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Car: A Drama of the American Workplace

On the third Monday in May, 1992, a shiny black Lincoln Town Car pulled up to a low metal shed at Ford Motor Company’s Dearborn Proving Ground, where a knot of men waited in bright sunshine. A small, tanned, compact man with little button eyes, an outdated mod haircut, and a commanding nose climbed out of the back seat and began to complain. What a trying time this little man had had! His weekend had been exhausting, there had been a golf tournament with movie stars, followed by some of the worst weather known to man, bad even for the inhospitable British Isles, and on the way to this Ford gig, he’d very nearly missed the Concorde. He was still tired, even after a night’s sleep.

The people waiting for the little man ushered him into the shed, displaying the respect due a dignitary, especially one with so fatiguing a schedule. “Would you like something to eat, Jackie?” A cloth-covered table held plates of fruit and muffins, assorted sodas and bottled spring water. Jackie Stewart, one of the finest automobile drivers in the world, winner of three Formula One World Championships a couple of decades back, declined refreshments and took a seat for a briefing on the day’s agenda

He had been summoned by Ford to drive three prototypes of the 1996 Taurus, which would go into production in two years. The Taurus was the most important car in Ford’s lineup. In 1992 it had been the best-selling car in America, and it appeared headed for the first place again in 1992. For the four years before that, it had been in the number-two spot, just behind the Honda Accord. The Taurus had history, the Taurus had class, the Taurus had status. It was the flagship of the Ford fleet. America’s car! Not only was it Ford’s most successful car, but it was widely credited with rescuing the company from its downward slide in the 1980s. It was The Car That Saved Ford. Redesigning it was like reformulating Coca-Cola. Misreading the customer in some fundamental way would be a disaster.

A redesign of this magnitude was like a gigantic cinematic extravaganza, years in the making, with a mega-million-dollar budget, a staff of thousands and no guarantees. For all its collective research and artistic convictions neither Ford nor any other car company could predict with certainty the direction of public lust. The Taurus was the company’s best, most educated guess in terms of style, content, performance, and price, but it was still a guess. It could be a smash hit, a must-have, or it could be merely okay, another capable car from Ford. But if it were neither, if in fact people did not like the 1996 Taurus when the curtain went up, if they did not buy it when the wraps came off, the flop would be spectacular.