Historiography: The Day The Auto Industry Changed

Photo courtesy of the Ford Motor Company

December 26, 1985.

In Canada, this was "Boxing Day." As it is in the rest of the British Commonwealth. In the USA, it was the day when bad gifts were returned back to their stores for something the recipients wanted more than what they got.

It was also a remarkable day in the automotive industry. Maybe not one for weather events, as it was the day after Christmas.

Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers knew it would be the most significant day in the history of their business. Waiting for them on their lots are trucks from the Atlanta and Chicago assembly plants full of what will become the biggest savior of the Ford Motor Company since 1964.

This historiography is not just about the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. It is about the impact these two cars had on an industry coming out of a recession a few years back. It marked a time of new prosperity that resulted from that recession and the economic policies of the Reagan Administration that fueled it.

1986 Ford Taurus
Photo by Randy Stern

It seemed, however, that not everyone benefitted from this era of prosperity. Yet, the middle class knew that their lives would be different if they bought something new and exciting, such as the aerodynamic and ground-breaking Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable.

The mid-1980s were a time when new vehicles lured customers back into showrooms. Not just from established brands, but of newer ones, too.

It was also a formidable period in my automotive journey. I was coming into my sixth year as a licensed driver in the state of California. I also discovered that I could rent vehicles with it and a credit card. I was making OK money, but I wanted an escape from the mundane. My undergraduate studies at California State University, Northridge sucked, and I fell into a flux regarding my original educational path. I would switch majors just before the first Ford Taurus arrived at our local dealerships.

Yet, I was enthralled with the latest and greatest offerings in the marketplace. I started driving a few of them and found freedom and release behind the wheel.

Leading up to the day after Christmas in 1985 was a series of events on the industry side that brought us to the Taurus and Sable. The recession and the establishment of economic policies that would define the Reagan Era eventually spurred on new consumer confidence in the USA. The automotive industry already progressed on several fronts with the Detroit manufacturers converting many of their models to front-wheel-drive and reducing their size further from their predecessors of the 1970s. The Japanese began to expand further with Isuzu, Mitsubishi, and Suzuki establishing dealership networks in this country.

Second gen Honda Accord
Photo by Randy Stern

Other Japanese automakers who have established their beachheads in this country decades ago began building assembly plants in our country. Honda opened up shop in Marysville, Ohio, while Nissan established their first facility in Smyrna, Tennessee. Toyota would join up with General Motors on co-production at a plant in Fremont, California. Even though these assembly facilities created American jobs, there was still a backlash against these same manufacturers as they grew their business across this country.

A growing Japanese presence sparked a downturn in European automobiles in this country. Volkswagen and Renault were building vehicles in this country. The luxury brands began to scale upward, finding a new upwardly mobile customer to help spark sales at their dealerships. The prize for success used to be a Cadillac or Lincoln. A new generation of customers passed up these showrooms for (West) German Brands: Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

The shift in consumer trends called for a shift in the way their next vehicle would look. Prior to the arrival of the Taurus, the application of aerodynamics in automotive design began to take root. The idea was to make vehicles sleeker, less wind resistant towards higher efficiency and improved driving dynamics.

Ford was already on the forefront of this design movement. In 1981, European customers bore witness to the Sierra, a new family-sized car that would replace the dependable Cortina and Taunus. The principles seen on the Sierra would soon be applied to the 1983 Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar. A further step on the Sierra would be the establishment of doors that would wrap around onto the roof. Key panes of glass would be mounted flushed to the outside of the body panel. This would be followed up with the Tempo/Topaz sedans later in 1983.

Photo by Randy Stern

Meanwhile, Audi created a blueprint for the modern automobile. They took aerodynamics further by mounting all glass, including on the doors, flush with the outside of the body. They also found ways to cheat the wind across every inch of the car. The Audi 100 debuted only to shake the core of the automotive world. We would receive the new 100 for 1984, called the 5000 for North American audiences.

Around the same time, Isuzu brought over a car that began as a concept and would soon translate into production without many changes. The Piazza coupe was an ItalDesign study on how the sports coupe will look in the 1980s. Isuzu gave it a rear-drive platform with a four-cylinder engine and a sporty suspension to begin with. It arrived in the USA as the Impulse to a mixed reaction. The Japanese sports coupe market in the USA already had a few established players in it, such as the Toyota Celica and the Mazda RX-7. Isuzu knew they had a challenge in their hands, but they also knew they had a few tricks up their sleeve for this visually stunning entry from a company partially owned by GM.

Automotive design was changing. Yet, customers weren't all that excited about it. Ford customers began to warm up to the idea of aerodynamics in their vehicles. Were they prepared for what was to come on December 26, 1985?

That question should have been asked of GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, and Nissan customers. A Chevrolet or Plymouth customer would have not been ready for an aerodynamic design revolution, but they began to see bits and pieces of it on their newest offerings. In particular, Chrysler added more fluid door and glass design on their ground-breaking minivans and the Dodge Daytona sports coupe. Subtle hints of aerodynamic design principles were starting to appear on Japanese models, too.

