It seems hard to believe, but 2018 marks half a century of Ford Escorts. The last Escort may have rolled off the production line 14 years ago, but they are still very much part of the motoring landscape, with the curious situation that the early generations are possibly more numerous and familiar today than the later cars.
If there was ever a classic with an almost supernatural refusal to grow old and fade away, here it is, and given its humble beginnings its longevity is astonishing. We’ve probably all got some Escort memories, perhaps one in the family or owned by a neighbour. The first car I ever drove was a facelift XR3i and I’ve spent many a night navigating a flying Mk2. I’ve worked as an instructor teaching people how to slide Cosworths. I recall the 1982 Popular that lived next door when I was a child, and the 1100cc Mk1 that a school friend bought as soon as he passed his test. I witnessed Mk5s coming down the line at Halewood, and walked around the compounds storing the last Mk6 vans. For a long time, Escorts were everywhere.
Back in the mid-1960s, small saloon cars followed a proven formula. BMC had shaken things up with the Mini’s clever packaging, transverse engines and rubber cone suspension, but elsewhere things were still fairly traditional. Vauxhall had introduced the Viva in 1963 which offered drivers of small saloons some genuinely modern features such as disc brakes and higher trim levels. It was light and easy to drive but also came with catastrophic rust issues, so by the mid-60s some Vivas were already on borrowed time. If you wanted a small Ford instead you could consider the Anglia 105E, but it was hardly a car to impress the neighbours. Launched in 1959 it visually harked back to that decade of chrome and transatlantic influences, and while the Super came with a contrasting flash of colour down the side, it wasn’t a very effective go-faster stripe with 0-60mph best timed using a calendar. At least by the middle of the decade it came with an all-synchromesh gearbox, and with some backyard engineering the Anglia could be made into quite a brisk and tidy handling car, but unfortunately not from the showroom. If your budget could be increased, the more modern and capable Cortina would be on your shopping list. Introduced in 1962 it had more contemporary styling and by the middle of the decade it had undergone a number of improvements. The GT variant with a Weber carb and 78bhp was a useful backroad weapon and the twin cam Lotus was properly quick. The Cortina was refreshed for 1966 with the launch of the Mk2 model, cleanly styled and significantly more modern in appearance. Vauxhall followed suit with the HB Viva and its coke bottle shape. The contrast with the elderly Anglia was now stark and a new small Ford was urgently required to keep pace with the market. Behind the scenes however, work had already begun.
Since 1966, new shapes had been spotted circulating Ford’s Boreham proving ground in deepest Essex, with the cars beginning what would amount to half a million kilometres of testing in locations around the world. In the design office, the now familiar shape was refined to give a drag coefficient of 0.43, and the attention to aerodynamics paid off with reduced wind noise and enhanced fuel economy. Meanwhile the body was sized to mate with the redeveloped Kent engines and new four speed gearboxes. It so happened that in addition to being Ford’s test facility, Boreham airfield was also home to the competitions department and the early prototypes caught the interest of the rally men, but at this point the shutters were still down and the project remained secret, in theory at least. By early the following year the design was developed enough to lend them a mock-up body for one weekend in order to take some initial measurements, but it would be another three months before a pilot build car was loaned for further investigation.
Full production commenced at Halewood plant in late 1967 and the new car with the new name officially debuted at the Brussels Motor Show on 17th January 1968. The Mk1 Escort didn’t break any moulds from an engineering perspective. It retained the traditional longitudinal engine with a prop sending drive to the rear. McPherson struts were present at the front, but the tail used the proven live axle and leaf spring set up. However, it was the first small Ford to use rack and pinion steering so was sharper to drive and looked good, undeniably modern and light years ahead of the Anglia it had replaced. Ford’s formidable marketing operation ensured that by the end of the year, an impressive 200,000 Escorts had been produced with production also coming on stream at Genk.
