(first posted 9/15/2013) The original 1960 Corvair Monza coupe introduced and pioneered a European-inspired 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. They actually ended up looking much worse than their donor, the Escort. What a feat!
This particular 1985 EXP is a bit of a one-year wonder, as it sports the bubbleback borrowed form its Mercury LN7 stablemate, but still has the goofy original front end that was revised and smoothed-over in for 1986.
Here’s how it looked in its initial form. Whatever happened to the old technique of throwing a bunch of sandbags in cars being shot for PR photos. This poor little thing looks like its waiting for a flood. Bubble-back or not, 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.
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. A turbo 1.6 was briefly available, but didn’t find any traction in the market.
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?