This will make you feel old; the Ford Escort XR3 is a full 40 years old. Lately, I’ve been idly pondering which tax and MOT exempt classics could serve as tolerable daily drivers, and cars from the 1980s are now within scope of the UK’s 40 year rule. That means the XR3 is now officially a bona-fide historic vehicle. There are many who would turn in their graves at the thought, but there are thousands of others who loudly laud the sporting Ford. The principle of the wisdom of crowds, whereby if you ask enough people their individual responses will average into the correct answer, probably places the XR3 somewhere between a load of old rubbish and a valuable collectable. Basically, you either love it or hate it. As a deliberate contrarian, I’m somewhere in between.
For those who worship at the altar of the Mk2 Escort, the “Project Erika” Mk3 generation was an abomination. Given the Mk2 traced its DNA all the way back to the late 60s, Ford needed to take a quantum leap forward to give the public an all-modern Escort for the 1980s. Cart sprung rear ends and old fashioned Kent and Pinto engines may have been favoured by a few enthusiasts who fancied themselves as Hannu Mikkola, but everyone else considered the classic Escort to be old hat. Philistines.
But the world had moved on and Ford needed to keep up. The Volkswagen Golf was unfortunately making the Ford look like a dinosaur and even worse, the new Vauxhall Astra/Opel Kadett was about to do the same. By way of response, Erika was a new design from the ground up, as evidenced by its striking new appearance. The old three box shape was gone, replaced by a more practical and fashionable hatchback with a trademark “aeroback” stubby rear deck. The most radical changes were out of sight though; the new car was unashamedly driven at the wrong end. New-fangled front wheel drive and independent coil springs all-round brought the car bang up to date (around 10 to 20 years after some of the competition) and a new range of Valencia and CVH engines propelled it down the road. Quite how much of a step forward those new engines really were would become a matter of debate, but the CVH was more efficient than a Pinto if nothing else. 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 thrown in or could be selected from the options list. We may not be wowed now but imagine coming to trade in your five year old 1975 Escort 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.
Ford were masters of marketing and recognised the importance of an aspirational range structure. You may only really be able to afford the Popular but you could bask in the reflected glow of the range topping RS, and perhaps be persuaded climb a few rungs on the ladder by the salesman’s offer of easy motor finance. But what’s this – there you are in September 1980 looking at the brochure for the new Escorts and you realise to your horror… the Rallye Sport headline act is nowhere to be seen. Sitting there, in place of the ultimate prize for the provincial boy racer was something with a name that sounded like a photocopier. XR3?! That’s not even a GTi…!
Ford roped in Jackie Stewart to convince buyers that the death of the RS badge was nothing to fear. He did his best to convey the message that the XR3 was a sharp and dynamic handler with an eager powertrain. The motoring press did their bit also, no doubt well-oiled by the Ford PR machine. The truth is that early examples were hobbled by poor front suspension geometry which gave the XR3 a tall and knock-kneed stance, which is not what you want to see on a hot hatchback. We may raise an eyebrow now at the thought of anyone being thrilled by an XR3 over an RS2000 but put bluntly, the Mk2 is best experienced when improved and most of them at that time were not. The XR3 was equipped with a new carburettor fed CVH engine and the four speed box was in line with buyer’s expectations. 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. It was broadly as quick as a well-used RS2000 and while the XR3 might not have handled quite as sharply, it was good enough for most people to be getting on with.
Although the XR3 had a certain new and shiny appeal, Ford couldn’t mask the fact that the Golf GTi was a better car so they cracked on with engineering some big improvements for October 1982. What exiting news was this? Only a five speed gearbox and fuel injection! Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering division, based in the Essex Badlands at Dunton, ensured the XR3 not only gained an “i” but also benefitted from chassis tweaks to make it into a more credible Golf chaser. Revised front struts eliminated the positive camber of the early cars, and to capitalise on the corrected geometry the XR3i also gained a thicker front anti-roll bar, different rear springs and larger brakes. Injection may have only liberated an additional 5 bhp but power delivery and torque were noticeably better so it felt faster.
Tellingly, October 1982 didn’t just see the debut of the injected XR3i, it also saw the return of the RS badge that had been dropped two years previously. The Escort RS1600i was a homologation special commissioned by Ford of Germany Motorsport to qualify for Group A racing and at 115bhp it was usefully more powerful than the XR3i. However, contemporary road tests reported that it only really woke up at 4,000 rpm only to be hobbled shortly afterwards by an over enthusiastic rev limiter. Like many homologation specials it really needed to be upgraded to full competition specification, otherwise it was a halfway house that didn’t fulfil its potential. With the RS1600i being a bit too darty and cammy, not to mention only being available in limited numbers, the XR3i was the flagship Escort as far as most buyers were concerned.
I’ll declare an interest in the XR3i as it was the first car of any type that I ever drove. I’m not enormously misty eyed at the memory as although driving for the first time is of course an important landmark moment, it’s still a front wheel drive hatchback. However, that is really where the XR3i excelled; if a total novice managed to get to grips with the controls in short order (even someone as naturally uncoordinated as me), then anyone could surely jump in one and happily tootle away. Contrasted with the obstructively woolly VW Polo I subsequently slogged through my lessons with, the XR3i was a user friendly car, as happy to dribble along in third gear as it was being ragged by the local yobbos.
It was a prime performance car for the everyman and everywoman, easy to drive and highly accessible. It sums up what Ford did so well at the time; selling the dream, a sensible, suburban and non-threatening dream obviously. Even when in time it became the preferred chariot of the lager-fuelled moron there was something honest about the XR3i. Try as they might to improve their car with aftermarket tat, it was always just an Escort underneath and nobody was really kidding themselves that it was much more. That latter demographic were responsible for some people remaining sniffy about the XR3i, as if to admit to liking it means they endorse the lifestyles of the underclass who drove beaten-up examples in the 1990s. I’d rather they declared a more tangible reason for their distaste to be honest, as to judge a car by the company it once kept seems unimaginative.
Love it or hate it? As I stated up the page, I’m in between, and I’ll tell you why. The XR3i was instrumental in my introduction to motoring and throughout the 1980s and 1990s they were all over the place. Familiarity doesn’t need to breed contempt as there are many other reasons why contempt for a fairly average car can creep in, but I’ve always quite liked what the XR3i represents. They are a democratic pseudo performance car and they remind me of a world where I understood things and felt generally happier, which explains the appeal of classic cars really. So while I could now buy a tax and MOT exempt example, I doubt I will. Escort XR3s are far too expensive for what they are and there are plenty of other cars which are more fun for less money, but it’s been nice to get a bit nostalgic for the XR3 and its fuel injected kin. The world would be worse off without them; happy 40th birthday, you old scallywag.