Chrysler Employees Motorsports Association Show 2015
Photo by Randy Stern

It would be safe to say that the Taurus and Sable would shock the sensibilities of mainstream America automotive consumers. Yet, the Taurus established a record sales pace that would break their own record for the Mustang. It seemed that American consumers have been waiting for a sedan and wagon that would be different in design but would be highly practical and efficient to drive.

What came after the day after Christmas of 1985 would further create change in the automotive industry in North America. We would see the introduction of four new brands in our marketplace. Each one of them would play a significant role in the industry for the latter part of the decade.

Honda had an inkling that the luxury market would expand further to include new vehicles and opportunities. They had two vehicles in their domestic lineup that would fit the need for an upmarket push – the Civic-based Integra and the Accord-based Legend.

The challenge for Honda was to decide how to sell these two new products in the luxury car market. Rather than having them sold in the same showroom as their popular Civic and Accord models, they created an all-new dealership channel in the USA. The new brand would be called Acura.

1986 Acura Legend
Photo by Randy Stern

The Acura Legend was a fine automobile with standard V6 power, a larger cabin and more cache than the top Accord model. New customers flocked to these Acura dealerships to become one of first to own one. It was exactly what Honda expected from its largest market. Not to mention, Acura dealers were the place to be, as they exhibited exceptional customer service from the initial research phase to the service bay.

The Legend also spawned another new brand onto this market. Honda and Austin Rover had an agreement to co-produce and develop vehicles that shared technology and offered a better build quality than previous British-built automobiles. In Britain, the Rover 800-Series arrived with major acclaim. Plans were already afoot to bring the 800 stateside through a distribution company established by South Florida dealership magnate Norman Braman.

The last Rover sold in the USA had a terrible reputation, despite being highly advanced for a British automobile. The name would not be used for the car and the brand. Instead, they would use the name Sterling. Though the brand was announced in 1986, they were not able to get their first models sold until after the start of 1987. However, if you peeled off the body and the rich interior, you would find a n Acura Legend underneath. Though the people who sold Sterlings would rarely tell you that. After all, the Sterling was sold at a slight premium above the Legend.

Across Europe came another brand of automobile for the USA market. This country was still in the Cold War with the Soviet Bloc, but this country had an interesting relationship with then-Yugoslavia. Zastava have been building variants of Fiat's automobile for decades in what is now called Serbia. It took the enterprising Malcolm Bricklin to broker a deal to bring Zastava’s subcompact hatchback to the States and sell it for a starting price of under $4,000.

The Frankensteiner Show 2015
Photo by Randy Stern

Not a lot of customers bought into the idea of a car built in the Balkans. Our stereotypes of the people of the now-former Yugoslav republics were raised when various problems were found on each GV and GVX. Yet, it seemed like a good idea considering that there was a push to open up the lower end of the new car market to these Serbian-built hatchbacks (and, later, convertibles), as well as other sub-$6,500 vehicles.

Then came Hyundai. The Korean auto maker began selling cars in Canada a few years prior to its arrival south of the border. They decided to sell an all-new model that would be modern, aerodynamic, and affordable. In fact, they set pricing to start from under $5,000.

The Excel was the first front-drive Hyundai ever produced. With some expertise from Mitsubishi, Hyundai sent a record number of Excels to a market that wanted inexpensive cars that were different than its competitors. Over time, customers found a few issues with the first generation Excels. However, the impact of these first units on the car market in the USA would last as long as Hyundai improved their vehicle quality and developed better products for today's customers.

The focal point of this year was clearly the Taurus and Sable. No matter how many inexpensive or luxury cars were sold, the Taurus and Sable was the change the American automotive industry needed. It not only changed the way Americans viewed popular family-sized sedans; it changed my perspective of the automobile, period.

Photo by Randy Stern

The buy-in already happened with GM's A-Body mid-sized sedans. The Taurus took this concept of a front-drive, 5-6 passenger sedan to another level. It was a look into the future though it was as easy to operate as an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera or Dodge 600 sedan. It was more robust than a contemporary Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. Eventually, the Taurus would unseat the Accord and Cutlass as the best-selling passenger car in the USA. That is a testament of the impact the Taurus made upon the automotive industry.

I did not get my first chance at a Taurus until the latter part of 1986. I rented a 1987 GL sedan for a run down to San Diego and my first (and only) Chargers game in Mission Valley. Until then, I designated the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera as my "go-to" rental car, because it was just fine to drive. That first Taurus changed everything for me. It was simply a much better car. It had better performance, driving dynamics, comfort, and quality. It was more engaging than any sedan before this one.

The Taurus experience changed my perspective on the American automobile. It became the measuring stick against anything I would drive for the next couple of decades. Ford's rounded mid-sized sedan would also influence everyone else to step up their game in competition against the Taurus. Not just from American competitors, but from all comers. The Toyota Camry may be more reliable, but there were a few things they could have done better against the Taurus. The Accord was already handsome and advanced for many eyes, but Ford had several advantages over its Honda rival.

1986 Ford Taurus Interior
Photo by Randy Stern

Even in the middle of the Malaise Era, there was an atmosphere of change in the automobile industry. It was as simple as stepping up the design, quality, drivability, performance, and economy to frame that popular segment for decades to come. It all had to begin somewhere…sometime.

That is why we should mark December 26 on our calendars. That day – the day after Christmas in 1985 – was a turning point for the automobile.

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