Curbside Classic: Ford's Ugly Little Sin: The EXP

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic ford s ugly little sin the exp

The original 1960 Corvair Monza coupe (1966 shown) introduced and pioneered a European category to the US: the sporty compact coupe. The formula: a new roof line, maybe some other body changes like the Monza’s enlarged rear wheel openings, bucket seats and tasty interior trimmings, upgraded engine performance. Most of all, it had to have style, at least more than the donor sedan it sprang from, otherwise it defeated the whole purpose. The formula has been applied endlessly, to greater and lesser effect. But sometimes it’s just abused; probably never more horribly so than with Fords EXP and its stablemate, the Mercury LN7.

But this little EXP is more clever than I gave it credit for. Instead of my piling right in about its styling and performance shortcomings, it presents me with a problem: why is this gen1 (1982-1985) EXP wearing the bubbleback tailgate from the LN7? I know that the gen2 restyle (1986.5-1988.5) used it, along with a majorly revised front end.

Wikipedia makes somewhat cryptic references to a 1985.5 model. Is this what this is? I need your help, all you Blue Oval historians. Or was this car just built on a Monday, and someone grabbed the wrong hatchback on the line?

Well, your diversionary tactics are not going to work, EXP. This car is just plain ugly as sin. Where to begin? The front end isn’t worth wasting words on. Moving on. The real problem is the same issue that bedevils so many cars of this genre: too high of a cowl line. Obviously, Ford wasn’t going to spring for a whole new inner body structure, and the tendency for small FWD cars was already moving towards being taller rather than shorter, for packaging reasons.

Obviously, the one major exception to that was Honda, which made a trademark of low cowl lines that adapted themselves perfectly to its sporty coupe, the CRX. That little gem made life miserable for everyone else in this category, but none more so than the EXP. I really should have put it in the picture at the top with the EXP.

Ford undoubtedly had good intentions for the EXP, trying to get away from the bloated excess of their notoriously overwrought and overweight 1970s cars. And the timing was spot on, with the EXP arriving just at the height of the early eighties “small is good” era. It was also a bit of a trailblazer, arriving two years ahead of the CRX. Ford wanted a small sporty car that could get by with only two seats for obviously childless households. And Ford had gone down that road once before, with the original 1955-1957 Thunderbird.

From wiki: “Comparing the EXP to the original Thunderbird, Ford Division General Manager Louis E. Latalf said: “We’re introducing another two-seater with the same flair, but the EXP will be a very affordable, very fuel efficient car matched to the lifestyles of the eighties.” Anyone who who would be willing to compare the EXP to the low and stylish T-Bird was obviously deranged or a career salesperson. And given that the T-Bird quickly morphed into a four seater, it’s all the more odd. But then the EXP just was odd.

Even though it was of course based on the world car Escort, which was very successful in Europe, there was no suggestion of the Europeans showing the slightest interest in the EXP. It would have bombed equally from its ugliness and the lack of a back seat; the whole European coupe concept based on a sedan inevitably left a back seat, at least of some sort. And it had to look more stylish than its donor.

Two seaters need to either be genuinely sporty (CRX), or at least look that way (Fiero). The EXP was neither. In fact, it was less sporty than its Escort donor, due to gaining 200 lbs in the transformation. And that’s without a rear seat. How did they manage that? All that rear glass?

Given the asthmatic little 70hp 1.6 CVH four that powered the initial version, it was anything but zippy. An 80hp version was soon thrown at the problem without solving it. Eventually, an EXP Turbo Coupe, emulating its big brother, came along in 1984, with 120 hp. Good luck finding one of those now!

We’re going to plumb the depths of the early Escort’s dynamic qualities when it appears here before long. But lets just say that it was not sporty. Later versions started to get there, but what was sold here in 1981-1984 had little similarity to what the Europeans where getting. It’s as if they forgot to install the shocks or something critical like that. And the 1.6 CVH was a whiny little brat, endlessly complaining about its lot in life. Almost a perfect polar opposite to a Honda engine of the times.

It’s fair to say that the EXP’s pathetic sales performance was as much because of its questionable styling and packaging, as well as the blistering competition from Japan. Who would possibly have wanted to spend the extra bucks for an EXP when a Civic hatchback did it all so much better, and hadn’t been beaten with the proverbial ugly stick?

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  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Apr 26, 2010

    Ugly! LOL if you want ugly look no further than what Toyota, Honda and AMC were dishing out at the same time period. Some of those early Toyotas were some of the most odd looking piles ever to blight the roadways, especially the ones with silver dollar sized rust holes in the fenders. Agree about the original engine being a dog. Honda did have better 4 bangers for sure, even if they were pure slugs with automatic. The lack of sales were due to being only a 2 seater and the underpowered engine from what people at the time told me. Nothing was said about poor styling.

