When Ford almost killed the Mustang, the Probe was the heir apparent
Barely muffled pipes trumpeting piston pandemonium. Tires furiously converting black rubber to white froth. Back end slewed sideways scratching for purchase. What could possibly be better? Certainly not a pointy-nosed front-driver with barely the energy to chirp a tire. Yet 30 years ago, Ford threatened to replace America’s prized pony car with the Probe, a car unworthy of wearing the Mustang’s saddle. To ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself, we gathered the alleged perpetrators for a day of back-road thrashing near our Ann Arbor office.
The red 1994 Ford Mustang GT owned by Steve Johnson, who happens to be a Ford employee and a Hagerty member, is our comeback car. It has been revived from a coma by engineers and planners who couldn’t bear to see their favorite horse dispatched to the glue factory.
Johnson graduated from high school in 1994, the year the fourth-generation Mustang made its debut. He convinced his father, coincidentally shopping for a Probe, to borrow one for a test drive. In 2000, after joining Ford as a powertrain engineer, he tracked down this red-hot GT in Ohio, bought it, and drove straight to his girlfriend’s home in Michigan to show it off. Four years later, the couple was married. With four Fords in the household, this Mustang is seldom driven, prompting Johnson to consider its sale. Factoring in the car’s sentimental value, his wife, Amber, nixed that idea.
The black 1997 Ford Probe GT has been in owner Chris Merkle’s family since new. Merkle, too, is a Hagerty member and a longtime Ford employee now working at the warranty parts analysis center. This stealthy black Probe is the last of its kin. After a third-generation update was canceled, the Escort ZX2 took the Probe’s spot at Ford.
John Coletti, our expert witness for these proceedings, is a semiretired engineer who’s widely regarded as a patron saint of the blue-oval faith. Every Ford team with a name beginning with the words “Special Vehicle” was energized or headed by Coletti. What many regard as Ford’s ultimate roadgoing accomplishment—the mid-engine 2005 GT—was developed by Coletti’s brilliant engineering team.
By the mid-1980s, when the Mustang/Probe title bout began, the old guard had left the building. Product genius Lee Iacocca, creator of the Mustang, had moved to Chrysler years earlier. Retirement had reduced Henry Ford II to minor-adviser status. Ford had pinned its hopes on the aerodynamic, front-wheel-drive 1986 Taurus sedan. The Japanese luxury brands of Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus were about to eat Lincoln’s lunch, and the Koreans were setting up shop on the West Coast.
Shortly after April Fool’s Day in 1987, AutoWeek published a preposterous scoop headlined “EXCLUSIVE! The ’89 Ford Mustang” containing an accurate look at what would follow as the Probe. The story reported that the new plant under construction by Mazda near Detroit would build the car using a mix of Japanese and American design and engineering with major components being shared with the Mazda MX-6.
Although Mazda was on a roll with the RX-7 (to be followed by the Miata), AutoWeek readers responded with howls of indignation. One claimed the idea filled him with rage and disgust. Another urged Mustang fans to share their feelings with Ford commanders and kindly provided the company’s mailing address. Thousands followed that suggestion—to the letter.
Neil Ressler, at the time Ford’s chief engineer responsible for small- and mid-size-car design, recalls this era with some anxiety. “Mustang sales fell in the early 1980s, and a number of funerals had been proposed. We gave it life support with a four-barrel carburetor and improved Goodyear Gatorback tires.”
Unfortunately, the engineers backing the Mustang were opposed by finance and product planning guys who loved Mazda, Ressler says. “Confident that the Japanese could do everything better, the opposition fostered a fresh approach to revive the nameplate and improve fuel economy. What would emerge as the 1989 Ford Probe was codenamed the ST-16. When the AutoWeek story hit newsstands, the rear-drive Mustang was on its deathbed.”
At this juncture, Coletti was Ford’s design manager for the Mustang, Tempo, Topaz, and Escort. During a 1988 studio walk-around with his boss, Ken Dabrowski, he spotted a model labeled ST-16 wearing a GT badge. Coletti spouted, “What the hell is that?” After Dabrowski explained the car’s mission, Coletti objected, saying, “That may be a lotta things, but a Mustang it ain’t!”
