Ford Escort at 50: the rise and fall of Britain’s best-seller

Happy 50th anniversary, Ford Escort

Fifty years ago, Ford unveiled one of the most significant and popular cars ever to grace our streets. The Ford Escort became part of the furniture in the UK, providing transport to company car drivers, the emergency services, families and businesses across the land.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this much-loved car, we take a brief look back at the life and times of the Ford Escort in the UK.

Ford Anglia

Ford Anglia

Since 1959, the Ford Anglia had delivered cheap and reliable transport to the young families of Britain, not to mention a touch of flair, courtesy of the American styling. “One of the most reliable and rugged cars ever produced for the family motorist, and more than a million Anglia owners can testify to its lively performance and its sensible running costs,” claimed Ford in its marketing material.

1968: Ford Escort Mk1

1968: Ford Escort Mk1

The Ford Anglia was a tough act to follow. Styling-wise, Ford played it safe, ditching the reverse rake rear window, covered headlights and fin-like rear wings in favour of something more conservative, albeit with a classic ‘Coke bottle’ design. “The small car that isn’t,” said Ford, a reference to the clever interior packaging and compact dimensions. Four versions were available at launch: De Luxe, Super, Super 1300cc and GT.

Ford Escort Twin Cam

Ford Escort Twin Cam

It wasn’t long before the Escort was displaying its performance credentials. Development of the Escort Twin Cam began in 1967, with prototypes sent to Bagshot in Surrey for rough road testing. It made its competitive debut at Croft in February 1968, with Roger Clark, Tony Chappell and Barry Lee piloting the Twin Cam to four race wins. This was one of the era’s greatest Q-cars, featuring a modified Lotus engine and a strengthened body shell, and it spawned countless fast Escorts of the future.

Call the police!

Call the police!

Away from the track, the boys in blue were big fans of the blue collar hero. Ford announced a deal to supply the police with 200 Escort panda cars, with PC Loveless commenting: “I was impressed with the size and space for the occasional passengers.” This photograph shows Constable MacLean of the Inverness Constabulary in a 1975 Escort Mk1.

Was it any good?

Was it any good?

It was a huge success, but what did contemporary road testers think of the Ford Escort? “The new Escort is undoubtedly a big step forward from the Anglia for Ford,” said Autocar. “They have allocated their costs in a rational way to produce a car which offers good value and a much safer performance than its predecessor.” The reviewer also expressed his disappointment over the styling, but predicted that it would become “a strong force to reckon with”. How right he was.

The first Escort four-door

The first Escort four-door

The first four-door Ford Escort arrived in 1969, joining the estate and van in offering more practicality to the small car buyer. The four-door was available in De Luxe, Super and GT trim levels, with Ford promoting the ‘more-doors’ Escort with the help of a story involving Grandma, a front door and a trip to Torquay. It’s probably best you don’t ask.

Ford Escort RS1600

Ford Escort RS1600

Meanwhile, the Ford Escort was making a name for itself in motorsport. By 1970, it had won the British, German, Belgian and South African saloon car championships, and the European Rally Manufacturers’ championship two years running. At the heart of the success was the Cosworth BDA 16-valve engine, which made its way into the Escort RS1600, a direct replacement for the Twin Cam. Ford established a network of Rallye Sport dealers, each one containing two mechanics trained to service, tune and repair the RS1600.

Ford Escort Mexico

Ford Escort Mexico

By the end of the year, there were 66 Ford Rallye Sport dealers in the UK, where customers could buy the Escort Mexico. This new model used the same body shell as the Twin Cam and RS1600, with powered sourced from a 1,599cc Cortina GT engine. Once again, the Mexico was developed by the Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO) facility at South Ockendon, with the name chosen to commemorate the Escort’s success on the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally.

