The cars : Fast Ford Escorts development story

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Lots of people love a fast Ford Escort. And to celebrate that, we’ve pulled together a list of all the best – from Mk1 Twin Cam to Mk4 RS Cosworth.

It’s an eclectic bunch, we’re sure you’ll agree.


Mk1 (1968-1975)

Ford Escort Twin Cam

The first fast Escort signalled great times ahead from the off. Although the similarly-powered Ford Cortina-Lotus Mk2 was still on the Ford price lists when the Escort Twin Cam was unveiled in 1968, it was effectively replaced – or rendered obsolete – by the brasher, better-looking young upstart.

The new car – the ‘Lotus’ name was only silently attached to the Escort Twin Cam – was to all intents and purposes, the Cortina-Lotus engine and running gear clothed in the svelte two-door Escort bodyshell. It was developed by Ford’s Competition Department at Boreham, Essex in 1967, and proved an electrifying rally car from the off – in short, it would go on to become the world’s most famous rally car.

There was little in the way of external ornamentation, meaning this was one of the era’s finest Q-cars. However, with a more rigid bodyshell than the standard car, its speed and poise were easily extracted – a fact that made its Group 3 homologation so perfect. It was also 300kg lighter than the Cortina Mk2 Lotus – and on an altogether different level of performance.

The 1558cc-engined machine had a very usable 106bhp – more than double that of the standard Escort 1100 – and a Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1-matching maximum speed of 115mph as well as a 0-60mph time of a very rapid 8.7 seconds (around the same as the Mk3 XR3i – on a good day). It was a homologation special, though, and a sometimes fragile one at that.

Ford Escort Mexico, RS1600 and RS2000

With the Escort Twin Cam doing so well in the rallying world, and adding a huge halo over the entire range, it made sense that Ford should try repeat the formula. Except this time, it would broaden the appeal by making them cheaper, easier to service and a little more road-focused.

That is why the company came up with a selection of other fast Escorts during the Mk1’s lifetime – away from the usual high-priced homologation specials. The job of creating these more widely-produced fast Escorts was left to Ford’s new Advanced Vehicle Operations, based in Essex.

The first car to come out of AVO was the RS1600 (above) in 1970 – a development of the Escort Twin Cam, fitted with the impressive Cosworth BDA twin-cam (below). The engine was developed from a Formula 2 racing unit and, even in a detuned state for the road, gave the Escort electrifying performance and a near-120mph maximum speed. Most buyers ended up tweaking them and taking them rallying – which is what they were built for. The RS1600 was a specialist car that demanded a lot of care and attention.

However, the Mexico (below) and RS2000 were far more suited to the man in the street. The new fast Escort, which was named in honour of the tough and demanding 1970 World Cup Rally to Mexico, was based on the RS1600, but had a far simpler engine.

It was powered by the reliable – 1598cc Kent overhead valve engine as used in the Capri and Cortina Mk2 1600E instead. This still resulted in a very favourable power to weight ratio and lively performance.

In 1973, that car was supplanted by the 2.0-litre Pinto powered RS2000. It was the first Escort to be powered by the overhead cam four-pot and, once again, proved to be a quick and delightful car to drive. All three hot Escort looked the part with lairy colours, decals and stripes, unlike the original low-key Escort Twin Cam.

This would prove to be an increasingly successful marketing strategy by Ford.


Mk2 (1975-1980)

Ford Escort Sport, RS Mexico, RS2000

From the launch of the Mk2, Ford offered the short-lived RS1800. It was a Cosworth BDA-engined version, effectively a homologation special, carrying on from the old RS1600. It was built pretty much exclusively to take rallying, so it’s no surprise that they are hugely valuable and hard-to-find today. The RS1800 was produced in tiny numbers, but its main legacy is the string of rally wins that it scored.

For the man in the street, Ford offered plenty of choice. Following on from the old Mk1 Escort Mexico and RS2000, Ford launched a series of sporting but not-too-extreme Escorts that showed the angular Mk2 styling in a very favourable light. The Sport (below) and RS Mexico both were powered by the 1599cc ‘Kent’ engine, developing 84 and 95bhp respectively.

Visually, they looked the part though, with special wheels, spotlamps perched above split front bumpers and pinstriping with contrasting ‘1600 Sport’ branding. The Mexico, sold from 1976-78, followed a similar theme with its looks, but added touches from the RS2000, such as its gorgeous four-spoke alloys.

Above these 1.6-litre cars was the popular RS2000. It was introduced in 1976, and was powered by the 2.0-litre Pinto engine, found in the Capri, Cortina and entry-level Granadas. It developed a fairly sedate – but reliable – 108bhp. But thanks to the lightweight Escort body, the torquey 2.0-litre gave the RS2000 excellent power-to-weight ratio, and was still more than capable of putting in a fine performance.

