Video : Ford Escort MkIII

Keith Adams

The Ford Escort XR3i looked like the ultimate family car choice in 1980. Here’s how Ford introduced it to the world…

The Ford Escort MkIII, codenamed Project Erica, was a massive step forward for its maker. And Ford was keen for potential customers to be aware of its front-wheel drive challenger’s strongest assets. Three-times World Champion Jackie Stewart seemed impressed as he looked on at Ford’s test track at Lommel in Belgium, as did Henry Ford II…

Were you?



Keith Adams


  1. Great video. The mkIII was a huge advance on its predecessor, and a very good car in its own right. The styling was spot-on, especially the XR3.

    The word in the motoring press at the time was that the Lommel test track was flawed, and so a car could be developed which drove superbly round the track but not so well on the public road. That was blamed for the suspension problems, whereby the car didn’t ride so well. Even after several tweaks, this problem remained throughout the lifetime of the mkIII.

  2. At the time of the mk3 development it was mooted that the new car was to be called astra funnily enough………….

  3. This was Ford marketing at its very best, the XR3 when it came out was just what the public wanted, great looking well priced and capable. It had some minor flaws, no injection for one but like the Capri 2.8i and the XR2 MK1 these cars just captured the public’s imagination.

  4. Hasn’t became a classic in the same way as the mk2, especially amongst Rally enthusiasts.

    We had a mk4 (mk3 facelift?) in the family for a short while. Seemed alright as an honest basic car.

    The XR3, were the offside and nearside alloys asymettrical?

    The 1st gen US Escort was similar (especially in styling), but significantly different for US tastes.

  5. Nice video, thanks for putting it up. It looks like Jackie Stewart was having just a little too much out there! But for me, this is when the Escort lost it’s mojo, and didn’t really get it back again (apart from the RS versions).

  6. @Will M. I think a lot of the reason for it not going down as a classic is the fact that it lost it’s rear wheel drive setup. Everybody loves a sideways MK I or II!

  7. @Frankie the 75 nut

    True, good point.
    Ford Rallying moved on to the Sierra for RWD fun. The Escort was back with the Cosworth, but it didn’t help the fact that the mk5 was a bag of bolts!

  8. Yes the MK 5 was indeed a bag of bolts (and I could say much less kind things than that about it) And the MK5 Cossie was actually the Sierra dressed up to look like an Escort (isn’t it funny how the Sierra didn’t achieve quite the same cult status)…until I found that piece of knowledge out I often wondered how they made the MK 5 a good car!

  9. I can still remember going to my local dealers launch party for the Mk3 in 1980. For me this car marked a turning point, where volume produced cars made the transition from 60s/70s horse and cart type vehicles to cars that are essentially the same as the modern cars we have today. I know the VW Golf and various Renaults and Fiats had front wheel drive and hatchbacks well before, but in the UK these cars where still pretty rare. BL vehicles of course had front wheel drive and clever suspension for donkeys years, but they still seemed very old and quaint. The Escort MK3 marked a turning point for what I then considered “normal” cars.

  10. @Paul You are so right. This car made fwd mass-market in the UK, perhaps along with the mkII Cavalier. The main impact was on the fleet market, which saw fwd as a safe option for the first time.

  11. The Mk3 Scrote was bang on the money for the time, and wasn’t a bad car . Ford’s slick marketing department knew they were onto a winner with it, thanks to keen pricing, and a stupdly huge model variation, right from absolute poverty spec 1.1 & 1.3 in 3 dr, via reasonable estates, and Essextastic hot models & cabrios. Getting the Mk3 1.6i cabrio on Dempsey & Makepeace probably helped sell it to the ‘girlie’ market too. They also did a poverty spec 1.6 auto just for the mobility scheme. Dealers on every corner also helped.

  12. The ‘Group A inspired’ RS1600i always gets over looked, overshadowed by the latter RS Turbo. The other one that always fascinates me is the RS1700T, had rallying stuck to Two Wheel Drive instead of 4×4 then I think this would have been a worthy opponent to the Opel 400. Just imagine a ‘Road Version’, a little brother to the MK1 Sierra Cosworth. When you think about it the Escort MK3 had something for everyone and was a true World Car, as I said earlier Ford Marketing at its very best.

