Have you ever had that feeling of total and utter impending doom? The kind where you physically feel your heart drop down several inches inside your torso into a pit of pure liquid terror? I’m not talking about the little nervous jumps you get when you drive off and realize you’ve left your coffee on the roof of your car, or when my boss Matt bellows my name from his captain’s chair. I’m talking about those times when cold reality hits you like a compressed strut to the head (this actually happened to me) and you realize you’ve made the fuck-up to defy all fuck-ups and nothing is ever going to be the same again. And it wasn’t accidental. It was a choice you actively made. You probably think you are GM.
The GM back catalog of self inflicted disasters is varied and deep. If you’re teaching a class about wrong-headed business decisions, the General usually has you covered. This time however the story involves the company’s arch-nemesis Ford and how it was completely outfoxed by those plucky underdogs at Chrysler, and by the time Ford realized it, it was too late to do anything about it. Even worse, Ford could have implemented the same idea as Chrysler much earlier, only The Blue Oval bottled it after setting fire to a big pile of dollar bills.
When we talk about car design, as opposed to car designers, we’re not only considering form and style, but packaging, engineering, technology, marketing and all the other internal and external factors that coalesce together to influence a car’s final form. Cars that we consider copper bottomed design classics of the kind that make designer dandies like me shed a single tear of joy usually bring some advance to the market in one of these areas. The pure necessity driven functionality of the original Jeep; the art and hydropneumatic weirdness of the Citroen DS; the no-nonsense engineering of the Beetle (I hate Beetles. Sorry, Torch); the packaging of the 1959 Mini; the futuristic aero of the 1982 Ford Sierra. You get the idea.
Why the Original Taurus is a Design Classic
The 1986 Taurus was so state-of-the-art, it hurt. Flush glazing and door handles. One piece door stampings. Composite headlights that Ford had to lobby the NHTSA to make legal. No grille opening. Front wheel drive. Inside it was all soft touch plastics, modern rounded shapes and integrated elements designed around the new fangled witchcraft of ergonomics. Ford took the boxy, Brougham-y, chrome laden dross its domestic rivals were still peddling and drop kicked the lot into the trash. The Taurus doesn’t quite get the recognition in snooty car design books it deserves because the Sierra came first, but both programs were massive financial rolls of the dice. If either had become showroom poison they probably would have bankrupted the company.
Ford played it safe with the ’92 Taurus, an evolutionary update of the ’86. Now they had converted people, they didn’t want to scare off those hard won customers and lose the number one sales spot. But by the time they began to think about that car’s replacement, the DN101 ’96 Taurus, the market had moved on. The Accord was the now the best selling sedan by over 100,000 units, and a strip down of the ’92 Camry revealed Toyota was spending approximately $1000 more than Ford in the BoM (Bill of Materials). They were going to have to do something extraordinary.
Ford Has Commitment Issues
Apart from the main advanced and production design studios, OEMs often have a skunkworks where the really advanced design research takes place. Geographically and organizationally separate studios, they throw shit at the wall and see what sticks free from corporate interference. The kind of place Torch would work, were he employable anywhere else. [Editor’s Note: Shit, did Adrian just almost fire me? – JT]
Ford was no different. They had Ghia in Turin which often submitted styling ideas for forthcoming models, but they also had the Ford Scientific Laboratories, which in 1981 come up with a fun-to-drive two seater commuter car called the Optim. Ford did nothing with the idea, and in 1983 Honda released the CRX. This wasn’t the result of Honda goons breaking in in the middle of the night and making off with sketches from the drawer marked “top secret.” Car companies often find themselves working on similar ideas because they are all affected by the same things. Ford had bet the farm TWICE on the Sierra and original Taunus, yet when presented with the minivan and Optim, two opportunities to be first to market they choked harder than the Dolphins on a third down.
