Styling the icon
Designer Harris Mann was part of the team that created the Escort MKI. He recalls a turbulent, if creative, time at Dunton
‘The Escort was released a year before the Capri, but they were actually developed alongside each other’
The Ford Escort MKI was actually based on the Ha-generation Vauxhall Viva,’ reveals Harris Mann, ‘the boxy one with the outward-flanged bodyshell and spot-welding down the sides. Ford was always clever at saving money – even if it was just pence here and there – and had what it called the ‘Blue Book’, a bible of costings for every part of the car, based on the cost of the Viva.
‘Because of this, whenever someone in the design department came up with a part, feature or styling idea, its cost was checked against this book, and if it was more expensive than the equivalent part on the Viva, they’d have to find a way to get the cost down if it was to be adopted. Ironically, when the HB Viva came on sale, it turned out Vauxhall had decided to take it upmarket and priced it accordingly. This played straight into Ford’s hands because it realised it could price the Escort to undercut its closest competitor while still making a significant profit.
‘Stylistically the Escort followed the Capri. Although the Capri was released the year after the Escort, they were actually developed alongside each other, based on a Gil Spear-designed 1965 concept model that had been sent over from Ford’s American styling department to guide the corporate styling in a new direction. That’s where the dog-bone-shaped grille on both the Escort and Capri comes from. Things like the taillights were shared between the models in order to save money.
‘Styling Fords at this time was a bit of a convoluted process. The management would come over from the US to critique and make comments, but the basis of the car came about as a result of an internal competition at Dunton. The basic mechanical and interior package was decided upon, then four styling models were commissioned from various people and the Ford UK management ended up choosing Ron Bradshaw’s. He was put in charge of the development team.
‘Ron was good to work for. He’d come to Ford from the Rootes Group, and was amiable, not a pain in the arse and always open to new ideas rather than obsessively correcting people. Because of the way the styling department operated it’s hard to work out who really designed what, but I’d say the Escort MKI was primarily Ron’s work, refined by Charlie Thompson – who’d styled the Cortina MKI, he added the Coke-bottle curve – while I did various details including the front-end treatment. I actually reused an earlier profile sketch I did for the Escort when designing the Morris Marina a couple of years later.
‘The Escort came out alright, but I still think that without the sporty wide arches and bigger wheels from the competition department it looks a bit chubby. At the time I thought it wasn’t much different from other saloons in standard form. The Americans weren’t happy with the way the rear three-quarter windows tapered at the back and wanted to change the profile to make them bigger, but the design process had progressed too far by that point. I still notice that whenever I see one though!
‘The Escort was designed at an awkward time for Ford UK. It coincided with the creation of Ford Europe as a separate entity from Ford USA, and this meant Ford Germany was increasingly involved, with tonnes of styling models going back and forth across the North Sea. Eventually they split things with Germany doing interiors and the UK doing exteriors, although they had separate marketing departments. The first car designed under this regime was the Cortina MKIII; the next was the MKII Escort.
‘I left at this time – 1967 – to go to Longbridge. The mentality there was changing. They’d farmed a lot of work out to Farina and Michelotti in Italy and they wanted to bring it in-house, but their facilities were better and they recognised the work of individual stylists more readily. Ford by contrast had a more corporate, top-down culture.
‘I must confess, I’ve never actually driven an Escort!’
Throughout our day so far, after sampling the one-that-got-away Twin Cam, Richards has been gazing longingly over at Jason Wall’s Signal Orange RS2000. In this 16-percent drag-cutting droop-snoot form, it represents the last of the rear-drive Escort breed. But its 2.0-litre Pinto-engined mechanical package had been part of the range since 1973, the cheap ruggedness of the 110bhp American-designed engine in the strengthened AVO bodyshell effectively eclipsing the Mexico. That nameplate survived until 1978 as an entry-level Rs-shelled model most considered underpowered with its 1.6-litre 95bhp Pinto. But for Richards, the RS2000 – particularly in roll-caged form with Group 1-type performance tweaks, like this one – helped him to one of his favourite victories. ‘It reminds me of the car that Tony Pond and I used to win the 1975 Avon Tour of Britain,’ he explains. ‘It was a mixture of races and rally stages, with race versus rally crews, and the rallyists came out on top – we beat James Hunt, driving a V8 Chevrolet Camaro at the peak of his career.
