Why you’d want a Ford Escort XR3/XR3i
For the Mk3 Escort, styled by Uwe Bahnsen, Ford went front-wheel drive with what would soon be its biggest-selling model, along with a brand-new overhead-cam engine that had cost £500m to develop.
It was crucial to the company’s success, and it worked. But what to do about the high-performance flagship?
Motorsport honours were not the immediate focus, but the market demanded a sporting model, with a new name to avoid comparison with rear-drive RS Escorts.
The designation came from USA, where it had featured on the Mercury Cougar XR-7; the first XR in Europe was the XR3, pitched as a volume-selling sporty variant rather than a limited-run homologation special. That role went to the RS 1600i in 1981, and later the RS Turbo.
The XR3 faced strong opposition in the front-drive hot-hatch market, including Volkswagen’s well-established Golf GTI.
Ford started by simply bolting a twin-choke Weber on to the all-new, hemi-head CVH engine: its 96bhp was enough to be fun, but left the car trailing in the GTI’s wake – though only a fraction behind on top speed due to superior aerodynamics.
The XR3’s ride and its handling on the limit couldn’t match the composure of the GTI either, but that didn’t stop sales of the stylish and keenly priced XR3 from booming – anything at £5k with a spoiler on the back was a sure-fire winner.
Motor wrote: “The Escort… is more attractively finished and looks terrific – few mass-production cars have ever attracted as much favourable interest from passers-by as our XR3 test car.”
It wasn’t long before Ford’s Specialist Vehicle Engineering (SVE) department grabbed the initiative to boost power and improve the ride and handling, creating the XR3i in ’82 to briefly jump ahead of the Golf in top speed, while coming closer to matching its composure.
The Cabriolet was added in 1986 and featured full XR3 spec, including its firm suspension, illustrating Ford’s confidence in Karmann’s strengthening of the shell to allow roof removal without flexing – though some scuttle shake was inevitable on rougher roads.
The Cabriolet was expensive but well built, and is a bargain today compared to the more sought-after hatch.
The XR3 was the best-selling hot hatch in the UK market for most of its life. Rust, neglect and abuse have been its biggest enemies: rot-free, unspoilt originals are rare and desirable now.
Images: James Mann
Ford Escort XR3/XR3i: what to look for
See above for what to check when looking at Ford Escort XR3/XR3is for sale.
The overhead-cam CVH engine with hydraulic tappets was all-new for the Mk3 Ford Escort and proved durable, provided cambelt change points were religiously followed.
Carburettor wear can be an issue, but XR3is enjoyed reliable Bosch injection until 1989, when Ford electronic injection came in, with some initial problems.
The five-speed gearbox came in 1982, transforming the XR3’s usability and further improving its fine economy.
Check for noise and weak synchros.
Check suspension bushes for wear, CV gaiters for splits, alloys for cracks, bearings for noise/wear and brakes for rust, vibration and seized calipers.
Usually the first place to rot, leading to wet floors, is the battery tray.
This larger battery helps compensate for the sometimes-slow starter motor.
Unspoiled original Laser seat cloth, headrest pads and uncracked dash mouldings are rarely seen; door cards deteriorate, too.
Trim spares for these classic Fords are rare.
Ford Escort XR3/XR3i: before you buy
The XR3’s belt-driven overhead-cam engine with hydraulic tappets was a big step forward in 1980, though the need to replace the cambelt every three years or 36,000 miles (an easy job) caught owners unawares.
Bosch mechanical fuel injection rarely gives trouble, but can suffer from a seized metering unit, causing over- or under-fuelling. Ford’s electronic injection, fitted to 1990-model cars, had idle-control issues; most have been sorted now.
The CVH unit felt torquey but was criticised for sounding relatively unrefined at higher revs.
Listen for rattles and knocks, and look for excessive breathing and oil smoke on the overrun, indicating a worn engine. A properly maintained CVH should top 100,000 miles before needing major attention.
Ford has long built slick transmissions; sloppy gear linkages are common but easily sorted, so just make the usual checks for worn synchromesh and excessive noise.
Don’t expect a Cabriolet to be free from scuttle shake on uneven roads: despite extensive reinforcement, they do flex noticeably.
Check all the electrics work – the powered windows are notorious for failing.
Soggy handling is likely to be down to tired bushes, which are readily available and can be uprated with firmer polyurethane if desired. Wheel bearings are also relatively short-lived.
Having the correct, original alloy wheels is a plus, because they can be hard to find.
