If you’re accustomed to a slick modern ST gearchange, don’t be alarmed by a stock XR3 - they were all imprecise, even when new. Add age and wear into the mix, and most by now feel decidedly sloppy.
Early cars featured the BC4 four-speed manual gearbox, while February 1982 brought the five-cog BC5; both were the same units found in other Mk3 Escorts, albeit with a lower final drive ratio (3.84:1) in the XR. The fourspeed is reckoned to have a slightly better feel, although the BC5 means improved economy and more relaxed cruising.
Many earlier cars were upgraded to five-speed many years ago but it wasn’t a straightforward swap, requiring different mounts, driveshafts and so on. Today, components for the BC4 aren’t as widely available, so bear it in mind if you’d like to return to standard.
The four-speed had a return spring, which is prone to wearing out or falling off, resulting in a floppy stick. Gear linkages on all ’boxes get tired, and their plastic selector rod bushes can cause issues. Even poor alignment after a rebuild often results in difficulty selecting gears.
Gearboxes don’t last forever, so worry if you hear funny noises, because it’s probably on its last legs; if it’s whining or rumbling, suspect tired shaft bearings. Crunching, especially on second or third gears, suggests the synchromesh rings are wearing out. Oil leaks should also ring alarm bells but, fortunately, reconditioned gearboxes aren’t too pricey.
It’s also worth checking for slip from the XR3’s little clutch, which doesn’t stand up to much abuse. With the car stationary, engage second or third gear and let your foot off the pedal; if the engine stalls, the clutch is okay.