However, the real talking point about the RS2000 was its polyurethane ‘droop snoot’ front end and air dam, lifted straight from Wayne Cherry’s Droopsnoot Firenza of a couple of years earlier. It was an effective modification which clearly distinguished it from any other Escort.


Mk3 (1980-1990)

Ford Escort XR3/XR3i

Ford entered a brave new world in 1980 with the launch of the smart-looking Mk3. The front-wheel-drive hatchback was aimed right at the heart of the Vauxhall Astra Mk1/Volkswagen Golf market – and hugely successful it would prove to be. But with the arrival of the XR3 sporting version from launch, it actually meant Ford would prove to be an early arrival on the burgeoning hot hatchback scene.

It went on sale some four years after the Volkswagen Golf GTI – and the pair would pretty much have the market to themselves for a couple of years. Indeed, it was with that target in mind, that Ford had devised a package it felt should have blown the Volkswagen into the weeds.

Certainly in terms of looks and handling, it looked good enough, but the original XR3 of 1980 wasn’t quite fast or refined enough. A tuned 1597cc CVH engine produced 96bhp thanks to a twin-choke carburettor, while front and rear spoilers and blacked-out trim made it visually appealing to ’80s eyes. But Volkswagen could breath easy with its 110bhp Golf.

Injection improves the breed

Better was to come though with the fuel-injected XR3i of 1983. It was a fuel-injected replacement for the XR3, engineered by the Rod Mansfield-directed Special Vehicles Engineering Group in Britain. And as such, it was quite an upgrade – dynamically – over its carburetted predecessor.

With 105bhp and that all-important 0-60mph time in less than nine seconds (between 8.6 and 9.2 seconds depending on the road tester), it was a whole lot closer to catching the brilliant Volkswagen Golf GTI. But, in reality it was still not quite good enough to beat the German car, especially when the Golf GTI’s engine was expanded to 1.8-litres and 112bhp. Still, it made for stern opposition for emerging rivals such as the MG Maestro EFi and Vauxhall Astra GTE.

Ford Escort RS1600i

This is where things get interesting, though  – because, just like the previous decade, Ford would go on to offer multiple go-faster versions of the Escort. In 1983, the RS1600i was launched, after being designed and built by Ford of Germany Motorsport purely to meet Group A homologation regulations.

The RS1600i featured fuel injection several months before the XR, and more body addenda to differentiate itself from the series-production car it was based upon.  However, the great-looking RS1600i lacked some important XR3i equipment, such as the larger rear brakes or realigned front struts.

Motor Sport magazine reckoned it wasn’t as good to drive as the XR3i. ‘Every aspect is modified compared with a production Escort. But it is important to remember that the Germans originally engineered it around the XR3, not the XR3i, thus it first started appearing in continental road tests in summer 1982. The rear brakes remain at seven inches diameter and have inferior pedal action to the XR3i. Moreover, the front wheels do have a positive camber, a feature most will remember from Hillman Imps.’

When it was launched, the RS1600i was the first genuine challenger to the Golf GTI, offering more power and significantly developed suspension – so it could outgrip the Wolfsburg icon. However, due to limited numbers and a high price, as well as being sold through Rallye Sport dealers only, it was not as practical a proposition as the XR3.

Ford Escort RS Turbo

Extending the Group A homologation theme to include a turbocharger, Ford followed up the RS1600i in considerable style. For many buyers, the homologation-special RS1600i was rather close in both looks and performance to the XR3i, so the addition of a turbo was just the ticket in the hot hatchback war that was sweeping through Europe. It proved a huge success, with the original run of 5000 extended to 10,000 to meet demand.

The first RS Turbo was once again a low-volume Rallye Sport offering, and continued the extrovert styling of the RS1600i, but with additional colour keying. It featured a Garrett AiResearch T3 turbocharger allied to an XR3i engine running an 8.3:1 compression ratio. In its day, it was judged a flexible hot hatch, with boost available from 1500rpm before pulling hard from 2500rpm.

Fast but not quite fast enough

Maximum output was 130bhp at 6000rpm with 128lb ft torque at 3000rpm. Claimed maximum speed was 125mph, while the 0-60mph time was 8.3 seconds – slower than the Golf GTI, Strada Abarth – and only a touch quicker than the Astra GTE. Seven-spoke RS alloys, a bodykit and aerodynamic aids marked out the RS Turbo as the ’80s boy racer’s favourite.