Dabrowski demanded Coletti explain himself. “I told him it was clear the car’s low cowl meant it couldn’t possibly have a V-8 under the hood,” Coletti says. “That meant it wouldn’t be the muscle car that was core to Mustang heritage. The move to front drive was another stake in the Mustang’s heart.”
Instead of ordering Coletti to curb his lack of enthusiasm, Dabrowski passed the discontent up the chain of command. When it reached CEO and chairman Alex Trotman, who had recently moved to Dearborn from England, the boss ordered a “fresh-eyes look” to find a better solution. Since the ST-16 was too far along to shelve, it was rechristened the Probe, a badge previously used on Ford’s aerodynamic concept cars. The Mustang was granted a stay of execution but forced to limp along with no appearance or functional updates after the 1987 model year.
With Dabrowski’s blessing, Coletti set up a skunkworks in 1989 to keep the Mustang’s heart beating. “It started as after-hours meetings in my office with the team of believers I had assembled,” he says. “Ressler began paying regular visits to talk cars in general and Mustangs in particular.” Unfortunately, when high-level Ford execs caught wind of the skunkworks, they issued firm orders to halt Mustang development. Ressler countered by moving Coletti’s group to a remote site called the Danou Center in Allen Park, Michigan, a few miles from Ford’s main campus in Dearborn.
The plot thickens. “One day, following the review of our Danou advanced engineering activities, Trotman and I passed an unmarked door,” Ressler notes. “He said, ‘I understand there’s a Mustang skunkworks around here somewhere.’ Without thinking, I said, ‘Yes, sir, it’s right behind that door.’ Of course, he said, ‘Let’s go in!’ I held my breath because guys could have been playing cards in there. But fortunately, when we burst through the door, everybody was beavering away like crazy. Trotman must have kept that visit quiet because there was never an investigation by those who opposed the new Mustang.”
Enter Coletti. “Back then, Ford new-car programs typically cost a billion dollars and generally began with a clean sheet of paper. We knew that for any chance of success we’d have to do a new Mustang on the cheap, which meant salvaging major parts of the third-generation Fox [Ford Fairmont] platform. Since we liked the 5.0-liter V-8, we didn’t need a new driveline.” Likewise, traditional Mustang customers weren’t demanding an independent rear suspension to replace the live axle.
The save-the-Mustang team established these essential goals: a fresh appearance, V-8 power, an affordable four-passenger package, conformity with safety and emissions requirements, and a maximum investment of $300 million. Because the Fox platform wasn’t stiff enough, engineers substantially reinforced the unibody, widened the front track by four inches, the back by two inches, and revised the front suspension geometry a bit to improve handling. They also stretched the wheelbase 0.8 inch.
“On completion of the car’s clay model, Trotman requested a program update,” Coletti says. “Recounting our objectives, I told him we accomplished our first four goals but missed the $300 million cost target. I feared that would kill the project. When he asked how much money we needed, I replied $550 million. To my delight, he responded, ‘You got a deal!’ Ford’s marketing vice president Bob Rewey was an equally ardent supporter.”
When the Ford Probe arrived for the 1989 model year, no tears were shed over the supposedly moribund Mustang. Enthusiasts loved having an American-and-Mazda-made alternative to the Japanese supercoupes. Car and Driver gave the Probe GT its highest accolade, a 10Best award, backed by a second-place ranking in an eight-car comparison test where a Mustang LX 5.0 finished fourth. Editors griped about the buzzy 2.2-liter turbo engine but pronounced the Probe “thoroughly exciting to drive.”
One year before the Coletti gang brought its resuscitated Mustang to market, the second-generation 1993 Probe arrived with every birth defect addressed. A meaty Mazda 2.5-liter V-6 replaced the buzzy turbo-four, adding 19 horsepower. In spite of wider tracks and a four-inch-longer wheelbase, 66 pounds had been excised from the curb weight. The cowl height was lower by a dramatic three inches.
Motor Trend christened the new Probe its Car of the Year, and Car and Driver chimed in with ’93 and ’94 10Best trophies. In the inevitable Car and Driver comparison test, the Ford Probe GT beat Honda’s Prelude, Mazda’s MX-6, Mitsubishi’s Eclipse, and VW’s Corrado.