  • VanillaDude VanillaDude on Apr 26, 2010

    I was partying out in the Cache La Poudre canyon west of Ft. Collins and as usual, got totally wasted. Being out in the middle of nowhere in the Rockies with a roaring bonfire and half naked mountain co-eds getting one with nature, was always a whole lot of fun. The only sleeping done on those nights were usually chemically induced. The next day I discovered that I was laying in what could have been mistaken for a debris of corpses from an airplane crash. People were stirring, peeing and vomiting in the nearby creek and staggering around like zombies. I always hitched a ride with dorm buddies, but couldn't find any of them. Most everyone would head on back to campus, so I looked for a return ride. I saw a group of regulars I recognized campus and asked for a ride. They told me that "Chris" probably could. Chris was off and would return after a morning hike. They pointed out a car, an old Ford EXP, a rusting black car with lots of decals covering the back and sides. It's license plate read, "EOR 9". So I waited. After a while, I looked inside to see if perhaps the keys were in it. The interior of the EXP was customized with lavender and purple seat covers, had an Eeyore steering wheel cover, and an Eeyore car deodorizer hanging on the rear view mirror. That seemed very strange to me because the car didn't look like it belong to a girl from the outside. I tried to sit on the EXP, but there was no place to sit on it. The front end with those goofy frog headlights was too sloped to use as a seat, and the little hatch was too small and high. The car groaned when I tried to sit on it. The wheels were rusted and the tires looked bald. I saw a big guy walking out of the forest. He had long greasy hair, a stocking cap like mine and wearing jeans and a flannel shirt just like me. He came up to me, and asked my why I was there. I told him that I was hanging with his friends and they told me that I could get a ride back to campus. "Yeah, OK", he said and he opened the hatch which squeaked with rust and groaned as he filled the little EXP's trunk with hiking gear. He told me he was Chris. I got into the car after he unlocked it. I thanked him for the ride. I nestled into the lavender interior of this car with Chris and was too tired, had too much of a hangover, and too happy to be headed home to chit-chat. The EXP sounded like it had a hole in it's manifold and it puttered loudly. It sounded just as it looked. The Winnie The Pooh air freshner fluttered and spun in the wind, and the mountain road was making me sick. The EXP hit the curves like it was trying to slough-off it's bald tires. The car pitched and leaned as centrifugal force dictated and Chris and I grabbed onto both the window ledges and stomachs. After a half hour I asked Chris about the EXP. He said he bought it for $1000 and had it for two months. I asked about the interior. He told me that girls like Pooh stuff and he and his current girlfriend favorite Pooh character was Eeyore the donkey. I thought that was strange. We hit a patch of straight road and Chris took his hand and put it on my left leg. He smiled at me and told me that he noticed we were wearing matching flannels. I told him I wore a size large, and he obviously wore an extra large. He told me that he needed to wear an extra large to cover up his breasts. I told Chris that my brother was overweight and was frustrated with his moobs too. Then Chris told me that I was riding with a Christine, not a Christopher, and with that sent her left hand higher up into my lap, and squeezed. My voice went into falsetto and I was too shocked to respond. Chris saw my discomfort, laughed, then honked the EXP's car horn laughing at me. She told me she loved it when she passed as a guy. After about five minutes, I was laughing along. We celebrated by lighting up and sharing a smoke. The rest of the ride was just as surprising. The EXP was falling apart around us, the Winnie The Pooh interior seemed appropriate, and Chris turned out to be one hell of a guy. So, I kinda like this car.

  • Tassos I have a first cousin with same first and last name as my own, 17 years my junior even tho he is the son of my father's older brother, who has a summer home in the same country I do, and has bought a local A3 5-door hatch kinds thing, quite old by now.Last year he told me the thing broke down and he had to do major major repairs, replace the whole engine and other stuff, and had to rent a car for two weeks in a touristy location, and amazingly he paid more for the rental ( Euro1,500, or $1,650-$1,700) than for all the repairs, which of course were not done at the dealer (I doubt there was a dealer there anyway)
  • Tassos VW's EV program losses have already been horrific, and with (guess, Caveman!) the Berlin-Brandenburg Gigafactory growing by leaps and bounds, the future was already quite grim for VW and the VW Group.THis shutdown will not be so temporary.The German Government may have to reach in its deep pockets, no matter how much it hates to spend $, and bail it out."too big to fail"?
  • Billccm I had a 1980 TC3 Horizon and that car was as reliable as the sun. Underappreciated for sure.
  • Inside Looking Out I did not notice, did they mention climate change? How they are going to fight climate change, racism and gender discrimination. I mean collective Big 3.
  • Lou_BC I'm not too picky about gloves. If I'm concerned about heavy oil or grease contamination, I'll donn nitrile gloves. Heavier work and I'll use "old school" leather gloves, fake leather, synthetic or whatever is available.