Concepts and prototypes : Ford Probe III (1981)

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

Ford Probe III

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.

Ford Probe III

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.

Ford Probe III

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.

Ford Probe III

Keith Adams
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    • Explains a lot of why a late 70’s UK company car park looked so old fashioned with Avengers, Cortinas, Marinas, Vivas etc.

  1. I sat in the Probe III back in 1982 when I was 5. I loved it but was disappointed to see the actual Sierra a year later. Funny how the Mk2 Sierra had a similar front end to the Probe.

  2. I admit I didn’t really care for the Probe concept car but it laid the groundwork for the Sierra. As for Sierra’s the last ones in the late 80’s looked better.

    Sometimes, concept cars look better than the actual production car – sometimes not!

  3. The door glass on this looks better than on the production Sierras, as it’s fully flush. It’s hard to remember how radical the Sierra seemed when it came out now!

  4. I wasn’t born when this was previewed, but I can remember the hubbub in the mid 90s about the radically styled Ford Ka.

    Then the Focus a couple of years later. They kept the Escort in production just in case!

  5. The Sierra caused massive controversy in ’83 when launched- I don’t remember anyone liking it. Comparisons to jelly moulds abounded. Later there was a big fuss over safety when it was found the Sierra lacked rigidity and would concertina alarmingly in a head on crash. I don’t know how the Sierra sold but I suspect the Cavalier made big inroads into the niche the Cortina had dominated.

  6. @ Jimmy, there was also the so called ripple effect where a slight front end bump could wreck rthe suspension. Then there was the notorious crosswind instability, which made the handling very dangerous in a crosswind, I’m sure this caused Neil Kinnock to crash his in 1984. A shame as this was a radical design that moved Ford into the eighties and the XR4i looked the part.

    • Although I would have thought Kinnock was an accident looking for somewhere to happen in any vehicle , it is perhaps worth remembering that it was a Sierra which was responsible for Frank Williams being rendered paraplegic, even though he himself – and what stature this gives the man – says that his accident was the culmination of years of hooligan driving

  7. The Sierra/Project Toni doesn’t get the credit it deserves.Uwe Bahnsen,head of Ford Europe design,had a Rover SD1 model in his office back in the early 1980s!
    The Sierra was a true mould-breaker in more ways than one.I still prefer the Mark 1(1982-87)to the Mark 2(1987-93)Sierra.A ‘Y’ reg 2.3 Sierra Ghia in Crystal Green,please.

  8. It was quite brave of Ford to replace the Cortina when it was still selling well.

    The Sierra was an odd mix of mostly traditional mechanicals carried over from the Cortina, & a radical for the time styling, that managed to put off some potential buyers.

    • Its important to note that whilst it still sold well in the UK it was losing ground in key markets such as Austria, Germany, Holland and Scandinavia where the Taunus had previously had sold well as those markets wanted something more modern.

    • It didn’t carry much over from the Cortina apart from the engines.. The rear suspension was semi trailing arm IRS vs Cortina’s live axle, and front end was Macpherson strut (a return to Cortina 1 & 2!) vs Cortina’s double wishbones.

  9. The Cortina was becoming old fashioned by 1982 and had been shown up by the Cavalier. Yet the Sierra was a bit of a step too far for many Cortina owners and early problems with the suspension and crosswind stability could have put people off. However, unlike the Montego, at least it was reasonably reliable and used tried and trusted technology.

  10. Born ugly and passed away ugly , neither a graceful shape either collectible Sierra.
    It`s virtually IMPOSSIBLE to beat the absolute beauty reign of a Citroen CX , if you are intended about 2-volume large liftback saloons .

    • Don’t agree at all, the Sierra wasn’t a bad looking car and lead the way for the more modern designs seen in the late 80s and early 90s. The Cortina that it replaced was a horribly old-fashioned looking car that had it’s roots it the early 70s…

  11. Glen A – The cross wind stability issue was down to the aerodynamics and had nothing to do with the suspension. It was fixed on the 84 facelift by small plastic “ears” installed behind the rear quarter windows that disrupted a turbulent effect that unsettled the car in cross winds. The Probe was so off the wall that it only antagonised rather than paved the way for the production Sierra. Today any Ford “concept” would be virtually production standard but with a custom paint job, big wheels and a tarts boudoir interior.

    • True, the aerodynamic instability was down to the way that the airflow broke away from the rear (or rather didn’t), and whilst the rear window strakes improved matters, even later model Sierras were prone to twitching in crosswinds. Oddly, the saloon was better than the hatch in this respect.

      With hindsight the probe looks pretty good, shame that the production Sierra was nowehere near as good looking not aerodynamic. Perhaps if the redical looks had been matched by class leading aerodynamic efficiency due to the low Cd then the Sierra would have made more friends quickly. As it was, the Sierra had antediluvian underpinnings (IRS apart) and was dynamically well behind the Cavalier.

