(first posted 11/26/2015) The second-generation Ford Probe seemed to have the unfortunate stigma of being an underdog, with tough competition and lower resale values than other cars in its segment. Some of my Spanish-speaking friends went so far as to call it the “Pobre”. Sleeping peacefully with its headlamp-doors/eyelids closed, this one seemed at peace with all of that. By contrast, the first-gen cars, despite being saddled with this unfortunate moniker from the get-go, seemed to get the respect of the automotive press.
I was a high school freshman when the inaugural 1989 Probes made their debut, and I remember reading much ado being made about their futuristic styling and technological sophistication. All the positive press seemed to successfully divert attention away from the fact that this FWD, partially Mazda-engineered car was almost called a Mustang, to the disdain of many fans of that iconic nameplate. The first Probe proved to be popular – outselling the second-gen model by a ratio of almost 2:1 despite being on the market for only four model years instead of five.
Fast-forward to model year ’93, and the 2nd-gen cars made their debut. The GT was even named Motor Trend’s Car Of The Year. I was by then a college freshman, and I spent almost as much time reading car magazines as studying. My first impressions were that while the new car looked lower and lighter, some of the distinctive touches I had liked about the first cars were gone – like the sideview mirrors that appeared to peel off from a character line that started at the leading edge of the front fenders, a smoother-looking greenhouse, and full-width taillamps on all models. I liked the front end and lower beltline of the new ’93s, but I found the chopped, slightly-concave rear panel somewhat unattractive and thought stylists could have done better. My circle of friends at the time also seemed to prefer the related Mazda MX-6, which was built at the same Flat Rock, Michigan factory with basically the same mechanicals.
Fast-forward (again) to the fall of ’97, and the Probe had completed its final model year of production. I was also set to graduate from college that December. Uncharacteristic of my truly thrifty parents, they offered to take my worn, ’88 Mustang LX 2.3L in trade toward their purchase of a newer used car for me. What?? Who are you people?? Truth be told, they were probably ecstatic I had ended up going back to college after a yearlong hiatus and actually finished my degree. (That’s me behind my old Mustang.)
My younger brother, Peter (whom I have referenced before), was by then a high school senior, and didn’t react to the news of my gift with jealousy. In quite the opposite response some might expect from a sibling, on his own, he started hitting the used car sections of some of the more reputable, local new car dealerships, including Galeana in south Fort Myers, Florida. Peter had a very good idea of what I’d like, so he picked out three domestically-branded sporty coupes, from which I selected the teal-colored beauty you see above. It was a ’94 base model with the standard 2.0L four-cylinder, a five-speed manual transmission, and a gray cloth interior with tweed inserts in the seats.
Let’s just address the elephant in the room right away… My Probe was a chick car. Like, totally. But at the time, I saw it as sort of a bigger, fixed-roof Miata with all the added utility of a back seat (which folded flat) and a hatchback with excellent access to a cavernous cargo area in which to haul my stuff. It was light on options – it had crank-windows and manual locks. Its only factory options were a rear window defroster and A/C (I also had an aftermarket CD player installed) but, my gosh, was that thing fun to drive. It zipped around and handled in ways my wheezy, 4-cylinder Mustang could only have dreamed of. The shifter was crisp and light, the power steering had just enough road feel, and it also had a certain mystique that came with driving a genuinely modern sporty coupe.
I had always wanted a car with pop-up headlights, and this one made the coolest whirring sound when I activated them with the stalk-mounted control. The seats were properly bolstered and looked good. The interior, though attractively styled, was a sea of hard, gray plastic. This was one area in which my Mustang bested my Probe. My Mustang’s Regatta Blue interior was a much nicer place to spend time behind the wheel, but it also lacked airbags. I did appreciate the Probe’s lower, sportier driving position. In retrospect, I probably did love my Mustang more when I owned it just for being what it was, but at the time, my Probe felt like a very cool car and a substantial step up in the automotive food-chain. I waited probably four whole months after driving it off the lot before smoking cigarettes in it. (I’ve been clean now for over ten years.)
To this day, the sight of one of the second-generation Probes makes me smile and think about my twenties in the Nineties. At the time, my Probe seemed like a modern-day equivalent of the Ford Capri II of the 70’s (a car I had always wanted) – being just this side of exotic, functional, and seemingly greater than the sum of its parts. Never mind that these Probes were never as popular as the evergreen Toyota Celica or the 2nd-gen Mitsubishi Eclipse (the latter being absolutely everywhere). The Probe gave Ford shoppers a reason to return to its dealerships for an entry-level sporty, sweet-handling, fuel-efficient car that could actually keep up with traffic. Let’s forgive its name – it was just the ticket for one newly-minted college graduate.
The maroon GT was as photographed by the author in Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois in February/March 2011. Exterior shots of the author and his cars were taken 1998; Interior shot taken 2003.
Related reading from Perry Shoar: Curbside Classic: 1990 Ford Probe GT – Under Pressure.