Happy 50th, Ford Escort – David Richards drives five generations of affordable race and rally icons
As Ford’s evergreen family tearaway hits its half-century, 1981 World Rally Champion David Richards takes five generations of the sporting icon for a drive
The Escort doesn’t seem 50 years old. It’s also hard to believe that you haven’t been able to buy one for 20 years now. It still seems immovable from the motoring and social landscape even today. But why do we remember the Escort and not comparable rivals over the years such as the Vauxhall Viva, Nissan Sunny or Fiat Tipo?
The fact we’ve assembled so many sporting versions today, and driven them with David Richards, the man who navigated an RS1800 to 1981 World Rally Championship glory, says it all – this was a classless family saloon that was also a sports car; an economy runabout that turned ordinary motorists into committed petrolheads in the space of a single spirited drive on a country lane. It also managed a usually impossible balance of desirability, affordability, utility and style.
But unlike a Porsche 911 or a Mini, the name has been attached to some very diverse cars. Can a common thread be drawn between something that’s been rear-, front- and four-wheel driven, both a three-box saloon and two-volume hatchback, and both normally aspirated and turbocharged?
The man who’s rallied them, raced against them and presided over the rules of British motor sport is our ideal guide. Naturally, we start with the Twin Cam. ‘This takes me back to where I started, on road-rallies in North Wales in the late Sixties – I was 16 in 1968 when they came out,’ Richards reminisces as he paces around this unassuming creamy-white two-door before settling into the driver’s bucket seat. ‘There was a guy in a local motor club who had the first one any of us had seen – he was even nicknamed Bob Twincam because of it – and he seemed to win every road-rally he entered. It really was the car to have, and I can’t wait to drive one after all these years.’
The Twin Cam represents performance Fords at their subtlest, and thus the MKI Escort’s style in its purest form. Your eyes are drawn to the balance of the three-box shape; viewed in isolation, it has the delicate elegance of a ‘Pagoda’ Mercedes SL. Ford’s styling team avoided fast-dating details like chintzy grilles and heavily-chromed lamp surrounds, and the Coke-bottle hump in its flanks hints subtly at which end its power’s being sent to without resorting to Detroit-muscle aggression. If the four-door, estate and van versions didn’t exist, it’d pass muster as an MG BGT rival. With the reclined-back bucket seats and the Springalex steering wheel – which would look like it’d been nicked from a dragster in any other car – fitting perfectly into a straight-leg, bent-arm driving position, this Escort feels like it was born a sports car on the inside as well.
Richards has noticed something else, as he gestures back to this car’s optional second fuel tank. ‘Fords of this era have such a distinctive smell,’ he notes. ‘It’s a mixture of evaporating petrol and hot vinyl trim, it takes me right back.’ He turns the ignition key, and is surprised by the yowling anger of the Lotus engine as it bursts into high-revving life, refusing to settle.
‘It has a very short gearshift, and the engine’s very lumpy low-down, yet with not much torque,’ he says as we pull away,
the tachometer’s needle flying up just beyond 5000rpm with ease even when cruising at low speed – it won’t even pull away with anything less than 2000rpm. ‘It’s clearly an engine that needs to be revved to get the best out of it, and it delivers its power high up the range. In order to drive it you’ve got to get out of the modern mindset. We’ve become so used to very torquey engines, yet when you compare this to a period rally rival like a Saab 96 V4, it was the sterling car of its era.’ It was also handy on the racetrack – Frank Gardner won the 1968 British Saloon Car Championship in the brand new, previously undeveloped Twin Cam.
‘It’s such a basic, direct-feeling car to drive,’ Richards shouts over an engine scream that now fills the cabin as we reach 70mph, the needle now hanging around 5000rpm. He demonstrates this directness by positioning the car in the middle of the high-speed circuit’s fast-lane and twitching the wheel a few milimeters side-to-side, feeling the sudden, alert way in which the car responds. ‘There’s no delay or slack in the steering at all. It’s instinctive, you think it round bends. The engine is very special too, but you have to work harder to get the best out of that. It comes on cam at 6000rpm and you have to keep it there – but there’s a very heavy throttle pedal thanks to the double spring on the twin Webers.’