Chrysler on the other hand, was about to hit its early nineties purple patch. Iacocca had saved the company but was about to collect his gold watch. Knowing he was on his way out designers and engineers were freed from just slapping mock roof hinges on yet another K car variant and able to explore more advanced ideas. Remember in our Porsche 357 article we talked about how studios test ideas on secret concepts? In 1986 Chrysler did exactly that with the Navajo. It never went further than a full size clay but after Chrysler bought Lamborghini it 1987 it was publicly released as the Portofino, and it became the design template for what would be the LH cars.
Packaging is everything in car design. You work out where all the spinny bits and meat sacks are going to go, and then contain it all in the exterior shape. It’s like playing Tetris in 3D where everything has to go somewhere. The Portofino was a four seater super sedan but the passenger compartment was shoved much further forward than normal to make room for the engine ahead of the rear axle.
Don’t Ask the Public
Upon catching sight of the pre-production Dodge Intrepid at the 1992 Detroit show, Ford’s DN101 program managers and engineers suddenly realized they were fucked. Without being bought dinner first. The new for ’93 Intrepid pulled the ’86 Taurus trick of looking like a sports sedan from the planet Zorb. Long, low and with the base of the steeply raked screen pulled forwards to make more room inside it was called ‘cab forward’ and it shocked Ford Executives right down to their MBA branded underpants. Incapable of taking a shit unless they had multiple research reports confirming pants were down and butt was over water, they had been wheeling indeterminate numbers of DN101 theme clays out to show Mr. & Mrs. Nobody of Nowheresville in clinics for their considered design opinion.
Even though the next Taurus was still four years away, Ford had committed so much money (again) to the program there wasn’t anything left over for a new platform. It was going to have to make do with an extensively reheated ’92 Taurus undercarriage. Ford wanted another revolutionary Taurus like the ’86. The trouble was, they didn’t really understand how they had managed it first time around. Or rather, they didn’t want to understand because a lot of the design decisions were influenced by qualitative factors like feeling and emotions, rather than quantitative ones they could measure and put a number to.
No one was more shocked by the LH cars than Ford engineer Dennis Wingfield. He had worked in Ford Scientific Lab on a car named D-FC55, starting back in 1985. Initially just a research project, it eventually expanded to become a brand new world car platform for the US, Europe and Australia. In 1987 it got a program manager and a proper budget and by1989 it was on its way to becoming a real production car.
The thinking was one platform could provide the underpinnings for every sedan Ford sold worldwide – modular in-line engines mounted transversely of four, six, and eight cylinders. FWD and RWD. This was where the bonkers T Drive concept originated. Ultimately the program’s waistband got too expansive for its pants – it ended up too ambitious and bloated and Ford needed the money to pour into CDW27 (Contour/Mystique/Mondeo). But When Wingfield blew up images of the LH on the photocopier to compare dimensions, he realized aside from the fact it used a longitudinal powertrain layout it was essentially the exact same packaging idea as D-FC55. Ford could have had cab forward years before the LH cars.
Ultimately all Ford had to show for D-FC55 after spending millions of dollars were the 1991 Contour and Mystique concepts that bore no relevance to the CDW27 based cars that would appear in 1994. The blobtacular designed by committee ’96 Taurus unsurprisingly met with apathy in the marketplace and only regained its best seller status for a year by being shoveled towards airport rental counters. By 1997 the Camry had usurped it and pissed off into the sunset. The LH cars had saved Chrysler (again) and provided them with the confidence and finances to start getting really crazy later on in the decade. Cab forward was such a good idea Chrysler used it again at a smaller scale for the Cloud cars.
Torch and David had told me if work here for another fifty years I’ll be eligible for the Autopian Staff Shitcan benefit, which will give me a $1000 budget for a company car. Hopefully that will be enough to score me to a minty Dodge Stratus, because design credibility isn’t always found in the pages of the wanky books I buy to look good on my shelf.
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
The second gen of the cab-firward cars was where Chrysler really got wild, to the point where an exec from another company told a Chrysler guy (Bob Gale? I can’t remember) “wow, your concepts look great,” only to plotz when told they were the production cars. The Intrepid, Concorde and 300M all looked great to my eyes, even if the drive couldn’t back it up.
