldi to permit him to streamline the design still further, by increasing the angle of the windshield while lowering the cowl, hood, and fenders - just as had been done on the 1983 Thunderbird that first previewed the aero look.

"We can't do it, Jack... mechanically, it's just not possible," Veraldi reportedly said, citing that a more angled windshield would introduce glare and would compromise the ride by necessitating a move of the shock towers (Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford, Eric Taub, Penguin, 1991).

It was, as it turned out, enough that the Taurus was as unique to its segment as the more rakish Thunderbird was in its own. The visible difference from competitors was enough for Ford advertising agency J. Walter Thompson to coin and justifiably use the famous line, have you driven a Ford, lately?

Author Eric Taub notes that "it implied that Ford was changing... the line clearly implied that consumers who tried them before and hated them should try them again, because Fords were better today"  (Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford, Eric Taub, Penguin, 1991).

There was more to the Taurus' design, however, than distinctiveness and aerodynamics - an good thing, considering that the aero look would be emulated across Ford's range and thus become less distinctive.

Taurus brought holistic design to Ford.

Holistic design can mean two things. One definition is the infusion of the design process with marketing and other branding concerns. A relatively new trend, it is sometimes said to be traceable to J Mays, current Vice-President of Ford Design, and to his work on the 1994 VW Concept One.

In our case, however, it refers to the view that a car should be designed as one piece, with a common strategy amongst its parts - as opposed to a collection of fragments with different orientations.

Taurus, then, began this type of approach to design at Ford, an attitude which has permeated throughout the entire industry.

First-generation Ford Taurus interior designer Mimi Vandermolen told author Eric Taub, "I love the Oldsmobile Ciera on the outside... but as soon as you open the door, you say, 'this car's for a ninety-year-old person.'

"The inside doesn't relate to the outside at all. I've heard of people who have gone out to buy one, opened the door, and said, 'I don't want that car'" (Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford, Eric Taub, Penguin, 1991).

The issue, according to Vandermolen, was the 'straight across' form of the dashboard, representative of an earlier time.

The public had long since demonstrated its collective revulsion toward that era of excess, and a preference for the interiors of European vehicles.

More importantly, the Taurus itself would have a more modern look, and so it was critical that the old dashboard style be eschewed for a console that was slightly angled toward the driver, and whose layout was as modern as the exterior. This was holistic design, not merely satisfied by a homogenous exterior, but by a homogenous philosophy applied to every piece of the car.

"The success of these new aero designs enhanced the relative status of designers within the corporations, demonstrating that they could cooperate with engineers to build efficient, smart, high-tech cars that were also exciting and innovative," explains Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of South Alabama David Gartman (Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design, David Gartman, Routledge, 1994).

This was exactly the strategy that Veraldi had encouraged, using his experience and charisma to ensure that Team Taurus members worked solely on Taurus, and understood the compromises that would be required in order to mix everyone's work together in one car. This represented perhaps the first cross-functional, if autocratically led, team in Detroit. We'll take a closer look in the next section.

Unfortunately enough, the update of the Taurus for 1992 was hardly holistic, failing to take into account the car's inherent penchant for reinventing the wheel. The reinvented Taurus was just a refresh, and a conservative one at that. Debuting next to Chrysler's innovative, cab forward LH-cars at the 1992 North American International Auto Show in Detroit made things worse.

Fortune magazine cited Ford's '92 makeover as one of the worst business decisions of the year.

By this point, however, Ford was working on the next-generation, with Dick Landgraff having taken up Lew Veraldi's old charge. Formerly chosen by Veraldi to head year-to-year Taurus changes, Landgraff set out to plan the third-generation under increasing competition from the Japanese - particularly, as he saw it, from the 1992 Toyota Camry.

"Landgraff would counterattack where the Japanese were vulnerable: on style," writes author Mary Walton.

