The Ford Taurus SHO: The First American Sport Sedan

Source: Jordon Shultz / Autos Cheat Sheet
Jordon Shultz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Prior to 1989, there was no such thing as an American sport sedan. The mere mention of such a creation would have certainly generated a fair share of smirks from car enthusiasts. If you wanted to go fast in a four-door, you’d have to break the bank for premium priced European offerings from BMW, Mercedes or Audi.

It was that simple.

For middle class families, however, such cars were well outside the realm of attainability. Domestic automakers never tried to compete with the Europeans in an already well-established segment, perhaps in fear of embarrassing themselves. Instead, they continued to market American sedans by highlighting their utilitarian advantages and excellent fuel efficiency.

But nobody ever stopped to consider John, a father of three children with a notorious lead foot. It was preposterous to stuff his kids in the back seat of a Ford Mustang, Dodge Daytona or Chevy Camaro even if he wanted to. With compact trunks hardly big enough for their backpacks, they certainly couldn’t fit there either.

Each day on their route to school, John was continually embarrassed at the same stop light by four teenagers crowded in a 5.0 liter Mustang GT. When he caught sight of the car in the rearview mirror, John sheepishly tried to sink down in his 1987 Ford Tempo’s seats to avoid confrontation.

Source: Ford

But the heckling never ceased, and each day those snarky teenagers left John standing still at the stoplight. His 15-year-old son was losing confidence in his old man and no longer looked up to him, and young Max came home from school with a colored drawing of his father’s Tempo surrounded in cloud of tire smoke.

On the verge of severe depression, John was determined not to embarrass himself in front of his children for the fourth time this week. With a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and beads of sweat on his brow, John’s bloodshot eyes began to tear as he waited for the light to change without breaking concentration.

As the light flashed green, John dumped the clutch near the four-cylinder engine’s 6000 RPM limit. Though John expected to emerge victorious, the Tempo’s drive axle snapped and the car stalled in the middle of the intersection. As John pushed the car to the side of the road, his waning confidence was clearly shattered more so than the axle.

John sat at home later that night looking through financial records before his meeting with a loan officer the next day. There had to be a way to make it work — though a new BMW M5 meant sacrifices would have to be made, John could no longer live this way. Just as he was thumbing through a printout of his children’s college education savings account, a Ford Taurus SHO commercial on the television spoke to him like an angel in a dream.

Sold. The next day John went to his local Ford dealership and ordered a 1989 Taurus SHO for under $20,000. John was elated and his children’s futures were still intact. A win-win!

Though we may have taken some liberties with this story, the first generation Taurus SHO is certainly real and its importance in automotive history is often overlooked. With a dual overhead cam 3.0 liter V6 engine cranking out 220 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, the 1989 Taurus SHO was America’s first sport sedan that paved the way for the segment’s immense popularity today.

The story of its creation remains a bit of a mystery as many believe its potent engine was originally intended for Ford’s GN34 concept — a mid-engine sports car engineered by Ford and Roush with a contract signed by Yamaha to build the engine. When the GN34 project was scrapped in favor of the first Ford Explorer, Ford was obligated to uphold its contract with Yamaha and find a suitable home for the engine. That home came under the hood of the family-friendly Ford Taurus without a single performance bone in its architecture.

The engine’s radically designed manifold incorporates visible intake runners that could easily be mistaken for a nest of vipers. Its visual presentation is a work of art that not only looks the part, but also has the performance pedigree to back it up. At 4000 RPM, when the long intake runners can no longer provide adequate air induction, a butterfly valve opens and activates the short intake runners that allow the engine to breathe freely until the 7,300 RPM redline and 143 mile-per-hour top speed.

Offered exclusively with a five-speed manual transmission, the SHO was definitely built for the enthusiast. In a Car and Driver test, the SHO accelerated to 60 miles per hour in a brisk 6.7 seconds and powered through the quarter mile in 15.1 seconds. Though its potent engine and intoxicating sound are definitely the highlight of the first generation SHO, it’s far from a one-trick pony. In an effort to make the SHO an all-around performer capable of competing with Europe’s finest, firmer shock absorbers were added and spring rates were increased 30% over the standard Taurus. Stiffer lateral link bushings and larger-diameter front and rear sway bars rounded out the SHO’s upgraded suspension in addition to standard four-wheel disc brakes.

Aggressively styled side skirts and a revised front airdam with fog lights were also included to differentiate the SHO from the Taurus’ lower trim levels. Inside, bucket seats with adjustable side bolsters were added along with a revised instrument cluster and leather wrapped steering wheel. To the dismay of Mustang GT owners in 1989, the SHO’s quarter mile-time is only three-tenths of a second slower. While the SHO’s front-wheel drive layout gives the Mustang a slight edge at launch, all bets are off once the aerodynamically superior SHO and its free-revving Yamaha V6 inevitably close the distance.

Ford sold an astounding 15,519 SHOs in 1989. Strong sales were the proof domestic automakers needed of a growing demand for affordable sport sedans in the U.S. market that would only grow stronger as time progressed. Thanks to the development and popularity of the SHO, it was here to stay.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.