#4 on Ty’s list of Ford’s weirdest cars is the Ford Probe. And as a Ford Probe owner and enthusiast, I’m here to defend and argue that it’s not weird and that it’s worthy of being one of Ford’s greatest vehicles. Not top 10 great, but top 25, for sure.
Ty’s case for the Ford Probe being weird was that it was intended to replace the Ford Mustang, but it didn’t, but the fact that it existed is what makes the Probe weird. And because of the name. The former argument is just a sliver of the storied history of the Probe and doesn’t consider the circumstances that lead to its development and its importance in Ford’s history.
Back in the 1970’s, Ford purchased a 25% stake in Mazda. At the time, Mazda was a small Japanese auto manufacturer and Ford was purchasing transmissions from Mazda, but over time, the relationship grew and Mazda began producing cheap vehicles for Ford. One of the first vehicles Mazda produced for Ford was the Courier, a re-branded Mazda B2000 compact truck. In the mid-1980’s, the Courier was eventually replaced by the Ranger in the U.S. The Ranger was still a re-branded Mazda B2000, and later, B2200. In fact, up until 2012, Ford was still re-branding the Mazda B-series truck as a Ranger. The Ranger was one of the best-selling compact trucks during its original run.
Ford’s ownership (and success) in Mazda eventually lead to the two companies working more closely together on designing vehicles and manufacturing Mazda vehicles in the U.S.
In addition to the Ranger/B-series trucks, and the Probe/MX-6 which I’ll get to, Ford and Mazda would collaborate to design and manufacture the Ford Escort and Mazda 323/Protege, the Ford Focus and Mazda 3, and the Ford Fusion and the Mazda 6. Ford and Mazda also co-developed engines with the most notable being the 4 cylinder Ford EcoBoost and Mazda MZR.
Development of the Probe began back in the 1970’s when Ford was working with Ghia on a futuristic concept vehicle. The early design concepts for the vehicle included a wedge shape design, pop-up headlights, and a glass roof canopy/cabin. The Ford/Ghia concept vehicle was eventually scrapped, but these early design features would later influence the vehicle that Ford and Mazda would work on.
In the 1980’s, Ford and Mazda set out to design a vehicle to replace the Mustang. To give you a sense of why Ford was considering replacing the Mustang, by the late 1970’s, the Mustang was a Mustang by name only and hardly resembled the iconic, cool, muscle car Mustang of the 60’s and early 70’s*. By the late 70’s, the Mustang had evolved into the Mustang II (see Ty’s article) and it was an ugly, under powered, overpriced turd of a car.
The new Mustang being designed and developed by Ford and Mazda was going to compete with the hot sub-compacts of the day including the Honda Prelude, Nissan Silvia/200sx/240sx, Toyota Corolla/Supra, and Volkswagen Sirocco. The new Mustang would be built on a lightweight, front wheel drive platform with a small-displacement motor that would be cheaper and easier to manufacture. The appeal of this vehicle is that it would have Japanese underpinnings in its chassis, motor, suspension, etc. (read: greater reliability) and with American styling.
When Mustang loyalists learned about Ford’s plan for the new Mustang replacement, they lost their shit, objected to the plan in the form of calling and writing letters to Ford headquarters, and Ford eventually caved to the Mustang loyalists and began working on the Mustang SN95 platform.
I’m going to go on a short tangent here and go so far as to argue that the Probe saved the Mustang. If it hadn’t been for the Probe, Ford would have never invested in giving the Mustang the attention it truly deserved. Ford would have tried passing off the Probe as the Mustang and who knows where that would have ended up. Ford’s investment in and the development of the SN95 Mustang (1994-2004) helped revive the Mustang and the brand. The SN95 era of Mustang was just as cool and iconic as the original and it was a sales success for Ford.
The first generation Probe hit the market in 1988. It was also sold as the Mazda MX-6. The first generation Probe carried many of the Ford/Ghia design elements including the wedge design, pop-up headlights, and glass canopy. There was a base/standard model with a 4 cylinder motor and they offered a GT model with a 4 cylinder turbo. The base models were nothing to write home about, but the GT received rave reviews from automotive journalists for its performance. The Probe was a hit with consumers. They loved the futuristic styling, handling, and performance. The Probe was so successful that Ford couldn’t keep up with the demand. Once people found out the MX-6 was the same exact car (minus the styling), the MX-6 became a sales hit as well. In 1989, Car and Driver magazine ranked the Ford Probe in its Ten Best List.
The success of the first generation of Probe and MX-6 lead to Ford and Mazda teaming up again to develop the second generation of Probe/MX-6. The team stuck with the same formula but refined the design and improved the areas needing revision.
The newly designed second generation Probe (and MX-6) hit the market in 1993 and it, too, was an instant success. The Probe was sold in base trims (LX, SE) with a 4 cylinder Mazda motor and the GT was sold with a 2.5 liter V6. The Mazda KL-series V6 was a gem of a motor: great low-end torque, smooth and solid delivery across its power band, and it red-lined at 7,000 RPM. The 1993 Ford Probe was Motor Trend magazine’s Car of the Year. Car and Driver ranked the Probe in its Ten Best List in ’93 and ’94.
The second generation Probe was offered through 1997. Sales of the car eventually began to taper to the point that Ford and Mazda decided not to develop a third generation. By the late 90’s, consumer preferences had already begun to shift away from coupes and hatchbacks in favor of sedans, trucks, and S.U.V.’s.
It’s worth noting that the U.S. and European Ford design teams worked together to develop a successor to the Probe, but based on the European Ford Mondeo platform. Ford released the car in the U.S. as the Mercury Cougar (1999-2002) but bares no resemblance or shares any lineage with the Probe.
The Probe was definitely a car for its time. It came at a time where the automobile industry was experimenting with platform sharing. Today, it’s somewhat commonplace, but at the time, was new. GM was working with Toyota and Subaru. Chrysler was working with Mitsubishi. It also came at a time where Ford made multiple vehicles available at every price point. If you were in the market for a car and you were looking at a Ford, they were going to have a vehicle for you. Back when you could buy a Probe, a two-door hatchback/coupe, you could also buy a Ford Aspire, an Escort, a Festiva, a Mustang, or a Thunderbird, all two-door hatchback or coupes. This sales approach couldn’t be sustained and doesn’t really exist today.
After reading Ty’s list, I instantly thought of weirder Ford’s including the EXP, Edsel, Merkur XR4Ti, Freestyle, Tempo, the Aspire and Festiva (mentioned above), the 1999-2000 Mercury Cougar (also mentioned above), the two-door Explorer and Explorer truck (SportTrac), the 500 that became the Taurus, and basically any economy-level Ford in a GT trim, minus the Probe.
* I’d argue that the last great year of Mustangs was 1970, but that post and my deep dive into my top five weird Ford’s is a post for another day.