A low production two seater with a manual transmission, turbo-charged four cylinder and factory Koni suspension from the eighties certainly sounds like it would be a sought after classic these days. But what if no one remembered it existed? Or it was overshadowed by the unconventional looks and sluggish performance of its more basic sibling? This is the story of the Ford EXP Turbo which seems to have been largely forgotten.
It is no secret that Ford was aiming for the youth market with the regular Ford EXP as they figured a sporty, more affordable car than the Mustang might do well. It is also no secret that it did not really work out, with the EXP having less performance than the Escort it was based on due to an additional 200lbs weight gain despite the removal of the rear seat. The turbo version developed by SVO was to finally allow the EXP match its sporty looks with expected performance.
The year is a 1984 and you are looking for a sporty two seat runabout. There was an embarrassment of choices available with drive layout options ranging from front engine/front wheel drive, front engine/rear wheel drive, and mid engine/rear wheel drive. Engine choices included normally aspired four cylinder, turbo four cylinder, V6 or rotary. This crowded marketplace with more than one standout is where the Turbo model (and to a lessor degree the regular EXP) found itself.
The main party piece to the EXP Turbo is the turbo-charged 1.6L engine producing 120hp, quite good for the era. Unlike the base model EXP, this engine was fuel injected as well as turbocharged. Up to 8psi of boost could obtained but unfortunately not observed as no boost gauge was fitted. The five speed manual that was first available optionally in 1983 was the only transmission offered on the Turbo. No automatics could be had. This lead to a 0-60mph time of around 9 seconds. Again, pretty decent for the era when a Toyota MR2 or Pontiac Fiero V6 offered similar acceleration.
In addition to the boosted engine, the Turbo model also had a number of other upgrades to the bodywork, interior and suspension. The ride was lowered 0.75″ inches with stiffer springs and thicker sway bar and Koni shocks were utilized at all four corners. All Turbo models received power steering as standard as well as improved brakes. Ford Tempo CV axles help cope with the additional power over the standard 1.6L engine. TRX rims and P185/65R365 tires were equipped as a path towards more high performance rubber. That 365 rim size was metric and fell between a 14″ and 15″ rim size. The TRX tire was ultimately a dead end but it was billed as a performance upgrade at the time. They generally handled well but were apparently prone to crumbling under hard braking. These days replacement rubber in the correct size is simply not available beyond some new old stock tires from the 1990s which are not suitable for driving on anymore,.
On the outside, a body kit shared with the TR model was fitted that toned down the EXP’s unusual looks, especially the underside of the nose. A red “turbo” script on the rear bumper was the only rear external indication that the car had enhanced performance potential. The body kit also managed to reduce the visual impact of the high belt line inherited from the donor commuter Escort platform. The rear “bubble back” hatchback from the now discontinued Mercury LN7 was fitted with an additional spoiler. Regular EXPs also got this hatch from 1984 on, without the spoiler.
EXP information is hard to come by these days but there was also a TR model available starting in 1983 that offered the visual and wheel/tire upgrades of the Turbo model without the turbo engine. The suspension was similar to the Turbo but tuned for slightly less performance. I spotted this example about a decade ago in a back alley wearing non-stock rims likely due to the TRX tire availability issue. The high, center stop lamp in the wing gives this one away as a 1985 model.
The Turbo model benefited from the revised dashboard introduced for 1984 and added a three spoke sport steering wheel and sport seats. The steering wheel changed again to a less attractive two spoke design for 1985 which was the final year of the Turbo and the first generation EXP. The EXP continued but looked extremely similar to the Escort GT. Motor Week retro has a period road test of the EXP Turbo but the lovely valve cover on their pre-production example seems to have not made it into regular production.
It is no secret that Eighties and Nineties nostalgia is big right now. Could this see the EXP Turbo finally seeing some recognition on the collector scene? The biggest issue is almost no one remembers them. While there are a few more rare EXP variants like Ford approved aftermarket convertible, EV and natural gas conversions the Turbo model is pretty rare in its own right with claims of as little as 1,200 to 10,000 produced. No matter the number there cannot be too many of these left as the survival rate is likely low. But if you want an EXP the model would be the most desirable beyond the lone supercharged and turbocharged Ford EXP McLaren ASC prototype.