Motor Sport magazine certainly liked the way it drove in its 1985 road test: ‘When pressed towards its limits, the car is a natural understeerer and the outside front wheel on a bend will start to tramp a little. The front end will quickly respond to the throttle or a small dab on the brake. Driving briskly, but sensibly, on public roads, handling is almost neutral. At any speed and even cornering hard on a test track, there is little roll and one always has a pleasing sensation of a tight, well-integrated, machine.’

The facelifted car looked tame in comparison.


Mk4 (1990-1999)

Ford Escort RS2000 and XR3i

The most interesting 1990-2000 Escorts were the go-faster and cabriolet models. The first RS2000 was initially powered by a modified version of the Sierra’s I4 twin-cam developing 148bhp – 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 (below). The RS2000 made it to the second facelift, but was finally phased out in early 1996 – today, its 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.

Ford Escort RS Cosworth

The Ford Escort RS Cosworth proved that it was possible to follow its legendary 1980s Sierra namesake. Just like the Lancia Delta Integrale and Subaru Impreza, this was a Group A rally car for the road – pure and simple.

It was actually underpinned by a shortened version of the Sierra RS Cosworth’s platform and powered by the same 2.0-litre turbocharged longitudinally-mounted, Cosworth-developed engine driving all four wheels. The car was designed and engineered in Boreham, had major styling input by noted Designer Stephen Harper, and ended up being assembled by Karmann in Germany.

At launch in 1994, two models were available, the Club-spec standard car at £21,380 and the Lux version, which included electric windows, heated screen, sunroof, and Recaro seats. Power was up slightly from the Sierra RS Cosworth, at 227bhp, and performance consequently improved. The first 2500 cars up to May 1994 suffered from turbo lag, but the next 4500 were improved thanks to their smaller Garrett T25 Turbo.

In 1995, the Escort RS Cosworth was tweaked when it received a new honeycomb grille, the option of a less outrageous rear spoiler, a more attractive fascia and revised alloy wheels. The car continued until early 1996, when emissions regulations forced it out of production.

Like pretty much every RS-badged Ford, it was a classic from the moment it was built…

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

23 Comments

  1. Oh dear, the preamble was a bit OTT wasn’t it? Since you ask, none of them “does it for me” . That rather puts into question your first sentence, doesn’t it ?

    • Well said. I wholeheartedly agree.
      For deluded fast Escort lovers: I think the Orion Ghia was both faster and nippier that the XRi.
      Personally, I’d far rather the Maestro 2.0 EFI – any day, every day!

      • I had a 92 Orion 1.8i LX Zeta (aka Zetec when Lancia got upset)

        Was the inconspicuous practical alternative to the mk5 XR3i.

        Didn’t even have alloys.

        Roadholding was “interesting”

  2. An Escort RS 2000 was often used by Bodie and Doyle in the second series of The Professionals.
    However, one comment I can’t agree with on here, a Mark 1 Escort is better looking than a Mark 2 Cortina. Sorry, I always found the Mark 1 Escort to be a nasty looking car, the front end reminded me of a bad tempered cat for some reason, while the Mark 2 Cortina in 1600 E and Lotus form always looked good and upmarket. Mark 2 Escort, though, always liked the look of them.

  3. The XR3 in particular was a triumph of marketing over substance. I’ll take the Astra GTE (and back in the day, I did).

    • The original XR3 was a none too powerful 1.6 carburated model and was no better than the RS 2000 it replaced, which I always considered a far better car and with a better engine. Fuel injection helped, but the XR3i was always a buzzbox compared to the smooth delivery of the Golf GTi. Indeed for hot hatches, I always rated the Astra GTE, Golf GTi, MG Maestro( second generation) over the Escort.

  4. All the Escort’s I’ve had have been company cars in Popular or LX trim so nowhere as interesting as the cars here. I do remember the XR3i getting more praise than the original.

    I have to say I like the look of the green MK2 1.6 Sport in the photo above, featuring Ford’s 13″ “sports style” steel wheels.

  5. I think all the fast Fords over the years (excepting the Escort MK4) have offered good value performance in an attractive package. They have not been the best in all fields but desireable nevertheless.
    I have owned in the past an Escort Sport MK2 and a couple of XR3i’s, all cheap to run, slow to depreciate and reliable.
    Fast Fords are popular and expensive in the classic car scene suggesting they have enduring popularity?