‘The rally drivers always had the advantage, simply because it’s far easier to make up a 10-second time difference on a rally stage than it is on a circuit, but beating Hunt in a competition that included racetracks in the era when he became Formula One World Champion still feels very special.’
The car feels as though it’s picked up where the Mexico, rather than a more specialised RS, left off. There’s a painted-metal finish to the dashboard adding to a sense of sparseness, and the engine under the bonnet, although physically large within the bay, looks less special, just a big single-cam lump rather than exotic headgear adorned with purposeful badges.
We pull away rather jerkily because the clutch pedal bites quite high, the Pinto generating a deep, guttural booming noise. ‘Once it clears 3000rpm you can really feel the power arriving,’ says Richards as we hurtle out of a tight bend on Chobham’s handling route. ‘It’s funny – it’s clearly a lot less sophisticated than the RS1800, and yet it feels exactly the same in terms of handling. The chassis is lovely – it’s balanced like a proper competition car should be. The engine may not be so evolved or responsive to tuning, but it’s far more affordable and, in the context of a tarmac rally in Group 1 specification like those Avon Tour cars, far more than adequate. Even the sensations of the drive are effectively the same as the RS1800 – the steering is identical, as is the precise, short-travel gearchange.’
It’s only when pushed very hard in corners that the RS2000 reveals its minor shortcomings. The weight of the iron-block engine drags the nose wide, so you have to adjust your cornering line ever so slightly, lifting off and braking earlier. Interestingly, Ford removed the anti-roll bar for the RS2000, replacing it with a pair of radius arms, and this one wears slightly wider-thanusual 175/60 R13 tyres for extra grip. I get the impression that if the front end were made stiffer, the understeer would be far more pronounced. But Ford performed a careful juggling act to retain Rs1800-style handling.
‘The RS2000 is clearly a lot less sophisticated than the RS1800, and yet it feels exactly the same in terms of handling’
It’s typical of Ford’s cost-focused approach to engineering that’s resulted in a car that feels so comparable on the road to its more sophisticated sister, achieved through careful use of low-tech solutions rather than expensive and bespoke engineering. When it was new, this resulted in a car that cost £1000 less than an RS1800 – the same as a Leyland Princess – yet is only 5bhp and 1lb ft short of an RS1800’S quoted figures, and delivers its peak torque at a far more road-friendly 3500rpm.
‘Obviously the RS1800 was a homologation special, made to be modified so Ford could win the World Rally Championship, but you could forge just as effective a rallying career in an RS2000,’ Richards concludes. ‘It’s no less serious a competition car, and no different on the road.’ This is not only high praise indeed from a man who helped the RS1800 to its finest hour, it also demonstrates what great value the RS2000 is today. Whereas once it was two-thirds the price of the RS1800, as a classic that difference is down to just one third.
‘At 5000rpm with the racederived valvegear working, it really comes alive’
Everything changed for the Escort in 1981. Rear-drive gave way to front, saloon to hatchback, carburettors to electronic fuel injection, four speeds to five. And yet as David Richards settles into this RS1600I – another homologation special, this time for Group A touring cars – he finds it familiar. ‘There’s a sense of DNA here, a feeling of what I can only describe as “Fordness”,’ he says, rally navigator’s perspective quickly switching to that of car firm boss. ‘It’s in the driving position, the general layout of the controls, the shape of the instrument binnacle, even the smell and texture of the materials – it’s important for a firm to do this. It helps engender a sense of continuity among the customers while moving things on.
‘Speaking of which, they’ve finally fitted an adjustable steering column!’ He grasps the lever beneath the wheel. The wheel doesn’t move, but there’s a clunk behind the bulkhead and the bonnet springs open. Richards rocks back in his seat in a fit of laughter.
