I’m something of a vintage TV junkie. The truth is that I don’t watch a lot of television, usually being preoccupied with many projects and hobbies (including writing for CC), but when I do, there are several cable channels marked as my “favorites” that are usually foolproof for some genuine feel-good throwbacks. They include Buzzr, for old game shows, and Antenna TV for many sitcoms I remember watching while growing up. Recently, Antenna TV has started rerunning episodes of “Three’s Company” from around 1981, after actress Suzanne Somers had already famously exited the snow and took her ditzy-but-lovable “Chrissy Snow” character out the door with her.
What else were producers of the show to do but to cast another really attractive blonde as a foil for Jack Tripper, played by the unsung hero of slapstick comedy, John Ritter, and pert, no-nonsense Janet Wood, excellently played straight by Joyce DeWitt? I was only a couple of years into my elementary school years when the character of Cindy Snow, Chrissy’s farm-raised cousin, first made an appearance as played by former L.A. Rams cheerleader Jenilee Harrison.
After the change in the cast, I remember thinking that things weren’t quite right with the show, as I missed Chrissy’s goofy, snort-giggling antics. Cindy soon won me over, though, with her overexaggerated facial expressions, clumsiness and bubbly personality. My conservative parents must have been completely oblivious to all (and there was a lot) of the sexual innuendo on that show, as “Three’s Company” – unlike “Match Game” and a few other shows of that era – never made their banned-from-our-house list. (Even “The Smurfs” were banished from our living room at some point because of their use of what Mom considered “witchcraft”. I state this only for context as I try to keep a straight face.)
The Probe seemed very much like the “Cindy Snow” of Ford’s lineup when first introduced in mid-1988 for the ’89 model year. “A Mustang replacement that is both front-wheel-drive and based on a Mazda? Back to the drawing board, Ford!”, purists screamed. Initially, people liked the Probe (as a not-Mustang), snapping up copies at an average annual rate of over 100,000 for its first three, official years on the market. Meanwhile, the Fox-platform Mustang was still kept on the roster, selling in consistently good numbers, much like Suzanne Somers rode out her contract by appearing in filmed “remote” scenes showing Chrissy on the line with the other cast members, quite literally phoning it in. (Origin of that phrase, perhaps?)
The introduction of a proper, RWD Mustang replacement for ’94 (the SN-95) could be likened to when Priscilla Barnes was cast for the show’s sixth season as nurse Terri Alden – which was no doubt due to the alarming four-point drop in the show’s Nielsen ratings after the first cast-swap the prior year. Terri added a sort of classy, intelligent hotness to the still-entertaining, madcap dynamic between Jack, Janet and (still to some extent) Cindy. Like the redesigned ’94 Mustang, Ms. Barnes’ comedic timing in her portrayal of Terri was an instant hit, and ratings improved by almost a full point – which was no small feat, considering the show had already been on the air for five seasons.
Poor Jenilee Harrison had her character written off of the show after only two seasons, much like the Probe was unceremoniously dumped after only a paltry 19,400 units were sold during a foreshortened, final ’97 model year, with just under 700,000 sold over its two generations and nine years. I still like the Probe, having owned (and loved) a ’94 base model. I also still maintain that the Cindy Snow character was a worthwhile addition to “Three’s Company”, having had pretty big shoes to fill in attempting to replace one of prime time’s favorite characters. Ms. Harrison’s zany, sexy, likeable portrayal of Cindy was underrated, much like the almost-Mustang called the Probe.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Black 1995 – ’97 Probe GT spotted 9/2/16.
Red 1994 – ’95 Mustang GT spotted 5/16/18.
White 1994 Probe GT spotted 3/27/15.
I traded an ’84 Mustang GT for an ’89 Probe GT Turbo. The Probe was easily the better car. Better built, nicer, more practical, better looking, almost as fast. A great car all-around, and the better choice for me at the time. But in the end not as much fun as the Mustang.
Phil, I had owned the entry-level versions of both the Fox Mustang and 2nd generation Probe, and what’s funny is that my experience echoes yours, even with the low-line cars. My ’94 Probe was far-and-away the better car, but I had more of a connection with my ’88 Mustang.
