Some big shoes to fill. A strange footnote in Ford’s history, the Probe’s notoriety far outshines its terrible sales figures. But the car that almost killed one Ford icon and failed to resurrect another is ageing fairly well a quarter of a century on. Words: Phil White.
A double-header this issue as we look at Ford’s Probe and Mazda’s MX-6.
At its launch in the UK, the press really rather took to the Ford Probe. ‘The thirty-something audience that Ford is aiming for grew up with the Capri,’ wrote Jeremy Clarkson. ‘We are therefore bound to welcome the Probe like a long-lost school friend.’
The year was 1994, and the iconic Capri had been dead for a decade. During that time we hadn’t been starved of sporting Fords – the Escort RS Turbo and Sierra Cosworth had seen to that – but by the early 1990s this giant among car makers seemed to be losing its way somewhat. A global recession had dampened appetites for simple, blokey sports machines, other manufacturers were providing incisive, modern, affordable alternatives and Ford itself seemed to have lost control over its complex worldwide structure.
Somewhere in the great company’s Byzantine depths was a cadre of people who thought, like Clarkson, that a muscle car was exactly what guys wanted to buy, both in the USA where the iconic Mustang was perceived to have reached the end of its life cycle, and in the UK where we’d never quite got over the loss of the Capri.
At this point mathematics mattered just as much as marketing to Ford, who were beginning to consider product development on a global rather than regional basis, so a single, affordable solution to both the Mustang and Capri issues was sought. A quarter of a century of collaboration with Japanese giant Mazda had by this point yielded some worthwhile vehicles, including the first generation of the Probe. This was a LHD-only offering, so from a British viewpoint the term Probe refers only to the second-generation car under discussion here.
The car’s body and interior were styled by Ford, while the chassis was that of the Mazda MX-6 and 626. When the US motoring press announced that 1994’s new generation of Mustang would be a FWD Japanese hybrid, reaction was vociferous and resoundingly negative. In response, Ford USA quickly assembled a development team and created a rear-drive Mustang as an update of the previous iteration, thereby saving the iconic name from a sad and premature death.
The Probe project continued in both the USA and Europe, creating a good-looking, well made sporting coupé. In the spirit of the Capri it had a long nose, a deep-set cockpit and both two-litre four-pot and 2.5-litre V6 engine options. Both motors are competent Mazda-sourced units, giving 118 and 164bhp respectively.
Torque output is reasonable too – 127lb.ft @ 4500rpm on the 2-litre and 156lb.ft @ 4000rpm on the V6. As the Probe only weighs 1300kg, performance was reasonable if not fire starting, with 0-62mph (0-100kmh) times given as 10.6 and 8.5 seconds. Despite Ford’s intention to evoke the redolently-manly Capri with the Probe, it was – uniquely for the time – a car developed with the female driver in mind. Its design team was led by Mimi Vandermolen in what were early days for gender inclusiveness among the higher echelons of auto creation. She aimed to make the car pleasant for women to drive, reasoning that the result would be better for all pilots.
Clarkson, among others, failed to note this. ‘If this car were a man,’ he declared, ‘it would be a bloke.’ It wasn’t. Instead, it was a reasonably capable, very comfortable sporting car with a fairly decent boot, a nice interior and a pretty good V6 engine. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the Probe, except that it failed to get buyers horny with a desire rooted in nostalgia for the Capri. Sales were unspectacular, and the Probe was discontinued in 1997. Rather unbelievably, Ford developed a third-generation Probe to a similar brief, although using an American platform and bringing Ford’s concept of ‘New Edge’ styling to the party. By the time it appeared in dealerships the new car had changed names, exhuming the moniker Cougar from Ford USA’s badge graveyard. The Cougar failed to ignite buyer desire. I was lent one the week my girlfriend decided to move flats, and my overriding memories of it feature several trips to a petrol station and journeys across North London, with various of her possessions poking me in the side of the head. I must have loved her.
However, it might be time for me to ditch my sardonic tone, because 25 years on the Probe deserves to be looked upon more kindly. Thanks to tiny original sales it now has the cachet of extreme rarity. Since it was built well for a number of markets, examples that remain can be found in very good condition. Rust is rarely an issue, and the Mazda mechanicals stand the test of time well. The majority of owner complaints seem to focus on engine bay electrical issues which, in a car that pre-dates sealed engines and CAN-BUS electronics, are relatively simple for an amateur mechanic or a local garage to identify and fix. Spare parts are still available for the Probe, and they are relatively affordable. The major challenge facing a UK owner is that used parts can be hard to locate, thanks to the small supply of vehicles in breakers’ yards. However, parts are more plentifully available from the USA, and can be found at an internet auction site of your choice.
If you purchase a Probe these days, you’re almost certainly looking for an emerging classic to enjoy on high days and holidays – although it will be perfectly reliable enough to use as a retro daily driver. However, its fuel economy derives from a bygone age, and the 2.0-litre 16v model will give you around 30mpg. The 24v V6 posts mpg figures in the mid 20s.
This is rarely a consideration in a hobby car however, as annual mileages tend to be low. Therefore the V6 engine is probably the one to go for. It is a pleasant, flexible unit, especially when mated to the strong five-speed manual gearbox. The Probe was a wellequipped car for its time and the cabin is a pleasant place to spend time in. For a sports coupé, the Probe also has an enjoyably large glass area in comparison to modern cars. The Probe is a maverick choice, but it was always a little bit ‘out-there.’ The clean lines and long, flat nose evoke cars from 1980s television. If your tastes tend towards the unique, this could be the car for you. You’ll certainly need to enjoy explaining to the public on a regular basis what exactly it is. After a quarter of a century it seems to be living up to Jeremy Clarkson’s initial assessment. In many ways it is the car you never promised yourself. Until now…
The Probe was a spacious liftback coupé in the mould of the Capri which Ford hoped it would emulate. Ford’s Probe grew out of the Mazda’s MX-6 –Mazda engineered the running gear, while Ford took care of the body and interior. They were built at Mazda’s assembly plant in Flat Rock, Michigan.