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Source: The Detroit News

End of Ford Taurus closes era

The car's 21-year run notches almost 6.7 million in sales when it halts production in '06.

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

The Taurus trend

• Acknowledging its aerodynamic styling, Taurus was introduced to the public at MGM Studio's Sound Stage 85 -- where "Gone with the Wind" was filmed

• Production was launched in 1985, as a 1986 model

• 1989 marked introduction of the first Taurus SHO model, short for Super High Output

• Taurus received a styling update in 1992, resulting in its highest-ever annual sales of 409,751

• From 1992 through 1996, Taurus was America's best-selling car

• 1996 marked another redesign, and a sales spike of 401,049 units

• 1999 was the last model year for Taurus SHO

• Through March of this year, having been relegated primarily to fleet status, Taurus was on pace to sell just under 187,000 units

The last Ford Taurus will roll off the assembly line in the first three months of 2006, ending a 21-year run that has racked up nearly 6.7 million total U.S. sales.

The news was relayed to employees at Ford Motor Co.'s Atlanta plant in an April newsletter distributed by United Auto Workers Local 882.

With its jellybean shape, the debut 1986 model helped revolutionize American car design and pull Ford out of a financial tailspin. By 1992, it was the country's best-selling car -- a title it held for five consecutive years.

But in recent years, as sales have waned, Ford has been pushing the Taurus out of its retail lineup and into the fleets of rental car companies. It is being replaced in dealer showrooms by the Ford Fusion, which debuts this fall.

The end of Taurus production robs Ford's Atlanta assembly plant of its last product. Production of the Mercury Sable, a Taurus twin, ends this month -- and no new product has been earmarked for the plant, which opened in 1947 and employs nearly 2,000 hourly workers.

"We all know the plans are to stop running the Taurus during the first quarter or 2006," the UAW bulletin said. "Get yourself in a good financial situation and prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario. We are doing all we can."

Ford would not confirm when Taurus production will end and declined comment on Atlanta's future.

Widespread speculation has the automaker updating the site by installing its flexible manufacturing system.

Ford has said it wants up to 75 percent of its North American assembly sites to feature flexible manufacturing capability by the end of the decade.

Already installed in locations such as Dearborn and Kansas City, the system enables simultaneous production of several different products based on two or three basic designs. This saves time and money during model changeover.

Speculation about Atlanta has centered on production of a sport wagon and a pair of Lincoln cars based on the underpinnings of the Ford Five Hundred sedan.

Ford began production of the Five Hundred in Chicago last year after the plant stopped building the Taurus and Sable.

The automaker installed flexible manufacturing technology at Chicago where workers build the Mercury Montego sedan and Ford Freestyle crossover vehicle on the same line as the Five Hundred.

Ford has been discussing future investment in Atlanta with officials in Georgia.

News that the Taurus era is nearing an end was met by mixed reaction.

"It was a good car," said Mike Sereni, general manager of Jorgensen Ford in Detroit. "It still is. People still like it."

While most units are sold to rental car companies, it remains available as a retail offering. More streamlined than its predecessors, the 2005 model is on pace to record just under 187,000 sales for the year.

Where will Taurus buyers go? Sereni said they will migrate to the Fusion, while Taurus owners who are looking to move upscale are more likely to buy the larger Five Hundred.

"We'll be able to satisfy both ends of the market," he added.

The Fusion will share its underpinnings with two other 2006 products -- the Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr. All three will be built in Mexico.

The original Taurus, with its rounded corners, was a stark contrast to the sharp-edged designs of competitive products. Workers at Ford's assembly plant in Chicago were so shocked they thought their jobs were jeopardy.

"I remember when that came out," said Bryon Fitzpatrick, chairman of transpiration design at Detroit's College for Creative Studies. "It was a real departure for an American car with all that oval shaping. I found it annoying."

But the look captured the public's imagination and Ford humbled competitors such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. The Japanese automakers had begun to dominate the midsize car segment.

"In some respects, you could almost characterize it as a car that helped save the company," said Joe Phillippi, principal of New Jersey-based Auto Trends Consulting Inc. "It was certainly considered revolutionary at the time. It was exactly what Ford needed."

In 1989, Ford spiced things up by launching the Taurus SHO -- short for Super High Output.

"In the glory days, it had quite a loyal following," said Brent Kanon, owner of Denver-based Pro Street Performance -- formerly I'll SHO U Performance.

Few people will remember Taurus fondly, said Kanon and Fitzpatrick. But Sereni disagrees, adding the car has numbers on its side.

"There will always be a sense of nostalgia about that car because there have been so many generations of buyers," he said.
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