The Mustang’s time to shine finally arrived in 1994. Motor Trend found that the golden Car of the Year calipers fit it nicely, but Car and Driver ranked Ford’s resuscitated hero second to the Chevy Camaro.
Which brings us to the roads west of Hell, Michigan, where bikers, boaters, car enthusiasts, and Motor City development teams come to work and play. Back roads that circumscribe half a dozen lakes soar, twist, and dive in this adult-grade theme park. It’s the perfect place to bare any vehicle’s deep dynamic secrets.
We quickly learn that there’s no point revving the Mustang GT beyond 5000 rpm, even though the tach advertises another 800 spins. Despite tubular factory headers, the voice of this port-injected V-8 is more drone than rumble. When the five-speed lever buzzes, it’s time to grab another gear to exploit the 285 pound-feet of torque living at 3400 rpm.
The heavy-handed steering is mum about what’s happening at the pavement, so you keep the pedal down after wheeling the nose into a bend until the BFGoodrich g-Force radials hiss in protest.
Ample grip, minimal body roll, a sound structure, and tight damping suggest that Ford engineers spent time on these roads decades ago. The chassis handles the ragged pavement edges without rattling the driver. The cloth-covered seats in combination with huggy upper bolsters lock you nicely in place when the going gets quick, and the pedals are perfectly located for heel-and-toe footwork. Our only gripes are a heater duct that occasionally snags the driver’s toe and a brake pedal that goes mushy under pressure.
The Probe GT makes up for its cylinder and cubic-centimeter shortfall with three more camshafts, eight more valves, and a 7000-rpm redline. The car is lighter by 500 pounds, and its 164 horsepower and front-wheel drive impose no hardship. Heavy understeer is never an issue, and the lighter steering effort and rapid responses give this Ford a clear agility advantage. Unfortunately, there’s no clutch pedal here, and the four-speed automatic is stingy with downshifts.
Although the low cowl and beltlines are great for spotting apexes, the Probe’s short stature takes a toll on front-suspension travel. Firm suspension calibrations cause head toss over wavy pavement, and bumps that barely phase the Mustang consume all the Probe’s wheel travel. Fortunately, there’s no banging when you do engage the bump stops. The bucket seats are skinned in slippery vinyl, but power adjusters allow you to pull the upper bolsters toward your ribs for restraint.
Both contenders score well on utility. The Probe’s hatch makes loading bulky cargo a cinch, and the notchback Mustang provides fold-down seatbacks for flexibility. Rear occupants enjoy a surprising amount of room and comfort in both cars after they work themselves past a folded front seat. Thankfully, Mustangs of this era came with standard-equipment air conditioning, because rear passengers’ heads ride directly under the backlight, with shade provided only by a dot pattern in the glass.
Aesthetically, the arrest-me-red Mustang is this comparison’s clear winner. Chrome is limited to a few accents, such as the tailpipes, and even though the vents and scoops serve no function, they are tastefully designed. The black side stripes adorned with galloping horses are a smart dealer-installed touch. Meanwhile, the Probe wears its low build and sleek shape admirably well in this tuxedo edition. The American Racing 15-spoke wheels added by Merkle are the perfect upgrade.
Proving that Coletti was right all along, the buying public voted strongly in favor of Mustangs. In 1997, the Probe’s final model year, Mustang sales trumped those of the Mazda-made alternative six to one.
Probes never earned collector-car status, and we had difficulty finding a decent survivor for this story. Conversely, Mustangs thrived through two subsequent generations, earning a permanent place in the blue-oval lineup as other Ford cars disappeared or evolved into crossovers. Prices for special-edition Bullitt, Mach I, Cobra, and Shelby GT models continue to climb. Ever the competitor, Mustangs are still crack road racers and drifters. Next year, Ford will sponsor them in the NHRA’s Mello Yello Funny Cars and in NASCAR’s Energy Cup series.
No single person can save a car from extinction at a company the size of Ford, but in the Mustang’s case, co-conspirators John Coletti, Ken Dabrowski, Neil Ressler, Bob Rewey, and Alex Trotman definitely achieved a minor miracle.
The article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe to our magazine and join the club.