It was the opposite of what you normally see, where the company gets a little wild with a new design, only to go more “normal” for the refresh. Not sure whether they do this on purpose, but it seems like a logical way to go.
Yeah it would have been Bob Gale, he was VP of design at the time.
The CRX is the only good car on the page.
Who pissed in your vodka this morning?
Just what I was thinking.
[JT: no, I think that was just major shade]
I remember hating the Taurus in the late 80s. The lack of grill just looked wrong. Almost ironic considering I came from air-cooled VWs and the 911 & 959 were my aspirational poster-cars. I did like the Tbird coupe, but mostly in profile (and TURBO: it was the 80s after all!)
Thankfully, I’ve mellowed a good bit and usually don’t expend bile on someone else’s buying choices. Much.
“ I have to work here ’cause in any other part of the country I’m unemployable” – Matt Albie Studio 60
The Taurus grillelessness didn’t bug me but the Sable with the light bar really did. That was a good idea but ineptly executed.
FFFFFFF man I’m admittedly a few deep into bourbon and cokes, but this, this right here is why this website is going to succeed and other ones will fail:
Your passionate diatribe about the design impact the first gen ford taurus had on automotive progress is SPOT ON, buddy. Nobody else is writing about things like this, from a design perspective as a whole. Sure, there are lots of blogs catering on hypercars, unobtanium, and prose that praises handling/acceleration/the experience of the car, but when it comes to intangibles, that’s what makes industrial design so interesting. This isn’t a huge technical leap in performance; a similar era dodge or chevy may be equal or even surpass the performance of the taurus in some engineering metric, but Adrian nailed it. It was such a huge leap forward from what separates “old school” cars from ones that feel “modern”, and things that most people appreciate but they take completely for granted and are not noticing or acknowledging that car design is not just simply a “pretty shape”, we are not stylists, we’re DESIGNERS and that means integrating not just shapes/curves/surfaces, but knowledge of materials, construction methods, ergonomics, usability, AND engineering constraints, and finding a balance between all these things to move the needle forward.
I’ll buy you a drink for this if we ever run into each other in person. Keep writing shit like this, I am geeked about it. Cheers!
Of course, there was the ur-example of Ford missing an opportunity due to analysis paralysis leaving them incapable of taking a shit unless they had multiple research reports confirming pants were down and butt was over water, the Edsel.
They spent a full decade on market research and missed multiple record sales years only to launch into the teeth of the first recession in 15 years which eviscerated the mid-price market they were aiming for.
….’Original’ design for the Taurus?
… meet the Audi 100, from 1982.
Four years before the Taurus.
Audi appreciated the flush handles & flush glass rip-off…
Just what I was thinking.
And the NSU Ro80 came before that. The Audi didn’t feature flush doors handles and didn’t have one piece door stampings.
It’s one thing for a premium manufacturer to make a bit of a fuss about their aero efficiency. It’s another matter entirely for a mass market OEM to go all in with it for a mainstream product, especially considering the conservative nature of the American market.
I can assure you I look for packaging, design, technology and engineering with my *car designers* as well as my cars. I mean, have you ever looked at a younger Marcello Gandini? He ain’t too terrible in a 70s Italian way. Also, does it make me a weirdo if I actually open my stack of automotive coffee table books? It’s just they’re really, really pretty inside…
We also can’t forget an even bigger product gaffe by Ford. Iacocca was all about developing the minivan at Ford until Henry the Deuce fired him. Chrysler was happy to get Iacocca and went full speed ahead with his K car derived minivan concept in ’84.
By the time the the Windstar launched in reaction, Ford had already been left in the dust by the Voyager / Caravan / Town and Country.
Yeah I mentioned it in passing as an example of how they’d lost their nerve at a critical moment, but that’s a pretty well known story and I didn’t want to let the article get sidetracked.
Good testing, have a cookie.
I forgot the impact of the original Taurus. I remember reviewers of the time acting betrayed because despite it’s looks it wasn’t a “sports sedan.”
