All good things must come to an end, and Ford Motor Company’s good thing, the Taurus sedan, came to its end Friday as the last of what was once the most popular automobile in America rolled off the Chicago Assembly Plant.
“Taurus broke new ground at its start, and we’re thankful for its role in our portfolio,” said Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president for U.S. marketing, sales and service.
That’s one way to put it. What the Taurus did at the start, when the new 1986 model was introduced, was stumble out of the blocks, badly. An innovative car — the first vehicle Ford with front-wheel drive — “the latest in Ford engineering and design” was initially plagued by problems.
A week after it debuted, 4,500 Tauruses and Sables — its twin sister under the Mercury nameplate — had to be recalled due to faulty ignition switches. More recalls followed to replace window glass, which had a tendency to shatter. Followed by problems with surging and stalling engines. And transmission troubles. Not to forget a smell of rotten eggs that took Ford months to solve.
In all, 80 percent of buyers of new Tauruses and Sables reported significant problems, J.P. Powers & Associates reported at the time. One owner, picking his Taurus up from having its power steering fixed at the dealer, had the transmission fail on the drive home.
Yet the flagship survived its difficult birth, for a variety of reasons.
First, the car just looked cool. Based on the Sierra, introduced in Europe in 1982 — some called it a “spaceship” — the Taurus seems futuristic, with headlights and fenders flush into the body and a sleek, aerodynamic look — to see how radical it was, compare it to the sharp corners of the Ford Granada, the car it replaced.
The Taurus’ look won the car a starring role as a Detroit police cruiser in “RoboCop” (the story is that the police car designed for the movie drew guffaws of derision on the set, and director Paul Verhoeven was just starting to panic when he saw a new Taurus drive by).
There was its 140-horsepower, V-6 engine, and despite its difficulties, the Taurus was still named the 1986 Motor Trend Car of the Year.
The Taurus went through six generations of design change, becoming more oval then, when customers resisted, sharpening its line again.
By 1992, the Taurus became the best-selling car in America, a position it held for four years, before being pushed off its pedestal by the Toyota Camry. Last year, about 51,000 Tauruses were made at Chicago Assembly, compared to 20 years earlier, when the factory was making nearly 400,000 a year.
All told, 8 million-plus Taurus passenger cars were assembled, most of them at Ford’s plant at 130th and Torrence Avenue, making it Ford’s fifth best-selling nameplate, after, No. 1, the F-Series pickup, the Escort, the Fiesta and the Model T.
Some of those final Model Ts were made at this same Chicago facility 91 years ago. The Torrence Avenue plant opened in 1924 and is Ford’s oldest continuously operating factory, undergoing a $400 million makeover in 2004. The Hegewisch institution employs 4,000 workers, a number of whom gathered around the final Taurus on Friday for a photo the company set up offering an otherwise unusual sight: a crowd of workers grouped around a vehicle in a factory where human beings can be scarce and industrial robots do much of the assemblage, looking like giant mechanical dinosaurs, ducking in to weld a part, sending off a spray of sparks, then abruptly pulling back.
At least in theory the final Taurus. The last rites on the Taurus have been pronounced before, after the 2006 model year due to slumping sales. But the Taurus was brought back for 2008 due to consumer demand.
That probably won’t happen this time. The end of the Taurus should be viewed in the context of a general decline in demand for automobiles — U.S. sales of full-size cars have fallen by a third in the last five years, and last spring Ford announced it was eliminating the manufacture of all car models except for the Mustang and the Focus Crossover.
Ford said there will be no layoffs at the plant, which will retool to produce the Ford Explorer, Police Interceptor Utility and Lincoln Aviator SUV, adding 500 jobs and investing another $1 billion.
“Innovations will continue for today’s customers with Ford Explorer and the rest of our lineup,” Ford’s LaNeve said.