Ford Escort Sport

Ford Escort Sport

The Escort Sport was unveiled just before the 1971 Earls Court Motor Show, with Ford keen to bring a low-cost sporting Escort to market. At the time, the RS1600 cost just shy of £1,500, the Mexico a little under £1,200, and the GT just over £1,000. The Escort Sport weighed in at just £940, offering the look of a Mexico or RS1600, but with a 1300 GT engine and a cheaper interior.

Ford Escort RS2000

Ford Escort RS2000

In 1973, Ford upped the ante once again, when it launched the Escort RS2000. This new model was powered by a 2.0-litre overhead-cam Pinto engine and could sprint to 60mph in 9.0 seconds. Ford hinted that this was to be the last performance Escort before the Mk1 made way for the Mk2, and it was certainly a fitting way to say farewell.

Ford Escort Mk2

Ford Escort Mk2

The second-generation Ford Escort arrived in 1975 and offered many improvements over the outgoing model. The classic ‘Coke bottle’ styling had gone, but the new Escort was more refined and more economical, despite being about the same size and weight as its predecessor. Once again, a wide range of engine, trim and body shell options were available, including the van (pictured).

Ford Escort RS1800

Ford Escort RS1800

Ford wasted no time in launching a performance model, with the RS1800 built primarily to go racing. This short-lived homologation special was produced in small numbers, with some built using Escort Sport shells, while later cars used RS Mexico bodies. All road-going versions were painted white, with the exception of a couple of press and show cars. Its competition sibling was almost without peer, winning countless trophies and events.

Ford Escort RS Mexico

Ford Escort RS Mexico

With Roger Clark and Timo Makinen winning just about every major rally on the calendar, interest in performance Escorts was at an all-time high. The road-going version of the RS1800 was joined by two new RS models, including this: the Mexico. This German-built performance saloon was powered by a 1.6-litre engine and used stiffened suspension to provide exceptional handling.

Ford Escort RS2000

Ford Escort RS2000

Thanks to its polyurethane nose, the RS2000 is arguably the most iconic of all the performance Mk2 Escorts, but this car is about so much more than a fancy nose job. Powered by a 2.0-litre Pinto engine, the RS2000 could boast a 108mph top speed and a 0-62mph time of just 8.5 seconds.

Ford Escort Mk2

Ford Escort Mk2

Like the Mk1, the Escort Mk2 offered something for everyone, from base-spec models and vans, to lavish Ghia trim levels (pictured), which replaced the old E. By 1979, Ford was already testing the new Mk3 – codenamed ‘Erika’ – but it still had time to launch the 1.6L, effectively a four-door 1600 Sport in basic L trim.

Ford Escort Mk3

Ford Escort Mk3

To the purists, the Mk3 represented the beginning of the end for the Ford Escort. Gone was the rear-wheel drive, saloon car formula, replaced by a new front-wheel drive, hatchback design. To Ford’s credit, it was the right car at the right time, with the Escort able to hold its own against the might of the Volkswagen Golf and other front-wheel drive rivals.

Ford Escort XR3 and XR3i

Ford Escort XR3 and XR3i

Once again, Ford was quick off the mark when it came to launching a sporting variant, this time in the form of the XR3 and the later fuel-injected XR3i. While they couldn’t hold a candle to the Golf GTI and 205 GTi in terms of dynamics, the XR became the badge of choice for a legion of fast Ford fans. As a result, the Escort XR3/XR3i are as synonymous with the 1980s as shoulder pads and Duran Duran.

Ford Escort RS1600i

Ford Escort RS1600i

The RS1600i was the first front-wheel drive Escort to be developed for motorsport and was produced in limited numbers to comply with homologation regulations. The German-built RS was powered by a tuned version of the 1.6-litre engine found in the XR3i and featured heavily revised suspension, revised gear ratios, front and rear spoilers, new alloy wheels, low profile tyres and Recaro seats. It was, if you like, the real deal.

Ford Escort Cabriolet

Ford Escort Cabriolet

If the RS1600i was about ‘go’, the Escort Cabriolet of 1984 was more about ‘show’. It was first unveiled as a concept at the 1981 Frankfurt Motor Show, with German coachbuilders Karmann tasked with building the four-seat cabriolet. Three versions were available at launch: two based on the GL and an XR3i.

