The first Ford Taurus SHO is the one history will remember

1989 Ford Taurus SHO

The Taurus is rightly credited as the car that saved Ford in the mid-1980s, but it has fallen on hard times these days. A massive sales success from its launch in 1985, the Taurus was futuristic enough to be the hero car in Robocop without much more than a black paint job. Today, though, large sedans are on the outs, drowning in the rising tide of crossover sales. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Taurus will be one of several slow-selling sedans and small hatchbacks on Ford’s and GM’s chopping block.

What better time, then, to take a look back at the best of all of them: the original V-6-powered Taurus SHO. An overlooked, approachable collectible, the first two generations are quick and comfortable, and well-looked-after examples are getting harder to come by. It's worth preserving them, too—the Taurus SHO is in many ways Ford's version of the BMW M5.

Before any Bavarian-accented scoffing starts up, consider the state of the automotive industry in the mid-1980s. The C4 Corvette had just shown up with all of 250 horsepower under its fiberglass hood. The Mustang's new fuel-injected 302-cubic-inch V-8 was putting out 200 hp. Expectations for sports cars weren’t massive.

1991 SHO engine
1989 Ford Taurus SHO

The engine that was fitted to the prototype at Carron & Company (an engineering firm in Inkster, Michigan, which had done several projects with Ford) was the jewel of the SHO. The “Vulcan” V-6 used as standard fare in other Ford models was a rough old carthorse by comparison—slow to rev, and putting out not much more than 140 hp. Here, though, Ford had turned to Yamaha’s metallurgical experience to give the Blue Oval’s six-cylinder dancing lessons.

Yamaha has long been involved in automotive work, playing a critical role in some of the best Toyota products ever made, including the manufacture of the rare 2000GT. And, of course there’s Yamaha’s successful motorcycle and powersports division. The company was arguably at the top of its game during the 1980s, even moving into supplying engines to Formula 1 by the end of the decade.

The project was supposed to be kept secret, away from prying eyes. But Carron’s Mike Klein and Will Johnston knew the prototype they'd built was going to be something special, so they posed in front of their facility with an unassuming red sedan, then tucked the photos away in a family album for nearly 25 years. It was 1986, and they'd built the first Taurus SHO.

SHO Powertrain
SHO engine on a stand

The prototype SHO assembled by Klein and Johnston featured Yamaha’s 220-hp 3.0-liter V-6 engine that revved to 7300 rpm, with aluminum heads and an intake manifold that was basically a work of art. In production form, the SHO could sprint to 60 mph in around 6.5 seconds and would run on to a top speed of 143 mph. It was 1986, Kenny Loggins was in the charts, and Ford was about to take the onramp to the Danger Zone.

Ford wanted a little of this mojo for two possible six-cylinder offerings: the SHO, and a mid-engined car intended to take on the Pontiac Fiero. Dubbed the GN34, and shown in concept form, this what-might-have-been project made it as far as prototyping, including two Pantera-based versions that still exist in the Jack Roush collection.

A lightweight, mid-engined, six-cylinder screamer might have been quite a weapon—a Porsche Boxster or Cayman before either existed. However, by 1986, Ford had to choose between sending R&D dollars towards a low-volume sports car or towards a sort of four-door version of the Bronco. They went with the latter, which became the Explorer, which was a huge success.

Will Johnston (left), and Mike Klein (right) with a Ford Taurus SHO
SHO engine

But what to do with the engine? Yamaha had exceeded expectations, increasing horsepower by 80 to a total of 220 hp. It had the same 60-degree angle, 89-mm bore, and 80-mm stroke, but the V-6 now revved some 2000 rpm higher. Torque was up too, to 200 lb-ft.

Happily, Ford's Special Vehicle Operations group lobbied for the creation of a high-performance version of the Taurus, and considering the nameplate's overall success, management agreed. The prototype car, fitted with custom motor mounts, wiring harness, and the five-speed manual out of a Ford Escort, was tested briefly in Michigan, then shipped to Japan for Yamaha’s evaluation.

The production car arrived in 1989 and was an instant success. Commercials of the time made much about its limited production, but Ford moved 15,519 SHOs in the very first year. Each cost $19,739 (equal to about $40,383 today).

Along with the Yamaha-tuned engine, the SHO received a reworked suspension, dual exhausts, heavily bolstered sport seats, and 15-inch wheels. For those with German appetites on slim budgets, the SHO provided sport sedan thrills at an affordable price. It was roomy enough to haul the whole family, but not too boring if Mom or Dad were the type of people who still dreamed about the Mustang they had to sell before kids came along.

There were, however, a few issues. Early models burned through their clutches at a horrendous rate, a perfect storm of repressed parents banging through the gears and friction material that wasn't up to handling the V-6's 200 lb-ft of torque. The production transmission, while stronger than the Escort unit dropped into the prototype, also didn't hold up well if abused.

The SHO's popularity on showroom floors nevertheless convinced Ford that a second generation was in order, and a facelifted SHO arrived in 1992. The next year, a 3.2-liter version of the Yamaha V-6 was fitted with an automatic transmission and slightly softened suspension, and sales hit a high of 21,550. A fleet of second-generation cars were bought by the Bob Bondurant performance driving school, and used to teach students the secrets of speed.

Because the Yamaha V-6 matched the dimensions of the workhorse Vulcan V-6, Ford built several prototypes that hinted at an entire line of SHO-powered products. The SHO Ranger was first, complete with basket-weave Enkei wheels and a ground-effects kit, typical of the mini-trucking craze of the time. Even weirder was the SHO-Star concept of 1995, a high-performance variant of the Windstar minivan. Stop laughing.

Mercury Sable Aluminum Intensive Vehicle frame
Ford
Mercury Sable Aluminum Intensive Vehicle frame

Perhaps weirdest of all was the Mercury Sable Aluminum Intensive Vehicle (AIV). About 40 of these were built with automatic transmissions, and 20 were leased to the public. Essentially an experiment to gauge the practical considerations of using aluminum in mass-production, the Sable AIV was largely developed in Canada, and weighed some 400 pounds less than the SHO. More than a footnote to SHO history, some of the techniques used to build this car eventually helped Ford develop aluminum bodywork construction for later models, including the F-150.

The coolest of the SHO-related machines didn't come from Ford, but from the aftermarket. Built by Chuck Beck and Rick Titus, the SHOgun took the subcompact Festiva and turned it into a Group B inspired party. Mounting the V-6 in the rear, à la Renault R5 Turbo, the SHOgun was a flared-out monster, with an excellent power-to-weight ratio. However, 220 hp wasn't quite enough for one well-known owner: Jay Leno had his fitted with a 90-hp shot of nitrous.

Unfortunately, by 1996 the true SHO was over. While the badge continued, the third-generation car was different: automatic-only, heavier, V-8-powered, and slower. By 1999, Ford was ready to run down the curtains on the SHO.

Spread out over six years of sales, the first two generations of SHO built a strong and loyal fanbase. The Achilles' heels of the car, from rod bearings to electronics issues, are well-known and understood by this point. Proper maintenance goes a long way, and the large volume of SHOs once on the road means that parts are not scarce.

To some, the SHO is still just a mass-produced American sedan from an age when quality was, perhaps, not always job one. But the two men who built the first one took pride in their work, enough to take a risky photograph. They thought it was special. They were right.