  13. Talking of world cars, it was slighty odd that Ford in Australia (& possibly New Zealand as well) sold a rebadged Mazda 323 in place of the Mk3.

    Considering the earlier ones had sold well there, this seemed an odd marketing move.

  14. The MK5 Escort RS 2000 was a great drivers car. Very underated. Lag free 150BHP, decent handling.Bonnet bulge model is the only one to have though.

  15. “The XR3, were the offside and nearside alloys asymettrical?”

    The “telephone dial” wheels as fitted to the XR3 and pre-facelift XR3i were a totally symetrical wheel design (inspired by the wheels fitted to the Porsche 928)

    The wheels on the 1986-89 XR3i (known as “dog-legs”) were exactly the same side to side – so on one side the spokes faced backwards and on the other side they faced forwards! (see link: )

    In 1989 the so called “90 spec” cars were fitted with “mini Cossie” wheels, 14″ versions of the Sapphire Cosworth wheels.

    The interesting thing is that at no point were alloys standard on the XR3i – although at only £150-ish extra most people chose them. The pre-facelift version had white eight hole wheeltrims as standard, as did the post facelift model (different designs though and both were held on by the wheel bolts), whereas the 89-90 model had the same wheeltrims as the Escort Eclipse.

  16. And here are the aforementioned wheeltrims! The pre facelift one:

    The post facelift one:

    And the 1989-90 one (seen here on an Escort Eclipse):

    It’s incredibly rare to see XR3is these days with wheeltrims, as they were rare to begin with and most owners in the subsequent “boy racer” period replaced them with alloys.

  17. A colleague of mine bought a MK3 Escort 1.3L (69bhp) when launched and I remember when it rained and the tailgate was raised, water would run off it into the boot!

    I later had two MKIV Escort company cars, both with the older 1.3 Valencia OHV engine… not very powerful (60bhp) but did the job, matching their basic spec. One was a “Popular” with bare steel wheels so I bought a set of s/h white Ford wheeltrims to tart it up.

  18. Re.9
    I remember reading a letter in one of the motoring weeklies at the time from a disgruntled punter initially seduced by the XR3i’s modest headline price, only to discover that those wheels were a ‘compulsory optional’ extra. I think the same eventually became true also of the sunroof.

  19. Hah! A Ford dealer in Greenock (long gone, but well known at the time) tried to pull the same trick with me when I ordered a split new Fiesta XR2i in June 1990 for August 1st delivery (they were offering free insurance in year one and full NCB in subsequent years – damn good deal for a 21 year old at the time…).

    Priced the car without alloys and then called me a week before delivery saying the car had to come with them at a premium. I said no way – find some wheels and trims that’ll fit the Michelin MXV2s and sell the alloys through your parts department.

    They got back to me the next day saying the alloys would be included at the originally agreed price….

  20. Always loved the “90” spec wheels! I know it’s not the sort of thing you admit to but I love those 80’s and 90’s wheels trims as well.

  21. I will always have a soft spot for the Mark 3 Escort as it was the car I grew up with, learned to drive in, and I owned and ran a couple of them once I had a bit of cash – they could always be run on charity and the engines go on forever if you maintain them. Despite the rusty battery trays, VV carburettors and the lousy ride quality it is still a handsome car and good to see that the surviving XRs and RS Turbos are now becoming classics.

    Enrico – yes Ford dealers in Glasgow were notorious for doing that as well, I bought a brand new Focus Mk 2 in ’05 when it first came out, and it arrived with the all singing all dancing Sony six-stack in the dash which I didn’t want. They tried to get me to pay the extra for it but I told them to rip it out and put the standard Ford one in. Chancers!!

  22. “Always loved the “90″ spec wheels! I know it’s not the sort of thing you admit to but I love those 80′s and 90′s wheels trims as well.”

