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Ford Renames Ford 500 Taurus, Hopes to Reverse Lackluster Sales by Resurrecting the Taurus Name

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2008 Ford Taurus Nee Ford 500

DETROIT February 6, 2007; Tom Krisher writing for the AP reported that Ford Motor Co. might hope resurrecting the once-mighty Taurus name will help reverse lackluster sales and a lack of desirable cars. One analyst says it's a good start but the automaker has a long way to go. Ford will rename its slow-selling Five Hundred model the Taurus, a name Ford previously had used for a car that became the nation's top-seller, two company officials said Tuesday.

The officials spoke to The Associated Press on the condition they not be identified by name because the official announcement had not yet been made. The announcement is expected to be made Wednesday at the Chicago Auto Show.

"It addresses one of the issues Ford has: With all the name changes, it lost a lot of the consumers," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with Boston-based Global Insight. "(New Ford Chief Executive) Alan Mulally is not an industry guy, but he is a smart businessman. He's sort of looked from the outside (and said) ... `What are you doing, and why did you discontinue the name?'

"But in the end, it's about product. They still have a tremendous amount of work to do on their product lineup."

The Taurus, considered by some the car that saved Ford, revolutionized the way autos look and feel when it was introduced in 1985.

The Dearborn-based automaker ceased production of the Taurus in October after 21 years and sales of nearly 7 million, perplexing many industry analysts and former Ford executives who said the brand name had great value.

Ford spokesman Jim Cain would not confirm that the Taurus name will be brought back, but said Mulally has been interested in the Taurus ever since arriving from aviation giant Boeing Co. last year.

Cain said the company would make news at the Chicago Auto Show, but he would not say what it was.

"It will be announced in Chicago, whatever it is. I'm not confirming or denying," he said.

The Five Hundred, built on Volvo architecture, sold moderately well in 2005, its first full year on the market, but sales nose-dived last year from almost 108,000 to about 84,000.

It will get a new, more powerful engine and some cosmetic updates for the 2008 model year, when the name change likely is to take place. The new version will be in showrooms this summer, company officials have said.

The Taurus, called a "jellybean" or "flying potato" when it first was introduced because of its futuristic curved design, was an immediate hit, with buyers snapping up more than 263,000 in 1986, its first full year on the market.

It became the best-selling car in America in 1992 with sales of nearly 410,000, unseating the Honda Accord just as Japanese imports were starting to take hold in the U.S., and it held the top spot for five straight years until it was supplanted by the Toyota Camry in 1997. Even near death last year, it sold 175,000 models in September, mainly to rental car and other fleet buyers.

Ford also sold another 2 million Mercury Sables, the Taurus' nearly identical twin. It is likely that the Five Hundred's Mercury counterpart, the Montego, will be renamed the Sable.

The company was losing billions in the early 1980s when Taurus was just an idea. Philip Caldwell, chief executive at the time, challenged designers and engineers to come up with a radically different car that would return Ford to profitability.

Ford is overdue for some of that radical rethinking, Lindland said, not the tweaks planned for the Five Hundred.

"The Five Hundred was a huge letdown in terms of styling and proportion -- all the more reason to be a little bit out on the edge, like the original Taurus was," she said. "In an ideal world, Ford would never have even bothered with the Five Hundred. They would have just redesigned the Taurus."

Last year, Ford lost $12.7 billion, and it was forced to mortgage its factories to set up a credit line of more than $20 billion as it undergoes a radical restructuring plan.

The Taurus, redesigned in 1996, became a symbol of the company's current ills. It was left almost unchanged for 10 years with little advertising support as the company focused on high-profit trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Ford, left with few desirable cars, was caught flat-footed this year when consumer tastes shifted away from trucks. Its sales dropped 8 percent last year as buyers went to more fuel-efficient models made mainly by Asian brands.

Mulally, tapped to rescue the company, helped revolutionize product development at Boeing in part by taking inspiration from the broad, team-based approach Ford used to create the Taurus in the 1980s.

Ironically, those ideas failed to catch on at the automaker, some industry observers say.

Mulally, who in the 1990s managed development of Boeing's enormously successful 777, applied the Taurus ideas to that project.

Associated Press Writer Jeff Karoub also contributed to this report.