They both arose from the same economic factors and in the same general time period. They had some styling similarities, emblematic of that time period. They both relied on collaborations with Ford-adjacent companies. And, of course, they shared the same name. But the series of Ford Probe concept cars came about in pursuit of a far broader objective than just to produce the Ford Probe production car.
By the late Seventies, Don Kopka, an executive stylist at Ford who had designed the 1967 Mustang and (before joining Ford) the 1958 De Soto and who had risen to the executive directorship of Ford’s Advanced and International Design Studio, had taken up Alex Tremulis’ charge and started to focus on making Ford’s products more aerodynamic. His initial efforts at making minor surface changes to the company’s production vehicles resulted in a 1.5-mile-per-gallon boost to the company’s corporate average fuel economy. As he later told Popular Mechanics, traditional engineering tactics would have cost roughly $3 billion to get that sort of result; his approach cost just $10 million.
With that success under his belt, Kopka started to envision a Ford passenger car designed from scratch with aerodynamics as a priority rather than an afterthought. The 1979 energy crisis no doubt helped Kopka get the ear of his colleagues and supervisors, but he also had to prove that an aerodynamically designed car wouldn’t be a mere jellybean and that a fuel-efficient car would have the amenities that a full-size car buyer expected.
Kopka’s Probe I, which debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September of that year, aimed to counter those concerns. Built, essentially, on a Fox-body Mustang platform, it had a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder under the sharply sloped hood. The main attraction, of course, was the sleek body designed and built in collaboration with Ghia that achieved a coefficient of drag of 0.25. The fully finished interior featured an electronic entertainment center and an ignition system ostensibly activated by credit card. Ford claimed the Probe I would’ve been good for 39 miles per gallon, better than what some modern hybrids get.