Ones they’d rather forget: It was a $1bn make-or-break car for Ford, and they blew it by allowing the marketing department to call the shots.
Picture the scene: it’s 1986 and you’re a Ford product planner. Your brief is to come up with a replacement for the UK’s best-selling car, and you have an extremely conservative customer clientele. You’ve already been told that against all better instincts, you’re not there to innovate – the Sierra showed that advanced looking Fords were hard to sell – and that means making more of the same. But that’s surely a recipe for success?
As it happens, the 1990 Escort was Ford’s most heavily clinicked car to that date, and without doubt it offered exactly what the customers wanted. Styling moved away from the crisp origami folds of the 1980 Escort, to be replaced by a far more organic form – but unlike the Sierra, there was no overt aerodynamic detailing to scare off customers. In the showroom, it offered a little more of everything – more space inside, more equipment, and larger price tags across the range.
But under the skin, the engine range remained a carry-over – so that meant rattly CVHs for the petrols and the gutless, rough, Endura Ds for the diesels. In standard 1.8-litre form that meant 60bhp and a less than scintillating performance. When launched, the Escort MkV failed to impress the magazine road testers – and even worse, the new car’s abject failure to improve on its predecessor was such that it entered the national psyche and converted into disappointing sales. Ford, it seemed couldn’t win: innovate and customers shied away; play it safe, and the result was very similar indeed.
The impact on Ford of Great Britain’s bank balance must have been enormous: in 1980, the UK’s best selling car was the mid-sized, high-profit, Cortina. By 1990, the Ford Fiesta was the company’s chart-topper.
On the road, the Escort Diesel truly disappointed. It proved slow to warm-up, vibratory and sluggish in the extreme. Compared with class-leading rivals from Peugeot and Renault, it was light years off the pace. Factor in a resurgent Rover with it PSA XUD powered 218D model, and there seemed little choice for aspirational buyers – other than to abandon their local Ford dealers and head west. Thankfully the turbo versions (in 75 and 90bhp form) redressed the performance issue, but not the lack of refinement.
Within weeks of going on sale, Ford pressed ahead with an emergency facelift, pushing it forward to September 1992, barely two years after the original car’s launch. Petrol powered buyers were wooed back with the arrival of the DOHC Zetec powered cars, but as for those who needed DERV, the Endura would have to do – although detail engineering changes did smooth its most vocal tendencies.
This was an interim facelift, with more far-reaching changed being introduced for the 1995 mid-life overhaul. But again, the diesels were forced to soldier on using Endura D power.
As for the 1990 Escort’s epitaph, it’s clear that its failure to innovate would lead to Ford’s engineering excellence that underpinned the 1993 Mondeo. The company had been stung by the press and customers because it cynically expected its clientele to stomach a car that simply wasn’t good enough. When it came to replacing the Escort, it reverted to revolutionary form, combining Mondeo style dynamic excellence with concept car styling. The result – it was the UK’s best selling car for every year it was in production.
Sometimes, it’s best not to listen to your customer, and trust your instincts.