The cars we loved.
There was a time when small coupes were all the rage in America. My high school years will filled with Fieros, MR2s and Pulsars. These cars came about in part thanks to down market expectations of the Regan years.
Trickle down economics would not only come from Washington, but from Detroit too as it desperately tried to shrink big inefficient cars to meet new federal mandates. All this shrinking and downsizing could have opened doors to a market that was already discovering the virtues of smaller Japanese cars. For Ford, bridging the gap between the Escort and the Mustang would be just a part of its strategy to tap this market.
New and Old Challenges
In addition to filling gaps, the 80s re-introduced Ford to a MPG obsession like the decade before, but now with intense competition from Japan. Ford’s answer was a bold yet small and awkward looking two-seater coupe called the EXP. Mercury would have its own version, a sportier slightly better looking equipped LN7 (in keeping with its more upmarket position).
While the Mustang could be had with a four cylinder engine, its base price was still out of reach of young drivers who could not afford the insurance stigma that came with driving a pony car. Ford, encouraged by the success of the Escort GT as a low-end Mustang alternative decided that something could be developed that might be an alternative the Thunderbird/Cougar, but with the youth factor of a Mustang or Escort GT.
The concept of the secretaries car evolving down market seemed sound thanks to the recession. That combined with the bloated and slow selling pre-83 Thunderbird made the ideal of a cheap two seat coupe more attractive. The EXP arrived in showrooms in late 1981 and must have looked odd yet familiar in the Escort/Tempo corner of dealer’s lots.
Rosy eyed comparisons to the original Thunderbird would not mask the fact that the EXP was a remixed Escort with a slighty more sporting image. Despite using Escort components, the EXP looked better on paper than even the Mustang in some respects. It had a MacPherson strut front and fully independent rear suspension while the Mustang was still using an old-fashioned live axle setup. Looking good was mostly on paper.
Pretty on the Inside
With looks being an important aspect for the target market, the EXP would be at a disadvantage until it was refreshed. Before 1985, the controversial styling was neither aggressive or graceful. Bits of Mustang sport coupe would appear in the design language of the greenhouse, but frumpy proportions gave the car a homey slapped together look. The worst design offense might have been the early front end with the frog eyed headlight protrusions.
The list of standard features was long: high output CVH (Compound Valve Hemi head) engine, power brakes, rack and pinion steering and a 5 speed manual transmission looked impressive, once again on paper. The model ranges went from two to three and back to two again. For a short time the ultimate EXP came from ASC/McLaren.
Their rare version added a supercharger and a turbo to the 1.6 before Ford would introduce it’s TurboCoupe. It also had a modified fuel injection system, European Escort styled alloy wheels and a full body ground effects package that would influence future EXPs. Despite its bi-induction systems, the ASC/McLaren produced about as much power as Ford’s own turbo. Very few ASC/McLaren EXP’s were sold and little is known beyond Ford centric user group circles.
For most of the target market, the luxury coupe’s optional TR-type suspension package and neat TRX wheels was sport enough. Though it was far from a sports car, it came closer to its potential in an official capacity with the arrival of the TurboCoupe in 1984. Finally, the EXP’s sporting appeal went beyond its paper credentials.
Turbos Down the Line
The EXP TurboCoupe joined Ford’s line up of European inspired turbo performance cars including the Thunderbird TurboCoupe, Mustang Turbo GT and Escort Turbo GT. In addition to turbocharging, the 1.6 L featured electronic fuel injection for a healthy 120hp. The TurboCoupe had revised Koni shocks and a distinctive black lower body cladding to set it apart from normally aspirated versions.
The growth of the EXP model line came at the expense of the Mercury LN7 which was gone. In a way the LN7 lived on in the EXP as it would get the Mercury’s trademark Capri-like bubble window. Now the EXP was beginning to look more the part of the sports coupe.
Despite its sportier appearance and performance, the EXP still confused some buyers as to its mission – was it a sports car or a personal luxury coupe? It would suffer the same delima as the Pontaic Fiero would face a year or so later. For the typical buyer the question as answered as initial cars with carburetted versions of the 1.6 made no more than 70 hp. When fitted with a manual transmission, the EXP could approach EPA highway figures in the low 40s – as good as an Escort, but with far more sporting appeal and two fewer seats.
Despite its efficiency, the EXP got mixed reviews. After all, the Honda CRX had become the petro darling of the press with its better performance, visual appeal and exemplary fit and finish (for less money!). While the EXP had good performance (under 9 seconds to 60mph) performance was not good enough to overshadow its foreign rivals. Considering that it was longer, lower and heavier than the Escort with the same engine, even the Escort GT had slightly better overall performance numbers.
The turbo did little to help sales. Indifferent build quality (or the perception of it) played a part in the EXP’s plunging sales. It was also considerably more expensive than the Escort which was also loosing sales as its newness faded. When pitted against the foreign competition, the EXP often came out last after the Honda CRX, Toyota MR2 and Pontaic Fiero. For that reason and slowing sales, Ford decided to end EXP production after the 1985 model year.
Finally Getting it Right
After hearing of the news, factory workers from the four plants that built the EXP created their own version of what the car could look like with the Escort’s sleek new nose and the old Lynx fastback rear window. The drastically improved look of the “prototype” was enough to convince Ford to bring back the EXP. In the process of getting a facelift, manual versions of the car lost a forward gear, but gained a larger more powerful 1.9 L engine.
Now looking like the front of the Escort GT and the rear of a Capri RS, the EXP was finally beginning to shape up as the sporty car Ford intended. With the reborn 1986 1/2 EXP, the Turbo Coupe would give way to the Sport Coupe with a revised fuel injected version of the 1.9 that produced as much as 115hp in its final run. These cars were few and far between as thousands were still being sold with dated carburetted engines. These normally aspirated 1.9 liter fours could hardly muster 88 hp.
Little cars like the EXP were beginning to take off by 1985. Oddly just as Ford begun to get the EXP right from a aesthetic and performance perspective, sales were at an all time low. Ironically a similar story would play out famously over at Pontiac with the Fiero.
Had the EXP been a looker from the beginning, it might have fared better. It’s average buyer was not interested in performance as much as looks and the EXP was too late in scoring a hit on both. Despite the “Quality is Job One” slogan, Ford was not up to the standards of Honda or Toyota from the public’s perspective.The Fiero suffered a similar fate in that it was designed a s porty commuter car and promised more than it’s looks could deliver. It at least had the benefit of looking sporty from the beginning.
The EXP started a movement in the American market and became one of its first casualties. Meanwhile, similar cars like the Nissan Pulsar would have similar fates but would at least made it into the 90s. While Ford of North America would wash its hands of the concept, Ford of Europe would refine the ideal with cars like the Puma.
The EXP had the potential to be so much more but was such a sales disappointment that Ford would not revisit the ideal of a small proper coupe for the American market until the avent of the very last American Escort called the ZX2. That coupe had a back seat and in its standard form was as far from being a low-cost Mustang alternative as you could get.
While the EXP could best be described as too little too late, who knows what the future might bring. While the Chinese market is justifying the production of new models with old names like the Escort, a EXP successor could wind up on our shores again. Meanwhile any EXP still road worthy today might get the respect it deserves in the near future when such cars will be recognized for their bold and quirky approach to countering the growing waves of foreign competition during the 1980s.