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Ford struck the balance between affordability and performance more successfully than most manufacturers with the humble Escort – and with such consistency, as proved by collector Gary Ball’s matching Fast Ford set.
Across five generations, the compact Blue Oval has been allt hings to all men; on one hand cheap and cheerful transport for the masses, on the other something truly exciting, with competition performance levels at a price that was within reach of the average enthusiast.
Once upon a time, at least. Tell anyone under 30 that these Fords were once affordable and you’ll likely get the same glassy-eyed look usually reserved for stories of the good old days, of getting a shiny penny and a fresh orange for Christmas, of playing with a hoop and a stick (and being grateful for the opportunity), or of walking 10 miles through a snowstorm to school wearing short trousers and a smile.
These days, the cheap performance Escort is a fairy story.
It wasn’t always the case. After all, Ford built its reputation on mobilising society. The firm pioneered bringing the automobile, once the preserve of the wealthy, into the hands of an emerging middle class, producing its Model T in such numbers that it changed the fabric of the United States of America – and by proxy the world – for ever.
Britain wasn’t far behind, with knock-down kits of the Tin Lizzie being assembled in Manchester from 1911.
The industrial might that came with being the largest car manufacturer in the world allowed Ford to carry on that ethos through subsequent models and generations, with the A and B following suit, and the Model Y of 1933 becoming the cheapest-ever four-door saloon.
But there came a time when ‘stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap’ wasn’t quite enough, and other avenues for increasing sales were explored.
Ford had been successful in competition from the outset, setting Land Speed Records as early as 1904.
In Europe, the firm’s greatest sporting successes came post-war, with the Zephyr proving itself on events such as the Rallye Monte-Carlo, largely in the hands of privateers.
It even won the 1959 British Saloon Car Championship.
But it wasn’t until the early 1960s and the arrival of former newsman Walter Hayes as public relations director that the firm made a concerted effort to capitalise on its motorsport success in the showrooms.
The Cortina broke cover a year after Hayes’ appointment, and the timing couldn’t have been better.
It coincided with the arrival of the Lotus Twin Cam, a ferocious little engine that mated Ford’s 1498cc (later bored out to 1558cc) Kent block to a trick Harry Mundy-designed double-overhead-cam cylinder head.
At Hayes’ suggestion, the new motor found a home in the Cortina, at a stroke creating one of the most successful performance cars of the period and a PR coup for Ford.
In no small part thanks to the sublime Jim Clark, the Lotus Cortina made the case beautifully for a more focused approach to quasi-competition road cars, and the formation of a wing dedicated to their development: Advanced Vehicle Operations.
But before AVO there was the Escort.
Launched at the Brussels motor show in January 1968, the little saloon was the spiritual successor to the outgoing 100E.
Cheap and mechanically simple, with a choice of 1098cc or 1297cc Kent four-pots, it boasted rear-wheel drive in a world of modern front-drive contenders such as BMC’s ADO16 and Mini, and was set apart by attractive Coke-bottle styling.
Earmarked for competition from the outset, the range also included a particularly special model that initially flew under the radar: the Escort Twin Cam.
As the name suggests, the secret to the new model’s success lay beneath the bonnet, where the 1558cc Lotus Twin Cam was shoehorned-in to replace the asthmatic Kent.
Rumour has it the prototype was built over the course of a weekend after competitions manager Henry Taylor and team foreman Bill Meade spied an early car being put through its paces on track, and by early 1968 the first of an anticipated 1000 examples had rolled off the production line.
Whether by chance or design, a legend had been created.
Unlike the Mk1 Lotus Cortina, which was built at Cheshunt, bar the engine the Escort Twin Cam was wholly produced in-house and came from the same Halewood production plant as the standard car.
Though not without its problems:it took one and a half times as long to build aTwin Cam,with most of that time spent squeezing in the engine, which was fitted at an angle to provide clearance for the carburettors.
The unit was largely unchanged from that used in the Cortina, but for a mild increase of 4.5bhp thanks to minor tweaks to valve timing and the jetting of the twin-choke Webers.
Modifications were also made to the transmission tunnel to accommodate the beefier 2000E gearbox, and the bodywork was altered to allow room for larger 13in wheels.
More straightforward was the addition of the Cortina rear axle with radius arms, which like the rest of the reworkings found a more comfortable home in the light and stiff Escort bodyshell.
