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October 24, 2002

Mary Hansen and her husband, Raymond, of Gillette, Wyo. said they felt like "kids in toyland" driving their 1996 SHO off the used-car lot in June. It died two weeks later heading down the Bighorn mountains in Wyoming and now sits in their yard, the Hansens unwilling and unable to pay the $15,573 repair bill.

Carter Fujibayashi saw his Taurus SHO and it was "love at first sight."
Now, $7,824.84 in repair bills later, he congratulates himself for convincing his boss to buy Subarus and not Fords for their company fleet.

They are part of an angry, vocal and growing group of SHO owners reporting or worried about an engine problem with the 1996-99 version of the Taurus SHO, a limited-production, high-performance version of the Taurus family sedan, the third-best selling car in the country. Approximately 19,730 SHOs were made from 1996 to 1999, retailing around $26,000, about $7,000 more than the standard Taurus.

The SHO -- which stands for Super High Output -- differed from the everyday Taurus because it had a pricier interior, stiffer suspension, tighter handling and a powerful 3.4-liter V8 Yamaha engine that could zip up to 140 m.p.h.

Ironically, the SHO's apparent downfall is the engine. The valves that open and close to let gas and air into the cylinders are moved by what's known as a camshaft, and the camshaft is turned by a sprocket that is supposed to be permanently and firmly attached. But in the case of the SHO engine, it can slip, allowing the valves to stop moving. Unfortunately, the engine's pistons are continuing to churn, so the pistons and valves collide. At a minimum, a piston or valve snaps. If the car is going at a high rate of speed, like 60 m.p.h., the whole engine block can be ruined.

Although the problem typically arises at around 65,000 miles, the sprocket has slipped as early as 40,000 miles -- still beyond the engine's standard 36,000-mile warranty.

In a statement, Ford says that it is aware of the problem, but that "only a small number of engines are potentially affected." Spokesman Todd Nissen added that Ford "regretted some customers are unhappy with the situation."

In the past year, roughly 200 former and current SHO owners have launched and contributed to a Web site called devoted to detailing the engine problem. In May, a Ford employee sent copies of documented failures or complaints from 190 SHO owners to Ford customer service, Ford engineering and Chairman and CEO William Clay Ford Jr.

Many of the disgruntled are former or current members of the Illinois-based Taurus SHO fan club and just a year ago were meeting at conventions to praise Ford and the SHO. Today, many have signed a pledge "not to purchase any product of theirs (Ford's), be it car or truck."

"When we bought this car, I thought we had a steal," said Hansen, a stay-at-home mother of two. "Now, I'd never buy another Ford. I really, really feel milked."

Passionate customers
Concerns about quality have been a running problem at Ford, whose slip in last year's J.D. Power & Associates quality ratings seemed to coincide with the Firestone tire debacle and the automaker's overall fall from grace.

In the grand scheme of things, the SHO engine isn't a huge problem.

But it's a problem that affects what used to be some of Ford's most passionate and committed customers.

"I've told a lot of people I know within Ford to do something about the SHO, like extend the warranty or something. They are at risk here of alienating a lot of people who really want to like them," said Warren Johnson, a Ford dealership service technician for 17 years in Lakeville, Minn. "They lose these enthusiasts, they lose them forever."

Ford declined to discuss the problems with the SHO, opting to release the following statement: "We are aware of the concern on a small number of SHO engines, and our investigation indicates the condition is not widespread. Many vehicle repairs were covered under warranty, and we have been working with our supplier (Yamaha) to reduce the repair costs for the small number of engines potentially affected by the condition."

The cost for repairs, according to the Web site, copies of receipts reviewed and more than 10 SHO owners interviewed by the Free Press, ranges from $2,000 to $20,000. Most spend about $5,000, not to mention the weeks or months they are without their car. Many others have spent $500 to weld the sprocket to the cam.

Don Mallinson, the Peoria, Ill.-based head of the 1,000-member SHOClub, says Ford has a public relations problem because it is alienating former fans of the company, not to mention passionate car nuts. Mallinson spent $500 this summer to have his sprocket welded to the camshaft. "It's really too bad because I thought the SHO was the closest thing we've had to an American-made BMW," said Mallinson, who runs a small mail-order business. "I'm very disappointed in Ford. They know there's a problem and have known for two years. I've tried their customer service line. Hundreds of us have. They tell us, basically, to go away."