Check the brakes for both condition and operation; upgrades are common, but the standard set-up should be adequate if well maintained.
Ford Escort XR3/XR3i price guide
- Mk3 XR3 £3000/11,000/22,000
- Mk3 XR3i £2500/6000/17,500
- Mk4 XR3i £2000/5000/16,000
Cabriolets 30% lower
Prices correct at date of original publication
Ford Escort XR3/XR3i history
1980 Oct XR3 launched; striped Laser trim
1982 Feb XR3 gets five-speed gearbox; RS 1600i launched (8659 built)
1982 Sep XR3i arrives – 105bhp, 101lb ft, revised gearing/suspension, velour replaces cloth, lower ride height, bigger rear brakes
1983 Oct Cabriolet launched – conversion by Karmann, badged as 1.6i not XR3i
1984 Oct RS Turbo launched (8604 Mk3s)
1986 Mk4 Escort facelift: plusher, quieter interior, new engine mounts, suspension tweaks, body-colour bumpers, optional ABS, Cabriolet now badged as XR3i
1988 Power hood option added for Cabrio
1989 Autumn facelift, Ford EFI, 108bhp
1990 Sept Mk5 Escort, XR3i dropped (reborn with 1.8 Zetec power in 1992)
The owner’s view
Ian Jones (on right) and his family are rightly proud of their April 1982 XR3, one of the very first five-speed cars: “If the weather’s bad I won’t take it out,” says Jones.
“The first owner had it Ziebarted at 170 miles and that saved it. It’s a high-spec car with a sunroof and tinted glass, and it’s always been local to South Wales: I paid £400 for it 26 years ago. My wife, Karen, had a Sunburst Red XR3 before that.
“I took it off the road for 10 years to concentrate on my 1957 Chevrolet, but only had to rebuild the brakes when I got it out again recently.
“It’s done 84,000 miles, but only 10,000 of those in the past 30 years: we also have the Chevy Bel Air, a 1966 prototype MGB GT and an Opel Manta, so it’s used sparingly, but I’m very happy that my son Rory [above, on left] enjoys driving it and also takes it to shows.”
VAUXHALL ASTRA GTE
With a 113bhp 1.8 engine, the GTE was an immediate strong rival, going to 2.0 in 1987, and 16v twin-cam in ’88 with a 134mph top speed. Rust and ragging means few are left.
Sold 1983-’91 • No. built n/a • Price now £4-20,000 (cabrio £2-10,000)*
VW GOLF GTI
The standard-setting hot hatch (and cabrio), rarely overtaken by the XR3 in performance or sales, going up from 1.6 to 1.8 in 1983 and 16v from 1986. Rot is the biggest challenge.
Sold 1975-’91 • No. built c1.2m • Price now £4-33,000 (cabrio £2500-30k)*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
Ford Escort XR3/XR3i: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
The vast majority of Mk3 Ford Escorts built have long gone, so good survivors are soaring in value – and taking Mk4s along with them.
Cabriolets have generally survived better and are cheaper, though they lack some of the sporting appeal of the hatch.
There’s a good enthusiast network but parts can be scarce, so buy the most unspoiled example you can find: modifications and neglect can be a nightmare for restorers.
- Wide appeal
- Largely bombproof mechanicals that are cheap and easy to fix with (mostly) readily available parts
- Liable to rampant rot and decades of abuse
- A neglected XR3 will cost far more than its value to restore
- Some parts, especially trim, are rare
Ford Escort XR3/XR3i specifications
- Sold/number built 1980-’90/c150,000
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 1596cc ‘four’, with twin-choke Weber carb, Bosch K-Jetronic or Ford EEC-IV injection
- Max power 96bhp @ 6000rpm to 108bhp @ 6000rpm
- Max torque 97.6lb ft @ 4000rpm to 102lb ft @ 4800rpm
- Transmission four/five-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear coil springs, telescopic dampers, transverse arms, longitudinal tie bars
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes 9½in (239mm) vented discs front, 7-8in (178-203mm) drums rear, with servo; optional ABS on Mk4
- Length 13ft ¼in (3970mm)
- Width 5ft 2½in (1590mm)
- Height 4ft 4½in (1335mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10¼in (2400mm)
- Weight 1982-2156lb (901-980kg)
- 0-60mph 9.9-8.6 secs
- Top speed 111-116mph
- Mpg 27-37
- Price new £8438/10,546 (hatch/Cabrio, ’87)
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