    I had a set of 90 spec wheels on my mark 5 Escort diesel, they looked the business but they were an absolute bugger to clean!

    I too love the white wheeltrims they had back then, really stood out and looked brilliant with some of the colours (I put a set of Fiesta 1.6S white trims on my debadged Mercury Grey Escort 1.3 Bonus 90 as well as a full XR3i interior!)

    I’m going to get another mark 4 Escort one day – they’re not very good (they weren’t any good even back then – I remember driving a mate’s 206 1.6 GTI and it was a revelation) but they’re what I owned and lusted after when I was in my teens, so that’s what matters! Dream car back then was either a Mercury Grey XR3i or a blue Eclipse. I got a blue Eclipse when I was 21, great spec car with the 1.3 HCS Anglia-derived engine, which was nippy and did 40+ mpg, despite being driven like the XR3i it was supposed to look like according to the advert (but didn’t, having 5 not three doors and being totally different colours for a start!)

  23. Bit off-topic but a mate I had was an Austin Rover fan, he drove a ten year old 2600 Vanden Plas SD1, which as a 19 year old driving a five year old 1.3 Escort I thought was so cool – especially when I found out he was paying the same insurance as me! Like me he eventually got his dream car a couple of years later, a 3500 SD1, but didn’t like it as much as the 2600. Jammy sod also had a Metro Turbo, a Monza GSE, and a Volvo 740 Turbo Intercooler within the space of a few years and all bought for peanuts. Oh, and his brother drove a British Racing Green Capri 2.8 Injection which he borrowed on occasions!

  24. @ Steve Bailey. I wouldn’t like to clean at set of 90’s! Ever thought of using a toothbrush on them ;-)?

  25. Richard16378 is right – Australia and NZ stopped getting the Escort from the Mk III onwards, though NZ did start again with the Mk VI. The reasoning was sound though, at least here in Australia. Escorts and Cortinas were based on the European models and built here with some local content. They were built with typical Ford Australia 70’s haphazardness though, and the cars did not seem to be very forgiving of this. As a result, they had a reputation for fragility, and warranty claims were high. They sold respectable, but not big, numbers.

    Ford had recently hooked up with Mazda, and had the opportunity to sell the new fwd Mazda 323. Ford made a few styling changes, and sold it throughout Asia, including Australia and NZ, as the Ford Laser. It was a huge success. Ford refitted it’s Homebush factory in Australia and improved it’s build quality standards out of sight. That, combined with a car that was easier to build than the Escort and had inherent Japanese reliability anyway, made it far more reliable than it’s predecessor, and kept warranty claims to an all time low. There was some controversy at the time though as to whether Mazda had copied the Mk III Ford Escort styling for it’s fwd 323. Anyway, the successful formula was repeated in 1983 with the Cortina replacement, the Ford Telstar – a rebadged fwd Mazda 626. Europe got the Sierra.

    Arguably, the Ford/Japanese cars were more suitable for the times and roads in Australia than the Ford Europe contenders. And as I said earlier, the sales figures seem to vindicate that.

    Interestingly, I remember reading a car magazine article in the 1990’s where a Mercedes Benz safety director said that MB would not allow their test drivers out in Mk III Escorts back in the day – apparently their real world crash safety was pretty appalling.

  26. The Euro Escort Mk. 3 was Ford’s first attempt of a ‘world car’. Like other attempts of a world car – like GM’s Cavalier and Chrysler’s Horizon, the USA made and NA market versions were quite different than non-NA ones. The NA Escort was an excellent seller. Base engine in the NA version was a 1.6 L made in either the UK or Germany. Ours probably had a bit more chrome, differently strucured to meet our crash standards, had much stricter emissions contols, higher comfort features, most were made with automatics here, automatic choke standard, air conditioning as a popular option (unless going up a steep hill with it on), probably slightly softer suspensions.
    USA production was split over 2 plants, most made in Edison, NJ, a plant about 20 miles from Port Newark/Elizabeth, NJ (NY Harbor) where most of the engines were imported through.

  27. “@Frankie the 75 nut. I wouldn’t like to clean at set of 90′s! Ever thought of using a toothbrush on them?”