But Ford had to be careful when releasing the MKIII Escort, especially in sporting form. Although the Volkswagen Golf GTI existed in 1981, it was largely in a class of its own. Affordable sports cars were coupés and small rear-drive saloons. Hatchback bodyshells were inherently less rigid too. Ford, in its marketleading sales-chart position, couldn’t afford to upset anyone.
As a result, the MKIII was part revolution, part reassurance exercise. Park this design by Uwe Bahnsen alongside the shovel-nosed RS2000 and it looks more like a gentle update than a rulebook-shredder. A lot of it has to do with a body style dubbed ‘slatchback’ by the press. Ford said the bustle tail was an aerodynamic device to reduce drag, but it also helped ease conservative-minded saloon buyers into a new two-box world.
With fuel injection and a much plusher interior than its predecessors, it purrs off the line, the notoriously ‘Coarse, Vibratory and Harsh’ CVH (Compound-valve Hemi) humming subdued through its midrange. ‘It feels so much more modern than the RS2000, especially in terms of refinement,’ Richards notes. ‘It accelerates so smoothly, then at 5000rpm with the race-derived valvegear working, it really comes alive.’
But then we enter a complex of S-bends, and Richards’ initial enthusiasm for the RS1600I starts to evaporate. ‘Well, you can tell it’s front-wheel drive can’t you!’ He declares. ‘The steering has a horrible dead spot in the middle, designed for cruising on motorways like a Mercedes. It’s lost that immediacy that they all had from Twin Cam to RS2000, especially in the transition from left- to right-hand turns. You can tell it’s having to deal with something else as well as direction.
‘At least this time they fitted a fifth gear,’ he says, although the upshift comes with a grimace. ‘It feels very vague though.’ In the name of comfort, Ford put several inches of rubber between the gearknob and the lever’s metal – something I found out while modifying the shift in a Ford-based kit car I used to own. ‘I’m afraid this, combined with the steering, comprehensively lets it down,’ says Richards, unimpressed. ‘But it’s an interesting experience, and they clearly worked wonders with the CVH engine. I have to remind myself that this was built as a homologation special. All these things I don’t like – the steering rack, the gearshift – they would all have been changed for racing.’
Once he’s out of the car, wandering round it, taking in the race-inspired parts including the very first appearance of Ford’s infamous biplane wing in its subtlest form, Richards remembers something that sets the RS1600I in a more significant context.
‘When I was on the TOCA board, devising the Super Touring rules, the RS1600I played an important role in framing them because it proved that a normally aspirated sub-2.0-litre frontwheel drive saloon could make for a convincing racer – an extreme homologation special like the Sierra RS500 wasn’t required.’
It certainly punched far above its weight on track during its brief career, with Richard Longman’s iconic Datapost-liveried RS1600I blitzing the 1984 British Saloon Car Championship, coming second overall, beating big V-engined Group A heavyweights. But this unassuming little groundbreaker was soon overshadowed in the power-crazed Eighties, when Ford decided to send the Escort chasing after its fire-breathing big-brother Sierra…
While the Sierra Cosworth replaced the superannuated Capri on touring-car grids and went on to completely dominate the BTCC’S Class A sub-category, the RS1600I was succeeded by the Escort RS Turbo. This fought it out in the lower powered but arguably more competitive Class B category, alongside a surging tidal wave of constant development from other manufacturers, including the Alfa Romeo 75, Renault 5 GT Turbo, Mercedes-benz 190E 2.3-16, and its greatest nemesis, the BMW M3, run in the BTCC by David Richards’ Prodrive team.
‘I’m very intrigued to drive this car because if I’m honest I didn’t pay it much attention at the time – I didn’t have the chance because we were more preoccupied with winning – but it’ll still be interesting to see what the opposition was up to,’ says Richards.