Mallinson, editor of a SHO magazine, says when people call him to ask if they should buy a SHO he tells them "to set aside $500 or more to weld their sprocket. I don't sugarcoat it. It will happen if they don't get it fixed."

To date, there has been no recall on the engine and with only eight Taurus SHO engine complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it's unlikely there will be.

Warning signs
A light ticking sound. Or maybe a tapping sound.

That, say the angry SHO owners, is the first indication something is wrong. Sometimes the ticking or tapping will come and go for a few weeks before they experience a problem. On other occasions, they hear the sound for the first time and minutes later are on the side of the road with a dead car.

Fujibayashi of Greenwood, Ark., heard the ticking sound from his 1997 SHO for weeks, but two mechanics looked at it and gave conflicting advice about his car, which had about 94,000 miles on it. Then, on a Sunday night in October 2001, he was going about 65 m.p.h. down a hill on I-540, south of Fayetteville, Ark., and he heard the ticking again.

"I heard it and then my service engine light went on. The engine started missing and lurching. I took the cruise control off and hit the gas, but got nothing. It lost speed as I went downhill. Then it went pfffft and it was done," said Fujibayashi, who makes commercials for a cable TV company.

It took him two months and nearly $8,000 to get his SHO repaired. Like many other owners, he called Ford's toll-free customer-service line. Like many of those owners, he was told the car was past its 36,000-mile warranty, there had been no recall and this wasn't a common complaint.

Barry Broening, a Grand Rapids environmental consultant whose 1996 SHO failed in July at 67,909 miles, said, "I called six times before they finally put me through to a manager. She said they'd never heard of this problem. I figured it was a one-time thing, until I went out on the Web and saw all the complaints."

Like many other angry SHO owners, his previous cars had frequently been from Ford. In his case a Topaz.

"I honestly thought they'd do something to help me. After all, they've had so many SHO complaints," he said. "You'd think with all their problems, they would work on their customer service."

The Free Press called Ford's customer service line in early October about the SHO and was told much the same thing, with a Ford representative saying "there's nothing we can do."

Joe Young, a 27-year drivetrain specialist with Ford dealerships, currently working at Ford of Upland in Upland, Calif., said, "I think it might be an inherent flaw in the engine design. Ford needs to understand these people are passionate, enthusiastic car people. The kind of people who'd rather let you take their family than their car. Can Ford afford to ignore all these people and create more of a nightmare for itself?"

Ford's statement acknowledges the automaker is aware of the complaint now. It was probably aware of the problem much earlier. The Free Press has obtained a special service message given to Ford dealerships from Ford, telling dealers that if someone complains of a ticking noise on the 1996-1999 SHO the mechanic should "verify that the secondary chain sprockets do not move independently while holding the camshaft stationary."

Word has spread about sprocket problems with the engine, which was manufactured in Japan by Yamaha and installed in the Taurus SHO at Ford's Atlanta assembly plant.

Yamaha also built a V6 engine for earlier versions of the SHO. But while that engine is called bullet-proof by enthusiasts, the V8 version is getting a bad reputation.

"This V8 engine problem is one of the things that's talked about when people bring up the SHO. SHO buyers tend to be a very discriminating bunch so they don't have much patience with this, not that you can blame them," said Charlie Vogelheim, executive editor of the Kelley Blue Book, a used-car pricing guide.

"The residual value of the SHO hasn't held up too well. Part of that is desirability and the fact that there aren't many automatics available. But another real problem is this engine and that a lot of Ford engines seem to break down after 60,000 miles," he said.

The angry SHO owners admit they are looking around for an attorney, hoping they can file some sort of class action.

At the same time, many still revere their SHO and Ford, sounding more like disappointed parents than disgruntled consumers.

"I love this car, just love it and desperately want to believe that Ford as an American carmaker would be honest with us. We're like kids who want to believe their parents have only ever loved each other," said Timothy Wright, a 1997 SHO owner who runs the SHO Web site from his home in Decatur, Ill. Wright spent about $600 to have his sprocket welded.

"Ford needs to admit there's a problem and be fair with us. Really what we are is a bunch of enthusiasts who'd love to love Ford, but can't."


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