Teamistry Season 1 Episode 03

The Car that Saved Ford

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In 1985, the automobile giant Ford was teetering on the edge of financial collapse. Faced with internal chaos, an uninspiring product line, and fierce competition from Japanese cars – they needed a sensation. Enter: The Ford Taurus. This breakthrough model didn’t just rescue the company, it sparked new life in an industry that represented 3% of the United State’s GDP. But how Ford did it is even more surprising. For the first time ever, the venerable carmaker changed how it made cars. It introduced a brand new cross-functional team approach, putting engineering and design together in the same room, and welcoming the contributions of employees across the organization. The Taurus was not just a revolutionary product, it represented a revolution in how to do business. In this episode, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes us to the design floor where together creative geniuses from different departments hash out the details of an entirely new American automobile. We hear from John Risk, the Program Director of the Ford Taurus project, and Jack Telnack, then the head of North America design. We also get the insights of Eric Taub, author of “Taurus: The Making of the Car That Saved Ford,” and David Cole, former director of the Center For Automotive Research.

Teamistry is an original podcast from Atlassian.

Episode Extras

The RoboCop Taurus (Image courtesy of RoboCop archive)

Early Ford factory (CC)

Ford Model A 1903 (CC)


GABRIELA: Have you seen RoboCop, the original, from 1987? It’s set in a sort of futuristic Detroit, Motor City, and stars, of course, this big, cybernetic robotic cop. And one of the most futuristic things in the film—other than the robotic cop— is his car. It’s sleek, rounded, matte black. Ok, honestly, looking at the film today, the car doesn’t look futuristic at all. It’s just kind of a big family sedan painted black. But at the time, there was nothing else like it on the road. Because RoboCop drove a Ford Taurus.

GABRIELA: Everything had to have a futuristic tinge in the 80s. Music was full of synthesizers and people could watch movies at home thanks to VCRs. Cars had to follow suit and the Taurus was the most revolutionary looking car on the market. But here’s the part of the story almost no one knows: the Taurus’s most important impact wasn’t it’s design or handling or interior. It was the way it was built. And who built it. Not a hotshot designer or engineer, but something new in the American automotive industry. An integrated, multidisciplinary group. Team Taurus.

Jack Telnack: Everybody knew they were working on a breakthrough car, something really different, something dynamic.

GABRIELA: But the other part of this story no one knows is that Ford was on the brink of collapse. Their cars looked old fashioned and were unreliable. And were not selling. The Taurus had to be a blockbuster because the fate of the company, even the entire industry, was on its shoulders.

David Cole: they were kind of racing to the edge of a cliff, and a time of really gradual modest change was inappropriate. They had do something really, very differently

GABRIELA: I’m Gabriela Cowperthwaite and this is Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. This show is all about the chemistry of teams...and what happens when people are so open to new ideas of working, innovating and expressing themselves together, they end up doing something amazing.

Harold Poling:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. We're very pleased that you could join us today for the introduction of our new ... Ford Taurus.

GABRIELA: It’s January 29, 1985 and we’re on a soundstage at MGM Studios in Hollywood. Not for RoboCob, that’s still a couple years away. Today, the whole, massive room is decorated with a space theme, even the drinks are being served out of flying saucer shaped coolers. The stage is covered by massive grey curtains. Front and centre is a large podium with the Ford logo. And starting the press launch is company president Harold Poling.

Harold Poling:

We just completed a very good year and looking back, and I trust you'll permit us the privilege of looking back with a sense of pride.

GABRIELA: I think it’s fair to say that in 1985 at Ford, if you looked back only with a sense of pride, you could be accused of wearing rose coloured glasses. The previous decade had not been kind to the auto giant.

Eric Taub:

Reliability was atrocious, fit and finish was a disaster, and Ford in particular, was really in bad shape. They had a lot of internal chaos, they were losing money and they had no product plans going forward.


GABRIELA: That’s Eric Taub, he literally wrote the book on the Taurus - and he’s not exaggerating. In the late 1970s, Ford was facing what some called a “financial disaster of epic proportions”. Mostly because they were making cars that were out of step with the energy crisis

Eric Taub: the time, the American automobile was very conservative looking, they were huge. Land yachts, they were typically called. They all rode similarly as if you were in a living room on wheels. Perhaps most importantly, most cars, even when they were brand new, were very unreliable...many cars wouldn't even start every time when they were brand new.

GABRIELA: The root of the problem wasn’t just the design of the cars, but how they were being designed. And built.

David Cole:

One of the challenges for companies, generally, is you get so wedded to what you were, it is really hard to change.

GABRIELA: That’s David Cole, he’s the former director of the Center For Automotive Research. In the late 1970s, the vanguard of change in the car industry was Japan...

David Cole: companies like Toyota, for example, that were beginning to really revolutionize the business... in terms of the dramatic improvement in quality and other kinds of things, and Ford was left at a spot where you could go down with a sinking ship, or you could change the way you do business...

GABRIELA: The “other kinds of things” happening in Japan, but not at Ford, included aerodynamic designs, cars with rounded corners and no square edges. Smaller cars too, that were more fuel efficient. In the face of this, Ford knew they needed to change. And so they took a massive gamble and put their money where their mouths were: Ford committed three billion dollars to the project. Keep in mind, this is in 1980. Three billion is a massive amount of money at the time. If this didn’t work, it would ruin the company.

Harold Poling:

We want you to understand what these cars are and to tell you briefly how they came to be. I'll be joined this morning by our president, Don Peterson, Jack Telnack, the head of North American design and the chairman Phillip Caldwell. First, Don Peterson.

GABRIELA: Those guys Harold just called out, Don Peterson, Jack Telnack and Philip Caldwell, they were at the head of this revolution at Ford. Here’s Don, who has just taken the stage...

Don Peterson:

we decided five years ago that we needed to try harder to learn what our customers wanted and to follow their lead with our product designs and not worry so much about how different that might make us compared with our competition.

GABRIELA: When Don Peterson first rose to the top ranks at Ford in 1980, he knew that things were changing, especially in Japan. There, automakers were working with integrated teams, not individual departments, allowing them to be more nimble and innovative. Something Eric Taub points out was not happening at Ford…

Eric Taub:

the company in America was really siloed, in the sense that the engineers didn't speak to the designers and they didn't speak to the marketers, who everybody was operating independently.

GABRIELA: But that was going to change, as Don explains at the press conference...

Don Peterson:

Now, let me tell you what went into the execution of the ... Taurus blueprint. Specifically, I want to describe the new level of manufacturing technology and the new team approach... something that may be the most significant new assembly development since Henry Ford's moving assembly line.

GABRIELA: That’s a huge claim.

GABRIELA: Well, one of the first people Ford brought in to build that team was Jack Telnack, who had been working at Ford’s European division as their chief designer. At a safe distance from US headquarters, Jack had the freedom to design aerodynamic cars, like the Ford Tempo.  His team also had a different approach to working together...

Jack Telnack:

I really started to develop the team concept when I was with Ford of Europe... With manufacturing, with engineering, with finance, with marketing, with product planning. And we brought all of these groups together to say, "Hey look, we're on a new project here. We want to have a better working relationship with everyone." ... It was a matter of, I think, showing complete honesty and trust with each other throughout the corporation. If you have a problem, bring it out in front of everyone, let's talk about it, let's resolve it here. I'll call it Directed Autonomy. I was trying to get away from the typical top down type of management, where you told everybody exactly what to do. This was more of a bottom up approach. And it brought up much more creativity with the team by doing it this way.

GABRIELA: This vision for a new approach to working together, this “Directed Autonomy” team superpower, required the right kind of team members, says David Cole...

David Cole:

You want people that are really unhappy with the status quo that get a real charge out of doing things at the front edge rather than trailing behind. Typically, you find the people that are kind of revolutionary, they can't stop. They can't help themselves. They picked the rebels.

GABRIELA: Taurus author Eric Taub says it wasn’t hard to find these rebels within Ford...

Eric Taub:

there really was an atmosphere where people were so annoyed at the intransigence of most people, the desire to simply raise the stock price, the lack of concern for the consumer and the customer, that it was not that difficult to find people who couldn't wait to get involved in some kind of project like this and were more than happy to work together.

GABRIELA: One of these people was John Risk, who was the Program Director of the Ford Taurus project. Cool fact: his wife’s astrological sign was “Taurus.” Yeah, that’s where they got the name.

John Risk:

Many of the programs or car lines that were existing, you would do facelifts, but basically the car was the same. This was an opportunity to work on a car from the ground up, everything being new, including the engine and the transaxle


GABRIELA: We’ll return to the press conference when they lift the curtain and unveil the car. For now, let’s go a few years further back in time to find out how the car was actually made.

GABRIELA: We’ve gone back to 1980, when the team is forming that will design and build the Taurus. John Risk explains why their set up, the Directed Autonomy approach, works so well...

John Risk:

Instead of having one person from, let's say, electrical engineer work on five different car lines, we had dedicated people who worked on Taurus only... So you could have a meeting with 25, 30 people and cover the whole product from manufacturing, engineering, finance. So everybody knew what was going on...

GABRIELA: To understand how radical this is, we have to understand how cars used to be built. First, the designers would sketch out dozens of ideas and the best ones would be turned into full-size clay models. Once that was approved by the folks at the top, the plans would go to the engineering departments, who had to actually make and test all the thousands of bits that went into the car. Then, those specs would be sent over to manufacturing, to prepare it all for the assembly line. One Ford engineer described it this way:

''We would wrap the plans for a new car around a rock and toss it over the wall to manufacturing. If it didn't come flying back within a few weeks, we assumed they could build it.''

GABRIELA: But now, for the first time at Ford, all those people were in the same room. Directed Autonomy meant designers and engineers could map out ideas together, to make sure they worked and made sense. They could even loop in manufacturers, to make sure that what they were dreaming was actually possible. And it went both ways. For instance, assembly line workers asked the team to use the same size bolts for everything, so they wouldn’t have to constantly change their tools. A little thing that saved hours of work, frustration and money. Taurus author Eric Taub has another example of this team approach to car building...

Eric Taub:

When the air conditioning ducts were designed, typically, the engineers would decide to put them where they were easiest to be placed, not where they were the most effective. And then the designers would have to work around where the air conditioning ducts were and decide where to place all the other dials. Which is completely idiotic if you think about it, because it's not responding to what the driver needs, it's responding to what the engineer needs

GABRIELA: But the most revolutionary aspect of the Taurus’ design was an oval, rounded shape to everything. And I gotta say, I still remember the first time I saw it. I was pretty young, barely a teenager, and there was a photo of the new Taurus in a magazine. I remember just staring at this thing and wanting to give it a hug. I mean, it was so chubby, like a hippo on wheels.

Eric Taub:

all American cars were very boxy. They were essentially three box vehicles.

GABRIELA: Yeah, as Eric says, the reason it stuck out so much to me was, growing up in the 70s and 80s, most american cars looked the way I drew cars as a kid: three boxes with wheels. The Taurus, on the other hand, had...

Eric Taub:

...lots of curved lines, flush headlamps, which are unusual at the time, because then most cars had round two or four headlamp systems embedded into the body. They also wanted to reflect the oval Ford logo in the design of the vehicle itself.

GABRIELA: And if you look at most cars back then, and even now, that front logo usually sits on a grill of some sort, which not only provides ventilation to the engine, it can give the car a distinctive look. Team Taurus…. well…. they went kind of nuts here: their car didn’t have a grill. Believe it or not, that was one of the most controversial things they did. Designer Jack Telnack remembers some of the pushback his team received...

Jack Telnack:

And the marketing people and the sales people said, "Well, you have to have a grill. Every car out there has a grill." And we said, "No, not this car. This is a whole new look. We don't need a grill in this car."

GABRIELA: This was a big, big deal that made a lot of people at Ford very nervous. You just didn’t build a car without a grill. It looked weird. So weird maybe people wouldn't buy the car. It was such a big deal, Jack says, this one feature went all the way to the top for approval.


Jack Telnack:

...Bill Ford, who was a vice president of the company and he was head of the design, what they called the design committee, who made the final decision and it was up to him. They threw it back into Bill's lap and said, "Okay, Mr. Ford, you make the decision. Grill or no grill?" He said, "I want the front end with no grill. The aerodynamic front end." I about ran over and wrapped my arms around him.

GABRIELA: That kind of support also came from CEO Philip Caldwell, who asked Jack..

Jack Telnack:

"Are you sure you have gone far enough? Have you reached out far enough on this design? I want something really unique". Now that's never happened before with any of the management teams that I've worked for in the company in the US or Asia Pacific or anywhere else.

GABRIELA: Vision is one thing, but making that vision a reality is a whole other challenge. And making sure that happened was on the shoulders of Team Taurus, says John Risk.

John Risk:

The car, the concept as you've seen in terms of photographs, it was radical in many areas. The front end, the tail lights, the whole sculpture of the car was different and we wanted to make sure that what we were doing in our designing was going to be able to be assembled without a lot of difficulty. And the best way to do that was talk to people that had to do the job.

GABRIELA: So John used Directed Autonomy and went straight to the manufacturers…

John Risk:

I spent time on the assembly line with workers going down the line, riding in the product with them and asking them what changes they would like to see on the next product that would make their job easier to assemble...

GABRIELA: And this collaboration with the manufacturers was supported by Ford at never heard of levels, explains Eric Taub

Eric Taub:

the production people on the factory floor who were encouraged to take their time to stop the line if they were problems to report defects without fear of retribution

GABRIELA: This turns out to be not only a 180 when it comes to corporate culture, but also a powerful team superpower. I’ll call it “Sanctuary,” and it’s the psychological safety to speak your mind. It’s an essential complement to their other superpower, Directed Autonomy. I mean, if you have all these folks, from different parts of Ford, working together for the first time, feeling a sense of creative freedom, that freedom needs to include safety in pointing out problems and concerns. The thing is, there’s a cost to “Sanctuary”: delay after delay. In the long term, the constructive feedback will lead to a better car. But in the short term, those delays are potentially disastrous for Ford.

GABRIELA: It’s January 5th, 1985, and we’re at the Los Angeles Auto Show, one of the biggest and most important auto shows in the country. But you know what’s not here? The Ford Taurus. The hope had been to debut the car now, here, with sales beginning in early fall. But the car needs a few more weeks before it can be shown to the media. The problem with that is that the auto show will be over and the buzz will have died down. So Ford decides on another innovation: turn the launch of the car into a newsworthy event. Eric Taub explains...

Eric Taub:

So they said, "We need to introduce the car in a different manner. We need to do it in Hollywood because this car is glamorous." And for the first time for Ford, they brought in Hollywood people to give it a lot of pizzazz.

GABRIELA:  And so here we are, back  in Hollywood in late January, as the big moment is about to happen, raising the curtain on the brand new Ford Taurus. A car that isn’t quite finished yet. Anyway, here’s Jack Telnack again, remembering this day...

Jack Telnack:

I'll never forget the introduction to that car. We introduced it at a sound stage studio in Los Angeles, and it was a thrill and one of the most exciting introductions I have ever had in my life. And I've introduced a lot of cars around the world, but this one was absolutely the best.

Jack Telnack:

When the introduction started, the music started, the cylindrical drapes, kind of see-through drapes raised on it and the lights came on and the cars were on a high stage, so all the media people were there. It was just the most spectacular introduction I ever saw.

Jack Telnack:

The media couldn't believe it when we took the covers off the models and showed it to the media. They just, you know, the applause went up. It was super exciting.

GABRIELA:  At this point in the presentation, with the new Taurus behind him on stage, Ford’s chairman of the board, Philip Caldwell, goes up to the podium...

Philip Caldwell:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Let me just say that with Taurus, we are seeking to redefine what the family car of the future should be and to set new standards for it.

GABRIELA:  The key word there is “seeking” cause at this point, despite the glitz and pizazz, success is far from certain because the delays just keep piling on. In fact, at one point in the spring, when the Taurus is nearing completion, there’s a new problem: the rear doors aren’t meeting up with the rear fenders correctly. In the past, in Ford’s more unreliable days, this is something that might have been downplayed. But the new team decides to delay production once again. And for every week that cars aren’t being made and the production plant is idle, Ford is losing as much as 50 million dollars in potential sales.

GABRIELA: Despite hopes that those sales could begin in the fall, Ford executives are faced with a time crunch. It’s getting close to November, a time when people just don’t buy cars because they’re focused on the coming holiday season. So Ford makes the decision to start sales of the Taurus on December 26. No car has ever hit the market so late. And this isn’t the only worry at this late stage, explains program director John Risk.

John Risk:

there was a lot of concern in terms of initial styling aspects of it, as to whether it was too radical or not


GABRIELA: That’s right, after all these years of development, and billions of dollars invested, some members of Ford’s upper management are worried that they’ve pushed things too far, that the Taurus simply won’t sell. Chief designer Jack Telnack remembers that time...

Jack Telnack:

It took a lot of guts and a lot of a strength on our part to stay, stick with the design and not change it. It would have been very easy to massage the design and make it more normal, so more people in market research would understand it. But the problem with that is if we, they call it refinement, if we refined it, it would really be normalizing the design and then we would lose the original intent of... The dramatic intent of the design if we did that

GABRIELA:  And it was actually some worried feedback that assuaged Jack’s own concerns...

Jack Telnack:

It was the head of Motor Trend Magazine, Bob Peterson, when I showed him the first model, he said, "Well yeah, that's nice, but now show me the real car.” And I said, "That is the real car you're looking at." And he said, "No, you're kidding." I said, "No, I'm not kidding. That's really it." When you get feedback like that from an automotive guy, you know you're on the right track.


GABRIELA: For John Risk, that feeling of assurance came from seeing the car itself as it first started to roll off the production line in Atlanta

John Risk:

They always drive the car off at the end. I mean they start it up, it's not pushed off and the car started up and the plant went wild. All, everybody, secretaries, the plant manager, people, foremans were all delighted that the product turned out as it did. And I think it was probably the highlight of my career, my 35 years at Ford working on that program

GABRIELA:  It’s early January, 1986 - a year after the dramatic press conference - and the Ford Taurus is in showrooms across America. Jack remembers some initial, worrying reactions to the car...

Jack Telnack:

...when it first came out, a lot of people were surprised, almost shocked. They said, "Wait a minute."

GABRIELA: And it wasn’t just Ford’s future that was riding on the Taurus. If the car failed, and Ford went bankrupt, that could spell doom for the entire industry. You see, automaking then and now represents more than 3 percent of the US gross domestic product. It’s one of the biggest manufacturing sectors in the country. So what happened when the Taurus went on sale? Here’s John Risk...

John Risk:

We had the, both plants, Chicago plant and Atlanta plant going full bore, cranking out close to half a million of these a year.

GABRIELA: The Taurus was a blockbuster hit. No one had seen it coming, but the car was just the right combination of innovative aerodynamic design, full size and a great driving experience. It was immediately named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 1986. Which was huge for Ford because two of the last three Cars of the Year had been European. Not to mention that they beat out award winning cars from Toyota, Honda and Audi for the top spot. Plus, winning the most prestigious award in the car industry pretty much guaranteed a spike in sales. Author Eric Taub...

Eric Taub:

The car just started taking off and did really, really well for them for a good number of years. And saved the company, more importantly. Turned the company's fortunes around. Gave proof to the group that created the car that they were doing the right thing. Allowed them to go back to the company and say, "See? See what we did, what we could accomplish?"

GABRIELA: But the Taurus’ success was about more than just saving Ford. The holistic design approach also changed the American auto industry. Jack Telnack remembers showing the car to Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca

Jack Telnack:

When he first saw it, he said, "It looks like a jelly bean. It looks like a potato." And I said, "Hey, you can say that all you want but you'll have to go this way also. You're going to follow us. You can't keep doing the square, boxy stuff." And sure enough, they did.

GABRIELA: Automotive Research director David Cole

David Cole:

It became sort of the graduate engineering program for the rest of the business because of the success they had with the Taurus

GABRIELA:  So, why does Eric Taub think the Taurus worked?

Eric Taub:

People need to work together. Silos don't work. Jealousy doesn't work.

GABRIELA: The team at Ford managed to negate jealousy by building a space where you could leave your ego at the door. But the success of the Taurus doesn’t come without a warning. Radical changes can be difficult to sustain. If you don’t keep motivating the change or evaluating the way you work, the benefit that comes with change has an expiration date.

Eric Taub:

So these kinds of lessons that companies can learn are easily forgotten, because I think it's more difficult to be adventurous, to look to the future.

GABRIELA: Team Taurus relied on key superpowers for their success, like safety in feeling free to be creative and critical. To find out more about those powers, check out the “extras” page at atlassian dot com slash Teamistry. We also want to know what you think of the show so far. If it works in your podcast app, please give us a rating but especially a review. We read and consider every comment and it helps other people decide if they should check us out. On the next episode, we venture inside the Fukushima nuclear plant, just after disaster struck, to find out how an even greater disaster was averted. That’s next time on Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian.

GABRIELA: Thanks for listening.