In standard trim the Twin Cam’s interior is identical to the factory 1300GT, with a dished three-spoke wheel and supportive reclining chairs.
Ball’s example is more focused, ordered from the factory with a number of competition refinements.
“It was always a Clubman’s rally car, which is the reason for the roll hoop,” explains Ball. “It’s got twin petrol tanks, which is really unusual, and it also has 13in magnesium Minilite wheels, bucket seats and a deep-dish Springalex steering wheel. It should have harnesses, too – I’ve just managed to find some brand-new ones that I’m going to install.”
Bought 20 years ago as a part-finished project, Ball’s 1968 Twin Cam has been the recent recipient of a £50,000 rebuild by model guru ASM Restorations and is perfect in every way, from its original rectangular headlamps (changed to round in 1969) down to its flawless Ermine White paint.
“It drives exactly as a Twin Cam should,” says Ball, after handing over the keys for a quick turn of the test track.
If he’s right, it’s clear why the model was such a hit in period.
Today 109bhp might not sound much, nor a 0-60mph sprint of barely less than 10 secs, but the key is the Escort’s light weight and the statistics belie the involvement that the Twin Cam provides.
Body roll is minimal even when cornering hard, and the sound of that glorious unit is nothing short of joyous, a wall of pure engine noise blasting through the bulkhead and reverberating around the shell. If you could bottle total driving enjoyment, this would be it.
You could make a case for the 1970 RS 1600 being a keystone of a fast Escort collection, combining the Twin Cam package with the raucous Cosworth-designed BDA engine, a race-bred powerplant created by mating the Cortina 1600 Kent Crossflow to an aluminium 16-valve cylinder head featuring two belt-driven cams.
But for Ball the Twin Cam wins out – partly because it was the genesis, and partly because his set already has a BDA-engined car in the form of his immaculate Mk2 RS 1800.
When it arrived in 1975, the Mk2 Escort represented more of an evolution of the earlier car than a brand-new model, sharing similar chassis, dimensions and 1100cc, 1300cc and 1600cc engines to the outgoing car, albeit clothed in new boxy bodywork.
Nowhere were the similarities more clear than in the RS 1800, which joined the line-up in June 1975 – not as a halo model, but as a means of ensuring that the new shape was approved for use in motorsport.
In truth, the RS 1600 had already done much of the heavy lifting, and homologation required little more than a rubber stamp.
But despite never being intended as a showroom success, the RS 1800 continued the legend that had been built by its predecessor.
“I’d wanted one since I was about 18 but could never afford it,” says Ball, who was lucky enough to discover one of the much-coveted survivors from the 109 production run.
“It had been sitting unused in a barn on a farm for 20 years. It’s never been welded, with all original panels. I’ve given it a bare-metal respray and have just been detailing it over the years with new-old stock lights, switches and things like that.”
In a collection marked by its originality, this RS 1800 is something of an outlier, being built for hard driving rather than the show field.
From the factory the 1835cc BDA produced 115bhp, but Ball’s example is touching almost twice that thanks to some choice modifications during the rebuild.
Bored out to 2 litres, breathing through twin Weber 45s and built with all-steel internals, the John Minty engine is capable of spinning to an electrifying 9000rpm.
A Sierra Type 9 gearbox has been added to help cope with the power, with the welcome addition of a fifth gear for more comfortable cruising.
But a cruiser it is not. Where the Twin Cam loves revs, the BDA requires them: anything less than judicious use of the accelerator makes getting off the mark a sluggish affair.
It’s only when you plant your right foot that the RS 1800 comes to life, howling up the rev range with that characteristic scream that is piped straight from the special stages of the Welsh forests.
A year after Ford retired from international rallying the final Mk2 Escort rolled off the production line, with 1980 marking the end of a special period for both the model and for motorsport.
But by that stage Rallye Sport was a household name, and it wasn’t long before it found a home in the new Mk3 with the 1981 RS 1600i.
Built for homologation, the model smashed Ford’s initial 5000 sales target: 8659 cars had left showrooms by the time production ended in July 1983.
Yet despite good results in Group A on track in the hands of Richard Longman and Alan Curnow, plus Malcolm Wilson and Louise Aitken-Walker on the stage, it wasn’t quite the success Ford had hoped for.
Compared with the exotic twin-cam units of the Mk1 and Mk2, the RS 1600i is lacking somewhat in the engine department, fitted with Ford’s drab and clattery 1597cc CVH ‘four’.