"Japanese cars were boring; they looked as if they had been designed by engineers. It went without saying that the new Taurus would have to be well made - quality was no longer an option. But it would also be the best-looking damned car on the road," Walton adds (Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, Mary Walton, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).

Certainly, aesthetic innovation was a major part of the Taurus' appeal. Walton writes that the exterior designer for the third-generation Taurus, Doug Gaffka, "saw a car as having one of three primal faces: aggressive, friendly, or sad. To his way of thinking, a good front-end design could be aggressive or friendly, but not sad."

Holistic design would, however, continue in the underpinnings of the third-generation Taurus. Walton quotes chief engineer George Bell as saying, "one day, you've got to wake up and realize that you're not selling pieces."

Much like a good aerodynamic design, a good automotive suspension works in tandem. As Walton puts it, one would thus figure that "the overall performance of the entire car (should be placed) above its components... holistic engineering."

Engineers still had conflicts with designers, and both regularly ran into problems with manufacturing, but at least the third-generation Team Taurus did not have to deal with the same problems Veraldi had: the compartmentalized organizations that Chrysler Vice President Bob Lutz would later refer to as duchies in his book, Guts.

As in Dearborn, Lutz was facing the same issues in Auburn Hills in the early '90s. The difference was that Ford had received a jump-start from an insightful managing engineer named Lew Veraldi, who had begun a change in strategy that would forever revolutionize the way Fords were made.

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Strategy

The Ford Taurus represented a clean break with Ford's former theories about what the American public would want to drive. Car and Driver would write at its launch, "this new Ford repudiates everything LTD ever stood for. This new family hauler is easily the gutsiest car of our time."

Prior to the Taurus program, Ford's management - afraid of risking their plummeting profits - had built cars they wanted to drive, looking upon the import movement as an aberration that would subside. Yet the American public drove not to the country club, but in a daily grind that quickly exposed the lapses in quality and innovation that Ford's cost-cutting had engendered.

Moreover, Ford was in a panic and its downsizing reflected a certain expedience. "Show me that grade-eight engineer who designed the air-conditioning duct... because he's the guy that for twenty years has unilaterally decided what the dashboard is going to look like," Ray Ablondi, director of marketing research, fumed (Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford, Eric Taub, Penguin, 1991).

In a realization that air-conditioning had become a necessity rather than a luxury, Ford had quickly stuffed its larger system into smaller cars.

Lew Veraldi was determined to change all that.

First, Veraldi realized that his perfect car would be doomed from the start if it depended on Ford's current corporate layout. Ford, much like GM and Chrysler at the time, had 'brake' people, 'tail-light' people, and 'transmission' people. Each department would work on its own piece of each of Ford's vehicles, then pass the buck on to someone else. When all was said and done, there was no accountability; delays were common when things failed to fit together on the end-product, and it was incredibly difficult under these circumstances for any one car to break the mold.

Breaking the mold was Veraldi's goal, and so - as formally as Ford's organization would permit - he hand-picked Team Taurus members whose sole responsibility was the development of the Taurus/ Sable.

Secondly, a different car required different ideas at every level, and Veraldi had no difficulty stooping downward to lift the car's chances of success. He had learned while heading the '77 Fiesta program at Ford of Europe that not listening to those intimately familiar with their specific skill led to products that struggled for better-than-average ratings in every area from design to reliability.

"The executives are not the ones who are going to come up with the ideas," Veraldi told Taurus' head of interior design, Mimi Vandermolen.

"You and your people are. You're going to be working with this whole community: planners, body and chassis people, component people, marketing, (and) parts vendors. And you, the people on the design boards, are the ones we want to hear from" (Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford, Eric Taub, Penguin, 1991).

Thrilled, Vandermolen and her team set out to revolutionize Ford interior design.

Ford may have been in dire straits but, in every aspect, Veraldi approached the problem not with a nervous conclusion that Ford was not meeting its customers' needs but, rather, with a confidence that the company had the ability to cater to its customers if it listened to its own best ideas. This, after all, was how the Japanese had come up with the cupholder - not by asking drivers what they wanted, but by noticing first-hand that many drank coffee as they drove.

"You don't learn from customer research what people like - you learn what people don't like," advised Volkswagen CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder recently.

"What they don't like today, they will continue to dislike in the future. But what they like - that changes" ('This is what I've learnt,' CAR, August 2004).

Author Eric Taub adds that "consumers are not good at suggesting what new amenities they would like, but tend to comment on what things they'd like changed. The reason is based on a simple principle of learning theory taught to beginning psychology students: it's much easier to recognize something than to try to recall it" (Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford, Eric Taub, Penguin, 1991).

Lew Veraldi knew this - and Ford would have done well to remember it years later, when the first-generation Windstar famously debuted without a second sliding door (because, as Ford protested, focus groups had said three doors would be enough).

Under Veraldi, focus groups provided feedback for Taurus' product development process, instead of dictating it. When the design was judged negatively by such a group, Veraldi noted, "I know that's how consumers feel today, but this car isn't going to be out for three years. In three years people will be sick of looking at the boxy cars that are around now" (Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford, Eric Taub, Penguin, 1991).

As holistic and revolutionary a design as the Taurus was for its segment, Veraldi was convinced that one could not expect buyers to understand its promise if the people who built it did not.

"Give the guy with some equity in the business a stake," author Eric Taub quotes Veraldi as proclaiming. "If you just give him or her a chance to put their oar in the water, the job's gonna work better" (Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford, Eric Taub, Penguin, 1991).

So Veraldi funded a Taurus/ Sable presentation caravan across towns that were the home of Ford's suppliers; he received a letter from a plant worker who thanked him for personally explaining the importance of her particular job (fitting a rubber seal on the Sable's rear window) to the whole, and he commissioned Team Taurus hats, pins, satin jackets, and key fobs for all involved.

By all accounts, and by the actual product itself, Dick Landgraff and his team did a good job when it came time to redesign the Taurus for the third generation almost a decade later.

Their job should have been easier. Ford had begun instituting Veraldi's informal cross-functional team strategy across the company. Yet despite this sanctioned implementation of things Veraldi had been learning-on-the-job, there were more conflicts than the first Team Taurus had experienced.

In Car: A Drama of the American Workplace (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), Mary Walton tells a story of no compromise between Taurus' different functional teams. It seems almost as though corporate strategy had brought the people together, but their way of functioning under those circumstances had not adapted. Old grievances were brought up from the days when the different departments would barely have talked to each other (yet had to deal with the other's shortfalls).

In short, it was not holistic strategy.

Writing for the Retrofuturism project, Art History professor and the University of Santa-Barbara Dr. C. Edison Armi recently quoted Ford Vice President of Design J Mays as suggesting that "great brands are almost always the vision of one or two people. They are not run by committee.

"In this sense, design needs to be a dictatorial process. It can't be a process of democracy." (Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays, Armi & Hodge, Universe, 2002).

For the third generation of his car, then, it seems more understandable that Veraldi was missed. He engendered respect in his team, no matter how informally created, and his charisma was the glue that kept it together in hard times.

In addition, the 1992 Camry pervaded the third-generation Taurus team's perception of the refinement their car would require. It was benchmarked in as many ways as was possible; where Lew Veraldi had looked internally, within Ford, to come up with a better car, the new team were convinced that Camry was a literal target.

This does not make for holistic strategy, either. Autoextremist.com, coincidentally enough, has a piece on benchmarking that you can read here this week.

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Where did Taurus go wrong, and why is its name being allowed to fade?

The problem was not in reliability. Taurus has always been a solid workhorse. Despite initial problems with the first-generation, Ford worked quickly to fix them. Quality was important enough, in fact, that Veraldi himself postponed Taurus' launch from October 1985 to late December.

