Our look at 50 years of the Ford Escort picks up again at the start of a new decade. In Part One we followed the story from the mid-60s to the very end of the 70s when change was on the cards. So it was that September 1980 saw the reveal of Project Erika, otherwise known as the Mk3 Escort.
If you missed Part One, please find it here: 50 Years of the Ford Escort (Part 1)
Part Two of this story may never have been written, if the marketing department had approved the use of the Erika codename for full production as was originally planned, but the move away from the Escort nameplate was eventually dropped in favour of continuity. The badge was the only element of continuity however as the Mk3 represented a radical departure for Ford. The outgoing Mk2 was essentially a re-body of the 1968 original, which for all its virtues was now technologically far behind the opposition. Most radically, the world had gone front wheel drive and the Escort had followed. Enthusiasts mourned but looking beyond to the wider car buying demographic a significant leap forward had just occurred.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the second half of this story would be only a postscript, but I don’t forgive easily and you’d be wrong. It’s not my natural inclination to easily defend the demise of the old rear drive models on the altar of progress, but look at it from the perspective of the time. In early 1980 the Mk2 Escort was a run out model. The Opel Kadett and Vauxhall Astra sisters were new on the scene and offered hatchback practicality, and somewhat weirdly a pointless saloon that had exactly the same body shape. The Fiat Strada / Ritmo was advertised as being crafted in a futuristic factory and assembled with millimetric precision by diligent robots. Public perception was that the Escort was thrown together on the occasions the workforce weren’t manning the picket lines. Even Ford’s own Fiesta, no newcomer by any standards, was showing the Escort up as the last of the old guard. I enjoy a bit of sideways motoring as much as the next man (probably more than the next man in fact), but even a committed drift hero would struggle to sustain much of a slide with a 1100cc Kent engine and an open differential. Time has skewed our perception of the old Mk2, but the reality is that the vast majority were just workaday runabouts. In the go-getting 1980s, image was everything and you wouldn’t look very successful driving that old thing, now would you?
The new car set up the design cues for the new decade. Nothing was carried over from the old car and there was no family resemblance at all. Whereas the previous generations had evolved, this was revolution with everything that went before cast into the bin. Erika was a ground up design and this was evidenced in the striking new appearance. A black louvered grille on the nose was complemented by similarly patterned rear light clusters which wrapped around the body just like the indicators did out at the front. The saloon shape was gone, replaced by a more practical and fashionable hatchback with a trademark “aeroback” stubby rear deck. The panels had sharp and crisp creases, a world away from the more rounded predecessor. The most radical changes were out of sight though. Front wheel drive and independent coil springs all-round brought the car bang up to date, and a new range of Valencia and CVH engines propelled it down the road. Quite how much of a step forward those new engines were would become a matter of debate, but a CVH is more efficient than a Pinto at least, even if it was rather held back by the 4 speed gearbox at launch. Standard equipment was comparable with other cars in the marketplace and modernity such as tinted glass, tilt and slide sunroofs, central locking, electric windows, twin door mirrors and head restraints were all either included or optional depending on your budget. We may not be wowed now, but imagine coming to trade in your five year old 1975 Mk2 for the 1980 model, and tell me you wouldn’t be impressed. If you need any persuading, it was enough to win European Car of the Year in 1981.
The reception from the press was generally positive, and Jackie Stewart did his best to convince buyers this was a sharp and dynamic handler. The truth was a little less cut and dried, and there’s no doubt that later suspension revisions improved the set-up, but for its time there wasn’t much seriously wrong for most drivers. Topping the line was the XR3 equipped with the carb fed CVH and four speed box. Despite an output of less than 100bhp it could still dash to 60mph in under ten seconds and the spoilers and teledial alloys looked the part. The Ghia was eager enough too and looked smart in metallic paint, whilst those on lesser budgets made do with the GL, L or Popular. If the hatchback wasn’t big enough a three door estate was available, but buyers had to wait until 1983 to see the more practical five door estate, smart Karmann-built convertible and booted Orion models. Meanwhile the panel van was defending commercial honours against the new Bedford Astravan.
Despite the Escort now being a hatchback, a regular saloon was still offered in the form of the Orion,
and for the first time ever the Mk3 gave the Escort range a convertible too.
The biggest improvements came with the much needed five speed gearbox and the simultaneous arrival in October 1982 of the newly fuel injected XR3i and RS1600i. The XR3i was a product of the Special Vehicles Engineering division at Dunton, whilst the RS1600i was a homologation special commissioned by Ford of Germany Motorsport to qualify for Group A. The XR3i brought some significant improvements over the carburettor XR3 with revised front struts eliminating the positive camber of the early car, a thicker front anti-roll bar, different rear springs and larger brakes. The interior was upgraded to pick up some Ghia influences, and power delivery and torque were noticeably better even if there was still only 105bhp to play with. In a light car however, that was enough to have some fun. The RS1600i was usefully more powerful at 115bhp, but considerably more cammy with contemporary road tests reporting it only really waking up at 4,000 rpm. It was twitchier and more direct to drive but hobbled by an over enthusiastic rev limiter. Essentially, like many homologation specials it really needed to be upgraded to its full competition specification to make the most of it, otherwise you were stuck in a halfway house which could become frustrating knowing that it could be developed from quite good into really good.