Though slightly uninspiring on paper, the model boasted a number of interesting features designed for use in competition.
Among them was a unique AFT twin-coil ignition system to complement the Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection, while internally the engine was fitted with solid tappets and a hotter camshaft.
In race spec, that provided enough strength to rev far beyond the roadgoing car’s 6500rpm limit.
Putting the RS 1600i’s modest 115bhp to the road was a suspension system that varied from any other production Escort, with two longitudinally mounted supporting arms with a separate anti-roll bar to the front.
As well as allowing the castor angle to be adjusted – vital for its motorsport applications – the set-up helped to reduce torque steer, a new problem that engineers had to overcome in only the company’s second attempt at a front-wheel-drive car after the Fiesta of 1976.
In competition trim the RS 1600i produced in the region of 160bhp, but in standard guise it doesn’t quite live up to the RS name: compared with the lively Mk1 and ballistic Mk2, the later car feels quite pedestrian with lukewarm acceleration, though with surprisingly tidy handling.
Where this particular Escort excels is its condition, with Ball’s example feeling showroom-fresh in every way.
It’s as if the car has been meticulously assembled from new-old stock parts, removed from their wax paper one by one and pieced together to create a perfect, as-new example.
But it’s better than that: it’s a car that has never been apart, and as such feels precisely as it should with taut suspension and a complete lack of squeaks or clonks.
A close rival in terms of timewarp appeal is Ball’s Series 2 RS turbo, which with just 17,340 miles on the clock is surely one of the best Mk4s in the country.
“Prior to my ownership it was a multiple concours winner and was used extensively on the show circuit, but that’s not really my thing.
“It’s got all-original paint and all-original panels; it’s never been restored, just extensively detailed over the years.”
The casual observer may struggle to tell the two ’80s cars apart, and it makes more sense to talk about the later car in terms of a facelift of the Mk3 – and specifically of the first RS turbo that was launched in 1984.
A true homologation special, the original RS turbo was aimed squarely at clubmen competing in Group A and N.
Forced induction provided the quickest and most cost-effective means of maintaining the front-drive Escort’s competitiveness, and again it was the humble1597cc CVH – fitted with solid tappets, Bosch injection and twin-coil distributorless ignition – that served as the basis.
Allied to that was a Garrett T3 turbocharger that raised power to 132bhp, while a special viscous limited-slip differential – the first of its type fitted to a front-wheel-drive car – improved traction.
By the time the Series 2 arrived in 1986 the RS turbo’s manners had been improved, making it more of a road car than a competition weapon.
Fettled rather than redesigned, it gained a turbocharger that was water- rather than air-cooled, while a number of small refinements were made to everything from gearing and engine management to the clutch and brakes, including fitting mechanical ABS.
Inside, the Escort lineage is clear to see with an instrument binnacle that harks back to the Mk1 and Mk2 and figure-hugging Recaro seats finished in period light-grey velour.
As in the RS 1600i, it’s hard not to be slightly disappointed by the soundtrack of the gruff CVH, but in the RS turbo it feels perfectly suited to the car’s road-biased character, particularly when the Garrett turbocharger kicks in to provide a welcome burst of mid-range thrust.
If the Series 2 RS turbo was a small step forward, the 1992-on Mk5 Cosworth was a giant leap.
The final true RS to bear the Escort name (the Mk6 RS 2000 made do with just 150bhp) and the last in Ball’s collection, it was also the last in a trio of stunning Cosworth creations preceded by the Sierra and Sapphire.
The idea to combine the Escort ’s compact body with Sierra running gear came about in 1988 and, following the success of an early test mule, the job of creating a production-ready car was given to Ford Special Vehicle Engineering at Dunton.
The final design differed so much from the conventional Escort that production had to be outsourced to Karmann in Germany, where a shortened Sierra floorpan was mated to the Sapphire 4x4’s revised engine and running gear – no mean feat given the changes involved.
The Escort went from being front-wheel-drive with a transverse engine to a longitudinal engine layout with four-wheel drive.
More than 400 unique components had to be designed and even the bodywork was radically altered: despite the clear familial resemblance, only the cooking model’s roof, doors and pillars remained unmodified.
