To say the Taurus was pivotal is an understatement. It spelled success that has been difficult for Ford to duplicate with subsequent models. It was a home run right out of the box.
"Have you driven a Ford . . . lately?" was a catchy musical jingle in the 1980s. But before the release of the company's ground-breaking Taurus, the answer from many prospective buyer's lips would likely have been, "no."
By the mid-1980s Ford was having trouble moving the kind of passenger-car iron necessary to maintain a healthy balance sheet. The full-size LTD and Marquis models were slumping and its high-volume-low-profit Tempo and Topaz compacts, although popular, were being outsold and outclassed by the massive incursion of Japanese imports.
The arrival of the Taurus, along with its close-relative Mercury Sable in the autumn of 1985, gave the beleaguered corporation a much needed shot in the arm and introduced true "Euro" styling in a North American-built car. Smooth and modern looking (at least compared the other boxy machines on the road), the Taurus soon became the car every family wanted to own and one that couldn't have come at a better time for Ford.
Available in four-door sedan and wagon body styles, these cars eschewed the conventional squared-off look that, at the time, was popular with nearly all foreign and domestic manufacturers, adopting instead a design that came to be known as the inverted soap dish or jellybean body.
Other body features included side glass that was positioned flush to the aircraft-style doors, which were cut into the roofline. There wasn't an opera window to be found anywhere and padded vinyl roofs were definitely not included on the option sheet.
The Taurus interior featured plenty of space for five passengers and their luggage, something many competing mid-size cars were lacking. The various switches and knobs were large and easy to find and the dials and the control panel lacked the plastic wood trim, pretend-chrome paint and other tasteless garnish from the past. Ditto for the exterior, where the only brightwork was on the wheel covers.
On base models, motivation was supplied by a 90-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder powerplant borrowed from the Tempo/Topaz line. However, the most popular choice was the 140-horse 3.0-liter V6 connected to a four-speed automatic transmission.
Supported by a heavy schedule of print and TV advertising, the new Taurus struck a chord with buyers who scurried to their nearest dealers to scope out this radically different Ford. Demand shot through the roof and the company scrambled to fill the orders. A major surprise was the popularity of the wagon, which would eventually represent nearly one-third of all Taurus sales.
The automotive press heaped considerable accolades on the new model, praising its forward-thinking design, roominess, comfortable, controlled ride and Euro-style handling qualities. By the end of its second year, the Taurus was North America's top-selling passenger car, a position it would enjoy for many seasons.
In 1988, a larger and torquier 3.8-liter V6 became available, followed shortly after by the performance-oriented Taurus SHO, short for Super High Output.
At a time when most automakers were hard-pressed to come up with 150 horsepower for their bread-and-butter V6-powered models, the SHO delivered an impressive 220, thanks to a 3.0-liter 24-valve DOHC V6 designed by Yamaha that was attached to a Mazda-built five-speed manual transmission. Priced at about $20,000, the SHO cost about $5,000 more than a well-equipped LX sedan.
The SHO was never designed to be a huge volume model, which was a good thing as its five-speed gearbox and almost complete lack of visual identification limited the car's popularity. A four-speed automatic transmission would replace the five-speed a few years later. But for enthusiast sedan pilots, the SHO's competency in the acceleration, handling and braking departments was a treat for the senses.
The original Taurus/Sable bodies and interiors were spruced up for 1992, prior to their complete replacement three years later. By that time, the soap-dish look had been copied by nearly every manufacturer, making it difficult to discern between most makes. What was once a unique and novel style had turned into a plague of copycats. Sedans had become boring again.
With the launch second-generation "ovoid" (oval or egg-shaped-theme) look in 1995, Ford attempted to repeat its breakthrough success of the first Taurus. This design, however, was widely criticized and the Taurus ultimately surrendered its number one position to less audacious sheetmetal.
A revamp based on the Ford Five Hundred platform paled in the comparison to the original's ground-breaking nature and the current Taurus, as sharp looking as it is, is fighting in one of the toughest categories there is, ironically made that way by the original Taurus.
In the two decades since its launch, however, Ford's original styling leader barely warrants a glance today. That's what happens when a revolutionary crowd-pleasing upstart like the Taurus becomes the benchmark for an entire industry.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.shiftweekly.com by clicking the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.