Ghost Cars: The Ford EXP

Let's try to remember this tidy and appealing little sporty car that wasn't really all that sporty

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Image: Ford

Remember when I promised you that my series about Ghost Cars (cars that were once commonplace but are now all but extinct) would continue erratically and occasionally? Well, I’m keeping my promise, because it’s now occasionally and I have a new Ghost Car I’d like to discuss with you: the Ford EXP, and, I suppose, its Mercury Sibling, the LN7. I can’t remember the last time I saw one of these in the wild, but I can definitely remember when they were once just around, part of the carscape of the world.

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Image: Ford

Ford EXPs and Mercury LN7s are very much not part of the modern carscape today, with survivors as rare as people really into crypto that you’d agree to spend any time with. This is kind of a shame, as the EXP was an engaging and appealing little car of a category that’s almost extinct today.

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The category I’d stick the EXP and LN7 in is one that may have been started by the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia: the sporty (note that “y” is not an “s” there) car based on a mass-market economy car.

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Image: Ford
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In the case of the Ghia, the economy car was the Beetle, and the Ghia was essentially a redressed, primarily two-seat, more attractive version of the mass-market VW. For the EXP, it was based on the Escort, Ford’s mass-market four-seat economy hatchback of the 1980s.

Like the Ghia of yore, the EXP didn’t really offer any significant performance advantages over the bulkier Escort, since it was about 200 pounds heavier and used the same 1.6-liter CVH inline-four engine, making a decent-for-then-but-still-not-great 70 horsepower.

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It’s also worth noting that even with its modest specs, at least one magazine of the era tracked the EXP an LN7 and found them to be fun and “predictable” on track:

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Screenshot: Popular Mechanics
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So, that’s something, right? Predictable is very good on the track!

This whole genre of a mass-market economy car turned into a more sporty-ish and fun version just isn’t really something we see on the market anymore, at least not in America.

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Image: Ford

There’s no Chevy Spark-derived coupé called an Ember or a kicky-looking Mitsubishi Mirage spin-off called a Spectre or something like that. This segment is pretty ghostly itself now, not just the specific car.

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The EXP was especially notable because when it came out in 1981 (1982 model year), it was Ford’s first production two-seater since the original 1957 Thunderbird.

According to the sadly now defunct EXP fan site, FordEXP.com, a document from Ford’s research and market evaluations of 1980s-era Americans suggested that a small, appealing, fuel-efficient yet fun two-seater would be an ideal car for a growing market:

Without going into great detail, the gist of the seven point document was this; Ford felt that the growing number of one and two person households, combined with the lifestyle of the younger target audience who desired a small sporty car led them to the conclusion that Americans wanted a “lively little car that is dependable, efficient, and good-looking.”

Ultimately this led to the Ford EXP and Mercury LN7.

The FordEXP site also points to two direct progenitors of the EXP/LN7; a pair of concept cars known as the Super Gnat and Mustang RSX.

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The Super Gnat is especially interesting, a very small, three-cylinder little commuter car designed as a result of the OPEC oil embargo in the ‘70s. The Ghia-designed Super Gnat was a little, fuel-sipping economy car, but managed to still have a sporty character that belied its frugal origin story.

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Image: Ford

Around the same time, Ghia also designed for Ford a smaller, more efficient Mustang concept, the RSX. The RSX was small but wide, angular and modern-looking, with contrasting color doors with inset windows and powered by Ford’s 2.3-liter four.

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The styling of these two concepts contains a lot of what would end up in the EXP and LN7—there’s the LN7-s bubble window on the Super Gnat, the C-pillar is a dead ringer for the EXP’s, and maybe even some of the front end.

The Mustang RSX, now that I look at it, is really more a harbinger of the Fox body Mustang, but the general concept of small yet sporty car was definitely an influence on what would become the EXP.

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I think I’ve only been in an actual EXP once in my life, though I’ve driven and been in plenty of Escorts of the era (even turning one into a LeMons racer) and while I can barely recall what it was like, I do vaguely remember that it did feel at least sportscar-like, with low bucket seats and a prominent (if only four-speed) shifter and lots of black, sexy-adjacent ‘80s pleather.

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Image: Ford
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But it was cool! In some ways, I suppose you could think about the EXP/LN7 as 1980s-downsized versions of the old, colossal ‘70s “personal luxury” cars; two-door coupés that weren’t so much sporty as stylish, targeted at single people who were old enough to advanced a bit in life and developed in their tastes, yet who also still hoped they were young enough to, you know, fuck.

These were cars bought by people who, sure, could have bought and Escort or Lynx, but decided that they still gave a shit about what things looked like, especially those things as closely associated with them as a car.

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Image: Ford

I bet in the case of the Mercury version, with that fantastic huge bubble window, this was even more true. Also, those four-circle wheels!

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Image: Ford

I also have a distinct memory of some car magazine of the era calling out the biggest styling issue of the EXP/LN7 as the recessed headlights. The phrase always stuck in my head, the article somberly calling out “its recessed headlamps” as some kind of huge failing, which always baffled me, as I loved the robo-frog look of the front end.

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I wish I could remember what buff book it was, but I can’t, exactly. I do think it must have been from an article about the second-gen one that came out in 1985, re-named as the Ford Escort EXP, and having a face that was much closer to the mainstream Escort, with its shaped plastic headlamps and wraparound turn indicators.

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Sure, it’s cleaner-looking and undoubtedly has better aero, but I think so much of the character was lost with the update.

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For me, the only EXPs that really matter are the first-gen ones, and I’m not going to apologize for that.

Instead, I’m going to point out that—at least based on the EPA testing of the era—the first-gen EXPs got absolutely phenomenal gas mileage, 29 in the city and a Prius-like 46 on the highway.

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A small, relatively sporty car with amazing mileage is kind of a miniscule niche in the automotive world, with the only other real contender I can think of being the Honda CRX HF.

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Ford actually seemed to have a pretty clear vision for how they’d market the EXP, an update to those personal luxury coupé people I mentioned earlier, and the marketing for the car was pretty stylish—you know, for the ‘80s and for Ford:

I mean, look how that sexy young pair of go-getters just emerged from the ground via illuminated elevator platform, ready to tackle “Anyroad, USA” in their sleek EXP. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? I mean, they “thoughtfully contoured” that interior for “your driving pleasure!” What are you, an emperor? You can’t get any better than this!

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There were even some interesting and unusual variants, like a few electric ones converted by an Ohio company called Electric Vehicle Associates, and there was even some consideration of a woody version, known as the EXP Preppy Country Squire, which seems to only exist in this very evocative sketch:

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Image: Ford
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Ford EXPs and Mercury LN7s were never as common as Escorts, but about 100,000 EXPs and around 35,000 LN7s were built, so Ford definitely cranked out a bunch of these things.

Despite these decent numbers, much like so many of the non-Mustang Fords of this era, they’re essentially extinct from roads today. I know there’s a few enthusiasts still out there, and I have to hand it to them for championing such an unappreciated little car.

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These could have fallen into Meh Car status, I suppose, but the appealing design and representation of a market niche that’s almost disappeared but quite appealing to me, personally, pushes them into Ghost Car territory, at least for me.