The cars were probably better built, they often ended up years later at my University campus. However, heaven help you if you are taller that 5’6″ and need to sit in the back seat of one of these. imagine that you have to ride a period of time with your head at an angle, pressed up against the ceiling, hoping there aren’t any potholes. people would fight to sit in the cargo area.
Wow, so many associations here. I was never a big Three’s Company fan for some reason. But I attended Ball State University at a time when Joyce DeWitt was the school’s big famous alum – a time before David Letterman started to become famous.
Oh yes, the Probe. What an unfortunate name. I never drove one but I have two things come to my mind whenever I think of one: My Mrs. drove one as a rental when they were first out and she still remembers it as the slowest thing she ever drove. The second is the last one I remember seeing – it was in a used car lot and was painted that strange metallic pink color. I don’t know why I didn’t pull over and take some pictures.
Festiva-Pink! I remember when the local Ford dealer had a row of these Probes in these Easter egg colors.
My 2.0L-equipped Probe was also a 5-speed and felt pretty sprightly in traffic – with the A/C off.
Turquoise seemed to be the most popular color, though maybe that was just in ads and reviews. I think there was purple and yellow too if I remember right. The second generation seemed to be targeted more towards women than the first, which makes sense with the Mustang still around.
About a year and a half ago I ran across a nice, low mileage 90 or 91 LX Probe at a charity’s used car lot. It had the 3 liter V6 (unfortunately) with an automatic transmission. It also had the optional(?) digital instrument panel. Between the digital dash and the idiosyncratic controls I was obliged to read the owner’s manual before even starting the engine. It was refrigerator white outside with a red velour interior….you almost needed sunglasses to sit in that car.
I would have bought it but it was nearly 100 miles from home with no bus, train, or plane service to the town.
I like both generations of the Probe, but would be reluctant to own one with an automatic transmission except for the 1st generation 6 cylinder engined models.
In the UK (and also in Europe?) the Probe was marketed as the “not quite, not really” replacement to the Capri. It never sat comfortably in the range, and (like a sitcom no one gets too hooked on) it quietly disappeared, unmourned, after a few short seasons.
In Britain the motoring press trailed the arrival of these for what seemed like years, as a replacement for the “European Mustang”.
“Will Ford Launch a New Capri?!?!?”
The Capri was virtually given a UK state funeral, the Probe came and went – almost as unnoticed as the Cougar did a few years later.
Tonito, to your point (and Philip’s point, above), I love love love the Capri. The Mark III versions you got overseas were awesome – darn the currency exchange rate that killed these in the U.S.!
The word ‘probe’ means more than sexual innuendo. Seems like everyone on internet boards says same thing about the car having an “unfortunate name”. Geez, give it a rest.
But, Probe was a concept car, and back then was no bashing of name. Only since TV had gotten racier, with lots of goofy jokes, that word invokes snickering.
Was a hit when 2 door FWD coupes were in style, but faded after SUV’s became the ‘image car’ to impress strangers.
Keep in mind the auto show circuit catered to a more mature demographic that may well be more interested in cars than what they’re named(hence alphabet soup). The production Probes depreciated quickly into first car status for high schoolers, and 75% of the high school experience is finding things to snicker about with friends.
While you are correct, reality rears (huh, I wrote “rear”) its ugly head and the inner 14 year old always lets his voice be heard.
There were millions of other choices, so why Ford decided on this name is still puzzling. There was no “P” naming convention, no former model carrying the name, and no real pretension to be space related, so the choice was poor at best.
It comes off as a hasty choice since they presumably owned the name for the concepts, and just threw it on this because the Mustang badge was no longer to be affixed.
It also occurs to me that Ford named all the Probe concepts with Roman numerals, Probe I, Probe II, Probe III, Probe IV and such, ala the space program. That may or may not make a difference to a snarky teenager, but ‘probe’ and ‘space probe’ have very different connotations.