Looking at the press shots of the 1968 two door saloon, from today’s perspective it appears to stand on tip toes. The round headlamps and dogbone grille are pure Escort, but the chrome hubcaps and spindly tyres look strange to eyes accustomed to seeing minilites on 185 width rubber. A completely standard early Mk1 is now very rare, and so much did the car lend itself to tuning and improvement that the accessories catalogue quickly developed as the range expanded, but to take this perspective is to be skewed by the passage of time. For every RS2000 with stripes and spotlamps there were many more humble workaday runabouts (some of which later morphed openly or murkily into RS2000s of course…). The Escort was intended to be a car for the everyman.
Ford is a volume manufacturer because they are good at building cars with a wide appeal sold at acceptable prices, so the real core of the Escort’s success was not found in the racers but in the plodders, not the Twin-Cam, Mexico or RS, but the Popular, the GL and the Super. A young family could fit in a four door with ease, and in a great deal more comfort than the two door Anglia. Police forces would come to rely on the 1100cc saloons for local patrol duties, often replacing venerable Morris Minors. Traders would benefit from the panel van and Ford’s own literature shows them serving a variety of small businesses. If you ran a florist or a bakery it was the obvious choice, and there was room for a plumber or painter’s kit too. Soon the large fleets would get on board with the AA and RAC breakdown services placing large orders. Utility services, telecoms, gas, electricity and water boards would find the payload and space perfectly sufficient for man-and-van operations. An additional benefit for fleet drivers would be felt in enhanced comfort compared to the Bedford or BMC equivalents, even if this was rarely a factor when the accountants were pricing up a fleet vehicle. To disregard all of these humble variants is to miss the point of the Escort.
Let’s be frank though, it’s the desirable cars that take the glory and from the early days it was not only possible to specify an Escort that looked fast, you could also buy one that went fast. The persistence of the competitions department the previous springtime had paid off handsomely in the form of the Escort Twin-Cam, available from the 1968 launch. This was a model that made the most of the inherently good engineering of the new car with the powerful 1557cc Lotus derived engine giving it some useful shove. A black grille and rectangular headlamps announced its presence to anyone being caught, and the stiffer and lowered suspension ensured it would soon disappear again through the bends. Those rectangular headlamps were opposed by Boreham as the round variants were more efficient and threw more light. However, the marketing department had other ideas and decreed that the rectangular lamps were to signify the higher specification cars from Super and GT upwards, and so they remained so for another year.
The Escort’s competition debut came on 3rd February 1968 at a rallycross meeting at Croft Autodrome when two prototypes, packing 140bhp and 160bhp respectively, were shipped up north. Televised on ITV’s World of Sport programme, the cars won four races outright in front of an audience of millions and a better piece of promotion could not have been planned. The halo effect of the Twin-Cam and immediate success from both the works team and Alan Mann Racing shouldn’t be underestimated and fed a demand for performance parts that continues to this day. The Escort’s greatest early result was surely the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup rally. The route covered 16,000 miles with some single stages alone being in excess of 500 miles. Masterminded by Stuart Turner, Ford entered a total of seven crews in Escorts equipped with understressed and easily serviced 1850cc Kents, simplicity being vital to cope with the extremes of altitude, distances and fuels. From over 100 starters, only 23 crews made it to Mexico City but Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm led the way. Five of seven Escorts finished, the two retirements being due to accidents rather than breakdowns. An achievement of this magnitude was marketing gold and the Escort Mexico was born. The RS1600 and RS2000 would join in time and speed was democratised.
Perhaps though, the halo models distract us from the reality that buyers’ expectations were raised by the early 70s and Ford couldn’t risk getting left behind again as happened with the Anglia. The third generation Viva HC had been well received and Hillman’s new Avenger was essentially a better car in most regards than the Mk1 Escort. Ford needed to update their key product, but not break the bank doing so. Part of the reason the Escort had been a sales success was because its underpinnings were not revolutionary, but were simple and comparatively well engineered. Therefore the basis of the Mk1 was proven and why try to reinvent the wheel? What was needed was evolution rather than revolution, and the answer was Brenda.
