Redesigning the Ford Taurus

BOOK Car by Mary Walton W.W. Norton 360 p., $26.95

If you're going to write a 350-page book on redesigning an American car, it might as well be the 1996 Ford Taurus.

For almost a decade, since the first Taurus was introduced in the mid 1980's, it had been a resounding success. The company had been in sour economic shape, but the car soon became the best-selling automobile in America, a ubiquitous vehicle in suburban driveways across the country. But compared to the European smooth-curved cars flooding the market, the old Taurus was beginning to look boxy. Tampering with it was ultimately necessary, but also immensely dangerous: as Mary Walton writes in Car, it was "like reformulating Coca-Cola."

From the initial discussions about how to refashion the car in 1992, through the myriad meetings, arguments, sketches and prototypes that went into the final model, Mary Walton, a business writer, was given complete access to the $2.7 billion investment.

In large part, she acts a bit like a stargazing astronomer, surveying the skies for an interesting sight, then analyzing it in painstaking detail. In a chapter called "Heat Wave," for example, she zooms in on the development of the climate control system and the subsequent battle for incoming air waged by the different engineering factions. The engine guys needed the air to cool their oil and transmission fluids, the fuel folks wanted it to keep the alternator from overheating, and--of course--the climate people had to have enough air to pump into the interior. They could solve the whole problem by making the grill larger, but that would require a less sleek front-end, and no one wanted that.

Walton's writing style is very punchy, as if to reflect the short, tough speech patterns of workers in the car industry. "In the world of automotive head lamps," Walton writes, "you had your forces of light and your forces of darkness, that was how Kim Peterson saw it. And Peterson was a light force. He liked bright head lamps....Truck head lamps were his idea of great lamps."

The book is sub-titled "A Drama of the American Workplace," but there is little that is dramatic in her story--it is entirely devoid of romance, palace intrigue, melancholy, blood or tears. The climactic moment in a given chapter might consist of a guy storming into the design center, screaming something about how "you guys" are making it impossible to fit in a solid chassis and then storming out.

Unfortunately, the most interesting sections of the book--when Walton moves away from the minute intricacies of constructing the Taurus and focuses on the larger issues surrounding car building in America--are all too rare. Walton explains, in an enlightening digression, that the design of the "'96 Ford Taurus was unique in that the company set out to make a car in the Japanese mold--they aimed to spend more money and less time, and to create something which could rival the smooth precision of a Toyota-built automobile. In short, their mission statement was 'Beat Camry."' In another chapter, "Deals on Wheels," she visits a dealer to explore the tactics of salespeople as well as the peculiar haggling which characterizes almost all automobile purchases.

These sections, albeit excellent, are presented by Walton as peripheral, as stuff to get out of the way so you can get back to the good stuff--spark plugs, transmissions and powertrains. These minute mechanical tales, however, grow tiresome. No doubt there is a great story here somewhere,but it is certainly not going to be found under the hood--which is exactly where Walton spends the majority of her time looking.