Threes company was and is my favorite sitcom bar none. I totaly had a huge crush on Joyce Dewitt. It was just the best comedy show ever as far as i’m concerned. John Ritter (RIP) was just the funniest guy on tv. I remember when the Probe came out, it really caused a stir because Ford was touting it as the next Mustang and people (read-Americans) were totally against our beloved and iconic pony car becoming Japanese. i felt the Probe was cool and i would’nt mind owning/driving one…………..but not as a Mustang. Mustang is pure Americana!!!
It’s too bad these small sport-e (instead of sport-s) coupes fell by the wayside. I imagined it’s because of the trendy nature of the segment – these cars would sell like hotcakes for 2-3 years and then drop off a cliff, usually due to the new hot thing. The redesign cycle was just too much for any manufacturer to keep up with. Although Honda tried with the RS-X.
I’ve always liked the 2G Probes. I imagine they would be cheap fun in good condition (V6/5M mandatory) these days. Likewise the Mazda MX-6 if you just can’t stand a hatchback.
I never much warmed to the Probe. Not really a bad looking car, just sort of ‘meh’, particularly that rear roof line. It certainly didn’t seem like a car befitting the Mustang name. I much preferred its cousin, the Mazda MX-6. If I was in the market at the time, that’s what I would have been looking at getting.
There are a couple of interesting Probe tidbits. The first is that the first generation cars had an instrument cluster that tilted in concert with the steering wheel. I think it also had one of those weird turn signal levers on the dash instead of a simple stalk on the column. I believe the second generation Probe did away with all that and went to a traditional tilt steering wheel and column turn signal stalk.
The other is that the third generation Probe was actually sold as the final Mercury Cougar. I always wondered where the last Cougar originated. Considering that the Probe was intended to be a Mustang, I guess it makes sense that the Mercury version of the Probe would be a Cougar.
MX-6 was much more conservatively styled than the Probe. Taste is subjective, but I always thought the MX-6 looked anonymous and dull in comparison. Sure the Probe didn’t look like a Mustang, but neither did the ’79 Mustang.
The instrument pod connected to the steering column was rather clunky, but the gauges were always in view which was nice. I never really thought much about the turn signal stalk I guess, since I forgot about that. It worked fine. The intuitive cruise stalk matched it on the other side.
I didn’t know that about the Cougar. I always liked those, they have aged well.
I didn’t know about the last Cougar, either. Of course, I found that info on the Wikipedia Ford Probe entry, and it was recently suggested I should fact check everything I read there before posting a comment, so who really knows? But the Cougar being a third generation Probe does make a lot of sense.
Regardless, the Probe’s instrument cluster attached to the column was an interesting novelty, but I’m not sure it was worth the effort or expense. It actually kind of reminds me of the cool electroluminescent gauges of the original ’66-’67 Dodge Charger which were quickly deleted from the second generation car.
Yeah I don’t think I’d say I preferred that pod cluster to a standard tilt column, but it had its advantages and definitely added to the character of the car. And I like cars with character.
The Probe is still a good looker to me. A snappy Google search later, Ms Harrison is nearly 60, and…well, you can remove dents and marks and repaint a car and it looks new again, but not humans.
They sank without trace here as in the UK. The great complaint was the ride – and we got the softer one apparently – which would hurt your….well, your seat.
As for that name, the jokes here began immediately, starting with the incredulous the older crowd, not the younger. They may as well have had done with it and called it the Ford Snicker.
I’ve only driven the MX-6. That 2.5 engine and (manual) box were superb.
Very interesting cultural gulf arises in this post (not least what seems to an outsider the sometimes gobsmacking conservatism in America – I mean, banned Smurfs?!). I didn’t think much at all of Three’s Company, but the original English source, Man About The House, could be hilarious. I last watched one maybe 10 years ago, and it had worn surprisingly well. Especially considering our memories of such things are greatly influenced by life context.
Try finding a copy, Joseph. Be most interesting to know what you make of it.
“Man About The House” – thanks for the recommendation, Justy!
(I’d say the Smurfs thing was more about my parents’ particular household and not representative of the U.S. at all – hahaha!)
Great tie-in references, as usual, Joe!
These have all but disappeared from existence, yet to almost no surprise, Mustangs of this vintage are still frequently seen.
Joe, you’ve hit a treasure trove of stuff here.