I’m looking forward to the opportunity too. When me and my friends were young petrolheads, thrashing the valvegear off our parents’ shopping cars, a down-at-heel Escort RS Turbo Series 2 was the cheapest properly fast car you could buy. Two friends bought them, one losing his licence attempting a handbrake turn on the local high street. Bragging about wrestling violent torquesteer was the Nineties equivalent of Seventies-men powersliding their RS2000S into the gravel car park of the Malt Shovels.
Inside it’s far more civilised than even the RS1600I, with the quiet fizz of the fuel injection muffled further by soft velour and squidgy soft-touch plastic. ‘This is very refined, whereas raucousness was a continuous theme of the rear-drive cars,’ notes Richards as he steers it smoothly away.
‘It’s hard to believe that the engine is just a turbocharged 1.6-litre CVH – there’s lots of torque, and you can tell it’s got a small turbocharger because there’s very little lag – the urgency is present all the way through the rev range.’
It seems daft to compare the RS Turbo to a contemporary twice the price that sent its drive to the opposite end of the chassis, but RS Fords have always been giant-killers and in the context of the Eighties BTCC this raises a question – is this Ford’s E30 M3?
Its performance is certainly comparable – it’s a similar size to the BMW, firmly-bolstered inside, and with an easily-attainable top speed north of 120mph. But the M3 is famous for having wonderfully direct and communicative steering.
‘The steering is very good,’ Richards reports, surprised after the RS1600I experience. ‘It loads up a bit mid-corner, but it’s very precise. It’d handle a long tarmac stage in Corsica well, although without power assistance you’d know about it afterwards.’
And the on-boost torque steer? I tackle a series of hairpins with it, accelerating hard away from the apex. As the revs climb above 2500rpm and the Garrett TO3 starts boosting, if the wheel’s not completely straight you can feel a sudden kick through the wheelrim, as though the car is threatening understeer. But hold on tight, force your line, and the chassis ultimately obeys.
‘I’m very intrigued to drive this car – it’ll be interesting to see what the opposition to our E30 M3 was up to at the time’
It’s the hot-hatch equivalent of flicking a Capri sideways, I suppose, but what really helps is the design of the RS Turbo’s steering wheel. Nowadays for some reason every car on sale seems to have a T-shaped wheel boss, but in the Eighties the trend for this chevron-shape meant you could wrap your fists around the quarter-to-three position. It’s ideal for controlling the RS Turbo’s power delivery, and you physically punch the car through bends. The gearshift is better too – although the location of fifth is still vague, you can feel the steel lever running all the way to the top of its insulating rubber, aiding a more positive shift action. It’s part of an interior that looks a bit dull and low-rent by today’s standards, but is actually extremely comfortable and superbly ergonomic.
‘I should have given this car far more credit than I did in the Eighties,’ says Richards. ‘It’s well ahead of its time both in terms of comfort and the ease with which it gathers speed – I’d happily drive one every day. It’s great!’
If it weren’t for the RS Cosworth, the Escort story might have ended in ignominy. The 1990 MKV saw Ford get complacent. While it might have boasted more interior space within its 2525mm wheelbase, Ford did away with the independent rear suspension that made the MKIII and IV so nimble. Leaden handling combined with ageing CVH engines and a dull interior made it only as good as the bland Toyota Corolla. Vauxhall’s Astra out handled it and boasted more sophisticated engines, whilst Rover’s ‘R8’ 200-series brought affordable ego-massaging luxury to the lower middle class. For the first time in its life, the Escort was no longer Ford’s biggest British seller.
But motor sport came to its rescue. Ford’s rally car development meant the Cosworth YB engine could be combined with the Sierra Xr4x4’s four-wheel-drive system in a lighterweight, shorter-wheelbase platform. There was very little Escort left – mechanically it was all Cosworth and even the body needed completely redesigning by Stephen Harper in order for it all to fit. Although it was long overdue and its international impact was correspondingly limited, Malcolm Wilson still made it a hero, winning the 1994 British Rally Championship in Michelin Pilot Sport-liveried style.
