Curbside Classic: 1990 Ford Probe GT – Under Pressure

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It took some doing, but I was able to locate a first-generation Ford Probe in desirable GT trim, if not quite-so-desirable condition.  Even when roads were teaming with Ford’s front-drive specialty coupe, versions with the 2.2 turbo were uncommon, so locating this one took some accomplishing.  Yes, familiar readers, this curbside find is white but in Ford’s case, as top-of-the-line GTs were heavily promoted in the snowy shade, I’ll give myself a bit of a break.  I’d have preferred to find one in a dark hue, but I’ll take what I can get.

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Base level GL and LX coupes were more familiar and abundant, typically in blue-grey and red, though all trims were widely sold in black and other colors to go along with the white featured here.  As the abortive replacement to the Fox chassis, the non-GT cars with their 2.2 did quite well against the weak 2.3 Lima engine in base trim Mustangs.

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The GT, on the other hand, found itself under pressure both literally and figuratively as a boosted, high-performance variant which very much ended up as an afterthought, sales wise.  Though GTs seemingly outsold their turbocharged Mazda platform-mates, Ford was none-too-happy with the Probe’s sales performance in general.  Breakdowns of GT sales versus volumes of GL and LX trims are unavailable, but during their initial, extended 1989 model year, 133,000 Probes were sold in total, with sales rapidly tapering to a low of 50,000 for 1992 (for 1990 and 1991, sales were more or less around 100,000).

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Those better versed in Ford’s manner of doing business should chime in; considering that some cars shared much less with other model lines and still sold less, Ford should’ve been happy.  The Probe’s worst years, sales-wise, reflected the status-quo for many other front-drive sporty coupes (except, that is, for the DSMs, which were hotter than snap bracelets), and those cars generally didn’t have to contend with cheap, charismatic, in-house V8-powered competition.  Furthermore, Mustangs always sold in equal or greater volumes, despite a chassis whose development costs were more adequately covered, so compared to what, for instance, Toyota made selling Celicas, Ford should’ve been quite happy with its profits from both models.

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Relying on two model lines wasn’t the plan during the Probe’s genesis, as we all know, but with the 302 newly invigorated, the Mustang was once again popular, profitable and an image leader.  Many were therefore able to predict what a superfluous entry the Probe GT could wind up being, and as the turbo 2.3 was edged out by the V8 in the Fox, both in GT and SVO guises, it was not only the idea of a front-drive Japanese coupe which was growing stale, but also the prospect of still-laggy, non-linear turbo power as an alternative means to high-displacement muscle.

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Despite its good value (priced at $18k loaded), the Probe GT wound up being a competitive curiosity more than segment-defining entry.  But even given the decreasingly critical role the turbo’d Probe could end up playing, there surely would’ve been little no purpose in canning the model.  After all, Ford and Mazda had plans to bring the federalized, US-special 2.2-liter 12-valve engine, (conservatively) rated at 145-horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque, to markets across the country.  And if the US-built 626 and MX-6 were already planned to get said engine, the Probe certainly wasn’t going to miss out.

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Styling was directly related to the Probe IV and V show cars, with actual execution under Toshi Saito, a stylist working for Ford’s North American design studio under Jack Telnack.  This prototype is dated at late 1982.  Though ultimately built by Mazda, in a defunct Michigan Ford plant, using UAW labor, further Probe development was transferred to Hiroshima.

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At Mazda’s insistence, the styling underwent many revisions both to accommodate the four/five door 626’s hard points and a painless means of complying with Mazda’s production processes.

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Ford insisted on a lower cowl and nose than Mazda was willing to produce; if Hiroshima had its way, the Probe wouldn’t have even had its wraparound rear quarter windows.  With some concessions from 626/MX-6 engineers, a common architecture was attained.  In December of 1983, the design was approved by Ford’s management, but any potential the Probe had of dazzling audiences in the way such cars as the ’84 Audi 5000, the ’86 Taurus, or even the ’83 Prelude or ’83 Impulse managed was long gone.

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Ford reportedly knew as much, with management stating concern the car would look dated upon debut.  A restyle was ordered in late 1983 and the result of all that compromise and dithering is the car as it appeared in 1989.  Seemingly lost in a sea of Berettas, Celicas, Integras, not to mention overshadowed by much sharper DSM coupes, one of the more futuristic proposals of the company responsible for the Tempo, the Taurus, the 1983 Thunderbird and Sierra turned into the more banal entrants in a segment defined by cliches.

