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by Eddie Bass

On Jan. 7, 1993, Mary Walton wrote a letter to Harold A. Poling, chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Co.

She proposed to write a book that would "trace the production of a car, from the planning and design phase, through engineering, manufacturing, and sales, into a dealers showroom."

She told him that she saw such a book "as less of a technical treatise than a story of the people who make and market the cars, touching on as many lives as possible."

Ford not only gave her the go-ahead, but chose the remake of America's best-selling car, the Taurus, as the vehicle for the story.

For the next three years, she had a front-row seat which turned out to be a cubicle in the basement of Ford's design center with a team of some 700 planners, analysts and engineers as they redesigned the Taurus and its Mercury twin, the Sable.

The result is the book "Car ... A Drama of the American Workplace," a 300-page-plus story of the birth of the 1996 Taurus/Sable.

Midway through the redesign, Ford changed CEOs and undertook an ambitious reorganization.

That added unexpected drama to the story.

Ford put few restrictions on what she could write. "Ford asked only that I omit sensitive proprietary information related to costs and profits," she explains. "I am exceedingly grateful to the company for the rare opportunity to write about an extraordinary event in such an unfettered way."

After reading the book, Ford management regretted giving her such complete access to the project.

"No writer had been given such access before, I was told," she writes, "and it would likely be a long time before it happened again. Team members who had spoken freely to me in the past were instructed to refer my calls to public relations."

Walton, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of two business books on W. Edward Deming and his management philosophy, has done a brilliant job on "Car."

It gets a bit tedious at times, but that's a reflection of the mammoth job of designing, engineering and manufacturing something as complicated as an automobile.

For example, she says in the book that no one really knows how many parts there are in a car. Estimates range all the way from 15,000 to 30,000.

And each of those parts must be designed and produced to incredibly close tolerances to fit into the structure of the car.

It's quite a revelation to learn there are engineers even a team of them assigned to almost every feature of a car. For instance, there were engineers to design the front seat, and a separate team of engineers given the responsibility for the back seat.

It's also interesting to note that the 1996 Taurus/Sable was designed and engineered to be equal or superior to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

The Taurus/Sable was compared to those hot-selling Japanese imports every step of the way.

The 1996 Taurus/Sable got mixed reviews in the marketplace, which made Ford think it perhaps missed the boat somewhere along the way.

The 1996 model was radically different from previous models. Some of the buying public liked the redesigned car, and some didn't.

If you're a car dealer, or just are fascinated by the automobile, the book "Car" will be of interest to you.

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