    I used Wonder Wheels (which came with a little brush). They really were a nightmare to clean, the front ones especially as the brake dust from the rubbish pads back in the Nineties used to get into all the nooks and crannies. Ever since then, I’ve bought cars with smooth, simple to clean alloys!

  28. @ Steve Bailey.
    When you read posts like that it’s easy to understand the craze for painting alloys black! I also knew a guy who had a Beamer with the old BBS style cross spokes…he thought products like Wonder Wheels were too expensive so used to go over them with an old old electric toothbrush instead xD

  29. Has that XR3 in the picture above had the engine removed or are there load of paving slabs in the boot?

    A friend of mine, Spencer, used to do photography for the Ford marketing department in the mid to late 90s and one of their tricks was to put a load of bags of cement in the the front footwells and boot to lower the cars for the pics…

  30. The 1.6i Orion had the XR3i engine, but was easier on the insurance.

    My ’92 1.8i Orion had the same engine as it’s contemporary XR3i.

  31. I always liked the Orion 1.6i Ghia (also briefly available in a cheaper 1.6i GLS form in 1989). The Orion 1.6i was a similar price to the XR3i but was far higher specified, was far more subtle and actually handled better than the XR3i.

    I always thought that Ford should have make an Orion Ghia Turbo that looked the same as the 1.6i but with the uprated Escort Turbo suspension to make a real Q-car.

  32. I had a 1.3L as my first co car in Sep 1984 – dog turd brown with beige seat fabric. But I thought it was great! Five doors, stereo (well, the cassette was stereo the radio just MW/LW unless you had a GL or above), wheezy engine and just 4 gears, manual locks/windows/mirrors/steering…how did we manage?

    About 3 years later I moved on to a Belmont 1.6GL – almost unheard of luxury compared to the Ford (velour seats, 5 speed, sunroof, FM radio, central locking)…but still some way behind what we consider ‘good’ today.

    The XR3 and 3i remain attractive – and MG did something not dis-similar in kitting out the Maestro. Happy days.

  33. A good car in its early days, boasting fwd and proven engines and the usual Ford 57 varieties and low running costs, but by the facelift in 1986 becoming an outclassed car as rivals like the Rover 213/216, Vauxhall Astra/Belmont, Volkswagen Golf and Toyota Corolla were so much better to look at and drive. Also in the ultimate twist of fate, on launch in 1980 the Escort made its British Leyland Allegro rival look completely dated, but when the new Rover 200 was launched, this was light years ahead of the Escort.

  34. @39 Id didn’t launch with proven engines though. The CVH engines were brand new and more than a little rubbish.

  35. One of my colleagues in Lucas blew up an Escort engine on a Tuesday and an Orion engine on a Wednesday – IIRC the water pumps would seize up, then the timing belt snapped.
    The FWD Escorts seemed like a major advance on the RWD cars – especially with a diesel and 5 speeds – but they rotted at the bottom of the bulkhead, like ADO16’s. This was pretty terminal. A mate of mine put XR3i alloys, spoilers, and interior into a 1.1 (insurance problems) then had to scrap the car due to rust.
    I ran a Mk4 diesel van for a year – quite funny.

  36. My Dad had a Mk3 Escort 1.3L (to replace a knackered Viva HC), which started going rusty at about 12 months old. IIRC the XR3i/Ghia models were built in Germany and had much better build quality than the UK built cars (maybe a reason why Ford don’t build cars in the UK any more?). That and issues with the dealer meant he has never touched another Ford since. It was replaced with a Mk2 Cavalier 1.6L which was a cracking car.

  37. Top seller for its time, easy target for car thieves and any joy riders so most recieved retro fit rubbish alarms.
    Early forunner of those electrical problems that blight just about every make and model now with the electric dipstick and pad warning low light [normally just broken wires].
    The problematic VV carb lead many a person to convert to a manual choke and the rusting battery tray causing the front seat passenger to get wet feet was soon rectified by Ford with the addition of a plastic tray covering the top of the battery!
    If you were a poser or a yuppy in the 80s the XR3i Cabrio or hatch was the car for you!

