Uncommon Performance: Ford Taurus SHO

The Q-ship is a time-honored tradition amongst automakers, typically taking the form of an unassuming family sedan with a much hotter drivetrain tucked under its hood. Aimed at buyers seeking performance without drama, these sleepers were at their best when they went out of their way to defy expectations – as with the Ford Taurus SHO.

The ‘Super High Output’ edition of Ford’s mid-size commuter was a radical departure from the philosophy that had guided the development of the ground-breaking four-door, and it significantly boosted the Taurus’ image when it was first introduced. By the end of the 90s, however, the changes and tweaks to the car’s formula had largely pushed it out of the public eye, leaving the SHO to languish on secondhand lots as more of a curiosity than a respected performance ride. That translates into the first few generations of the car being very appealing for anyone willing to lay down front-wheel drive rubber at mere pennies on the dollar.

From The Factory

The Taurus was light-years ahead of almost every other four-door in its class when it was first introduced as a 1986 model, but speed was very low on its list of the attributes it advertised. It was a weird period at Ford when it came to performance cars, with the company debating whether it was time to replace the Mustang with the futuristic-looking Probe hatchback, but a dedicated cadre of engineers from the Special Vehicle Operations program that had produced the turbocharged Mustang SVO convinced the brass to let them build a one-year-only special model of the company’s hottest-selling vehicle for 1989.

1995SHO

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the first-generation Ford Taurus SHO was its exotic-looking 3.0-liter, Yamaha-built V engine. Rated at 220 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque, the unit boasted a stunning 7,300 rpm redline and was matched exclusively with a five-speed manual transmission. That was enough power to motivated the SHO to a top speed of 143-mph, matched with a 15 second quarter mile time and a 0-60-mph sprint of 6.6 seconds. These numbers put the Taurus SHO squarely in BMW territory at a much lower price, and with a revised suspension system, dual exhaust, sport seats, and 15-inch alloy wheels the car could keep up in the corners, too.

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15,519 sales that first year convinced Ford to keep the car in the line-up on an indefinite basis, preserving its stealthy looks with only an ‘SHO’ carved into the bumper, a different front air dam, and badging on the sides to give it away (unless you ordered the Plus package in 1990, which added a power bulge on the hood plus a spoiler). When the Ford Taurus underwent a mid-cycle refresh in 1992, the SHO was right there with it, carrying over the same engine for manual transmission cars but adding a 3.2-liter version of the unit for 1993 for those who chose to order a four-speed automatic gearbox. The larger motor matched the 3.0-liter’s horsepower, but added an extra 15 lb-ft of torque.

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The 1996 model year brought a radical redesign to the Taurus family – one that would sink the car on the market after years of dominance. The SHO blueprint was similarly blown apart and reassembled from an entirely new perspective, tossing the six-cylinder in favor of a 3.4-liter V8 engine featuring aluminum Yamaha-designed heads and an aluminum block caged from Cosworth. Despite the increased displacement and new cylinder count, the motor’s output remained surprisingly similar to the V6: 235 horses and 230 lb-ft of twist. Less reliable than the previous edition of the SHO due to a cam sprocket issue, and without a manual transmission on the order sheet, the V8 car was somehow slower than SHOs of old, too, taking an extra 0.8 seconds to reach 60-mph from a standing start. After an initial flurry of interest, customers stayed away from the car in droves, leading to its quick death in 1999.

From The Aftermarket

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Despite the small number of Ford Taurus SHOs sold in its initial 89-99 run, there’s still excellent support out there from the aftermarket for anyone looking to do a mild-to-wild build of their sedan – as long as you’re looking at the V6 car. V8-powered SHOs haven’t enjoyed the same enthusiastic response from third-party vendors, given how few models actually made it out the dealership door, but there are still a few tried-and-true mods that are worth the investment.

“The SHO is all about the engine,” says Mike Stimson of SHO Source, one of the leading shops specializing in Taurus performance. “It’s a beautiful Yamaha engine wrapped in a Ford Taurus. Since it’s so good out of the box, the biggest bang for your buck is improving the car that’s around the engine. One of the best things you can do is put bigger brakes on the sedan – we sell a lot of Stage 3 12-inch and 13-inch brake kits – to correct the undersizing of the factory stoppers. They bolt to both the V8 and the V6 platform, and they dramatically change the character of the Taurus.”

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For anyone seeking a little more grunt from the V8, options are limited, but Stimson recommends removing the plastic air intake silencer located in the front fender (called the ‘saxacone’ or ‘mouse trap’), as well as deleting the third catalytic converter, although he cautions that this will cause the car to fail emissions testing. A better exhaust mod for the eight-cylinder SHO is installing a set of Magnaflows to unleash the sonic fury of the Yamaha engine, he says.

“I also recommend focusing on chassis mods,” Stimson explains. “The first is our adjustable coilover kit, which we engineered ourselves after Eibach, Tokico, and Koni stopped production on the springs and dampers they used to build for the SHO. It’s a race-level suspension that you can still drive on the street in its softest settings, and it’s available for both V6 and V8 cars. Eight-cylinder SHOs are much stiffer than the six-cylinder SHOs out of the box, but we make subframe connectors for the V6 cars that are an inexpensive way to improve handling.”

The 89-95 cars have a much deeper pool of mods to pull from. On the more affordable side are cone filters, larger throttle bodies, secondary butterflies, and MAFs, and underdrive pulleys, along with a less-restrictive Y-pipe on manual transmission models (or a full cat-back exhaust system). Going down this route will yield between 250 and 260 horsepower, according to Mike. ECU tuning is also available for the sedan, as are high performance camshafts, nitrous kits, and even a turbo kit. On the higher end are Quaife differential kits and rebuilt manual transmissions, including full TransGo options for those who want to take their auto-equipped SHO to the drag strip.

From Left Field

Ford Specialists, a shop operating out of Mableton, Georgia, is keeping the dream alive for V6 SHO fans seeking more than mere bolt-ons in their search for extra horsepower. The company offers a full custom-built engine program that can deliver 300 horsepower with no power-adders, along with a supercharger option that tracks on another hundred ponies. Even more intriguing is their ‘Bondurant 3.0L’ engine, pulled from their inventory of low-mileage six-cylinder mills used by the Bob Bondurant driving school that Ford Specialists says were maintained by Roush.

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Stimson himself has built a 400 wheel-horsepower Taurus SHO track car for his wife, Karen Stimson, who competes with it in SCCA and ICSCC. “It’s a stock 3.0-liter engine running 16 lbs of boost through a Vortech supercharger,” he says. “With her behind the wheel, it’s competitive with Z06 Corvettes and 911 GT3s. She actually prefers it on a road course over her own all-wheel drive 911.” The wildest SHO Stimson is aware of is pushing more than 600 horsepower through a combination of turbocharging and nitrous, indicating how much potential is locked up inside the Yamaha motor.

In terms of engine swaps, there was a time when the Yamaha V6 was frequently stolen from its original Taurus home and stuffed in a surprising number of sports cars, including the famous Ford Festiva ‘SHOgun,’ which offered a rear-wheel drive, rear-engine platform for motorized mayhem.

By now, there are plenty of less-exotic, and easier to find motors out there that offer better bang for the buck, ending for the most part the SHO swap experiment.

If you’re looking for guidance on your own Taurus SHO project, then SHO Forum is your best bet for online assistance, but if you own a V8 car there’s a great brain-dump of information on this under-appreciated sedan at V8SHO.com, too. Aftermarket support is available from SHO Source, as well as Ford Specialists.

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