Ford Unearths a Forgotten Off-Roader that Never Happened

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Although the Henry Ford Museum is one of the biggest of its kind in the world, it’s still not large enough to publicly display all its vehicles. Located in Dearborn, Michigan, the building features a storage facility where access is restricted. However, Top Gear was invited to see Ford’s secret stash of cars, including the Alpe.

What was it? The quirky concept started as a Ford Escort before Ghia turned it into a boxy small crossover that would’ve preceded the Pontiac Aztek by several years. It originally debuted in 1996 at the defunct Turin Auto Show and was subsequently exhibited with a slightly different design at the 1998 Detroit Auto Show. A couple of years later, BMW sold Land Rover to Ford, giving it access to a small off-roader in the form of the Freelander.

Alpe was engineered with a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter gasoline engine and four-wheel drive. It had a jacked-up suspension with generous ground clearance and 17-inch wheels. Ford gave it a maroon-colored dashboard, a translucent plexiglass roof, and seat upholstery partially made with recycled soda bottles.

The late Ross Roberts, who was Ford Division General Manager at the time, said the intent behind Alpe was to gauge consumer reaction to a small crossover priced at around $20,000. Ford wanted to go fight the CR-V and RAV4, but it wasn’t until 2001 when the first-gen Escape was launched. The smaller EcoSport came out a couple of years later, although the US market didn’t get it until 2018.

In hindsight, Alpe was probably a missed opportunity given the rise of SUVs in the decades that followed. It also looked less dorky than the Aztek. Then again, the Escort was approaching the end of its life cycle since the Focus took its place in the lineup in the early 2000s. The original Escape co-developed with Mazda gave Ford the smaller crossover it needed, so Alpe ultimately never happened.

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