For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
You cannot help but look on, moon-eyed and mouth agape.
The few words that leave your lips are short and exclamatory – the sort of language that is fully deserving of italics and multiple exclamation marks. This brace of unique, Ghia-crafted Ford Probe concept cars has that effect.
The passing of time has done nothing to dull the sense of uncompromising strangeness here; you could never accuse their designers of having been choked by caution.
They represented a mission statement on behalf of the Blue Oval: change was coming, and coming soon.
Concept cars, show queens, teasers, or whatever you want to call them, have been around in one form or another since 1938, the year that General Motors design tsar Harley Earl ushered in the Buick Y-Job.
It marked the jumping-off point for the publicity-garnering one-off (even if some historians insist that Auburn had already blazed that trail with its 1929 Cabin Speedster).
In the 1950s, Detroit’s Big Three revealed a bewildering array of show-stealers, each promising a starry-eyed future: we would soon be driving – maybe flying – cars powered by gas turbines or even a nuclear reactor.
Then the Europeans got in on the act, the Italians in particular having a gift for this sort of thing.
Their late-’60s and early ’70s offerings were often resplendent in highlighter-pen hues and stuffed with racing technology.
And boasting the sort of impractical cabins that necessitated contortions leading yogis can only dream of.
But that was then. By the mid-to-late ’70s, concept cars had taken a turn for the serious.
First, there was a raft of safety-related vehicles, where survivability in a crash was the focal point.
Then, as here, aerodynamics took centre stage as the origami look gave way to amorphous forms.
The oldest car of the pair on these pages, the Probe I, was at the vanguard of this movement.
It represented the singular vision of Don Kopka, formerly of the Chrysler Corporation, who on jumping ship to Ford styled the 1967 Mustang before graduating to the executive directorship of the Advanced and International Design Studio.
He was evangelical about aerodynamics and, given that the world had already endured a major wobble in 1973 with the oil crisis, he viewed lighter and curvier cars that took up less acreage as representing the future. He had the ear of the suits in Dearborn, too.
Road & Track reported in April 1979: ‘Ford’s game plan through 1985 looks increasingly promising from a fuel-efficient point of view. The company sees an average car weight of 3000lb (down 700 from the 1979 figure), and it projects 50% of its cars will be four-cylinder powered, compared to only 20% today.
‘And, as Ford executive Bill Bourke put it: “The North American market, under both economic and governmental pressure, is converging on the European market, and by 1985 it will be, while not quite a clone, certainly a very close kin.”’
It was oddly apposite that the arrival of the Probe I in 1979 coincided with another energy crisis.
That year’s Frankfurt Motor Show was, by all accounts, a subdued affair. Only three concept cars were displayed, and they were all Fords – of a kind.
Luigi Colani displayed his typically loopy GT80, allegedly with Cosworth DFV power. Ford proper showcased the stubby but attractive Mustang RSX, which was designed and built at the Ghia studio in Turin.
Alongside it was the star of the 48th Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung: the Probe I.
Based on a lengthened Fox-body Mustang platform, with a 2667mm (105in) wheelbase, complete with a turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder unit under its pointed nose, it was daring and attractive with it.
Purportedly designed in Dearborn and built in conjunction with Ghia (some sources insist there was no Italian content), and originally finished in white with black accents and red pinstriping, among its more striking features were the rear-wheel spats and elongated rear deck.
Ford’s PR bumf from the period claimed a drag coefficient of just 0.25Cd. That, and its ability to register 39mpg at 56mph.
Unlike some other concept cars we might mention, this wasn’t merely a clay mock-up with painted-on windows, either.
The four-seat cabin boasted a wealth of touch-sensitive switchgear, an electronic entertainment centre, and an ignition system that was activated by a key card.
But this was merely the opening salvo. A year later, Ford followed through with the Probe II, a saloon car with a pointed nose that, while intriguing, was more conventional in appearance than its predecessor.
It was succeeded by the Probe III, which foretold the Sierra that had already been signed off.
This Uwe Bahnsen/Patrick Le Quément co-production featured extensively in the Blue Oval’s advertising after it was unveiled at the September 1981 Frankfurt Motor Show.
Claiming a drag coefficient of just 0.22Cd, and painted in a rather nasty shade of gold, it epitomised the ‘jelly mould’ look that would soon be normalised.
Two years later, Ford picked up from where it had left off with the wilder-still Probe IV.
This was another four-door saloon, only this time with spats shrouding all four wheels, flush-fitting lights and glass, a smooth underbelly and retractable air dams.
Two cars were built, with Ghia crafting their bodies. One of them was functional, too, with its makers announcing a drag coefficient of a scarcely believable 0.152Cd.
Nevertheless, it appeared pedestrian compared to the car that followed in its wake: the ultimate (in every sense of the word) Probe, which is also pictured here.
In 1985, Ford went for broke with the fifth variation on the theme in time for the big reveal at that year’s Frankfurt Motor Show – and not just with the visuals.
Unlike previous efforts, the Probe Vdid away with the usual front-engined, rear-wheel-drive arrangement.
