Detroit — When the Ford introduced its Taurus and Sable sedans last winter, it was risking more than just five years of research-and-development. At a cost of $3.5 billion, Taurus/Sable was the most expensive new-car project in Ford history. Many industry-watchers questioned whether the public would warm to the cars' radical, aerodynamically styled bodies, which critics called ``the jellybean look,'' and some speculated that if the cars failed, so would Ford.
``It was a risky strategic change,'' admits Ford executive vice-president Lou Ross. ``Some people said we were playing `You Bet Your Company.' Instead of trying to duplicate what GM and Chrysler were doing, we said it would be better if we went in our own direction.''
Today, as the Taurus and Sable enter the new 1987 model year, they carry with them a solid record of success. Sales totaled 228,118 during the 1986 model year, and demand has been running well ahead of supply.
``There's always 100,000 in the order bank,'' says Ford analyst Ray Windecker. He says sales have been limited by the capacity of the two plants building the Taurus and Sable -- capacity that was trimmed by about 20,000 vehicles because of a four-week strike at the Atlanta assembly line last summer.
Why have the two models proved so successful? One could pick apart the cars feature by feature, but overall credit should go to changes Ford made in the way it designed and built Taurus and Sable.
``In the past, we operated on a sequential basis,'' explains John Risk, Ford's manager for medium and large cars. ``Each group did its thing, then passed it along to the next group. [The process] lacked communications and [perpetuated] the not-invented-here syndrome.''
Traditionally, the first step in the new car process is handled by a stylist who designs the overall appearance of the car. Then engineers make the mechanics fit the shape. After that, manufacturing engineers figure out how to stamp the sheet metal, build the chassis and components, and tool the assembly lines. Suppliers then build specific components.
Eventually, after four or five years, workers are told to put it all together along the assembly line.
Working this way, in near-isolation, stylists might design a fender shape that would be difficult to stamp, or engineers would mount spark plugs in a way that makes it difficult for a repairman to reach.
Suppliers usually have little feedback, either to correct an engineering flaw or to introduce new ideas, since they were called in after most design was done.
``Team Taurus operated on a total continuum,'' Mr. Risk says, ``where everyone was involved right from the beginning. We call this `upstream-downstream involvement.' ''
Team members even paid a call on the Atlanta and Chicago factories which would be building the new sedans to find out what problems workers were facing building the cars Taurus and Sable would replace. In one case that led to a design change that cut in half the number of workers needed to install a windshield.
``If you look for ways to improve [your job], and if you look for ways to improve quality, the boredom will go away,'' says Louis Townsley, a trim worker in Chicago.
Team Taurus also drew ideas from outside the company. ``Suppliers were involved to a much greater degree than would traditionally be the case, and far earlier,'' Risk says. ``As a result, Taurus and Sable incorporated features we wouldn't have had otherwise.''
These include dual sun visors, which allow a driver or front seat passenger to block the sun from both front and side windows at the same time, and a fold-out rear picnic table on Taurus wagons.
Meanwhile, Team Taurus picked more than 400 design features from competitive models with a goal of either matching or surpassing them. Many of those ``best-in-class'' features were found on more expensive European imports, such as the $24,000 Audi 5000.
The dashboards of the new cars are distinctly different from previous Ford models, owing to the influence of Ford's European design studios, as well as German carmaker BMW, which provided guidance in ergonomics, the science of matching man and machine.
Still, the biggest uncertainty facing the design team was public reaction. ``Some of the early results of our research caused us some sleepless nights,'' Risk concedes. ``Consumer panels looked at our early concepts and told us they were too radical.''
The company softened some lines, but overall, designers stuck with their concepts, hoping that exposure to other aerodynamic models showing up on United States highways would soften resistance. Their bet paid off.
Sales have been strong in every region of the country, including the Midwest, where Ford worried that radical styling would scare away more traditional buyers, and on the two coasts, havens for European and Japanese imports.
About 19 percent of all Taurus/Sable buyers have been trading in imports, compared with less than 9 percent of Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis buyers (cars are replaced by Taurus and Sable.)
Significantly, that coincides with a drop in the average age of the buyer of Ford's family sedans. The typical LTD and Marquis owner was 60 years old and earned about $37,000 a year. Ford hoped to see an average age of 50 with Taurus/Sable. It is actually 47, with an average income of nearly $45,000.
Perhaps one of the most important measures of their success is that during the recent round of sales incentives, Ford decided not to offer rebates or low-interest loans on the Taurus/Sable, yet the demand for the cars did not slacken.
The Taurus/Sable design is having a measurable effect on the competition as well. After repeatedly criticizing Ford's ``jellybean'' look, General Motors has decided to echo the styling with several of its own family sedans. Insiders say several of the new GM10s, due out in the 1988 model year, will resemble the Fords.