May 12, 1988 – The Ford Probe, the car that could have been the next Mustang, debuts

1991 Ford Probe

The Ford Probe may have a funny name, but it could have been worse: Mustang. As front-wheel-drive platforms became more popular with consumers in the 1980s, the brass at Ford had a vision; an all new FWD Ford Mustang. Furthermore, intentions saw the all American Pony Car receiving Japanese underpinnings courtesy of Ford’s relationship with Mazda. This of course meant no V8 option. Oh, the misery! To add to the excitement, the car would be built on the Mazda G Platform. This being the base for Mazda’s gutless sedan known as the 626 in North America.

While internal disagreements at Ford had been raging for some time as to weather the car should be the next Mustang, the buying public would put the final nail in the coffin. After Ford’s plan ended up on the cover of AutoWeek in 1987, outraged Mustang fans rallied. A letter writing campaign decried the efforts and Ford heard them out. Despite the uproar, Ford thought it had a winner on its hands and moved development forward. It wouldn’t be a pony that rolled out of the stable, but a Probe rolling into people’s garages…. On this day in 1988 the Ford Probe made it’s formal debut, much to the delight of space aliens everywhere.

First generation Ford Probe

When the Probe first started rolling off of the assembly line for the 1989 model year, a 2.2L Mazda 4-cylinder engine powered the base model, giving it 110 horsepower. Buyers could opt for the LX trim, which carried the 3.0L Vulcan V6 and pushed HP to 140. The GT trim equipped the car with a tubro 2.2 4 banger that put out 145 hp and 190 lb-ft in the torque department. While the GT was quicker off the line, checking in on the quarter at 16.8 seconds at 83 mph compared to the LX’s 17.8 seconds at 79 mph, the latter did have a higher top speed. It best the GT by by 2 miles per hour at 132 MPH.

Ford Probe history

ford probe interior
1993 Ford Probe interior. By FPGT24 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Although it no longer would carry the Mustang badge, Ford followed through on its intent to compete with other Asian coupes. Primary competitors of the Ford-Mazda mash-up included the Acura Integra, Toyota Celica and the Isuzu Piazza. How did Ford find itself neck to neck with such legendary vehicles? The Probe name first came about in the 1970s during collaborative efforts between Ford and Ghia. The aptly named Probe I, a wedge shaped concept car, debuted in 1979. A series of other aerodyamic concepts under the same name would follow.

While some argue that the concepts had little to do with the production models, the influence is visible. By the time the production version appeared for 1989, Ford found it had success on its hands. Demand rose higher than supply, leading buyers to pay higher than MSRP for the car in its early production days. This is an issue that still follows Ford buyers, like those interested in the Ford Maverick today.

Second Generation Ford Probe

ford probe rear
Second generation Ford Probe. By basco1984 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

A second generation of the Probe hit the market for 1993. During this period Automobile Magazine conducted a coast to coast road trip in search of the best car in the world currently on the market. The Ford Probe, which listed for around $15,000 new, came in third. It fell behind an $80,000 Mercedes and a similarly priced BMW. The new Probe could be had with a 2.0L inline 4 or a 165 horsepower 2.5L V6, both of Mazda origin. The latter, when equipped with a manual transmission, pushed the car through the quarter in 15.5 seconds at 89 mph.

The last Probe rolled off the assembly line on June 20, 1997. A proposed third generation hit a wall but soon became the new Mercury Cougar. While Ford hoped the name change would attract younger buyers, the Cougar seemed to only attract, well, cougars. Perhaps the Probe had come full circle, seeing that the original Mercury Cougar was the marque’s upscale counterpart to the Ford Mustang starting in 1967.

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