Here, the four-cylinder, 16-valve turbo motor was sited transversely behind the rear seats but ahead of the axle.
The car was so packaged as to allow for an even more extreme cab-forward design, the only carry-over from the Probe IV being the low nose, or more specifically the contact points.
Of spaceframe construction, it was skinned in thermoplastic and, once again, everything was flush-fitting, the skinny wheels hidden by spats.
This had been borrowed from its predecessor, but now the flexible membrane seals were integrated into the body’s outer surface so, when the front wheels turned, the membrane flexed to clear the tyres.
One of the underlying tenets behind the design was to reduce the drag coefficient by 10% relative to the Probe V ’s not exactly brick-like forerunner.
Remarkably, it emerged with a figure of 0.137Cd that, according to Autocar, was the same as a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter plane.
By way of comparison in the automotive arena, the more recent – and much-vaunted – Volkswagen XL1’s figure is 0.186.
Ford bettered it 35 years ago, the difference being that the Probe V never made it into even limited production.
Nor was it ever intended to, but it did foretell future mainstream models produced by Ford in the USA, the most obvious example being the Taurus.
It was nowhere near as radical, of course, but its smooth, grille-less nose and rounded form afforded an alleged drag coefficient of 0.29Cd.
This helped Ford to comfortably meet CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. What’s more, it began a design revolution in Detroit, with Chrysler and General Motors scrabbling to catch up.
Then there was the Mazda-rooted Ford Probe production car, but that’s a story for another time.
Which all brings us to today. Probe I and Probe V are currently on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum alongside the Ghia Brezza, all of which belong to Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing authority Scott Grundfor.
So how did a man renowned for restoring German exotica come to own a raft of custom showstoppers?
“When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was a big deal when the new car models came out,” he says.
“We would go to the local dealers to see them. My grandfather began taking me to the LA Auto Show at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium from the time I was 10 years old.
“These included unveilings for the famous Motorama Dream Cars. It was quite a spectacle: an orchestra, bright lights, beautiful women and, of course, the Dream Cars.
“From that time on, I thought these sorts of prototypes were it as far as cars were concerned. These experiments in the form of automotive design have always fascinated me the most.”
Grundfor acquired the Probes at the Christie’s sale of Ford concept cars in June 2002. Anyone who attended will recall the less than stellar displays of show cars, many from the recently shuttered Ghia studio.
“I have to give credit to my long-time friend, journalist Winston Goodfellow, for giving me the impetus to try and buy these prototypes when presented with the chance,” he adds.
“When I heard through the grapevine that an auction of Ford designs was going to be taking place in Dearborn, I asked Winston what he thought were the most important designs of the sale.
“He told me that he thought Probe I was probably the most significant because it was the first serious expression of Ford’s ideas regarding aerodynamics, and also because it represented the rebirth of the American ‘Dream Car’.”
There was no buyer’s remorse following the cars’ purchase, either, just the small matter of how best to look after them.
“I judge the Postwar Preservation class at Pebble Beach,” Grundfor explains. “Original cars in great condition should be dealt with in such a way that retains every bit of original quality, from the surface to the mechanics. The Probes remain in their original condition.
“They certainly needed attention in the form of basic detailing, and required some mechanical attention to get the original drivetrains running properly again because they had been in storage for some time.
“Each of the cars I purchased that day were, I’m afraid to say, not very well presented or, for lack of a better word, ‘clean’.
“Each was treated to a full conservation regimen when I got my hands on them. Of course, there are no parts available in general for one-of-a-kind vehicles – for example, during shipment from Dearborn to California after the sale, the centre light-bar lens on Probe V was broken. We had to learn how to form Plexiglas as well as making tooling to accomplish that.”
Of the two concepts, Probe I is the most conventional, but it’s all relative.
The styling anchors it in the late 1970s, not least because it has drag-inducing pop-up headlights, but the interior is something else entirely.
There’s an odd mix of the mundane and the exotic, here. The padded steering wheel appears positively ordinary, as though it was lifted from a parts bin, although it boasted a more radical tiller when first displayed 41 years ago; one that didn’t feature a centre column and had a circular instrument panel just ahead of it. And, naturally, it boasted digital instrumentation.
You can, however, imagine driving Probe I. It still looks like a car.
The Probe V, in contrast, appears to have crash-landed from a different planet.
Ford envisaged it as being ‘…a 2+2 mid-engined sports car’, but it’s more kinetic sculpture than automobile – it is drivable, too.
Even the method of entry appears positively sci-fi: the doors pop out away from body on parallelogram hinges and slide rearward
And, once aboard, there’s a telescoping digital instrument pod and steering wheel, with overhead console and head-up displays for the speedometer and ‘systems check’.
It is also the car that perhaps cast the longest shadow, if only through its longevity as a show queen.
Most concepts tend to be seen a few times before disappearing from view.
Ford was still displaying Probe V as late as 1989, when it was exhibited at the Paris Motor Show.That speaks volumes.
The passing of 35 years hasn’t lessened its impact, either.
Thanks to Scott Grundfor