I was flicking through Instagram the other night when I saw it: A video of a car dragging its back bumper down the freeway. Scratch that—not just the bumper, but the whole wrap-around rear plastic fascia, bent 90 degrees and flapping in futile fashion as it scuffled the road surface. This sort of thing happens, particularly in the Midwest. What kind of car was it? I recognized the basking-shark silhouette immediately. Drooping nose and tail, oval rear window. A quick check of the taillight colors confirmed it was a 1996 Ford Taurus. The saddest car ever made.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The first-generation Taurus had shocked the world, adopting the sleek profile and deliberate aerodynamic detailing of the 1983 Audi 100 (or Audi 5000, for Americans) for mass-market consumption. If you weren’t there, it would be hard to explain what a big deal it was, but you can get a vague idea by looking up photographs of the competition: Search “1986 Chevrolet Celebrity” and “1986 Dodge 600” and “1986 Toyota Camry.” Next to those bland boxes, the Taurus was something from outer space.
A half-baked refresh in 1992 kept the sales up, but it was obvious that the competition had caught up to Ford’s better idea. At the time, Ford still considered retail passenger-car sales to be a top priority; although the Explorer was already setting sales records, the conventional wisdom of the time was that SUVs would always be a niche item for the major automakers.
The decision was made to shoot for the stars again, the way the original Taurus team had. This time, the target would be the drooping-tail luxury sedans from Jaguar and Infiniti. The 1996 model was intended to be as shocking as the '86 had been. The process of design and development was detailed in ; it’s worth reading if you want to understand how products happen in Detroit, for both good and ill.
The 1992-1995 Taurus had mostly sold on price, but the 1996 Taurus would sell on style. It arrived to massive fanfare; I was selling Fords for a living at the time and I can vividly remember the first one to come off the truck. We’d sold it sight unseen weeks before. The next one sold before it made it through prep.
The third one got to the showroom and didn’t move. A month later, we realized we had a problem.
As did Ford. The 1996 Taurus was too ambitious, too luxurious, too outrageous-looking, and about $2500 too expensive. Buyers weren’t impressed by costly details like the flip-fold center console, oval rear window, or the Integrated Control Panel, which crammed stereo and HVAC buttons into a single bubble on the dashboard. They did notice trunk space was way down. Meanwhile, weight was up. The 12-valve Vulcan V6 that motivated the old Taurus in satisfactory fashion struggled to get this one moving. The 24-valve Duratec cost thousands extra and didn’t develop any power until around 4000 rpm, making it feel even slower to part-throttle suburban drivers.
The styling came in for near-universal criticism, with one particularly prescient reviewer suggesting that the massive front and rear plastic fasciae would look tired in short order. The platform twin Mercury Sable was the target of slightly less vitriol—it had a square rear window, simpler rear lamps, and no quarter window behind the rear doors. It was considerably cheaper to make. When Ford sold the Taurus in Australia, the automaker put the Ford face on the Sable body to save a few bucks and keep the conservative Aussie buyer base from open revolt. Then they tried putting the Sable nose on the Taurus body. Neither combination was particularly well received.
Faced with a disaster of nontrivial proportions, Ford swung into action quickly. A new base model appeared halfway through the ‘96 model year. The equipment mix was reshuffled. The fishmouthed grille was expanded and chromed. A transverse-mounted Yamaha V8 appeared in the SHO model, to general yawns. It wasn’t much faster than the Duratec V6.
Fifty-one percent of 1996 Taurus sales went to the fleets, setting a precedent that still haunts the nameplate 22 model years later. Ford would never again seriously compete for retail sedan-sales leadership.
With that said, however, there were some enthusiastic retail buyers. I was one of them.
In February of 1996 I ordered a Taurus GL in the newly-available mica-flake black paint with grey interior. My reasoning was simple: It was quiet, luxurious, and remarkably cheap to lease if you happened to work at a dealership. I put a roof rack and a trunk rack on it, allowing me to take three friends and our bikes to BMX races or skate parks. Thus encumbered, it was a strange and unpleasant-looking contraption, whistling with wind noise, sagging on the springs, and remarkably sluggish at freeway speeds. But it was comfy and there was plenty of room at all four corners of the cabin.
I did not miss that Taurus when it was gone. By then I was out of the car business for good and driving a new Land Rover Discovery that was much better-suited for my usual purposes. Still, I watched with some interest as the million or so oval-window Tauruses on the road started to show signs of wear and tear. As predicted, the front and rear fascias faded and scuffed long before the steel bodies. The flip-fold consoles broke. The taillights became milky and the headlights dimmed. Many of the Duratec-powered cars went to junkyards early; the quad-cams were tough to service and some of the accessories were prone to failure. The unbreakable Vulcans soldiered on, albeit slowly.
Twelve years after returning my Taurus to the dealer, I met and fell in love with a hairdresser from Tennessee who owned a late-build ‘96 Vulcan-powered Taurus GL in the overly-popular color known as Medium Willow Green. The front and rear fascia were sun-bleached and the quarter-panels were rusty. Not all of the stereo speakers worked. She’d festooned the interior with stickers and dreamcatchers and all manner of Wal-Mart junk. I was always surprised when it managed to cough into life on its recalcitrant AutoZone starter. So was she.
Once, returning to her place long past midnight after an evening on a Florida beach, I misjudged parking clearance and drove my Boxster Anniversary Edition right into the side of her Taurus. It barely scratched the clear bra on the Porsche but crumpled her left rear door. “Well, now it matches the other side,” was her glum and resigned comment. She didn’t much care for the old green sedan, a relic of a teenaged first marriage that hadn’t worked out any better than the Ford had. “I don’t feel my worth in this car,” she once said. After we parted ways, she bought a two-year-old Pathfinder, making her the only person I’ve ever met for whom a used Nissan truck was a definite upgrade.
I believe her Taurus is still out there, plying the highways and byways of Nashville. After 20 years, you still see a remarkable number of the 12-valve cars on the road. Ford was concerned about quality at the time. The company put a lot of effort into the Taurus. You won’t find a lot of its contemporaries out there anymore. The Accords and Camrys rusted away here in the Midwest, the Luminas all gave up the ghost years ago. It’s just the Taurus, pushing on in glum and resigned fashion the same way my ex-girlfriend and I each kept going after a break-up that felt, at the time, something like fatal. You wake up in the dead of winter and you put one foot in front of the other down to the driveway and you hear the starter moan and before you know it you’re on the road to work. Keep doing that and it will eventually come to mean something, if only in retrospect.
Shortly before I married the civil-aviation pilot and rookie racer known as Danger Girl, we happened to pass a Medium Willow Green ‘96 Taurus on the road. It was covered in dents and sagging at the left rear corner, but it was gamely doing its best. “I hate those cars,” Danger Girl said. “Those are the worst cars ever. They are the saddest cars ever.”
I opened my mouth to contradict her but I couldn’t find the words to do it. All I had was this: A story about people who tried to build a good car, a story about a young man who had driven one of those cars around the country with his bicycles and friends, a story about a beautiful woman who trundled a smoky old example around her small town with two dented doors and a dreamcatcher hopefully hung from the mirror.
None of it was important anymore. And in that moment I felt some kinship with the 1996 Taurus. We were both born ugly and we both suffered from a lack of customer enthusiasm, so to speak. We both survived through sheer cockroach persistence. You can find both of us still on the road, still plugging along. Maybe for a long time to come. Not pretty, but present nonetheless.
“You’re right,” I replied, blinking rapidly and dragging a surreptitious hand across the corner of my eye. “Those old Tauruses . . . they’re the worst.”