      TBH, I drove both at the time and ended up with a Cav after a trip over the M62 in a Sierra gave me a couple of brown trouser moments near Scammonden Reservoir.

  12. @ Paul,
    That’s a good point about the Probe concept vehicle not actually doing its job,getting prospective Sierra clients used to this new aero car.

  13. @Paul, the suspension and crosswind stability issues were seperate motors, but did put some people off, particularly if you had a smallish shunt and the suspension had to be replaced. However, Ford being Ford, all this was sorted quite quickly and the Sierra slowly took off and by 1985 was outselling the Cavalier. Yet by the late eighties the car had become worse as the new engines were about as reliable as those in an Austin Montego and there was the issue of Ford reclaimed steel. However, Ford in the late eighties/ early nineties was a dead end for me, producing unreliable cars that weren’t even pleasant to drive and were dated looking, compared with the far superior products from Rover that had turned the tables on Ford for once.

  14. The Sierra was also Rear Wheel Drive, at a time when nearly all other car manufacturers had seen the light. Plus, most of its engines were dreadful, apart from the Peugeot-sourced 2.3 Diesel.

    • Ah, I see, so Ford still ging was rubbish and AR cars (etc) were better for being FWD, which 90% of BMWs still are?

      The awful Peugeot engine is the worst unit ever fitted to a Ford.
      The other engines were fine, the 1800 CVH was quite pokey, and the pintos (Ford SOHC/TL)range had been used and proved to be solidly reliable since the early seventies. As were the Cologne V6s, certainly my dad’s 2.9i 4×4 estate was a fantastic car, a brilliant motorway car and bags of room for luggage…

      • As diesels went at the time the 2.3 Pug was as good as any, certainly worked well enough in the 505 and 604 and I guess in the Tagora if anybody had actually bought one.

        I guess in the Sierra, having not been originally engineered for a diesel engine it may have transferred more vibration to the cabin. Certainly true that Austin Rovers running the Pug engines always seemed rougher than the equivalent diesel Pug.

  15. @ Iain, it was really a Cortina in a party frock with the same technology carried over. It never really rocked my world, the Cavalier was a vastly better car, and by the end of its life it looked very dated. Indeed most Fords of this era never appealed to me, the Mark 5 Escort was a real low point, a drab looking car with terrible engines and reliability issues. Contrast the nasty 1990 Escort with the refined, good looking and reliable Rover 200 of the same era and you can see why private buyers were running to their local Rover dealer.

    • It is a bit odd for people to complain about Ford adopting a lot of the running gear from the old car and yet don’t flinch when all the German manufacturer’s do the same today. In fact, you hardly notice the Germans even making significant changes to the panelwork in most of the faclifts/new marks of the Golfs A3s etc etc.

      By the way, the Mk5 Escort appeared on the market in 1991, not the 80s.

    • The Sierra carried over the Pinto and Cologne V6 engines from the Cortina but apart from that it shared nothing else. The Cortina (from Mk3 onward) had wishbone front end and a live rear axle suspended by coils. The Sierra had McPherson struts up front a semi trailing independent front end. By the time the Sierra died it had CVH and I4 DOHC engines so owed absolutely nothing to the Cortina.

  16. @Will M, it was at the 1982 Ulster Motor Show at the King’s Hall, or more exactly in the conference centre bit of it which they always took over. It was launched there by Jimmy Tarbuck & Kenny Lynch.

    • Sorry only seeing your message now.

      The Ulster Motor Show used to be a great occasion to poke around at the new car models.

      (Though I was only born late 82, my first memory was a late 80s motor show with the new mk3 Fiesta).

      Last summer a friend was over from New York, I’d heard about the Belfast Motor Show down at the kings hall, and thought it would be a good day out away from the pub.

      How I was wrong. It was the motorshow equivalent of the Craggy Island funfair. Tanning salons, golf games, a speed camera van, one of the only vehicles on display was a Qashqai – the sort of car bought by people who don’t like cars! The NI Rover club was supposedly on display, but on the Sunday I didn’t see them, they mustve given up. An embarrassment.

      • In what way is the current Qashquai less of a car enthusiasts (as opposed to a car tinkering enthusiasts) car than an old Rover?

        • In my humble highly opinionated opinion*, the Qashqai seems to be the type of car people buy when they want “a car”, “Oh next doors got one of those SUVs, lets get one too”.

          I’ve witnessed, and nearly been caught out by, too much bad driving, and indeed parking, by Qashqai drivers.

          The old stereotypes of Micra drivers seem to have been upsold at their dealers to these.

          Yes they’re a success story for NE England, and seem to be put together well, fair play to the workers, but still…

          Someone who is looking after an old Rover is likely to have an interest in their vehicle being a machine of character, rather than a transportation appliance. I’d probably stereotype them as rather more careful in driving, given that a P5 or an SD1 is not something you can easily chuck into a repair shop for a day after a supermarket car park ding.