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That interior is not one of the era’s best, either.  It could be worse as function, durability and finish are concerned, but Flat-Rock assembled cars were never on par with their Marysville, Smyra or Georgetown-built competition, and that high cowl you see here was dictated by Mazda in the interest of platform commonality.  The MX6, incidentally, marketed in such a way to distance itself from the 626, was similarly hamstrung by such upright details, even sharing the sedan’s interior.  But there were much better ways of doing the inside of a sporty coupe.

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There would be fortunately greater diversity within the 626/MX6/Probe line-up when the ’93-’97 Probe debuted, with Ford having much more control in the design of the two-door specific bodyshell (which the MX6 was also built upon, not as its four/five-door based predecessor) The sudden interest in curvy, organic shapes make a lot of sense when cars like the original Probe and 626 are taken into consideration.

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The flipside to all Mazda’s tampering, however, was that the utter 626-ness aided the Probe, which was less expensive and a convincing alternative to many other of its competitors.  It was rather like the Diamond Star cars in that regard, and that’s no bad thing.

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Just as Mustang loyalists had feared, it drove like a Japanese sedan, but it drove like a good Japanese sedan (even before the “zoom-zoom” years, Mazda had its ride-and-handling house in order).  The Probe was firmer than the 626, but neither were hard edged.  It would never corner like a 240SX (only the Corrado did and in a very different way), or feel low and lean like a Prelude, but just like the Escort which followed, chassis-engineering was thorough.

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There were no manic DSM or All-Trac rivaling AWD turbos, but performance was quite competitive in GT trim.  The Japanese and European markets cars had two-liter, 16-valve naturally aspirated variants on tap.  Why those never made it here is because the standard 2.2, which made a gruff 110 horsepower, was torquey, and in its own laguid way, better suited to an automatic.  But single-cam, multi-valve Mazdas of this era often develop noisy rocker arms and besides, the 16-valve engine was a lot sweeter than the throbbier 12-valvers.

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GTs made up for this inferior refinement, however, with a massive whallop of torque.  A rough gas-guzzler with a rapidly-tapering powerband, it delivered power early on and in a sudden way, with sixty coming up in about seven to 7.5 seconds.  Automatic versions, owing to the ample torque and midrange power bias, were almost as quick.  Torque steer was a problem, but being faster than imported front-drive competition was handy compensation.  It was a remarkably big-hammer, American-style way of delivering power compared to other Japanese engines, and very different in character from the twin-cam and rotary screamers for which Mazda is famous.  Power ratings were later revised to 203 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm, but the engine is widely thought to be underrated, often tested neck and neck with the Diamond Stars at speeds in the quarter mile and topping out around 130 mph, despite a low-end heavy power curve.  In its beefiness, the Mazda F2T is unique among period four-cylinders.

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Turbo power would be gone for 1993.  The Probe GT’s refined and more Ford-influenced successor would receive one of Japan’s sweeter V6s and much improved, near class-leading handling.  Ford always gives sporty-versions of its Mazda-engineered cars more aggressive suspension settings and rolling-stock; look at the ’91 Escort GT and ’93 Probe GT as prime examples, but in terms of outright muscle, the second-generation car was a much more subtle machine (albeit lighter and more solid).  Plenty of these 93-97s are alive and well today, but it’s the first-gen car in GT trim which I’ve been looking for for months now.

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I’m delighted to have found the one I did, and if I can find a T-bird SC, and good Escort GT, I’ll be ecstatic.  The Thunderbird’s turns sixty this fall, and a boosted, pre-facelift MN12 would make an excellent CC find.  If any of you out there find one, feel free to submit pictures.  At any rate, this white Probe is a great intro to the years when Ford would really have it going on: the Taurus SHO was released concurrently with the Probe and in a few years, both would be much-improved (especially the Probe) and sold alongside the Contour SE, the Lincoln Mark VIII and twin-cam Escort GT, at various stages in their lives.  Probe might not be remembered for much besides being a Mustang alternative, and it was far from an unqualified success, but it showed many of its two makers’ better qualities and helped define a successful engineering collaboration which would be one of the blue oval’s strengths in the ’90s.

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