When the Taurus first came out, I was working for a company that provided me a company car. The fleet was all Malibus of the day. Horrible, despicable excuses for a car. One day, I parked “my” car for a few hours, then went out with a colleague to go somewhere. We got in and I turned the key. From the engine bay came a noise that could only be described a something from a sci-fi horror movie. I promptly turned the engine off. We looked at each other and I decided to try again. Car started and everything seemed normal, but I was suspicious, so I decided to sit and let it run for a minute. That’s when the steam came out. We got out and there was a lake of coolant in the parking lot.
The doctors in the GM emergency room explained that the bottom of the radiator had split right open. I think they might have also used “shattered”. The short time I ran the engine after was enough to overheat it and warp the head or something.
When the owner of the company got word, he went on a rant barring any purchase of GM product. Apparently they had had too many issues with GM pickups and vans too. His cousin who ran the GM dealership that had ‘earned’ his business was excommunicated.
A week later I was presented with a brand new base model Taurus. It was like being upgraded from the back of a human smuggling tractor trailer to first class on the Concord. This car was really a revelation. It drove pretty much like the European sporty cars I was used to, but was huge inside and not so big outside. I would think about turning the AC on and the car would be Arctic cold before my hand reached the button. Not something my previous Euro cars could do, if they even had AC.
The Taurus had only been shipping on the market for less than a year at this point. Word a the office was I either got it to be a guinea pig and see if it would hold up, or I got the first one as compensation for having driven that fuckin’ Malibu. Eventually their fleet migrated all to Ford; for good or bad. I only stuck around for about half a year more, but that car was a real perk. Especially when I had to take longer trips.
We didn’t get the Optim, but Ford turned out the EXP. Just as good, right? Right??
We have an Optim at home.
The Optim at home: EXP.
Ford was too busy designing the catfish Taurus. “I want OVALS EVERYWHERE!!!” This was right before they decided every vehicle name needed to start with an “F”.
To be honest, the Taurus update in ’92 was pretty good! When comparing my ’89 SHO to the ’93 SHO, the fit and finish as well as durability was so much better. I thought they softened the suspension too much, but my wife preferred the new model’s ride.
Also, car designers are always throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Having a cab-forward concept doesn’t mean they would have designed a better car around it. Look at the ’93 Probe GT. That is kind of cab-forward, resembling the D-FC55, and we know how that went.
Car designers in the advanced and production studios (these days it’s usually just one studio, although the processes are somewhat delineated) are working at most one generation ahead (probably six or seven years). The research studios don’t even think that way. They’re looking ten, fifteen years ahead and totally not bound by anything.
Ok, let’s be real for a second. Was ‘cab-forward’ ever anything more than a fad? Sure, it seems to ‘expand interior space’ on paper, but in reality most of the gained space is right on top of the dashboard, thus you end up with acres of dashboard and a long reach to clean the inside of the windshield. I’m not convinced it really did much for legroom up front and unless you extend the wheelbase then you’re not getting much increase in rear legroom either. My grandmother used to own a cab-forward Civic sedan (8th gen) and the only notable part of its design was really the way the dash was miles ahead of you. I guess that can improve perception of space, but the rear seats were still as cramped as usual. Even with modern EVs it seems ‘cab-forward’ isn’t really a thing, Hyundai Group’s E-GMP pushes the wheels to the corners, yes, but the cabin remains set-back as is traditional. Even VW’s I.D. Buzz just mimics a cabover by having a long ass dash.
True, part of ‘cab forward’ was really more powerful marketing to help shake a stodgy image. You don’t always need a radically new idea, just a good way to market it.
To your point on the Civic, Honda pushed the base of the A-pillars on the current one further back a couple inches to make a longer hood, yet also increased interior space a bit over the prior gen despite being about the same dimensions outside – and the prior gen also moved away from the cab forward look of the 8th and 9th gen.
And on the subject of EVs, the Blazer EV’s wheelbase is 121.8″ too, another long one – more than 3″ longer than the Ioniq 5. But that’s just an advantage of having less of the spinny bits (as phrased in the article) to wrap a car around I think.
