Half a century ago, Ford faced the double challenge of introducing a new small car and dispensing with the Anglia name after nearly 30 years.
To mark this motoring milestone, we gathered together five key Escorts and pitched them head-to-head against their period rivals at the firm’s Heritage Centre in Dagenham.
Is the Mk1 Escort a better car today than the Vauxhall Viva? Does the RS2000 hold its own against the Renault 19? All will be revealed…
Mk1 DE LUXE vs VAUXHALL VIVA
To immerse yourself in the world of the Ford Escort Mk1 and the Vauxhall Viva HB, it is essential to repeat such phrases as “New Town” and “Wimpey housing estate”.
These were the sort of lightweight saloons that would enhance the driveway of any semi-detached in Crawley. Neither could claim to be as technically advanced as BMC’s ADO16, but it could be argued that this was not their raison d’être. What the deadly rivals from Halewood and Ellesmere Port did offer consumers was a winning blend of conventional engineering and stylistic flair.
When the Escort made its debut in January 1968, virtually the sole familiar aspect was the name. Ford had originally intended to call its second pan-European vehicle – the Transit being the first – the Anglia, but this might have been problematic in Germany, where it had associations with WW2 bomber bases.
The solution was to revive a name from the entry-level 100E estate, although keen motorists were more intrigued by the rack-and-pinion steering, the choice of 1.1- or 1.3-litre ‘Kent’ engines and even the option of disc front braking.
Finest of all was the ‘Coke bottle’ styling, best described as smart but low-key. As the 1960s progressed, the 105E’s lines had started to look dated and by ’66 its image was about as contemporary as a gang of 30-year-old Teddy Boys at a Kinks concert.
In that same year, Vauxhall launched the HB Viva, a move regarded with some concern by Ford’s management; the 1963 HA was a monument to utilitarianism, but this new model looked downright chic.
Each of our test vehicles is a prime example of an important – but in many cases now near-extinct – form of classic: the family car.
Jack Barnes found his Escort de luxe just over a year ago. “It is totally original and unrestored, with just 18,000 miles on the clock,” he says. That makes it one of very few survivors, because so many Mk1s have been customised, rat-rodded or turned into a clone of a more valuable model – there are probably more Twin Cams on the road today than actually left the factory in 1968…
The Vauxhall Heritage Collection’s Viva might be an upmarket SL, but it would have represented a major rival to the Ford even without the ‘woodgrain’ dashboard and Ambla upholstery. And it’s here that I must declare a conflict of interest: memories of my family’s own HB mean that today the sound of its transmission whine is almost Proustian.
Each car has its idiosyncrasies – the way the needle wavers across the Vauxhall’s strip speedometer, or the Escort’s pronounced C-pillars that provide the driver with an instant blindspot. Five decades later, the sense of nostalgia when encountering the Escort and the Viva is so powerful as to be almost overwhelming.
FORD ESCORT 1100 DE LUXE
Sold/no built 1968-’74/611,305 (2dr) • Construction steel monocoque • Engine all-iron, ohv 1098cc ‘four’ • Max power 49.5bhp @ 5500rpm • Max torque 58.5lb ft @ 3000rpm • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD • Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs and telescopic dampers • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes drums • Length 13ft 4in (4064mm) • Width 5ft 8in (1727mm) • Height 4ft 7in (1397mm) • Wheelbase 7ft 101/2in (2400mm) • Weight 1704lb (773kg) • 0-60mph 22.3 secs • Top speed 79mph • Mpg 27.6 • Price new £635 • Price now £16,000
VAUXHALL VIVA HB SL
Sold/no built 1966-’70/566,391 (all HBs) • Construction steel monocoque • Engine all-iron, ohv 1159cc ‘four’ • Max power 47bhp @ 5200rpm • Max torque 61.8lb ft @ 2800rpm • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs and telescopic dampers rear live axle, coil springs, diagonal links, radius arms and telescopic dampers • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes disc front, drums rear • Length 13ft 51/2in (4102mm) • Width 5ft 3in (1600mm) • Height 4ft 5in (1346mm) • Wheelbase 8ft (2438mm) • Weight 1752lb (795kg) • 0-60mph 19.7 secs • Top speed 78mph • Mpg 29 • Price new £672 • Price now £6000
Mk2 ESTATE vs HILLMAN AVENGER
If you were in the market for a small estate in the late ’70s and wanted to buy British, your choice was fairly limited. There was the Austin Allegro, but somehow those miniature hearse looks never quite appealed, while the Viva HC was sleek but more of an elongated hatchback. That left the Escort Mk2 and the Avenger, the latter having the advantage of five doors.
By the time Mk1 Escort production ended it had sold more than two million examples, so the facelift – codenamed ‘Brenda’ – sought to update the basic theme. When the Mk2 was unveiled in early 1975, it was noticeable that, while the saloons received an attractive new body, the estate gained only a revised front end. Inside, however, there was also a new fascia and improved seats; it was an Escort ‘made for working in comfort’ proclaimed the brochures.
Meanwhile, your friendly Chrysler UK dealer offered the Avenger, the final car designed under the auspices of the Rootes Group.
