Sports ver­sions of the MKI and MKII Es­cort are hot prop­erty — Donn An­der­son investigates which ones are best

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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.

Limited pro­duc­tion

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

Iconic rep­u­ta­tion

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.

Climb­ing prices

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.

Donn An­der­son with a some­times-roughrun­ning RS1600 Es­cort tour­ing the West Coun­try of Eng­land in 1973 An­der­son’s 1.3 GT Es­cort en route to the French Grand Prix at Rouen, 1968

MKI Es­cort RS1600S and Mex­i­cos are on a roll value-wise Rare 1970 Bri­tish ad­ver­tise­ment for the RS1600, which was, ini­tially, a slow seller

A MKII Es­cort Sport was used as an of­fi­cial car in the Mo­tog­ard in­ter­na­tional rally in New Zealand A 1976 New Zealand ad­ver­tise­ment for the lo­cally as­sem­bled MKII Es­cort Sport

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