The LH cars were extremely roomy relative to anything else in the segment, including the Taurus. Cab forward was a real innovation.
I wouldn’t compare them with a Civic where moving the A pillars forward was more of a styling thing.
It’s worth noting that the LH cars were also physically larger outside than most of its competitors, yet priced the same. Enough so that they fell into the EPA large car category.
Against the 2nd gen Taurus, the Intrepid was about 9″ longer and 3″ wider. At GM, the the W-bodies were also narrower than the LH, and mostly split the difference in length between the Taurus and Intrepid with the Lumina being just ~3″ shorter than the Dodge. The Intrepid’s interior volume was somewhere between the GM W- and H-bodies – which still supports the point on LH roominess, since space efficiency was not a W-body strong suit.
Still a win for Chrysler, but kind of queued up a trend where they seemed to be better at selling big cars at smaller car prices than smaller cars at smaller car prices. Even the extended wheelbase 3rd gen Chrysler vans were 2″ shorter than the original Intrepid.
“Family sedan” was more about the target market than just based on size. a bit broad when it came to sizes, since the Taurus was always larger both outside and in than the Camry and Accord – with the Accord being a compact according to the EPA designation all until the 6th gen in 1998.
The Jaguar iPace basically is incredibly roomy for its footprint.
Good one. It’s still a bit fugly, though. I really want to like it, but boy is it a computer mouse.
I really like it, because it’s the least EV looking of all the EVs, which are either wheeled medical equipment or Cyberpunk 2077 downloadable content.
“…a lot of the design decisions were influenced by qualitative factors like feeling and emotions, rather than quantitative ones they could measure and put a number to.”
Such was my experience as an advertising art director when trying to convince clients our campaign ideas were solid. Marketing managers needed numbers to show their bosses and to cover their asses. If the result of this B-school numerology hokey-pokey was uninteresting ads that didn’t perform well, at least they could point to the pretest results. So I’m amazed when any kind of truly wonderful product comes out of corporations.
Ford had used a guy (I can’t remember his name and the book is upstairs) for consumer research on the ‘86 Taurus, but because of his ethnic and academic background (he was part Navajo and exceptionally well qualified to `PhD level, just not in the ‘correct’ fields) he was basically dismissed by the C Suite who were very much of the Deeming/Sigma Six school of management.
And six sigma :p
Nice piece. I enjoy these OEM inside-info history lessons!
Looking at that image of the Dodge Intrepid, I was kind of shocked to see how much front overhang it had, because that’s not the way I remembered it. (lol) I guess the dash-to-axle figure is the real telltale.
Regardless, I thought those cars were a triumph of packaging. They had a ridiculous amount of passenger space, like Mercedes S-Class level, all without being THAT much bigger on the outside than other cars in the same class.
The overhang is because of the longitudinal installation of the engine. A lot of FWD Audis have a big front overhang as well. No free lunches!
You say that like the Audi S1 SWB isn’t the most perfect car in the world.
“Packaging is everything in car design. You work out where all the spinny bits and meat sacks are going to go, and then contain it all in the exterior shape.”
I actually laughed out loud
“Packaging is everything in sex toy design. You work out where all the spinny bits and meat sacks are going to go, and then contain it all in the exterior shape.”
This works too.
I plagiarised myself from a piece I wrote for the Porntopian.
This entire article is remarkable, but this one got me:
“Incapable of taking a shit unless they had multiple research reports confirming pants were down and butt was over water”
This is the kind of writing that keeps me coming back and encouraged me to buy a Velour membership!
That’s what I like about this place. It has personality, and a very clear voice that is shared across the writers. They all have very distinctive personalities and I’m sure many readers can tell who wrote an article without looking at the signature. But collectively they have an Autopian voice that’s distinct from, say, the old lighting site, or The Drive (which has good writers but not much of a voice). You can tell an article is from here vs any other car site. It’s not just the humor and inside jokes. Even the toilet humor is a step or two above the average poop jokes.
I hope it stays this way.
