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

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Words SAM DAW­SON

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.’

Pho­tog­ra­phy ALEX TAPLEY & ADAM SHORROCK

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

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