‘The RS Cosworth was coming to the end of its World Rally Championship career just as we were developing the Subaru Impreza at Prodrive,’ says Richards. ‘However, around about that time I borrowed one from Ford product development chief Richard Parry-jones for a weekend, and it was terrific.
‘It’s a serious bit of kit – you know that as soon as you see that wing in the rear-view mirror!’ Richards comments as he straps himself into the heavily bolstered drivers’ seat, ‘however it’s also interesting to note how far removed even a Focus MKI is. It’s not actually that much bigger than some of the rear-drive Escorts.’
The engine emits an energetic fizz, rising stridently with the car’s pace. There’s a great sense of familiarity about the driving position – the steering column, finally, is adjustable – which inspires confidence to push the Cosworth hard. Richards has only been in the car a few minutes and yet we’re already doing 100mph. A broad smile breaks across his face.
‘Wow,’ he says, ‘The power comes in at 4000rpm and it feels relentless.’ Impressive for a man who arrived at the circuit today in an Aston Martin DB11. ‘And yet,’ he jinks the steering to emphasise his point, ‘it’s managed to regain that same sharpness to its steering that the rear-wheel drive cars had, despite sending some of its drive to the front and being turbocharged. In fact, if you overlook the noise it doesn’t feel turbocharged in its power delivery at all. There’s no kick in the steering, and the gearbox has a far more positive feel than the rubbery shift in the RS1600I.’
He edges the Cosworth to the higher edges of the high-speed circuit and buries the throttle. ‘Oh! There’s so much power at the top end!’ he says as we approach the same 5000rpm where the original Twin Cam started to wake up. ‘This really is the equal of so many far more modern performance cars – the power, the brakes, the steering, and so much grunt! I can feel the influence of Richard Parry-jones all over this car.’
I didn’t expect the man who made a world-beater of the Escort’s arch-rival, the Subaru Impreza, to be so impressed with this car, so I dare to ask him whether it’s better than the WRX. ‘I’m not going to admit that!’ he laughs. ‘But even in its twilight years the Escort stood up well to its newer rivals, both on the road and in rallying.’
David Richards paces slowly along the line of Escorts, arranged by their owners in chronological order for his final verdict. Although the styling shows a gentle evolution uncorrupted by excessive safety regulation, there are two predominant themes here: rearand front-wheel drive, ultimately combined in the RS Cosworth, which feels like a greatest-hits compilation of all its predecessors.
The car that surprised Richards the most is the RS Turbo. ‘I suspected it would pale in comparison to its Bavarian rival, but it was far more polished, sophisticated and well-balanced than I predicted.’ That makes it look like an absolute bargain when compared to its stablemates – it’s also the cheapest car here.
But then he turns around and walks back down the line, stopping at the yellow Mexico. ‘For me, the rawness of the reardrive cars makes them unique. The lack of torque and heavy steering are features, not faults – the driver has to master them. The Mexico, more than any of the others, sums up what a sporting Escort should be. It drives just like a Twin Cam and could be made as fast as an RS2000. But crucially it’s also simple, reliable, affordable and accessible – as vital to an Escort as its performance.’
New face brought a much-reduced drag co-efficient Interior was designed by Ford of Germany Pinto engine has competition modifications
The droop-snooted Escort cost a useful £1000 less than its predecessor
The bustle tail helped traditional saloon buyers take a half-step towards the hatchback revolution
Few unmolested Rs1600is survive Richards picks out the steering as an RS1600I weak point CVH engine is unrefined but very responsive to tuning
1.6-litre turbo fourcylinder is boosty but manageable Hold on tight and you can out-muscle the torque steer A whale-tail in waiting... There was a notable step up in refinement from MKIII (above) to MKIV
Twin Cam steering, RS Turbo torque, the modify-me invitations of the RS1800 and RS1600I taken to their logical conclusions – the RS Cosworth was pure Escort excellence
Richards is stirred by the Cossie’s driving experience – and he dailies a V12 Aston
Richards evaluates the later Escorts from a rival’s persepctive
Later Cossies had a smaller, more responsive turbo, but lost some drama