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The 1989 Ford Probe
Ford's original 1989 Probe was based Mazda's MX-6 and almost replaced the Mustang. The 1997 Ford Probe GT is shown here.

We shouldn't leave this decade without mentioning the Probe, which was new for 1989. A sporty hatchback coupe based on Mazda's MX-6, it was a high point for Dearborn's then 15-year-old partnership with the Japanese automaker. This had been such a success that Ford not only bought a 25-percent stake in Mazda but decided to entrust it with all of Ford's own small-car development for North America. The Probe was the first fruit of that decision.

The original Probe will ever be remembered as the car that almost replaced the Mustang. Ford changed its name only at the last minute amid howls of protest from Mustang loyalists who'd have no truck with a Japanese design -- and with ­"inferior" front drive at that.

The name itself came from Ford's exciting early-'80s series of aerodynamic concept cars, but proved to have unexpectedly offensive connotations. To produce the car, Ford and Mazda set up a new factory in Flat Rock, Michigan, not far from historic River Rouge, as part of a joint venture aptly named Auto Alliance. The plant also turned out MX-6s and 626 sedans for Mazda's U.S. dealers.

With all this, the Probe is at best a "half-American" car despite all-Ford styling and availability of the 3.0-liter Taurus V-6 on midrange LX models for 1990-92. (The base GL used a 2.2-liter Mazda four, the top-line GT a turbocharged version). Probe was redesigned for '93 on a new-generation MX-6 platform with 102.9-inch wheelbase (versus 99), again with much more dramatic styling than its cousin. Power was exclusively Mazda: a 2.0-liter four for the base model, a 2.5 V-6 for the sporty GT.

Probe was a timely Ford weapon against sporty Japanese compacts like Toyota Celica, Honda Prelude, Nissan 200SX -- and Mazda MX-6. Sales were good at first -- more than 117,000 by 1990 -- but then fell victim to a sharp drop in sporty coupe demand. The second-generation Probe was the last, with production ending in '97.

Despite its ultimate demise, Probe was as much a symbol as Taurus of Ford's strong '80s resurgence, a phoenix-like renaissance engineered by Donald E. Petersen (president from 1980, chairman after 1984) and his young, enthusiastic executive team. From an automaker that was as near to collapse as Chrysler was in 1980, Dearborn remade itself into a trimmer, more-responsive, and vastly more-efficient outfit while fielding aggressive products that were usually right on target.

For more on the amazing Ford, old and new, see:

  • Ford New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Ford Used Car Reviews and Prices