At this year's Detroit auto show Ford revealed its new 2010 Taurus sedan lineup highlighted by a model wearing the legendary SHO badge - the three letters mark the return of Super High Output excitement to a vehicle range characterized by unremitting blandness for more than a decade.
That certainly wasn't the case back in 1986 when Ford launched its Taurus on an unsuspecting North American public.
Unsuspecting in that nobody anticipated how this new mid-sizer's industry-leading mix of innovative styling, front-wheel-drive packaging and driving dynamics would radically change the way many North American buyers thought about how a car should handle.
And just three years later Ford bounced the industry onto its bump stops once again by introducing the first serious, American-style, front-drive sports sedan since the Cord of the 1930s, the SHO version of the Taurus.
It was powered by an exotic twin-cam, 24-valve, dual-stage intake system equipped V-6 that revved to 7,200 rpm and made 220 hp, sourced from Japanese motorcycle maker Yamaha. The standard Ford 3.0 litre V-6 that year made 140 hp.
The SHO was received with a resounding "WOW" from enthusiasts who had been largely deprived of American performance sedans since the early 1970s. And it made Car and Driver magazine's top 10 list four years running.
The unlikely engine choice was actually a bit of clever expediency. Ford had ordered a batch of them from Yamaha for a small sporty car project that was subsequently cancelled and some bright spark decided they'd fit nicely into the Taurus.
Exterior differences were limited to a different front fascia (it gained a unique front end in the 1992 generation-two makeover), fog lamps and side cladding, while inside there were such things as sports seats and a tach. The suspension was firmed up, tires and brakes upgraded and the only transmission was a Mazda-built five-speed manual. It was a potent mix, capable of getting to 100 km/h in under seven seconds and with a top speed of 230 km/h.
Ford's Taurus (and the SHO) proved a success - it was the best-selling car in the United States from 1992-96 - but it lost much of its mojo after a 1996 redesign dulled the original's edge and flabbed it up into just another would-you-like-fries-with-that characterless American sedan. The only buyers who showed any real enthusiasm were rental companies - which helped keep it a high-volume seller for a while longer.
Proof the Taurus had lost any credibility with enthusiasts came in 1999 when the SHO was given the hook after sales fell well below 10,000 units. In all, more than 100,000 SHOs were produced. The Taurus name itself disappeared briefly a few years later, but reappeared for 2008 and will continue to identify a sixth generation this summer.
And much to the joy of loyal enthusiasts, of whom there are still a surprising number, including Marcel Timmons of Hanover, Ont., the lineup will include the fourth-generation SHO.
Timmons, 28, grew up in Nova Scotia and recalls always having an interest in things mechanical. "I was always stealing my dad's tools and taking things apart. Not always fixing them, but with a curiosity to see how they worked," he says.
This ability was refined by keeping "lots of motorcycles" running as a teen and then graduating from college and an apprenticeship as a millwright. He currently works for Bruce Power.
His first experience with a Taurus came while at college, when he acquired a "vintage" 1987 Taurus, mainly because it was cheap. But he recalls being aware of the SHO from his early teen years.
And after relocating to Ontario, he decided he should have one as it met the criteria of being a car with plenty of performance combined with that "sleeper effect - most people don't know what they are."
It was also large enough to accommodate his 6-foot-3 frame and provided plenty of luxury amenities. "They were fully loaded. There wasn't an option Ford made you couldn't get on these cars," he says, but today they are also reasonably priced. A mid-1990s example in decent shape could go for less than $4,000. He found his 1995 SHO in the Oakville area in 2001, one of only 2,026 manual-gearbox cars produced that year.
Since then, he's upgraded the suspension, improved the transmission/differential (a weak point) and generally smartened it up, including adding new wheels.
The mix of complex parts means the SHO has a bit of a reputation for unreliability. "They are maintenance-heavy. They do require that you keep on top of things," he says, but he personally hasn't experienced any major problems.
Timmons is involved with the Ontario SHO Enthusiasts Club (there are also clubs based in Winnipeg, Alberta and Quebec) and uses his car mainly as a weekend vehicle these days, attending club events and SHO gatherings as far afield as Memphis and Indianapolis.
He's anticipating the arrival of the new SHO with interest, but isn't likely to be among those lining up to buy one.
"It would be nice. But I've spent the last eight years caring for and enjoying this one and can't think of any reason why I'd get rid of it."
For more info on the SHO, you can go to SHOClub.com or shoforum.com or the Ontario club's website at shopower.com.
The fourth-generation SHO
Based on the redesigned and more up-market 2010 Ford Taurus, the latest version of the SHO emulates the promise of the original in offering high levels of performance and luxury along with "sleeper" stealth.
Powering this latest SHO is Ford's 3.5-litre EcoBoost V-6, twin-turbocharged to produce 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, delivered to a full-time all-wheel-drive system through a six-speed SelectShift transmission you can shift yourself with steering-wheel paddles.
The strut front/multilink suspension has unique springs, shocks anti-roll bars and bushings; there's electronic power steering and it rides on 20-inch wheels and tires.
In keeping with the original's understated look, exterior goodies are limited to a spoiler, unique grille and twin exhaust outlets, while inside there's leather, special pedals, SHO-specific steering wheel, instruments, console, floor mats and door panels.
And the list of options includes just about all the neat stuff Ford has in its luxury-car inventory.
The Taurus SHO will be available in Canada in the summer for - based on a U.S. price of $38,000 (U.S.) - likely $40,000-something here.
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