“The Taurus doesn’t quite get the recognition in snooty car design books it deserves because the Sierra came first” – feel like that’s largely dependent on where the author’s based out of. I don’t think American ones ever mention the Sierra, unless it’s in the context of Merkur; likewise I wouldn’t think most Euro ones mention the Taurus. (Except here!)
To me the Chrysler vans were more illustrative of how Ford screwed up. Chrysler and Ford both had a huge hit, some of the most defining vehicles of the ’80s, that saw evolutionary design updates in the early ’90s and were about a decade old. Chrysler not only applied the hit new styling but brought new innovations to the table, while the improvements Ford made weren’t as tangible or impactful like it was in 1986, and were overshadowed by the concessions, like less trunk space despite being a bigger car overall. The styling might have been allowable if it didn’t take practical considerations backwards.
And then like you said about Toyota spending more per car in 1992 – right when Ford invested more to make a more refined car, Toyota cut costs and lowered the price on the 1997 Camry – while also going more conservative in styling.
I think that’s probably quite an astute observation – but it’s worth noting that one of THE great car design critics and writers, Stephen Bayley is a big fan of American cars as well. But I checked all my snooty car design books and the Taurus wasn’t mentioned. Any designer worth their sketch pad should consider all car design equally, no matter where it comes from.
Beautiful story. Thanks a lot (thumbs up emoji) 🙂
Stating the obvious, volume manufacturers like Ford, GM, and Toyota make their money on, well… volume. And the way to sell volume is to give buyers “more of the same, but different”.
At this moment in time, Chrysler wasn’t really selling volume… or much of anything. The LH was risky in the same way as a Hail Mary pass in football. And following the analogy, Chrysler didn’t have anything to lose by taking a risk on a (relatively) wild idea – in a way that Ford couldn’t.
GM’s strategy seemed to be “hey we make a million models, surely enough people will find something they want”, Chrysler frequently swung for the fences, and Ford was kinda evolutionary – a few reasonably decent designs that are slowly worked over to remove the kinks/improve them over the years.
That’s kinda changed now given the pressures of 24/7 media, but back then it sure seemed to hold.
Ford’s an odd one because they will get in a holding pattern for a long period of time, then suddenly go wild, and then iterate on that for a while.
I’ve always been fascinated too by how Ford flips back and forth on styling within model line generations.
It often creates a wild new thing, then at the first refresh, tones it all down to have a more “good neighbor” feel, which is then amped back up at the next one. All with varying degrees of success.
The Focus is a great example of this – the original New Edge design was crazy unique when it debuted in 1999. Then at the 2005 refresh, all the edgy got rounded off. But come 2008, it was back, but this time with an oddball boy racer vibe.
The European Mk2 Focus (and Mondeo) really took a turn towards crisper, more geometric design because J Mays became Ford VP of design and he’d previously been at VW.
I love the lines of the Mk2…which we didn’t get here in the States. 🙁
Instead, we got a refresh of the refresh of the Mk1. It grows on you but is most notable for its fairly incongruous Fast N Furious-y elements – complicated headlights, clear-ish taillights, white face gauges, fake aluminum center console, etc.
GM, and to a lesser degree Ford, we’re really stuck in their Dearborn country club way of thinking about the American consumer when the market was changing rapidly underneath them. It was to a certain degree arrogance born of their success and market dominance throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies.
Have you ever had that feeling of total and utter impending doom? The kind where you physically feel your heart drop down several inches inside your torso into a pit of pure liquid terror?
Yes. Usually involving red and blue lights, “no officer I didn’t know I was going that fast, the speedometer said 85”
Love your assessment of the Taurus interior. I always feel it’s under appreciated how the Taurus mostly created the ’90s rager jellybean/melted soap bar design ethos, but also the wrap-around interior that properly went with it.
Earlier ’80s sedan interiors – in the States anyway – were all sharp and pointy, a lot of angular things side by side. The Taurus was just so different. Though I do appreciate how fake wood trim migrated over for a time. I mean, it was an American car after all.
Yeah, American cars (in fact the American aesthetic in general) tends toward slightly more decorated and flashy.