In the early 1980s, as the economy continued to slump and gas prices soared, American car makers were desperate for a way forward. The good old days were gone forever. Under pressure from the Japanese, whose small cars had gone from rolling jokes to serious, high quality competition in little more than a decade, the big three knew they needed to make a radical departure from their traditional approach before it was too late. Although some of the more stodgy cars would soldier on and continue to sell to members of the Greatest Generation well past their expiration dates, for the rest of us the future was a smaller, lighter and more efficient. The winds of change were blowing and even the Ford Mustang felt the chill.
In 1982 Ford began to take a good, hard look at their strong selling V8 powered, rear wheel drive pony car. Introduced in 1979, the Fox body mustang was a radical departure from the Ford Pinto based Mustang II that had carried the name forward through the disco era and it was a good car, but all indications were that the front engine rear wheel drive platform appeared to be on the way out. Most domestic manufacturers were headed towards front wheel drive platforms, Chrysler was already heavily invested in its K car and rumor had it that even GM was considering moving its Camaro and Firebird to FWD. Fortunately, Ford’s 25% stake in Mazda offered them quick and relatively inexpensive access to a FWD platform already under development, the Mazda 626, and they chose to examine that option.
Toshi Saito of Ford’s North American Design Center prepared the initial concepts, one of which was chosen and the project moved forward into a full sized clay mock up and eventually a fiberglass model was constructed and sent to Japan where Mazda headquarters in Hiroshima. Mazda’s management approved of the design, but after some thought Ford decided that it wasn’t quite what they were looking for and came back with a longer, leaner and more rakish design that required some re-engineering from Mazda. The car was to be produced in the United States and Mazda purchased a Ford property in Flat Rock, Michigan to produce the car alongside their own 626 and Mx-6 models.
Much like the now oft-derided Mustang II, the new Mustang was set to be a radical departure from the Fox car. First, no V8s were to be offered. Instead, the front wheel drive Mustang would mount a Mazda sourced transversely mounted 4 cylinder good for about 110 horsepower. For the first year, GT Mustangs would feature the same 4 cylinder with turbo good for about 145 horsepower – comparable to what the Mustang V8 was making at the time – and the next year move to the Mazda V6 which was good for about 175 horsepower. The design was sleek, slippery and generally well liked by those who saw production models and images.
The public backlash against the car came as a real shock. Mustang enthusiasts and red blooded ‘Murricans everywhere were appalled at the thought of a Mustang based on anything other than good old American design and sent up a howl of indignation that resonated all the way back to Ford’s executive offices. Firmly in the Reagan era, a resurgent America would simply not tolerate the venerable Mustang name attached to a Japanese design. As thousands upon thousands of angry letters poured into the corporate offices, buyers rushed into dealerships and sales of the Fox body Mustang, which had been slipping as the design aged, suddenly increased.
People, it seemed, were anxious to own what was sure to be the last “real” Mustang rushed into the dealership before it was too late and, in a moment of “Classic Coke” vs “New Coke” brilliance, Ford capitalized on the controversy. The classic Mustang would remain on sale, but the new car would live too, and so Ford reached into the bag of names and pulled out one that had been attached to an especially well received aerodynamic concept car just a few years earlier and, with a knowing wink to proctologists everywhere, dubbed it the “Probe.”
The rest is well known history. Introduced in 1988, The Probe was a success and it went on to win the hearts and minds of many of those who cross shopped it with its primary competition, the Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge Turbo K variants, the small FWD GM cars, the Cavalier and the Beretta and Japanese turbo cars of all makes and models. Sales were brisk and the Detroit News reported in 1989 that Ford was selling around 600 of them a month. The design was refreshed in 1993 and almost 120,000 were sold that year. By 1997, however, the design had run its course and only 16,777 were sold. Meanwhile, the “Classic” Mustang soldiered on, was continually refreshed and, although it has been updated and redesigned over the years, it is still with us as the front engine, rear wheel drive pony car that God and Lee Iacocca originally intended.
Looking back, the 80s was a time or real, small-car innovation. Car companies, both domestic and foreign, put forth an amazing number of designs across all price ranges as they fought for market share. In that regard, I suppose, Ford really didn’t hurt themselves by keeping the ‘Stang and adding the Probe to their showrooms. I’m guessing the Probe really didn’t steal buyers from the Mustang as they each appealed to different market segments. I wonder, however, what would have happened if Ford had made the decision to stick with New Coke? Would GM have followed suit and put the Camaro and Firebird on a smaller FWD platform? Would the Chrysler K Turbos have eaten all their lunches? I wonder…
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.