The Escort was the first pan-European Ford car (the Transit came before), which meant the beginning of the end of those strange, unfamiliar (to us Brits) German market cars…
Originally designed as the new Anglia, the Euro-friendly Escort name was adopted instead for the fresh small Ford after the formation of Ford of Europe in 1967. Although it had less distinctive styling than the Anglia, the Coke bottle-profiled Escort was a good-looking beast, and started finding favour with younger buyers looking for a small saloon. It soon proved to be a huge hit, for its simplicity, neat appearance and excellent performance and economy (more so in the larger-engined cars) meant it became Ford’s best-selling car in the UK behind the Cortina.
Even the basic 1098cc version was good to drive thanks to rack-and-pinion steering, a brilliant gearchange and effective McPherson strut front suspension. The Escort range was wide, spanning 1.1-, 1.3 and 1.6-litres, as well as the two- and four-door saloons and three door estate.
In the mid-1970s, Ford set about sharpening its act. Not in a marketing sense – because it had been impeccable since at least the end of the 1960s – but visually. Just as the Capri received its straight-edged new styling, so did the Escort, to become the Mk2.
Bigger, squarer, more successful
Codenamed Brenda during development, the 1975 Escort Mk2 gained a number of new variations and trim options as well new styling. Although little more than a facelift of the old Coke bottle car, the ’75 Escort was considered new in the eyes of most of its customers, and ended up sitting atop its sector in the UK sales charts during its production run. It did well in Europe, too, selling almost a million in five years.
Underneath the boxy body, everything was much the same as the Mk1 model, but the addition of the 1599cc ‘Kent’ engine at the top of the range created the appeal six-pack dial Escort 1.6 Ghia. The existing 1098cc and 1298cc engines continued as they were.
A brighter front-wheel drive future
Following hot on the heels of the Fiesta, Ford’s 1980 Escort, codenamed ‘Erika’ during development, was a front-wheel drive move into the 1980s, banishing the old RWD saloons, and facing the Volkswagen Golf sector with an up-to-the-minute hatchback contender.
New CVH engines, built in Wales, chiseled styling masterminded by Uwe Bahnsen incorporating a stylish tailgate ‘bustle’ irreversably broke the link with Mk2, creating a new car that was modern in its appeal. In order not to scare off the older-school Escort clientele, who loved its simplicity, the new car was marketed as ‘Simple is Efficient’. It worked – once the Cortina was out of the way, to be replaced by the Sierra, the Mk3 Escort became the UK’s best selling car.
Offered with 1.1-litre Valencia engine, as well as new 1.3- and 1.6-litre CVHs, as well as in the usual wide range of trim options. ‘Cooking’ Escorts suffered from all manner of ride and damping issues, but these problems were soon ironed out, even if the car ended up not handling as well as it might as a consequence, especially considering independent rear suspension. Facelifted in 1986 (and sometimes referred to as the Mk4) with a softened nose and tail, as well as the option of ABS – but by this time, it had been overtaken by most of its rivals.
Four-door Orion version was added in 1983 – some say, to plug the gap left by the Cortina. It sold well to conservative buyers. Full body range consisted of three- and five-door hatchbacks, three- and five-door estates, van, cabriolet, and four-door saloon.
Surprisingly rare now, except in fast XR3 and RS form.
The rot sets in…
The 1990 Ford Escort – the fifth generation car to bear the name – was by far the least convincing to be launched by Ford. In an extraordinary U-turn, the company that had brought us the bold and interesting Sierra and Scorpio, delivered a car so unimpressive, conservative, and cynically conceived, that the press staged a mass revolt against the car. Far more damagingly, the fifth generation Escort lost its top-selling spot from the UK charts (to the Fiesta). The problem was that although the 1990 Escort was a brand new car, it failed to improve on its predecessor in any meaningful way – and was also hampered by its carry-over CVH engines.
Stung by criticism and disappointing sales, Ford knuckled down to the matter of improving the car. Less than two years after the original was launched, Ford introduced the oval-grilled facelift car. It might not have looked much different, but improvements in the suspension and steering set-up made it a better drive – and much more importantly, the 16v twin-cam Zetec engines were a huge improvement. By the end of 1992, the Escort was at least class-competitive. The 1995 facelift saw new front-end styling, and ushered in a new dashboard – but again, it was a much improved car to drive.
The most interesting 1990-2000 Escorts were the go-faster and cabriolet models. The first RS2000 – initially powered by a modified version of the Sierra’s I4 twin-cam developing 148bhp, and after the dullness of the car it was based upon, its excellence was a genuine surprise. At the first facelift, the RS2000 was improved further, and offered with the option of four-wheel drive. The RS2000 made it to the second facelift, but was finally phased out in early 1996 – today, very rare, and sought after by Ford enthusiasts.
The XR3i name had also made a return with the first facelift in 1992, but the Zetec-powered warm-hatch was far less impressive.