THE ICONIC ESCORTS THAT TOOK ON THE WORLD
Sports versions of the MKI and MKII Escort are hot property — Donn Anderson investigates which ones are best
Defining ‘character’ is something akin to guessing the measurement of a length of string, but most agree that the MKI Ford Escort is more distinctive than the somewhat bland, flat-side-looking MKII version that followed. Either way, both are today regarded as great Fords, especially the sporting versions that were immortalized in racing and rallying.
There is no doubt that the original Escort was a huge improvement over the outgoing Anglia, despite the mechanical carry-over from the older car, and, like a good wine, the dog-bone front end and nicely proportioned profile and rear styling have simply matured and improved over time. The unique-looking MKI has never been copied.
Living in Britain in the late ’60s and for some of the ’70s gave me access to most of the sports versions of the Escort through the kind cooperation of Ford, with the multinational company running a huge fleet of demonstrator vehicles for the media. I was initially exposed to the 1.1- and 1.3-litre entry-level versions when the Escort first launched in 1968, and, later that year, Ford provided a 1.3 GT model for me to drive from London to the French Grand Prix in Rouen.
My first experience with a sporting Escort was dampened by electrical problems in France. The GT came with a comprehensive six-pack instrument panel, including oilpressure and battery-condition gauges, but, when the latter registered dangerously low and the generator light flashed intermittently, it was time to visit the Ford dealer in Rouen. My limited school French proved useless, but, eventually, the trouble was traced to a faulty regulator, and we were soon on our way to see the Formula 1 cars in action.
ride quality over a variety of roads in southern England, although, on bad bumps, the car hopped and skipped about under power. Standard MKI Escorts had drum brakes, but front discs were added to the Twin Cam and RS models.
Late in 1969, Henry Ford II gave his approval for the legendary Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO) facility that would build the RS models. They were limited-production cars using specially strengthened two-door bodyshells fitted with the 1600cc BDA engine, a 16-valver with the cams driven by a toothed rubber belt instead of a chain as in the Lotus Twin Cam. The AVO Escorts also boasted slightly flared front guards, tougher chassis rails, strengthened flitch plates, and toughened front suspension strut-top mounting plates. Rear radius rods were added, along with a stone deflector plate, heavy-duty front struts, beefed-up spring rates, and competition shock absorbers. Even the transmission was strengthened, with a threerail-shift close-ratio heavy-duty gearbox to a heavy-duty rear axle with uprated half shafts. The 5.5Jx13-inch safety-ledge wheels were shod with 165x13 radial-ply tyres.
More than two million MKI Escorts were made during the car’s seven-year model life, but Ford built just 1149 RS1600S compared with 10 times that of the less-sophisticated 64kw (86bhp) overhead-valve Kent-engined Mexico that was the second car from AVO. Named after the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally, at which 1850cc overheadvalve RS Escorts took five of the first eight places, including overall winner, the Mexico was the most popular of the MKI highperformance Escorts. In MKII form, the Mexico was given a 1.6 Pinto engine instead of the older Kent powertrain.
Ford soon realized the commercial success of the double-overhead-camshaft (DOHC) RS models, and an RS2000 MKI Escort arrived, using the single-overhead-cam Cortina/capri motor producing 110bhp (82kw). A MKII RS2000 retained the same power unit, while the more serious sports MKII was the RS1800, using a larger-capacity version of the DOHC RS 1600 motor. The only power-output figures that were given for the RS1800 were, strangely enough, the same as for the RS1600.
When economies were booming and new cars were in short supply prior to the first oil shock of 1973, the New Zealand Government
In 1976, the Escort was the second most popular new car in New Zealand, behind the Cortina, with its iconic reputation was built on remarkable sporting achievements. Jim Richards produced some striking on-track performances in the Jim Carney Escort TC during the 1970 season, while Paul Fahey’s Escort FVA was victorious in the New Zealand Saloon Car Championship the following year. Roy Harrington won the 2.0-litre saloon-car series with his Escort in 1982 and 1983, and Jack Nazer was also a strong runner in his MKI.
Escort results were even more spectacular in rallying, with the formidable RS1800 winning the New Zealand Rally Championship six years in a row, from 1978 to 1983, with drivers Blair Robson, Paul Adams, Jim Donald (twice), Tony Teasdale, and Malcolm Stewart. In 1973, Hannu Mikkola took his works RS1600 to victory in New Zealand’s International Heatway Rally. RS1800 Escorts would win the same event another four times — with Mike Marshall in 1975, Russell Brookes in 1978, Mikkola again in 1979, and Donald in 1981. The Escort’s worldwide successes in motor sport were also spectacular. MKI and MKII Escorts remain popular in historic and club competition today.
Those early Escorts were great to watch and huge fun to drive, especially on loose surfaces. Rally experts reckoned this car was not only exhilarating but also that it produced a naturally easy style of driving. The brilliant Roger Clark once said, “Any fool can drive an Escort quickly, but it takes a special kind of fool to drive it really quickly.” And the 1835cc BDA engine in competition tune would rev to 10,000rpm, while rival twin-cams were out of breath at 8000rpm. Simplicity was one key to the car’s rallying success. On a RAC rally, mechanics changed an Escort gearbox in 11 minutes.
While its front-driven rivals were complex, the Escort’s in-line engine, feeding power through the four-speed gearbox to the rear axle, eased maintenance, and the good weight distribution, with 54 per cent over the front wheels, was a bonus to handling. Driven hard on a smooth track, the Escort was capable of being throttle steered in a four-wheel drift with the inside rear wheel remaining planted. If you lifted off the throttle in the same conditions, however, the car would be prone to strong oversteer. Competition versions had radius arms to control the rear axle, while springs and dampers were uprated for RS models. The rear wheels were quick to lose traction in the wet, and gusty crosswinds would blow the car around.
Given the strong local sales, it’s a wonder there are not more early Escorts on our roads and on offer. Like many other cars of the era, rust and poorly repaired accident damage can be problems. Rust traps include the strut tops on the inner front wings and the bulkhead, chassis legs, and floorpans. Prices have raced upwards in recent years, especially for any Escort with a competition heritage, which can be worth more than $100K in the UK. Mkis generally fetch more than MKII models. As always, buyers should be wary of fake Twin Cam and RS models, which should have the strengthened Type 49 bodyshell.
At launch, the locally assembled 1.1 Escort two-door retailed for a modest $1925, and the 1.3 was $2111. Four-door versions arrived in November 1973, by which time their respective prices were $2808 and $3045. The first of the MKII Ghia models in July 1975 cost $4275, and, with heavy inflation, the last 1.6 Ghia autos in February 1981 were $11,591. The 1.3 Sport was first assembled here in 1974 but was discontinued in 1977 in favour of the 1.6 Sport, which was only $400 dearer at $6460. When the larger-engined Sport was discontinued in 1981, the retail price had increased to $9975.
In June this year, at the Classic Ford Show in the UK, the Escort was named Britain’s favourite classic Ford of all time. The Escort was designed to be small, relatively cheap family transport yet became an all-conquering hero and one of the most successful sporting cars ever. After such an impact, little wonder the 4045-millimetrelong sedan is still one of the most loved and admired British cars of all time.