How the Ford Probe almost killed the Mustang

The stage was set for the fourth-gen Mustang to become the first fwd pony car. Thankfully fate intervened; the US kept the Mustang and Europe got the Probe

The history of the Ford Mustang stretches back decades, with the very first car starting its engine in 1964. Since then the Mustang has endured everything from multiple oil crisis to extreme rivalry on its own turf. At times the model has been its own worst enemy, with the third-generation model straying far from the successful ‘pony car’ formula. That car dented the Mustang’s reputation, but it was the Ford Probe that could have finished off the Blue Oval icon.

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When the time came to start designing a replacement for the polarising third-generation Mustang, Ford had a big decision ahead of it. Either the Mustang could continue to chase modern European cars in a bid to broaden its appeal, or it could go back to being definitively American and reconnect with its muscle-car roots. A difficult decision, which could set the iconic model on a course that would be difficult to reverse. In the early planning stages designers and engineers were working toward the former with the company’s Japanese partner Mazda.

It was perceived that economic instability and rising oil prices wouldn’t favour the traditional large engine and rear-wheel-drive arrangement. Ford decided to start work on a front-wheel-drive Mustang, which made use of a new Mazda platform that would also underpin the MX-6. To make the transition an easier pill to swallow for true Mustang fans, the rear-wheel-drive third-gen car would be sold alongside the new front-driven model under the guise of Mustang Classic, before being phased out.

AutoWeek magazine managed to get the scoop on the up-and-coming front-wheel-drive Mustang, and made it the cover story. The public backlash was loud and immediate. The thought of Ford trying to quietly ditch rear-wheel drive was poison in the minds of owners and fans. They also didn’t like the lack of a V8 engine option or the Japanese engineering involved.

It became clear that this car had the potential to put Mustang out of favour with the masses, and do significant damage to its long-term reputation. As a direct result of this outcry, Ford began work on the rear-wheel-drive Mustang that eventually debuted as the model’s fourth incarnation.

What became of the front-wheel-drive Mustang? It was renamed the Ford Probe, and launched in 1989. The idea was that the Probe would go and capture Europe as a replacement for the Capri, while the Mustang took care of America. This proved to be a lucky escape for the ’Stang, as the Probe struggled to meet sales targets due to questions about build quality and a steep initial asking price. It was also far from the keen driver’s car it promised to be.

So, thanks to some good, old-fashioned investigative journalism, the Mustang was spared from the Probe. Unfortunately, Europe wasn’t…

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