The Forgotten Rad-Era Ford EXP Turbo Coupe Sports Car Was Neither Mustang Nor Escort
Although the Rad-era celebration of 1980s and 1990s cars of all shapes and sizes has lifted a long list of previously-forgotten automobiles into the public eye, there are still some models from that period that continue to dwell in obscurity.
Such is the case with the Ford EXP, perhaps the strangest vehicle to wear the Blue Oval badge throughout the '80s. This compact two-seater, which even spawned a performance-oriented turbocharged edition, has been overshadowed by the ultra-popular Ford Mustang and even the less-loved, but still relevant Ford Probe that followed it. And yet, at the time it was designed to combine thrifty frugality with a fun-to-drive character that promised to banish the performance malaise that hung over almost every automobile built during the early part of the decade.
Of course, things didn't quite turn out that way—and here's why.
Two Seats For Cheap
In 1981 Ford was in the middle of downsizing most of its passenger cars, and part of that effort included introducing its first compact, front-wheel drive econo-minded automobile. Unlike its sporty European cousin, the American market Ford Escort was truly nothing special, offering basic transportation in either hatchback or wagon form backed by an incredibly modest four-cylinder engine.
Still, it was a strong seller for the brand, and Ford decided to go after enthusiasts with a pair of specialty models. The first was the Ford Escort GT, which arrived in 1982 and introduced a 'High Output' versions of the car's 1.6L motor that was good for 80 horsepower. At the same time, Ford also debuted the EXP, a radical rethink of the Escort formula that couldn't have looked more different from its sibling if it tried.
Although the EXP shared the Escort's platform, it represented a dramatic new approach when it came to styling. A long, power-dome hood, bulging headlights, and a short notch trunk (similar to that on the Fox body Mustang, which was only one inch longer overall) completely altered the car's personality (with Ford aping the bubble-hatch of the Mustang-based Mercury Capri with the EXP's Mercury LN7 twin). It was a far more exciting, if not exactly graceful, take on what a compact car could look like at the time, and it came packaged with a two-passenger interior that swapped in a generous cargo area in place of the rear seats.
A Car In Search Of A Driver
Ford had some unusual ideas about who, exactly, the EXP was for, and how to best draw attention to it. After the resounding impact of the previous decade's dual energy shocks, the company felt there would be a rising demand for simple and affordable transportation for singles and couples. As unlikely as the reference sounds, the EXP was intended to stand alongside the Escort as a Thunderbird-like sportster, hailing back to the first-generation of that iconic roadster with its personal-sized interior.
The only problem was, with a meager 80 hp on tap (if buyers opted for the HO engine over the base 70 hp unit) the Ford EXP wasn't exactly setting the streets on fire. It did have a four-wheel independent suspension setup, which elevated it above other low-buck compacts of the time, and it could be had with a close-ratio manual transmission (moving from four to five forward gears by 1983), but it weighed in heftier than the Escort, which did its underpowered engine no favors in a straight line.
The car's milquetoast on-road personality was reflected in its sales numbers, which were hardly inspiring. Eager to cut its losses and regroup, Ford took drastic steps in 1984. Gone was the Mercury LN7, which donated its hatch design to the re-styled EXP, and in its place was a new trim line-up that killed the base model and included the EXP Turbo Coupe.
The marriage of fuel injection (which gave the now-standard HO engine just under 90 hp) and turbocharging (by way of 8 psi of boost) gave the EXP a new lease on life. Total output for the EXP Turbo Coupe was 120 hp, which sounds uninspiring until you realize that this was more than one horsepower per cubic inch (with the four-cylinder engine measuring just over 97 cubic inches).
Installed in a car that weighed just a shade over 2,000 lbs, the tiny hatch now ran 0-60 in just a tick over 9 seconds and featured a power-to-weight ratio similar to that of the original Miata. Both of these factors definitely improved excitement behind the wheel. Their small form factor also made them a target for drag racers, with the EXP infiltrating NHRA competition and driven by such luminaries as Bob Glidden.
Too Little, Too Late
By 1985 it was clear that the Ford EXP's sales prospects hadn’t been significantly improved by the addition of the Turbo Coupe. With so many other choices available in the small-and-sporty segment, customers found it hard to justify parking a two-seat car in the driveway when they could get a more practical Mustang or any number of similarly-sprightly Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth turbo hatchbacks for similar money.
If they had their hearts set on a two-passenger ride, then the mid-engine Toyota MR2 and the Pontiac Fiero were more fiercely styled, used much newer technology, and were better balanced. Ford's prediction of an automotive future dominated by penny-pinching singletons never came to pass, and the EXP simply never connected with the general public.
The EXP was slated for the chopping block at the end of that model year, but it received a strange (and brief) stay of execution when a second generation model squeaked past the company's bean counters as a trim level on the Escort. The Turbo Coupe was gone, with a larger 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine offering either 90 hp or up to 115 hp (if the fuel injected Sport edition was ordered). Styling was normalized to Escort proportions, but the writing was on the wall: with the front-wheel drive Ford Probe on the way for 1989, the still unloved EXP left the line-up for good by the end of 1988.
Today, despite more than a quarter million EXPs and LN7s being built, it's extremely rare to see either the Ford or the Mercury version of the two seater anywhere other than a salvage yard. These coupes were considered disposable, and as such few have survived the ensuing decades. An entire chapter of Ford's performance history lies undiscovered for enthusiasts willing to take a chance on a car that simply couldn't stir up the excitement needed to make an impact during the crowded compact car boom of the 1980s.