Keith Adams remembers the Ford Probe III concept, unveiled at the 1981 Frankfurt Motor Show.
This was no mere show-starring flight of fancy – it was there to preview the Ford Sierra, due to go on sale the following year. It did quite a job.
Ford Probe III: A tech-laden peek into the future
Back in 1981, when the development of the Ford Sierra (Project Toni), was reaching its latter stages of its development, Ford’s management felt the need soften the buying public. Why? Because the looks were a radical departure from what came before – and UK Cortina buyers, in particular, were a loyal lot.
The Probe III’s styling, penned by Patrick Le Quement, was as avant garde as its predecessor, the Cortina’s, was conservative. It was an important moment for the talented French Designer, who’d go on to pen cars as diverse as the Renault Twingo, Avantime and Scenic, as it was the first public showing for his stylistically-radical mid-range family hatchback.
Le Quement was part of Uwe Bahnsen’s Design Team, and was a huge admirer of his Design Director. He’d previously penned the good-looking Cargo truck cab, and moved into cars. The Sierra would prove to be a return to his student days, when he originally sketched a ‘Sierra-like’ car back in the 1970s. Bahnsen allowed him to develop the idea further as part of Project Toni – and, five years on, this led to the fabulous-looking Probe III concept.
Getting the public on side
So, the Design Team produced a more extreme version of the forthcoming Sierra, which was designed to continue the Ford Probe line of concepts that started in 1979, and rolled it out at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1981.
As expected with a motor show concept, it was festooned with all manner of futuristic detailing, such as flush glazing (which Audi took to production the following year with the 100 C3), concealed rear wheelarches and a biplane rear spoiler. The latter of these would find its way onto the production version in XR4i form.
Ford’s European concept car output had certainly gained some flair during the 1970s. The company had taken control of the Italian carrozzerie Ghia and, from that point on, it proved a successful kick-start to the company’s styling output. Ghia’s creations for Ford (such as the Barchetta sports car, Fiesta-based Tuareg and Corrida) were nothing if not bold – and this smart new design language filtered into the company’s production output.
Was it met with praise?
The Probe III was greeted with a warm welcome from the press – but UK Ford Cortina buyers who knew this was a taster of their car’s replacement were less than keen. In fact, many were openly hostile. Alexei Sayle sneered in an Arena documentary for the BBC which was little more than a love letter to the Cortina, ‘…they’re doing away with our car for some poxy hatchback!’ His was the voice of many in the UK.
The Probe itself, despite the controversy, was a beautifully detailed concept. It featured overtly aerodynamic features including smooth underbody detailing, and integrated door mirrors (which would appear on the production 1988 Probe coupe no less). The car’s cd was 0.25, which was actually a world away from the production Sierra’s 0.34 – but it was a figure that in 1981 was close to miraculous for a five-door hatchback that could conceivably be used in the real world.
And, even today, its influence can be seen in the family cars that followed it well into the 2000s.
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