Richards slows to swing through a series of S-bends, lifting off, hitting the strong, progressive brakes and hearing the exhaust snort and pop. ‘That twin-cam note is lovely. I remember hearing it in the forests in the Sixties, then that combination of lumpy idle and the smell of burning mud on the exhaust at checkpoints. It was louder though – they used to run without air filters.’
The bright contrast of Daytona Yellow and chunky black stripes on this Mexico – named in tribute to Ford’s victory on the 1970 London-mexico World Cup Rally – demonstrates just how effectively the Escort managed the transition between Sixties and Seventies motoring cultures, from slightly prim expertise to extrovert mass-market individualism. It also marked the emergence of a new species of performance Ford, still genuinely quick in the right hands, yet affordable, sitting beneath the expensive RS models in the range. Performance gains were made by fitting a 1599cc Kent engine with a high-lift camshaft; and handling via stiffer, lower springs and dampers in a strengthened bodyshell rather than fragile race accessories from Cosworth. It set the template for Ford’s XRS and STS.
For David Richards, it also marks the point where his professional rally career took off. ‘I co-drove for Andy Dawson in the early Seventies, including the Mexico Championship, which we won,’ he recalls. ‘This was a very competitive road-rally series which attracted some big names – Russell Brookes cut his teeth in it, and Tony Pond was a competitor – but used very standard cars, sponsored by dealerships and taken from their showroom fleets. I mean literally – they’d borrow them for night rallies then give them back the next morning to be cleaned up and sold.’
Coming from the Twin Cam it all feels very familiar inside the Mexico, but it’s more approachable than that Lotus-engined sophisticate. The engine sounds bassier, more robust, and the gear lever is longer, easier to locate in a hurry, and with a slicker throw.
‘The steering’s heavier than it was in the Twin Cam – that’ll be the effect of the heavier, less sophisticated engine up front – but it’s no less direct,’ says Richards as we drive away, more decisively than in the overtly fragile Twin Cam. ‘The gearing feels much longer too,’ he says, as he works the car up beyond motorway speeds. Then at 70mph in fourth gear, he puts the clutch pedal down, grasps the gear lever, then laughs at his mistake.
‘It’s crying out – literally – for a fifth gear!’ he says. ‘It’s interesting in that it echoes the Twin Cam in the way it likes being revved – and I love that spit-back through the carburettors on part-throttle. While it doesn’t have the Twin Cam’s top-end grunt, it somehow feels more “together”. No one aspect outperforms another, the engine is easier to rein in, and this all makes it nimble.
‘Actually, the steering is better than the Twin Cam’s. Again, we forget how much effort was needed even of average drivers in unassisted cars, but it adds weight and feedback while still being just as accurate. Other cars have so much free play worked into their steering in the name of safety, but this is genuinely comparable to a sports car’s.
‘If you think that the first hot hatches followed cars like this, then you can see the way that it too followed an older generation of sports cars. When the Mexico was new, my road car was an MG Midget fitted with a Downton cylinder head, and it had a similar sense of responsiveness to this Mexico. It’s a perfect club car for the motor sport enthusiast.
‘It was the first of the truly affordable sporting Escorts. it wasn’t just cheap for a sports car, it was genuinely attainable’
‘It was the first of the truly affordable sporting Escorts too. The Twin Cam and the RS1600 that followed it were full of race-spec parts, but the Mexico wasn’t just cheap for a sports car, it was genuinely attainable.’ At £1150 in 1970 the Mexico was cheaper than a 1600 Capri, a car found in the UK’S top ten bestseller chart at the time, and pre-eu import tariffs meant it undercut most mid-range family saloons from the likes of Fiat and Renault.
As we draw to a halt, Richards seems fleetingly wistful as he gazes on the Mexico’s elegantly simple gauge pack. ‘Maybe this is how rallying should be?’ he reflects. ‘Just well-sorted road cars that anyone can afford. The problem then, of course, is you end up with homologation specials being built in order to win, which end up costing both customers and manufacturers dearly, so you’d have to find a way to stop that...’
But it’s got him thinking, because I sense him analysing the car in his role as Chairman of the MSA. ‘Perhaps it’s something we should look into.’
Speaking of homologation specials, the RS1800 represents the zenith of original Escort development. It follows the Twin Cam and RS1600 in the pantheon of Cosworth-engined Rally Sport Escorts developed through and for serious motor sport use. They’re the reason why, every time Ford unveils something vaguely sporty nowadays, internet forums explode with enthusiasts demanding an RS version.
