Junkyard Gem: 1997 Ford Probe


Ford’s partnership with Mazda began in the early 1970s, when the Mazda Proceed pickup went on sale here as the Ford Courier. By the middle 1990s, Ford owned a third of Mazda and had profited handsomely through the use of Mazda engineering in its vehicles. The 1991 and later Escort was sibling to the Mazda 323/Protegé, for example, and Mazda was able to cash in on the SUV craze early by selling Ford Explorers with Navajo badges. One of the more interesting products of the Mazda-Ford partnership (which was terminated when Ford sold off its Mazda stake in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis) was the Ford Probe, a sporty liftback coupe sold for the 1989 through 1997 model years. Here’s one of the final Probes sold in the United States, found in a San Francisco Bay Area car graveyard.

31 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

The automotive world was making a massive shift into front-wheel-drive machinery by the dawn of the 1980s, thanks to the fuel-economy and interior-space benefits derived from driving the front wheels with a weight-saving engine/transaxle package, and memories of the 1979 Oil Crisis remained vivid. The Ford Mustang went onto the new rear-wheel-drive Fox Platform for the 1979 model year (ending a shameful five-year interregnum of Pinto-based Mustangs) and sales were strong as the 1980s progressed … but the suits in Dearborn and Hiroshima cooked up a plan to put the Mustang on a modified Mazda 626 chassis starting with the 1989 model year.

23 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

This all made perfect sense if you discounted the emotional attachment Americans had developed for V8-engined rear-wheel-drive Mustangs starting a couple of decades before. The Mazda design with a hot V6 engine would eat up a Fox Mustang on any race track involving corners and it just looked fast. Who could object to that? When news of the next-generation Mustang with its Japanese ancestry, wrong-wheel-drive and non-V8 power (never mind that most first-generation Mustangs were sold with straight-six engines) leaked via Autoweek in 1987, however, the howls of outrage were immediate and deafening.

35 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

So, Ford kept the Fox Mustang in production (through 1993 or 2004, depending on how strictly you define a Fox) and dug up the name used on the 1979-1985 Probe concept cars for use on the erstwhile fourth-generation Mustang. The Probe ended up enjoying respectable sales numbers and most folks in the blue-oval world seemed happy enough.

05 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

Meanwhile, North American Mazda dealers were able to sell a mechanically identical and similar-looking coupe called the MX-6, and the Probe’s bread-and-butter Mazda 626 cousins rolled out of the same plant in Flat Rock.

17 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

Ford’s Mercury Division had done well enough by pasting its badges on the Australian-built Ford Capri here, despite that car being a front-driver based on the Mazda 323 platform. The Capri name hadn’t been quite as sacred here, though; it started out on a Lincoln in 1952, became a trim-level designation for the Mercury Comet in 1966, moved to a European-built Ford sold by Mercury dealers (though never formally given Mercury badging here), then went onto the Mercury-badged Fox Mustang for the 1979 through 1986 model years. Some model names are just more sacred than others.

12 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

Mustang purity was maintained, but I can say from having worked more than 150 road-race events as a 24 Hours of Lemons official that a stock 1989-1997 Probe will annihilate a stock 1989-1997 Mustang on a road course (given drivers of approximately equal skill levels), even when the Probe has a four-cylinder engine and the Mustang has a V8. Does this matter today, when the fury over a Mexico-built electric SUV with Mustang badges seems so muted compared to the Probe/Mustang controversies of decades ago?

The Probe name also lends itself to top-notch themes in Lemons racing.

15 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

This car is a base-grade model with the Mazda 2.0-liter DOHC straight-four engine, rated at 118 horsepower and 118 pound-feet. The Probe GT got a 2.5-liter Mazda V6 with 164 horsepower and 160 pound-feet.

10 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

With the optional automatic transmission (a five-speed manual was base equipment), this car would have been a good-looking and economical commuter and not much more.

08 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

It barely squeezed past the 50,000-mile mark during its 26-year career and still looked decent inside and out at the end.

25 1997 Ford Probe in California junkyard photo by Murilee Martin

It appears that a minor fender-bender doomed it.

The base 1997 Probe listed at $14,280, or about $27,626 in 2023 dollars. However, your local Ford dealer often sweetened Probe deals by the middle 1990s, as we see in this commercial. How much was the cheapest possible 1997 Mustang? $15,355, or about $29,705 after inflation (though its 3.8-liter pushrod V6 engine made a base-Probe-beating 150 horses).

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