The Ford Probe – Cult Classic, Not Best Seller

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By Chris Pollitt

From the moment Ford put the final nail into the Capri’s coffin in 1986, we were asking for a new one. While the Capri perhaps ended its life under a cloud, thanks to being overshadowed by the emergence of the hot hatch, there was no escaping that for many the Capri was the ultimate in sporting Fords. Long, elegant, powerful (ish), it was Europe’s Mustang, it was our muscle car. So when Ford ushered it off, we waited with bated breath to see what the designers would see fit to replace it with. We were waiting for a while. 

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Ford wasn’t brave enough to launch a replacement for the Capri immediately. Instead, Ford watched as the automotive landscape twisted and evolved. Ford had binned the Capri because the market for ‘long bonnet’ sports cars was drying up. Certainly, Ford had contributed to significantly with cars like the XR2, the XR3, the XR4 and of course, the mighty Sierra RS Cosworth. Performance had found a new home, and it was with the traditional hatchbacks. There was no place in dealerships for dedicated sports cars. At least not in the ‘80s. By the early ‘90s, however, things were changing. 

Volkswagen had the Corrado, Vauxhall had the Calibra, Nissan had the Silvia and Toyota had the Supra, and we were buying them. Lots of them. Time, it seemed, had been kind to the notion of a sports car. The only problem was, Ford of Europe had nothing to bring to the party. As such, it had to raid the drawers of Ford America. What it pulled out was the Probe

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This is the thing that gets overlooked here in the UK. The Probe we got was actually the second generation of the car. The first generation was available in the States from ‘88 to ‘92, though it was nowhere near as handsome as the car we got. However, it was a car built between Ford and Mazda. In fact, the first Probe was based on the GD platform (same as the 626 of the time). The first Probe proved how well Ford and Mazda could play together, and as such, it greenlit a second version. 

The second, or European Probe, was again based on a Mazda platform and as such, boasted Mazda engines in the form of a 2.0 inline-four or a 2.6 V6. The mechanicals were all Mazda. In fact, the only thing Ford did was the styling. This generation of Probe is actually 60% Mazda and 40% Ford, despite Ford being the parent company. 

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Mimi Vandermolen designed the Probe, having moved on from being in charge of the interior design of Ford’s highly successful Taurus (the same car RoboCop drove). She was given free reign to create a new Probe, just so long as it could be draped over the oily bits of what was in essence a Mazda 626. And design she did. The Probe looked like a car from the future, not the early ‘90s. It was sleek, it was low and wide, it had pop-up headlights, it was ace. The interior, too, was special. Tall ‘tombstone’ seats upfront, lashings of leather on some models, it was a pleasant place to be. The glass architecture let in plenty of light, too, so drivers didn’t feel cooped up. It was actually a masterful piece of design by Vandermolen. 

It didn’t matter how well it was designed though, because Ford royally messed up the build. And the pricing. 

When the Probe was unveiled in the UK, we first stifled our giggles at the name. Then we looked at it and we liked it. Then Ford told us it was front, not rear-wheel drive. Nothing like a Capri. So then we hated it. Then Ford told us it would be twenty grand. Once we picked our jaws up off the floor (that’s £35k in today’s money – new Mustang money, and yes, the V8 one), we left dealerships. Those of us who persisted and slid behind the driver’s seat weren’t rewarded in terms of first impressions. The build quality was so bad it was laughable. Huge panel gaps, rubbish plastics, poor interior fit, bumps, squeaks and rattles aplenty. It was shocking. Ford wanted to sell 20,000 probes per year in the UK alone. In reality, it sold 15,000. In three years. Ouch. 

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Ford pressed on with the Probe for five years, during which time the partnership between it and Mazda fell apart. In the end, Ford canned the Probe in 1997. It was done. 

But what about now? Well, it seems time has been kind to the pop-up light Probe. Now, after years of being mocked, the car has a devoted and passionate following. This is in part due to it being a Ford, but also down to the car itself. The Probe is, once you iron out the bumps and rattles, a very good car. The engines were revvy and and powerful, the Mazda chassis was tight and responsive, it was incredibly comfortable and despite not being able to house adults in the back with any level of comfort, it was still practical. Kids could fit in the back, and the boot was huge. But above all else, the years have been kind to the lines of the Probe. 

In today’s automotive landscape, the Probe is a sleek, elegant and unfussy design. In a world where harsh angles and big light clusters seem to be the norm, the subtle and subdued look of the bullet-like Probe is welcome. It’s classy, dare we say it. It’s also now cool in a weird way, but then again, any car with pop-up headlights is. Was the Probe ahead of its time? Possibly. Was it marketed incorrectly and grossly overpriced? Definitely. Is it a car you should dismiss as a classic? Most definitely not. The Probe has earned its modern day following, and then some.

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