And yet, ironically, RS Escorts only won the World Rally Championship twice, first in 1979 with Björn Waldegård and Hans Thorzelius, and again in 1981 with Ari Vatanen and David Richards. All rallying RS Fords that follow still bask in the glow from these trophies.
But Cosworth had nothing to do with the aspects of the car that Richards notices first. ‘Look! A radio! And a clock! We’ve evolved!’ he jokes. The German-designed interior of the squarer, bulkier, more nondescript British-devised MKII has moved on from the minimalist yet stylish approach of the MKI, with a leatheretteclad slab of instruments creating a sense of superficial luxury. Buyers expected as much in the Seventies, especially if they were spending V8 Rover money on a Ford Escort.
Any sense of civility is shattered when Richards turns the key, and the Cosworth BDA twin-cam explodes into life behind the bulkhead, seismic tremors pulsating through the entire car. ‘Straight away, it feels like the engine’s trying to get out!’ Richards says as we get underway; ‘But already it feels so much more modern, not just in terms of accommodation and the provision of a proper stereo, but also in the amount of torque available to pull away on. The precision of the steering is a constant theme, but you can sense an overall step-change in the level of engineering. In fact, the steering is even more precise than either of the Mkis. It’s a very serious performance car.’
As we reach 70mph, Richards changes into fourth gear and the car settles into a comfortable cruise unimaginable in its MKI Twin Cam ancestor. But the deep, angry buzz from the engine bay never lets up, and this brings memories of the 1981 World Rally Championship flooding back to him.
‘Our rally car was even louder because we ran without air filters, so Ari and I had to use an intercom system,’ he explains, voice raised over the induction roar. ‘But these were early days for electronics like that and they often failed, so I usually had to resort to hand-signals and shouting!
‘That said, this is very much a road car. By this point the regulations of Group 4 – the forerunner of Group B – meant that nearly everything could be modified. Our rally car had been lightened in every possible way, had a different gearbox, a limitedslip differential and put out 240bhp. But this is no pastiche – you can sense the roots of the rally machine in it, especially that distinctive Weber note under the bonnet.’
As Richards presses on around the high-speed route, he notices something odd. ‘It’s got a funny angle to its steering wheel. It’s totally flat and a bit like a truck’s. It’s not adjustable either. I remember how Ari used to drive it – he’s six-foot-two, and would really have to hunch over the wheel. I suppose you don’t have much choice with this car.
‘It really is a lovely engine to use,’ says Richards as we cannon through S-bends, the tail sliding ever so slightly. ‘It has the torque that the others are missing, but it’s not at the expense of top end. And it goes precisely where you point it.’ Unfortunately the brakes aren’t quite up to the job of reeling it all in. They’re progressive and full of feel like their predecessors, but lack power, resulting in a long stopping distance.
As we pull to a halt, Richards recalls his first encounter with his victorious RS1800. ‘It was on test at the Col de Turini in January 1981 with Hannu Mikkola,’ he says. ‘I’d had quite a heavy Christmas and wasn’t exactly in shape, and the engineers had had enough of being hurled around by Hannu so got me to take their test runs, assuming I’d be sick! But I held it all together. Not least because it’s just such a great-handling car.’
Clockwise from front: Mexico, RS2000, RS1600I, RS Cosworth, RS Turbo Series II, RS1800 and Twin Cam
Twin Cam wore Ford’s new Us-influenced corporate face – small clues distinguish it from lesser Escorts
Subtle badge tells you all that matters
The first fast Ford shared its engine with the Lotus Elan
David Richards plus zingy fourcylinder engine equals big grins
The Escort Mexico was so capable that it was rallied straight off the showroom floor – and often put back there afterwards...
Mexico brought practicality to sports car thrills Overhead-valve four-cylinder bristles with upgrades There’s no engineered-in straightahead deadzone here...
It makes a thunderous noise under load, but the RS1800 is a beautifully balanced, torquey and delicately responsive car too
‘Ours had 240bhp’ – spotting the rally-spec RS1800 differences
Price meant interior had to be refined
Each RS1800 BDA is unique, handbuilt by Terry Hoyle