          *(And yes, my opinion may be that they aren’t my cup of tea. Most cars I’ve driven aren’t other peoples cup of tea either. In fact, there is very little left in the new car market that appeals to me).

  17. I think it was much better as a drive than the Cortina…in a party frock is unfair….proper handling and ride thanks to a decent suspension compared to the Cortina’s horrible live axle…I remember car magazine at the time….”sierra shock…it really is a good car”

  18. I remember the Sierra launch, it was pretty much universally derided at first, but I think a lot of that was down to sentimentality for the cortina. However it was a slow seller at first, many of the big fleet users immediately switched to the Vauxhall cavalier. In the 1.6 family car class, the cav was the better car by a country mile.
    I had a couple of sierras, the 2.3 diesel was reliable but so woefully sluggish that one can’t help wondering what they were thinking launching something perceived as being high tech with a tractor engine like the indenor was.

    • The Cavalier was a dog to drive compared to the Sierra. The GM family 2 engines may have been peppier (if rather fragile) but the heavy low geared steering made the car feel like a super tanker most of the time. The Sierra with its light, direct steering (thanks to rear wheel drive),supple independent suspension, superior refinement and modern cabin made it a far nicer place to be (as long as there was no wind)

      • “The Cavalier is a dog to drive in comparison to the Sierra”

        Really?! While I was used to driving mechanically identical Astras at the time, the only Mk 2 Cavalier that I drove was a 1.6 petrol, around 10 years and 80,000 miles old at the time, yet it still felt better to drive than a new Sierra 1.8 petrol.

        To get the authentic feel of driving a Sierra now, you’d probably need to drive a RWD Ford Transit, or a BMW.

  19. Traveeling along the M62 the other day I passed a late Sierra (Sapphire) I mused at how dated it looked now,and remembered seeing the Probe 3 in a car mag as a 10 yr old,how amazing it looked compared to the Cortina…. As previously commented we do forget how radical the Sierra was… but following the Probe,I also found it a let down….

    • The only time I see Sapphires now they’re badly modified, usually with ill fitting wheels with those daft looking “stretched” tyres rubbing the wheelarches, with less ground clearance than the scoop of a snowplow.

      I don’t think they’ve aged too badly given the age of them now, they don’t look overly out of place in modern traffic for a 25 year old car, compared to say a 1965 Cortina in traffic in 1990.

  20. If it wasn’t for the fact he’d had the Sierra fitted with an F1 style kill switch it wouldn’t have mattered, after that crash it would have caught light & probably exploded.
    He mentioned it himself in an interview back in the mists of time.
    Shame some of the other F1 grandees weren’t so safety conscious and still aren’t.
    The thought of Maldonado in a milk float scares me let alone an XR4 or worse an Impreza WRX…

  21. I’ve just realised why they call it the WRX instead of WRC. The X represents the little ‘x’s there will be over your eyes when you invariably wrap it round a tree, bridge stanchion, registered building, or anything else moderately solid.
    That car is a real brainstorm – the sport kills off completely insane rally cars on the basis of safety – so let’s make one for the road… what could possibly go wrong?

    … and cue solitary burning wheel rolling away…

    Darwin Awards Athletic. 1. Liverpool Victoria. 0.

  22. The RS500 version was pretty nice. Turned our (Aussie) Touring Car races into “Formula Sierra”; made the 5 litre Commodores look pretty slow, even at Bathurst…..even Peter Brock raced in a Sierra!

  23. I saw one of the Probe Concept cars (probably this one) at an engineering lecture, most likely organised by the IEE. No expense spared with lighting and effects that were a cross between a rock show and Metropolis. Ford were extremely proud that computers had been used in the design of the car, showing wireframe models that updated at about 2 Frames per Second. Cutting edge stuff when Home computers were the likes of the Sinclair ZX80.

  24. Don’t forget they ruined everything with a Sierra 2.3 Diesel Naturally asthmatic Estate!

    Had the awful displeasure of been a child passenger in an A reg Sierra Estate 2.3 Diesel in White no Head restraints, no nothing model, broke down in Somerset, Then had the displeasure of a Hire car 3 door Astra Belmont Estate in White! The 80’s have a lot to answer for!

  25. The Sierra XR4x4 totally changed my opinion of the car, as it was a mixture of a four wheel drive family car similar to what Subaru were making at the time, but with the performance of the XR4i coupe and the same Cologne V6. This meant you had a Sierra that could cope very well in the snow and on terrible back roads, but was a great motorway car that could mix it with more prestigious German cars in the fast lane. Being German, although Ford kept it quiet as most buyers assumed it was made in Dagenham, meant this Sierra was generally reliable.

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