Ford Escort RS Turbo S1

Ford Escort RS Turbo S1

In 1985, you’d have been forgiven for missing the launch of the Escort RS Turbo, which came in the midst of a new product frenzy, including the Granada and RS200 Group B rally car. But this was a landmark vehicle for Ford, being its first European turbocharged production car, built for Group A homologation purposes. It meant that the Escort could finally go head-to-head with the hot hatch heavyweights, and not even a £10,000 could deter buyers.

Ford Escort RS Turbo S2

Ford Escort RS Turbo S2

The Escort RS Turbo S2 was a less specialised affair, albeit with a very similar price tag. Free of homologation restrictions, Ford built the second coming of the RS Turbo in huge numbers and a wider variety of colours – the S1 was an all-white affair. In many ways, this was the better car – more rounded and more usable – but rarity and a motorsport pedigree keeps the S1 at the top of enthusiasts’ wish lists.

Ford Escort Mk4

Ford Escort Mk4

By now, the Escort Mk3 had morphed into the Mk4, which on the face of it appeared to be little more than a re-skin of the old model. There were changes under the skin, including a new 1.4-litre petrol engine, which replaced the old 1.3-litre unit ahead of forthcoming exhaust emissions legislation. In 1986, Ford also unveiled its new mechanical ABS system for front-wheel drive cars, which was available as an option on the Escort.

Ford Escort Mk5

Ford Escort Mk5

The Escort Mk5 – or Mk4, if you class the Mk3 facelift as the Mk3.5 – arrived in 1990 and was, with a couple of notable exceptions, the beginning of the end for the Escort. By now it was starting to resemble an end-of-the-pier entertainer, much-loved by the populus, but with its best years behind it. Being polite, it was lacklustre, but it remained a big seller in the UK.

Ford Escort RS2000

Ford Escort RS2000

Within two years, Ford had facelifted the Mk5 and began working on a series of tweaks designed to improve the much-maligned Escort. The RS2000 – seen here in facelifted four-wheel drive guise – was initially powered by a modified Sierra engine and was, frankly, not very good.

Ford Escort XR3i

Ford Escort XR3i

Then there was the Escort XR3i, seen here once again in facelift guise. With bland styling and an inadequate chassis, it lacked the sparkle of its forebears, and the Escort was in danger of dying out with little more than a whimper…

Ford Escort RS Cosworth

Ford Escort RS Cosworth

But then, something truly remarkable happened: Ford unleashed a legend. Oh, sure, it actually used a shortened version of the Sierra RS Cosworth platform, but let’s not allow small details to get in the way. Under the bonnet you’ll find a 230hp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine driving all four wheels, with two trim levels available: Club and Lux. A modern classic and a rare highlight for the latter-day Escorts.

Ford Escort Mk6 and Mk7

Ford Escort Mk6 and Mk7

The Ford Escort soldiered on until the turn of the millennium, by which time had it had been replaced by the Focus. But it’s testament to the Escort’s enduring popularity – not to mention its appeal to fleet buyers – that it remained in production at Halewood for two years after the Focus launch. By the time of its demise, Ford had improved the Escort to such an extent that the Flight and Finesse models make for cracking secondhand buys.

Ford Focus

Ford Focus

But it was too little too late. The Focus was such a monumental leap forward, it made the Escort look so last century. From the New Edge styling to the way it drove, the Mk1 Focus was a game-changing car for the family hatchback segment. The Escort just looked and felt old.

Ford Escort

Ford Escort

And yet, with 4.1 million units sold, the Ford Escort is worthy of national treasure status in the UK. From trips to the seaside, to lunch stops at the Little Chef, through to success on the world rally stage, there was an Escort for everyone. Happy 50th anniversary to a family favourite.

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By | 2018-02-07T12:34:44+00:00 January 30th, 2018|0 Comments

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