Whilst we’re talking speed, what of the all-conquering Escort rally cars that blew the opposition into the weeds? Well, things didn’t go exactly to plan on that front. Ford Motorsport had been working to develop a new rear drive RS since 1980 with a full programme planned for 1983. Development of a new car to replace the Mk2 actually started in 1977 based on the Fiesta bodyshell hiding a BDA and a modified Hewland Formula One transaxle, but this was shelved to concentrate on the Escort programme. After a brief blind alley giving consideration that front drive could be the answer, Boreham alighted on using the new three door Escort shell with agreement from the Board that it would remain rear drive and be christened RS1700T. As with Opel and others, Ford essentially missed that Audi were about to change everything with the Quattro. The new Group B regulations allowed for a car of the Escort’s weight to run a 2.5 litre capacity, which could be achieved through a multiplication factor using a 1.78 litre BD with a turbo charger. Only 17 prototypes were built and developed with Pentti Airikkala and Ari Vatanen retained for testing duties. The certification work and production planning for the 200 examples necessary for homologation was troubled with plans to run them through Saarlouis being sidelined due to the Orion launch. The original date for the RS1700T’s debut was missed, and by late 1982 Vatanen was released to go and drive for Opel. Rumours circulated of the forthcoming mid-engined four wheel drive Peugeot 205 T16 and by March 1983 it was all over. The RS1700T was the world beater that never was, but unfortunately the world had moved on. Gartrac would persist with the idea of a rear drive Mk3 shell as a way of updating tired Mk2s but the Escort really went no further in rallying until the 1990s. The limited RS1600i programme was nothing to write home about, but the RS Turbo later found some success on the circuits as a touring car.
Back in the real world, the Mk3 was facelifted in 1986 and thus the Mk4 was born. Essentially a smoothed out Mk3, very little of real substance was altered with the underpinnings carried over, but the interior was updated and small tweaks to the styling produced something familiar yet recognisably fresher. However, six years is a long time in the life of a car and again the opposition were knocking at the door. Development work started on the all new replacement due for 1990 and the stakes were high. The Escort was regularly number one in the sales charts and the new car needed to be a world beater again. Not only was the new Kadett or Astra a new and aerodynamic threat, but the Mk2 Volkswagen Golf had been positioned as an aspiration purchase at sensible money. The sporting models of each were already making the Mk4 Escort seem old hat and further threats were to come from Toyota with the new 1987 Corolla. Ford knuckled down and the world held its breath.
The 1990 Mk5 Escort was revealed and the consensus was… well, quite disappointing really. The new Zetec engine should have been there from the start, but it wasn’t available for another two years. Ride and handling were average at best and cost pressures had been allowed to cheapen the feel of the car. Styling was a clean sheet departure, but not distinctive or adventurous enough to gain real praise. Ford had basically missed the mark by quite a margin. It still sold well enough but against the new for 1991 Golf, Citroen ZX and revised (again) Vauxhall/Opel Astra it just wasn’t good enough to be a real contender. There would be no awards this time around. The short lived RS2000 4×4 put up a decent fight, but the only real saving grace for enthusiasts during the time was the spectacular Escort RS Cosworth. The fact that it was based on a shortened Sierra floorpan tells you all you need to know.
The Mk6 arrived in 1995 and was very much an improved evolution of the previous car. The following years saw the RS2000 cease production and performance honours were left to the only Ford ever badged as a GTi. The core models soldiered on and almost redeemed themselves with much better interior quality, ride and handling. They weren’t bad cars, reliable and comfortable with enough features to keep most drivers happy, but the biggest issue was that the Mondeo had been launched in 1993 and was still streets ahead. After the Mk5 Escort debacle the Mondeo had been a critical launch for Ford and they pulled it out of the bag spectacularly. The Escort could only ever seem like the poor relation after that. Those who may have made assumptions about Halewood build quality in the past, would do well to recall that tooling up and training for Jaguar production resulted in new attention to build quality on the final Escorts. Did this result in Jaguar quality Escorts or Escort quality Jaguars? An argument for another day maybe. And so it was that the Escort exited with a whimper when the 1998 Focus swept all before it. The Focus was a fantastic car, but the new nameplate signified a conscious step forward. The van was the last to go, holding on for a few more years and being bought in bulk by cost conscious fleets such as Royal Mail.
In the 20 years since the story ended, the later cars have thinned out with some variants such as the early Mk5 being a rare sighting these days. Let’s remember the Escort in its glory days. Bright paintwork and chrome glinting in the background of that family holiday snap at the beach. Fully lit through the icy woods at 3am in front of thousands of spectators. Edging through a rainy rush hour in the early morning gloom, simply doing what it was built to do. A car for everyone. They used to be everywhere. Sure, you can buy an entire new shell for your Group 4 rally car and it can go on forever, but don’t let the glamour models be all you remember. Think of the humble runabout and the unassuming delivery van. This is our shared cultural heritage. We’ll miss them when they’re gone.