First off, Justy Baum is right; Jennilee’s lips are unnaturally puffy in the pictures I saw.
Never a Three’s Company fan I did enjoy the Match Game. With questions like “Cindy fed her husband prunes until he _____” it’s easy to see why it was a hit.
Nothing was banned in our house despite my parent’s inconsistent prudishness. I remember watching Dallas and seeing JR and Sue Ellen get in a fight – I always thought it was so considerate of whatever woman letting JR sleep in her bed instead of on the couch.
Using Probe as a name was not one of Ford’s better ideas.
What’s in a name?
Calling the car ‘Probe’ is one of those things worth examining a bit closer. The general consensus is it would have failed if it had been a Mustang, but I’m not so sure. It’s almost as if someone inside Ford ‘wanted’ the Probe to fail, and intentionally gave it a goofy name. In that regard, it actually did okay.
I’m just envisioning a Probe with ‘Mustang’ emblems on it. Honestly, it might have sold a lot better.
Had the Probe been called Mustang I have long suspected it would have sold like the Mustang II as it certainly was breaking the “Mustang” mold in a number of ways.
All things considered, Ford probably made the right call by selling the Probe alongside the old-school, Fox-chassis Mustang. If, instead, Ford had discontinued the Fox and called the Probe “Mustang”, yeah, it likely would have followed the Mustang II model, i.e., sold well at first, then quickly tapered off. That’s the point where they either would have returned to RWD or simply let the model die, i.e., Thunderbird. It sounds like heresy to suggest Ford might let an iconic car like the Mustang die, but business is business, evidenced by Ford’s recent decision to kill off all cars except, ironically, the Mustang and a single version of the Focus.
Still, it would have been interesting if Ford had at least given the Probe a better name.
Jason, believe me – “Match Game” is now a guilty pleasure of mine!
You just reminded me of Ford’s old tagline: “Ford gives you better ideas”. Well played, Sir!
Big fan of Threes Company as I was young and single at the time. And oh yes, the show was funny.
My elderly neighbour has a 2nd-gen Probe still in reasonably good condition as its garaged and rarely driven. I believe its the GT model. Still a few Probes to be found up here. Far more of course than the Mazda MX-6. Neither car turned my crank but as a long time Mustang fan I was certainly not in favour of its becoming a Mustang.
I’ve always liked this type of car, a sporty hatchback. They were all pretty good looking but who did they plan on selling them to? Mustang fans weren’t going to abandon their Ponycar for it. The Honda Prelude and Toyota Celicas filled the premium end of the segment. Higher on the scale were the Nissan 300zx and Toyota Supra. On the lower end economy hatchbacks like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla would be the preferred choice. I’m not familiar with the pricing of the Probe but I’m guessing that it wasn’t much cheaper than a base Mustang. Oh yes the name didn’t help. I was aware that it was named for some of Ford’s racing prototypes, but it was an unfortunate choice.
I think the primary domestic competitors for the Probe were the Chevy Beretta and Dodge Daytona. I recall a C&D comparison test of the three in 1989.
As well as the Prelude and Celica, there was also the Nissan 240SX and the Diamond Star coupes (Laser/Eclipse/Talon) in this general class. This was a fairly big market segment at the time.
I don’t know about the Beretta and Daytona, this was targeted at imports. But yeah the market was full of cars in this range back then and the Probe was very competitive, making C&D’s 10 best list three times and Motor Trend’s COTY.
As that was the time when I was the targeted demographic, and I was, and still consider myself, a gearhead, the idea that the Mustang may have gone away, or been reinvented as something else was not such a wild idea. The FWD sporty hatches were selling well, and carried a bit of cache in the market that the Mustang, Camaro, and Firebird did not. The GM twins stayed larger, and the Mustang was, even then, a bit long in the tooth. Ford wanted a global image, and the Mustang only sold in North America. Was it a good idea? Probably good in theory, and once it got rolling, there was enough of a fuss that they kept the Mustang alive. We will probably see that with the C8 Corvette, as it will test whether it is the “purist” or the (r)evolutionary model that wins the hearts and minds of the buying public.
…quite literally phoning it in. (Origin of that phrase, perhaps?)