  38. A mate of mine had one in work with me, he said it was fast and handled resonably well compared to todays cars.The only down side his rotted away within 4 years, thats not good for fords quality control…

  39. A mate of mine had one in work with me, he said it was fast and handled resonably well compared to todays cars.The only down side his rotted away within 4 years, thats not good for fords quality control…and he never bought another since and deffected to vw….

  40. Had a few of these just 1.6 Gl’s and also a 1.8 diesel in desperation betweeen my two Montego DLX’s .
    Good handling & performance but rough riding on the petrols.
    The diesel rolled like a barge but was softer sprung.
    When I moved over to Montego’s which were much much better built and capable it felt like I’d gone up in the world.!
    All of the Escorts rotted like mad …far far worse then my BL stuff.


  41. 3 or 4 years seems to be a typical Ford acceptable lifespan. Just enough to get through the fleets.

    Wouldn’t hold my breath to see them doing a 5/7 year warranty package.

  42. Yet was the Escort any more a ruster than the rubbish Fiat was churning out in the early 80s, which had the added joys of abysmal build quality and reliability that made the Escort look like a Rolls Royce? At least an Escort was cheap to fix and had better resale.
    We must also bear in mind this car was launched 31 years ago when six year anti rust guarantees barely existed( although rust protection was improving after the Lancia scare at the end of the seventies) and quality control and reliability was far worse than now for most manufacturers. Also by today’s standards, and I drive a Ford Fiesta Zetec which is precision built and as quiet as a 2 litre Cortina would be 30 years ago, the Escort is bound to seem crude and dated, but there again comparing a car from 1981 with today’s cars is like comparing the 1981 Escort with a 1951 Ford Popular.

  43. Talking of weighting down cars for photoshoots, IIRC the Princesses often had a bag of sand in the boot to reduce the nose down posture.

  44. Battery tray apart I dont recall Escort Mk3’s being particularly rust prone. In the 90s there where still plenty of W, X and Y reg ones running about. You dont see many today, but the newest one would now be 21 years old!

  45. My Dad had a fairly early 1.3 Ghia 3 door in red. A nice car and far more desirable than his standard company car allowance – a Cortina 1.6L!

    Interior was very nicely trimmed, with a quality, Germanic feel. Exterior looked good too!

    Ride was a bit hard, but I think ours had received one of the first suspension tweaks. Overall, a nice drive.

    Did anyone else experience the car’s ‘water on road equals cut out’ tendancy? If you drove ours through a couple of inches of standing water at even moderate speed you could almost guarantee the car would grind to a halt a few hundred yards later.

    When it was due for replacement, my Dad bought it off the company to have as a second car. At this point, I’d recently past my test and put it through a hedge trying to leave my mate way behind in his Dad’s Cavalier Mk 2! Oh dear!!

  46. “and a stupdly huge model variation, right from absolute poverty spec 1.1 & 1.3 in 3 dr, via reasonable estates, and Essextastic hot models & cabrios.”

    Ford seemed to get this right. The Poverty models still looked broadly similar on the outside to the Ghia models.

    Whereas say the Maestro and Metro, had different headlamps and different bumpers. Rather than just not paint the plastic bumpers they designed and fitted metal ones, then designed different headlamps, then got an ugly car. You’d think it was cheaper to do what Ford did and just standardise the parts across the range.

  47. Yes, they almost went out of their way trying to make base models look truely base. The base spec parts might themselves have been cheaper but, like you say, would standard parts not have been cheaper overall?

  48. The 1980 Escort came at the right time for Ford as the rwd Escort was becoming old fashioned and the Vauxhall Astra was getting rave reviews and winning over buyers. The Mark 3 Escort wasn’t perfect- the ride could be harsh on early cars and the 1.1 version was a slug- but it was a good looking car with a hatchback and fwd and was far more modern inside than the Mark 2. While I wasn’t a huge fan, the Mark 3 Escort must have done something right as it topped the sales charts for most of the eighties.

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