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The Failed Ford Probe Was Supposed To Replace the Mustang

It’s hard to imagine a world without the Ford Mustang. For over 50 years, it has been one of Ford’s best-selling cars. Many people don’t know that Ford once planned to replace the Mustang with what Motor1 called one of the worst sports cars in history.

Enter the Ford Probe, a front-wheel drive sports car that was also meant to replace the European Ford Capri. On the outside, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the car, and it had some decent racing chops. However, the Ford Probe was a spectacular failure in both the United States and Europe.

The origin of the Ford Probe

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The Ford Probe was produced as a joint effort between Ford and Mazda, first manifested a concept car in 1979. At the time, gas prices were at an all-time high in the United States. The two automakers believed that front-engine, rear-wheel drive cars like the Ford Mustang would soon be obsolete.

With this in mind, Ford redesigned the Mustang as a front-wheel drive car, initially dubbed the SN8. It was built on the same platform as the Mazda 626, a popular sedan at the time. However, even in the development stages, the SN8 Mustang’s future looked uncertain.

Ford’s engineers questioned many of Mazda’s design choices, forcing them to draw up more sketches of the car. Once Mazda begrudgingly accepted Ford’s changes, production began in 1988. Mazda also had difficulty finding a location to manufacture the new cars, eventually settling on a defunct Ford plant in Michigan.

Around this time, initial pictures of the SN8 Mustang appeared in the 1989 issue of Autoweek. The negative reaction from the reveal was so severe that Ford went back on its decision to replace the existing Mustang.

However, since the automaker had already ordered over 300,000 units from Mazda, the car had to have its own name. It was called the Probe, the name of an older concept car that never made it to development.

Inside the Ford Probe

A Ford Probe being unveiled
A Ford Probe is unveiled | Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first generation of the Ford Probe was available from 1989-1993. It could be powered by either a turbo or naturally aspirated 2.2-liter four-cylinder, with a 3.0-liter V6 available. These engines could be paired with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission.

Despite its bad reputation among Mustang fans, the Ford Probe is actually a good sports car in its own right. Car and Driver report that it can reach 0-60 mph in a clean seven seconds, better than its Mazda rivals. It was also one of the most affordable sports cars you could buy in the ’90s.

Why didn’t the Ford Probe sell?

Despite its good qualities, the Ford Probe was doomed from the start. It would never replace the Mustang due to the backlash from enraged fans. A front-wheel drive Mustang without a V8 was an unthinkable idea, and several people wrote letters to Ford about the issue.

Critics also slammed the Ford Probe for its front-wheel drive configuration. As a result, the Ford Mustang’s sales increased while the Ford Probe’s profits tanked.

A redesign didn’t help

Second-generation models of the Ford Probe were released for 1993. Its redesign was led by Mimi Vanderholen, who was responsible for designing the Ford Taurus.

She made several interior controls easier to use, like small bumps for the window switches and a concise dashboard layout. These design choices helped contribute to the second-gen Ford Probe’s initial success.

However, these sales quickly diminished, and less than 20,000 units were delivered in its final production years. It died faster across the pond, where British buyers were more concerned with compact sports cars.

Due to sluggish sales and low demand, Ford officially announced the Probe’s discontinuation in March 1997.