Steven Wilhite, recently hired as head of marketing for Nissan USA, would face 'voluntary' resignation at VW NA for similarly postponing the introduction of the Golf and Jetta III over quality issues... almost ten years later. Once again, then, Veraldi had acted in a manner ahead of his time.

So, what did go wrong? Simply put, Taurus' life-cycle dragged on too long for a car in this segment. Taurus taught the mainstreamer-buying American public to expect more, and then was promptly leapfrogged as Ford dragged its corporate feet.

Despite the fact that there were four generations in eighteen years, they were really two separate Taurii with, mostly, two facelifts; note that the Japanese have since learned to function in double that time. We talk about inherent and peripheral quite a bit around here, and there is only so much that can be changed - mostly peripherally - without a complete redesign.

Veraldi may have changed Ford's thinking but even he, with his experience at Ford of Europe, could not ease the negative aspects of Ford's size. After Veraldi's death, Ford spent years arguing about whether or not to put the European Scorpio on the Taurus program; the Americans could not afford to lose front-wheel-drive, and the Europeans wanted rear-wheel-drive for better differentiation in a segment increasingly dominated by bottom-rung models from premium nameplates.

When the third-generation finally came, the design was actually quite appealing - but, if homogenous, it could not be described as holistic. This was a family sedan whose interior had not the space of the old car's. It was a vehicle building on a heritage of aerodynamic design (and thus allied to the inherent importance of a quiet, efficient car) with lines that were as different as before, but this time for the peripheral purpose of attracting buyers with a friendlier face.

It dated quickly, and Ford was back to its conservative - if conservatively handsome - ways again by 2000.

 

Why shelf the name? We remain convinced that neutral - and even negative - brand recognition is better than none. Another man greatly respected on these pages - GM Vice Chairman of Product Development Bob Lutz - disagrees, suggesting that, had he arrived at GM in time, the '04 Malibu would have been renamed.

Yet there is, on the other hand, the example of koda. Volkswagen has taken the budget Czech company and used the recognition engendered by well-known, Europe-wide jokes to its advantage.

Last we checked, only koda's customers (who get Volkswagens for roughly 75% of the price) were laughing.

 

Ironically enough, the first-generation Taurus was previewed on a site chosen by the car's enthusiastic public relations manager Chuck Gumushian: the stage of Gone with the Wind. Now, the zeitgeist dictates that the name disappear.

"The ever-popular Taurus and its sister Sable had financed homes, trucks, and boats, put thousands of kids through school, and bought their books, braces, and bicycles," writes author Mary Walton of the Taurus' impact on Ford employees.

"Fat Taurus paychecks swollen with overtime had underwritten countless births, weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. There were years when the other Ford models sold poorly and other Ford plants cut back shifts, but the Taurus had kept right on selling."

No more, it seems.

The name itself, we must note in closing, "sprang from the chance discovery that Veraldi and his chief planner, John Risk, had wives born under the astrological sign of the bull" Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, Mary Walton, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).

One must hope that only this, most peripheral aspect of Veraldi's influence is being phased out. The lessons taught by Team Taurus, however, remain valuable for the new Five Hundred and beyond.

Ford may be willing to forget the Taurus and move on - indeed, it may have no choice, depending on which school of marketing you believe.

Yet the Father of the Taurus never forgot the car even in the final days of his illness (when he would ask about its continued post-launch development from his hospital bed). His impact on Ford should not be forgotten, either.

Recommended Reading... Two books on the Taurus stand out. Both represent the works of authors who were given unprecedented access, and both are part of a select few which truly highlight the way the industry works, from the inside.

The first, published by Penguin in 1991, is Taurus: The Making of the Car That Saved Ford, by Eric Taub
(ISBN #0-525-93372-7). Taub details the development of the first-generation Taurus and Sable.

More recently, Mary Walton's Car (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997) delves into the third-generation which, as it turned out, was the first all-new Taurus in a decade
(ISBN #0-393-04080-1).