I actually looked up the origin of that phrase once out of my own curiosity. It didn’t come from Three’s Company, but it actually did originate from actors. According to what I read it started out as a joke, as in “This guy’s part is so small he doesn’t even need to show up for rehearsal, he can just read his lines over the phone.” It gradually evolved to the current meaning “This guy’s putting so little effort into his role he might as well be reading his lines over the phone”, and then to mean anyone who’s putting very little effort into their job.
Excellent – thanks for researching that. After I had drafted this piece, it was nagging at me not to know.
There is more to the Probe and the Jenilee Harrison connection than meets the eye. The story of the Probe being a Mustang replacement goes much farther back than many accounts really get into; this car was born directly out of the early 1980’s inflation and fuel economy scares. The original plan for the Probe would have been a 1984-1985 introduction, not the eventual 1989 and subsequent restyle that finally came about. Check out the dates of this close to finalized “Probe” Ford was serious about until gas prices stabilized; October 1982:
This is horribly low resolution, but here is what they thought a “GT” should be. It also sports 2.3 Turbo badges on the front fenders:
Cjiguy, thank you so much for this / these pictures. I don’t think I had ever seen these proposals before today, or maybe had before and had forgotten them.
I think the final (first-generation) Probe was, as remains, a real looker with a few wonky details (the chunky, but still attractive front clip; shock tower bumps over the front wheels). I can see the influence of these proposals in the pictures you attached.
Like Cindy Snow, it comes with pop-up headlights
Interestingly enough, when Autoweek first showed what was supposed to be the so-called “Mustang III”, they had a photo of the upcoming Mazda MX-6 coupe.
Interesting article! I was away with the family recently for a week’s holiday in the north of England and we saw a mid-90s second-generation Probe at the petrol station. After pointedly pointing at it to see if my wife and boys would be even vaguely interested in it, I got back in the car and my wife said, “See that Ford Probe you were frantically pointing at? My dad had one of those just after he’d split up from my mum and was trying to relive his youth”. It now is a mid-life crisis mobile in my mind 😉
The Probe did not do well around rural Ontario where I grew up. There were Camaro fans and Mustang fans and that was about it. Well that and pickup trucks.
The Daytona did ok but I think if Chrysler had had kept the Challenger/Cuda it would have been treated much the same as the Probe.
Sorry but the name was the gift that kept on giving. Even guys who owned one had trouble saying it with a straight face.
Bench racing took on a whole different thought process when the Probe was mentioned in the phrase ” You can just stick….”
? I think you understand what I mean.
like so many other choices i find myself on the minority side of common opinion. for example…….
camaro or firebird? (firebird)
gmc or chevy? (gmc)
chrissy or janet? (janet)
ginger or mary anne? (mary anne)
jill, sabrina or kelly? (sabrina)
taurus or sable? (sable)
see, just an oddball trying to get by in the world.
We had a 89 or 90 Probe. It was full of Mazda parts. Window regulators were bad and I replaced them three times, each time buying from a Mazda parts supplier.
Strangely enough Ive seen one of these recently here and talked with the owner a young guy and learner forklift operator he regularly loaded my truck in the afternoons, he seemed less than impressed with his car though, it looked in nice order but he described it as a get to work shitter and was saving for something nicer, just what he didnt elaborate on other than a 4×4 pickup of some description.
Great write up as always Joe. I was not a fan of the Ford Probe and fell into the camp of feeling it was not worthy to be a Mustang replacement. I also never really watched Threes Company, although the theme song remains burned on my brain. That said, you truly did both justice in paralleling the show and the car. Thank you for an enjoyable read.
As one who didn’t care for the Mustang up through the Fox body, I wasn’t concerned about whether the Probe was appropriate to is legacy. I rented a first-series model for a week. It steered better than a Fox body or a Mustang II. I liked is space and it’s comfort. The automatic badly dulled the responses of the base engine. I thought I would probably like one with a 5-speed well enough,, but probably never feel any real pain towards it. Sort of like a larger version of the Sentra that I had rented previously. Very nice for a cheap rental, though!
I “remember” these looking weirder at the time. Memory is an odd thing.