As project names go, it doesn’t scream excitement (apologies to any Brendas reading), but the Mk2 project was so christened. Unlike the Mk1 which was developed solely by Ford of Britain, the Mk2 was jointly developed with Ford of Germany, and more attention was given to the European market this time around. Arriving in showrooms in January 1975, the new squarer body was styled for a more contemporary appearance and provided better visibility through a larger glass area. In both two and four door forms it looked “right” and distinctly more European. Under the new skin it was largely carryover from the old car, retaining the rear drive layout and in particular the live axle and leaf springs. The nearly obsolete and ten year old coil sprung BMW 2002 was streets ahead in this regard. Other small cars such as the 1974 VW Golf had already adopted front wheel drive, with the Talbot Horizon of 1978 and Opel Kadett D of 1979 already in development. The first front wheel drive Ford would emerge in 1976 in the shape of the Fiesta, but with the Escort retaining the old drive layout, Ford were playing it safe and sticking with what they knew, whilst at the same time reducing the potential development costs of a whole new car. This driveline layout, unambitious at the time, would of course ultimately be key to cementing the Escort’s immortality.
The mk2 continued what the mk1 had established with a variety of bodyshells right from the word go.
The old Kent crossflows continued in service complemented by wider use of the Pinto engine family in various capacities, previously used in the Mk1 RS2000. So much of the running gear was directly interchangeable that Ford Motorsport explicitly publicised how easy it was to convert your battered and beaten Mk1 competition car into a new shape Mk2, and it was very common to see Mk2 rally cars carrying pre-1976 Mk1 registration plates well into the 1990s. It’s hard to imagine a manufacturer doing that in these days of tighter government regulations and registration databases… It was not only running gear that was carried over on some variants, as the estate and van continued to use Mk1 bodies with a new front end tacked on. The range expanded to take in the Ghia badge for the first time, and the RS2000 was reborn with a fibreglass droopsnoot, clearly influenced by the Vauxhall Firenza. Ford used the same marketing tactic again by offering a variant for everyone and largely attracting the same buyers that had bought the Mk1.
Motorsport success was again instrumental in Ford’s marketing and rallying certainly improved the breed. Roger Clark was the crowd’s favourite on home ground with eye catching Cossack hairspray sponsorship. On the world stage the factory team triumphed with Bjorn Waldegard having early success winning the 1977 Safari, Acropolis and RAC rallies in Cosworth BD powered RS1800s. A young Ari Vatanen came to prominence with a driving style which would be understated if described as total commitment. Ford worked hard to meet the demand for customer performance parts and a whole cottage industry, founded on the Mk1, bloomed as the Escort became the competitive car of choice for any aspiring British club driver. Of course, the top cars were developed considerably over the showroom models with strengthened shells, 260bhp BDG engines, ZF five speed gearboxes, five linked rear suspension and eventually rear turrets. They were a world away from the 110bhp showroom RS2000, but you could always dream. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.
The Escort sold in bucket loads. There was seemingly a dealer in every town in those days and if you lived near Halewood or Dagenham you really had to drive a Ford, it was virtually the law. The ubiquity of the product and ease of service and repair ensured market domination. Demand was primarily fed by Halewood and Saarlouis, and when the former was on strike at least the latter was a fallback. Pub wisdom will always state that the Saarlouis cars were better built, but any evidence of that is now lost in the mists of time. Either way, it’s a wonder anything got built at all by the end of the decade when government attempts to cap pay negotiations across the economy sparked the 1978/1979 Winter of Discontent. The unions at Ford held out on a two month stoppage, but even if you had managed to buy a car, you would have struggled to drive far because the Esso and BP tanker drivers also went on strike. Even visiting hospital or getting buried was difficult. For all the nostalgia, late 70s Britain was a harsh place to be with inflation, high unemployment and the coldest winter since 1962 combining into a perfect political storm. As the economy returned to a more even keel and the Escorts aged into the secondhand market, the Meccano like interchangeability (Meccano being that other great Liverpool product) meant the cars were easy to tune and improve, and a generation of boy racers had little cause to look elsewhere. Escorts were essentially disposable, there was always another one for sale and nothing cost too much. Although in standard form the Ford was nothing special compared to some of the newer European competitors, its familiarity was at least something to depend on in times of change. Behind the scenes at Ford however, change was very much on the scene again, and this time its name was Erika.
To be continued next Friday…