  6. Another nice MK1 Escort (though not as powerful as those here) was the 1300E, which came with metallic paint, nylon trim, vinyl roof, wood door cappings/dash and those 13″ sports wheels. I guess it was based on the similar trim MK3 Cortina 2000E

  7. The 1300 E came out in 1973 and was more powerful than the basic 1300 models. To me if you wanted luxury with a bit of performance, the Mark 2 1.6 Ghia was the one to buy. It always looked the part with its wood dashboard and Ghia badges and had that most desirable seventies fitting, a push button radio, along with a vinyl roof. The Mark 2 and early Mark 3 were always my favourite Escorts.

    • Glenn… one of my friend’s had a MK2 1600 Ghia – nice car as you say. I would think the Escort Ghia spec would almost match up against a Magnum 1800 (except the wood) in those days…

  8. There were also the Mk 1 and Mk 2 GT’s (1300’s), along with the Mk 2 Harrier (1600), and even a Mark 5 GTi, which was after Richard Parry Jones sorted the chassis out, resulting in the GTi being rather good, after the poor showing from the wallowy Mk 4.

    I always thought the whilst the Mk 1 & Mk 2 did the sporty thing very well, they always lacked any upmarket cachet compared with BL stuff, and even the higher spec Vivas and Avengers, as the Escorts (including the plush 1300E) always had painted metal door tops which gave them quite a tinny feeling

  9. My Aunt & Uncle had a Mk2 Harrier in the early 1960s.

    I remember it was quite good for zooming around country lanes, but the interior was Spartan.

  10. Sorry to be a bit of a nerd but Ford actually called the Mk3 face lift a Mk 4, while the Mk 5 facelifts were called Mk 6 and Mk 6a.

    My dad had a Mk1 1300 XL back in the 70s and early 80s and always wanted a Mexico or RS but could not afford one, while my brother always pandered for an RS2000 Mk 2 (he was always Bodie to my Doyle!) and we nearly bought one between us a few years back.

    However both my dad and brother had 1.8 SI Mk 6a’s back in later life, and my brother still says that has been his favourite car.

    • I was wondering, I’d thought it was a mk5 too. Ford numbering can be confusing, the mk4 Escort is clearly a facelift of the mk3, yet the substantial facelift of the mk1 Mondeo is still the mk1. The mk5 facelifts are clearly still mk5, the ‘mk6’ even used the same front lights and rear lights on the ex-Orion saloon. (Interestingly the WRC Cosworth used the original mk5 style headlights, bonnet and rear lights, even when the base Escort was facelifted with new lights, bonnet, grille etc. They fitted an approximate shaped grille to the original mk5 shaped grille place)

      I had the 1.8 Zeta/Zetec Orion of the mk5 that used the same engine as the XR3i, when it worked it was reasonably quick, however the platform never gave any confidence to push it. I believe that these early engines suffered from oil sludge and sticking valves due to some mechanics using the same 10W40 used on CVHs.

        • Yep the Cossie was actually just the Sierra Cossie hacked at and fitted with a facsimile body with Escort parts or Escort looking. Ford needed a new Rally car at the time and saw this as the way forward.

          Also didn’t mention earlier AVO was at Averley – where they also fitted out police squad cars after the basic car had been delivered from Dagenham. It was quite a cushty number – my old man and several of his friends tried several times to get down there but it was quite a closed shop and you had to know someone to get a job there.

  11. Also forgot to mention the still born Escort RS1700T project which was designed be the next Ford rally car, but during the design process they realised that it would need to be 4 wheel drive, and the programme was stopped and the RS1800 programme was started.

    Also Ford had planned an Escort coupe during its design faze but this was dropped, as was a planned fastback style:

    https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/13/6e/d6/136ed6bee2cd0d105b05a6b081813dcc.jpg

    https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/56/09/6d/56096d4278e1d31ca3faa62f1c3af73a.jpg

  12. I thought the mk2 Mexico had a 1600 pinto and the sport had the cross flow.
    There were a small number of four door 1600 sports which I imagine are very rare nowadays
    Not sure if there were any for door 1300 sports which were fairly fair itself

  13. Given the Ford Kent / Crossflow engine was said to be capable of further reliable enlargement from 1600cc to around 1650-1700cc with outputs of around 100 hp, why didn’t Ford develop a proper production version of such an engine themselves?

    Especially since it could either slot below or eventually replace lower-powered versions of the Lotus Twin-Cam as well as be more powerful then the 90 hp 1.6 Ford Pinto engine notably used in the mk2 Ford Escort Mexico.

  14. A pity really Ford UK produced the Essex V4s instead a pre-Pinto Kent influenced 1600-2000cc 4-cylinder.

    The Cosworth BDA engines and apparently even marine versions of the Kent engine with displacements above 1600cc (including dieselized versions) suggest it was entirely possible for Ford UK to develop a suitably enlarged 4-cylinder engine in place of the Essex V4s.

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