The most eye-grabbing feature was surely the enormous split-wing rear spoiler, which robbed 4mph from the car’s top speed but, combined with the adjustable front splitter, helped to make the RS Cosworth the first mass-produced car to generate both front and rear aerodynamic downforce.
Like its forebears, the Cosworth was destined for top-flight rallying from the off, and the first 2500 cars built had homologation in mind.
Early examples such as Ball’s were fitted with Weber-Marelli fuelling and ignition plus an enormous Garrett T03/T04B turbocharger, with some even sporting a dummy water-injection kit to get the parts approved for competition.
Though less tractable than the later ‘small turbo’ cars that came on stream in ’95, the big turbo is eminently more tuneable and holds more cachet in Ford circles.
Turn the key and you soon realise why.
On the road the Cossie feels light-years ahead of the other cars in the collection, both in terms of modernity and performance.
It could easily pass for a typical mid-’90s repmobile at low speed, but that all changes when you plant the accelerator to the floor.
It’s an old-school turbo with plenty of lag and plenty of grunt, and after a split-second delay the telltale ‘wooosh’ presses your head against the headrest and streaks beads of rain off the windscreen.
As in most of Ball’s cars, it’s a rare treat to experience a Cosworth as its manufacturer intended.
“I haven’t really done anything to it,” he explains.“It’s covered 24,000 miles now, and it was at 19,000 when I bought it. As the value has increased I’ve used it less and less. It’s totally standard; totally original.”
For many enthusiasts, choosing their favourite car is like picking their favourite child.
But not all Escorts are created equal, and while it’s satisfying to see one of each generation lined up for our test, the third and fourth iterations – the RS 1600i and RS turbo – inevitably bring up the rear in terms of styling, performance and overall driver involvement.
Some way ahead of them is the Cosworth, which, despite being the most modern of our set, captured the imagination of younger enthusiasts in much the same way as the legends of the past.
For many the Mk2 RS 1800 is the pick of the litter, often hailed as the Holy Grail both for its rarity and scintillating performance, and it speaks volumes that Ball uses his car so regularly despite its astronomical value.
Ultimately, the almost inconceivable increase in popularity and asking prices of old Escorts points to one thing: enthusiasts reliving their misspent youth.
And in that, Gary Ball is no different: “My first Escort was a Mk1, a Mexico that I got in 1986. After that I bought my first Twin Cam, and I went on to have four in total. I’ve had this one for 20 years – it’s taken that long to get it done. It’s the car that means the most to me.”
Images: John Bradshaw
Ford Escort Twin Cam
- Sold/number built 1968-’71/1263
- Engine dohc 1558cc ‘four’, twin Webers; 109bhp @ 6000rpm; 107Ib ft @ 4500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Weight 1730lb (785kg)
- Mpg 23.4
- 0-60mph 9.9 secs
- Top speed 113mph
- Price new £1123
- Price now £40-70,000*
Ford Escort RS 1800
- Sold/number built 1975-’77/109
- Engine dohc 1835cc ‘four’, twin Webers; 115bhp @ 6000rpm; 120Ib ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Weight 2015lb (914kg)
- Mpg 26.5
- 0-60mph 8.3 secs
- Top speed 111mph
- Price new £2825
- Price now £60-120,000*
Ford Escort RS 1600i
- Sold/number built 1981-’83/8659
- Engine sohc 1597cc ‘four’, fuel injection; 113bhp @ 6000rpm; 109Ib ft @ 5250rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
- Weight 2072lb (940kg)
- Mpg 36.7
- 0-60mph 8.7 secs
- Top speed 119mph
- Price new £7024
- Price now £15-40,000*
Ford Escort RS turbo
- Sold/number built 1986-’90/c22,000
- Engine sohc 1597cc ‘four’, Garrett T3 turbocharger; 132bhp @ 5750rpm; 133Ib ft @ 2750rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
- Weight 2381lb (1080kg)
- Mpg 36
- 0-60mph 8.3 secs
- Top speed 125mph
- Price new £10,278
- Price now £15-40,000*
Ford Escort RS Cosworth
- Sold/number built 1992-’96/7145
- Engine dohc 1993cc ‘four’, Garrett T03/T04B turbocharger; 224bhp @ 6250rpm; 224Ib ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, AWD
- Weight 2811lb (1275kg)
- Mpg 28
- 0-60mph 6.2 secs
- Top speed 137mph
- Price new £20,524
- Price now £45-70,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication