The auto industry's hits don't come much bigger than the 1986 Ford Taurus.
The Taurus' jelly bean shape set the industry's styling template for 15 years. It cruised like a visitor from the future onto American streets filled with blocky, chrome-bedecked barges.
Consumers loved it, making the Taurus the top-selling car in the United States for five consecutive years, from 1992 through 1996.
The Taurus, conceived when Ford Motor Co. was losing billions, vaulted the company to solid profitability.
Ford's internal changes during the development of the Taurus were equally groundbreaking. Ford's first two nonfamily CEOs, Philip Caldwell and his successor, Donald Petersen, evangelized on behalf of a new corporate culture that emphasized employee creativity and teamwork.
But today, the Taurus tale is bittersweet. Through the untimely death of a key executive and the loss of discipline during prosperous times, the company fumbled away many of the lessons it learned.
The Taurus and its sibling, the Mercury Sable, are slated for extinction. And Ford Motor Co. is struggling to emerge from another severe financial crisis.
Even so, the Taurus launch was one of those exceptional times when an automaker's designers and engineers propose an uncompromising, visually stunning vehicle and the company actually builds it. As Ford searches for the key to a revival, it could do worse than to re-examine how it built the Taurus.
A push from Caldwell
In the early 1980s, Jack Telnack was hearing things from senior Ford executives that he had never heard before.
Telnack, then chief design executive for Ford North American Automotive Operations, chose the design team for the Taurus and Sable. Early in the process, Caldwell grilled Telnack about the new vehicle. Ford's CEO seemed intent on reversing the traditional roles of conservative executive and free-spirited designer.
As Caldwell recalls, he asked Telnack: "Are you going far enough? Are you going modern enough? Are you really doing a style and a design that is going to be the beginning of a trend rather than the last cycle of a trend?"
It was an unprecedented conversation for Telnack, later Ford Motor design chief. "I'd never heard a CEO say that."
After a while, Telnack began to believe that the exhortations went beyond standard rhetoric. The design staff had heard rah-rah speeches before, only to see executives turn timid when it was time to sign off on a production vehicle.
But this was different, Telnack says. "They'd always back off and say, 'You've gone too far,'" he says. "Phil didn't do that. He pushed us."
Caldwell's statements reinforced the message Telnack was getting from Petersen, then Ford's president. Petersen says he was distressed by the dull work he saw in Ford studios when he returned from Europe in 1980 after a stint as executive vice president of international automotive operations.
"Frankly, I wasn't happy with what I was seeing," Petersen says. "I asked them if they were pleased with what they were doing. There was head shaking."
Petersen says he urged designers to forget past restrictions. One early result was the aerodynamic forebear of the Taurus, the 1983 Thunderbird.
Ford design had been loosening up before that, according to Telnack. The 1979 Mustang, with a slanting front end, broke the mold of older Ford products. And European automakers were moving in the same direction. The Audi 5000, for instance, offered a smoother shape.
But the Taurus brought a fully aerodynamic design into the U.S. mainstream. Ford was targeting middle-class family buyers who were, Telnack admits, probably more concerned about trunk space than leading-edge styling.
With the Taurus, Ford offered changes that went beyond the overall shape - windows flush with the body, considerably less chrome, a lowered front end, tires pushed out to the corners of the body and an aggressive stance.
Although the rounded shape gradually won acceptance, the decision to delete the traditional grille remained controversial. Designers wanted to replace the usual chrome-covered rectangle with an oval opening.
Debate became so intense that the product development team produced two prototypes - one of which had a traditional grille. Ford's design committee weighed the two, Telnack recalls. It was only when William Clay Ford Sr., the head of the committee, approved the no-grille design that it went forward.
The planets line up
"It was Bill Ford who said, 'We're going with this one,' " Telnack says. "I just about leapt up and threw my arms around him."
There were solid reasons to approve the Taurus design. Telnack says that the smoother shape produced significant savings in gas mileage, providing "no-cost fuel economy." And Ford's desperate need for a breakout success required that it gamble on a head-turning look.
It was a rare opportunity, Telnack says: "You could almost say that it was the right alignment of planets at the time that allowed us to do the car."
As revolutionary as the Taurus design was, it was only part of a broader transformation of Ford's inner workings. The innovative structure of Ford's Team Taurus helped make the design statement possible.
Team Taurus was put together by Lew Veraldi, a hard-driving engineer who knocked down the barriers between the disciplines involved in vehicle development. In the past, engineering might spend considerable time to create a component, only to be told by finance that it was too costly. Or manufacturing might veto a design as impossible to build, junking months of work.
But in Team Taurus, representatives from the various disciplines worked together. Petersen says that made for much earlier resolution of potential problems. For instance, the team took early prototypes to plants to avoid last-minute manufacturing problems.
"They did some marvelous things to make the vehicle easier to assemble," Petersen says. "There really wasn't a lot of time in the old system. The assembly plants would have seen a prototype, but it would have been too late to make significant changes."
Veraldi demanded quality. At a crucial moment, as the first cars were being built, Veraldi halted production to fix ill-fitting body panels. The decision delayed the launch for several months as production dies were remade.
In the 1991 book Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford by Eric Taub, Veraldi said: "In the past we would have just pumped the cars out and said, 'Well, we'll get better later.' "
Veraldi's team pushed employee involvement. Assembly line workers were encouraged to call attention to quality problems and suggest fixes. Though the practice is common today, it was radical at the time. Ford ran its plants with a top-down system that rewarded making production numbers above all else.
To Caldwell, the Team Taurus style took hold when executives no longer had to press employees for ideas. Seeing concepts bubble up from below was "beautiful to behold," he says. And the success of Taurus sent a wave of positive energy through the company.
"When you've been in the swamp, and we were in the swamp, and you get to dry ground, that's where the reward comes," Caldwell says. "You have the financial rewards, but you also have the rewards of accomplishment that you are identified with."
In a fairy-tale version of the Taurus story, the company would be rewarded with permanent success. Ford reaped significant profits, of course. (See chart on Page 242.)
But Ford failed to maintain its edge. In the view of David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., "Ford forgot what it learned." It never established a common development process modeled after Team Taurus. And Veraldi's death from heart problems and diabetes in October 1990 robbed Ford of its champion for quality and teamwork.
"He was the one who had the strength of personality to make it happen," Cole says.
The Taurus' success, coupled with high profits from the explosion of light-truck sales in the 1990s, sapped the company's discipline, Cole says. By the second-generation 1996 Taurus, he says, development was slower, cost discipline was looser, and detailed quality benchmarking was lacking.
"In the next generation, I knew they had lost it," Cole says. "It was like some other company had developed Taurus."
Petersen agrees to an extent, saying, "It's just very, very hard to keep priorities the way they should be - that quality is the No. 1 priority."
Petersen says he winced when he heard executives say quality was no longer an issue: "I thought to myself, 'Like hell. Uh-oh, uh-oh.' "
After years of imitation, the Ford aerodynamic shape is common today. Ford is cutting back Taurus production after seeing U.S. sales fall from the peak of 409,751 in 1992 to 332,690 in 2002. Ford has said the Taurus and Sable will be replaced.
And Ford Motor Co. once again is beset by the kind of losses it suffered two decades ago. The question is whether Ford once again can marshal the innovation and discipline that produced the jelly bean-shaped Taurus in 1985.