For Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally, the biggest disappointment of his first days on the job was to find out that the company had killed the Taurus.
Long before Mulally was hired in September, the struggling company had decided to stop making what once was the most popular car in the U.S., a decision that had him perplexed.
“How can it go away?” he remembered asking. “It’s the best-selling car in America.”
On Wednesday, at Mulally’s insistence, the automaker officially announced at the Chicago Auto Show that it was reviving the Taurus name. It will place the storied moniker on the 2008 version of the Five Hundred sedan.
In addition, an upgraded version of the Freestyle crossover vehicle will be re-badged as the Taurus X, and the Mercury Montego, the Five Hundred’s cousin, will be renamed the Sable in the coming model year. The Sable was the Taurus’ nearly identical cousin, with 2 million sold under the Mercury name.
Mulally, in an interview with The Associated Press, said he couldn’t understand the Taurus’ demise and doesn’t know why the company gave up on the name of a car purchased by 7 million buyers during its 21-year history. All he knows is the decision was wrong and needed to be fixed.
“The Taurus, of course, has been an icon for Ford and its customers,” Mulally told the AP. “The customers want it back. They didn’t want it to go away. They wanted us to keep improving it.”
The Five Hundred, which Mulally used for a time as his personal car, should have been named the Taurus all along rather than starting with a new name, he said.
“Think of how much time and attention and money it takes to establish a brand,” Mulally said. “It’s going to take unlimited effort and time to try to build up the brand that we have with the Taurus.”
The Five Hundred, built on a Volvo frame and considered a capable but dull car by industry analysts, never took hold in the marketplace. It 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, standard electronic stability control and some cosmetic updates for the 2008 model year, when the name change will take place. The new version will be in showrooms this summer, company officials have said.
Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas, said the company did extensive research to see if the Taurus name still meant something to consumers.
“It does, in very positive manners,” he said after making the announcement of the name’s return.
The Taurus name is one of the top three most recognized Ford nameplates, behind only the F-Series pickup trucks and the Mustang, said Cisco Codina, Ford’s vice president for North American marketing.
The Taurus was among the company’s top nameplates in the 1980s and 1990s, but by the end of its lifetime it was almost exclusively sold to rental companies and other fleet buyers.
The car, considered futuristic when it debuted in 1985, was redesigned in 1996 but 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.
The Five Hundred also received little advertising support after its initial launch.
“We’re going to get out of the business of throwing away or letting products die on the vine, so to speak,” Fields said.
Ford wouldn’t give specific numbers for what it spent to market the Five Hundred or how much it will spend on the Taurus.
“Clearly not enough on the Five Hundred and definitely more on the Taurus,” said company spokesman Jim Cain.
The Taurus name has been cheapened by the lack of attention it received toward the end of its life, especially as a rental vehicle, said Mike Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.
“It’s difficult for me to see contemporary, turnaround, go-forward brand equity here,” he said.
Ford Motor Co. lost $12.7 billion in 2006. 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 Dearborn, Mich., company’s sales dropped 8 percent last year, when consumers shifted from trucks and SUVs to more fuel-efficient cars and Ford had few desirable models.
Mulally, hired to rescue troubled Ford from his post at Boeing Co., studied the team-based approach to building the original Taurus and used some of its tenets in producing the highly successful 777 passenger jet.
While at Boeing, Mulally drove a Lexus luxury sedan, which he said was among the finest automobiles in the world. Now he says the Five Hundred is “very competitive” with the Lexus.