Mike Humble with the second of an occasional series where AROnline pours scorn like used engine oil over some of the scene’s most highly prized old clunkers.
Having worked in and around the motor trade most of my professional life, I have been lucky to drive many makes and models of motor cars. Some underwhelm, some disappoint and some make you loathe them, in extreme cases some cars can manage all three, and in my opinion one model captures all three of the previous factors – The Escort XR3i. The Escort MkIII was launched onto the motoring scene in 1980, seemingly ticking all the boxes and offering what Ford had always done – keen pricing, a dealer on every street corner, huge model range and being cheap to run.
The medium family hatchback had the rules re-written thanks to the new Escort with its all new CVH engine, all round independent suspension and practical 3- or 5-door body shell. Lacking the charm and pedigree of Escorts from the previous generations, the new Escort soon became another sales hit which other makers would simply follow in the popularity charts.
At the time of the Escort launch, the hot hatch market comprised of just one serious car – the Volkswagen Golf 1600 GTi. Ford saw a gap in the market for a sporting hatchback to battle with the legendary (yet expensive) Golf. The XR3 was born offering a 1.6 engine with a twin choke Weber carb along with sports seats, alloy wheels and a final drive offering decent pace between the gears. Volkswagen then upped the ante by offering a 1.8 fuel injected engine over the previous 1.6, Ford followed suit and subsequently offered a fuel injected 1600 CVH power unit with a 5 speed gearbox for the 83 model year.
Whereby the Golf GTi had a rock solid image for quality, nimble road manners and being a premium brand which also proved classless, the Escort XR3i became popular with boy racers, yuppies and members of the modern money club thus quickly gaining an image of vulgarity, drunken Essex girls and drag racing along Southend sea front.
Taking the keen pricing out of the equation, the XR3i wasn’t even a good car, it had awful handling with a back breakingly harsh ride, the brakes were rubbish, its refinement was horrific – with its screaming 1600 CVH engine which was as pleasant to listen to as floor boards being pulled up. They rusted away like there was no tomorrow, and in my mechanic days, even a simple task such as replacing the battery could result in a whole new battery tray having to be welded into the engine bay.
Matters got even worse as Ford’s bean counters sourced cheap steel from the Soviet Union in 1986, D-registered cars became known as “D for Doom” as the whole Ford range disintegrated in front of your very eyes rusting away from every possible area. Ford got their act together by late 1989 but rivals including the Rover 200 GTi of 1990 and the 16v Astra GTE were vastly superior cars in every sense.
What hamstrung the XR3i was its ghastly CVH engine which on face value looked quite high tech but was in fact noisy, gutless and mechanically fragile. Rampant insurance price rises pretty much killed off the XR3i in the early 1990s – and good riddance to bad rubbish. The XR3i had no class, a poor image and even to this day, are followed loyally by people who wear baseball caps the wrong way and their pants round their knees!