Upon its launch in 1970, the ‘Price Fighter’ (sic) bridged the gulf between the Imp and the Arrow saloons and, unlike the former, was defiantly conventional with its live axle (albeit with coil springs) and innocuous coachwork.
The engines were 1250cc and 1500cc ‘fours’, and two years later came an estate version. The powerplants were upgraded in ’73 to 1.3 and 1.6 litres, but by then the car’s image was suffering from corporate politics – after 1976 they were sold under the Pentastar logo and from ’78, following Peugeot’s acquisition of Chrysler Europe, as Talbots.
A Ford was reliably a Ford; the Avenger’s shifting identity did not enhance its sales prospects.
The Escort Mk2 was replaced by the Mk3 in late 1980, its rival disappearing the following year, and now both represent a lost world of bomber jackets and VCRs the size of a patio.
Today, Chris Reed’s Grasshopper Green 1974 Avenger Super Estate is almost as rare as a Bugatti – it’s easy to see why it was a star turn at the 2015 Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional. “I bought it eight years ago,” explains Reed, “because we had so many in the family when I was young – memories and all that!”
Steven Binks’ Escort GL (with cigar lighter and clock as standard) is very much a working vehicle: “I’ve owned my estate for 19 years and it now has a five-speed Sierra transmission for better economy and usability. It was registered in June 1980, so is one of the last Mk2s.”
If I opt for the Avenger, this is not due to any deficiency in the Ford but more the Hillman’s exclusivity and mild quirkiness.
That the Escort remains in everyday service after nearly 40 years is testament to Ford’s quality standards, yet there is an almost indefinable charm about the Hillman’s elaborate dashboard and thinrimmed steering wheel. Practical Americana: who could reasonably ask for more?
FORD ESCORT 1300GL ESTATE
Sold/no built 1975-’80/1,808,395 (all Mk2s) • Construction steel monocoque • Engine all-iron, ohv 1298cc ‘four’ • Max power 61.2bhp @ 6000rpm • Max torque 67lb ft @ 3000rpm • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD • Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts and anti-roll bar rear live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes disc front, drums rear • Length 13ft 31/2in (4051mm) • Width 5ft 11/2in (1562mm) • Height 4ft 71/2in (1410mm) • Wheelbase 7ft 11in (2413mm) • Weight 2028lb (920kg) • 0-60mph 15.1 secs • Top speed 91mph • Mpg 29.3 • Price new £2746 (1977) • Price now £4500
AVENGER 1600 SUPER ESTATE
Sold/no built 1970-’76/638,631 (all) • Construction steel monocoque • Engine all-iron, ohv 1598cc ‘four’ • Max power 69bhp @ 5500rpm • Max torque 87lb ft @ 2900rpm • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD • Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing and semi-trailing links, coil springs; telescopic dampers f/r • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes discs front, drums rear • Length 13ft 91/2in (4204mm) • Width 5ft 21/2in (1587.5mm) • Height 4ft 8in (1422mm) • Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2489mm) • Weight 2050lb (930kg) • 0-60mph 14 secs • Top speed 96mph • Mpg 27.5 • Price new £1188 (1972) • Price now £5000
Mk3 GHIA vs AUSTIN MAESTRO
You almost have it all: the Filofax, a cassette of the complete works of Duran Duran, a mobile phone the size of a phone directory, and industrial quantities of hair gel. All you need now is the right set of pseudo-luxury wheels: Escort Ghia, or Austin Maestro Vanden Plas?
Anyone who visited the 1980 Motor Show will recall the crowds around the Ford stand, for ‘Project Erika’ represented a watershed for the firm. The new Escort Mk3 was not only a hatchback, but also front-wheel drive. The initial line-up ranged from the 1.1-litre Popular to the Ghia, and survivors of the latter are now seldom seen. This W-reg example hails from the days when a Sony Betamax C7 and a Ford with a glass sunroof as standard epitomised the good life.
The reactions of several passers-by suggest that it’s very much a “my dad had one of those” sort of car, and a reminder of just why the Escort was such a commercial success.
Autocar noted that it was an accomplished all-rounder, which offered both fleet and private buyers alike mass motoring with a real sense of flair.
While the early Ghia faced up to the likes of the VW Golf GLS and Citroën GSA Pallas, British Leyland was working on its long-overdue Allegro replacement. Unfortunately, when the car for which ‘Driving is Believing’ took a bow in March 1983, the bodywork was already redolent of the 1970s.
The ‘Miracle Maestro’ is a well-proportioned vehicle, but compared with the modern lines of the Escort it did appear to be a rather middle-aged idea of a contemporary hatch.
BL faced the additional problem that its Austin badge was more associated with Demob suits than red braces, and the famous name was to vanish from its products after 1987.
At the beginning of ’86 the Ford was Britain’s best-selling car, whereas the Maestro languished down in 10th, yet it had a great deal to offer the motorist who cared less about fashion than value for money.
Barry Cooper’s Vanden Plas is one of only nine left on the road in the UK and, though the level of equipment is undoubtedly high, it sadly lacks the infamous ‘talking dashboard’ that issued orders to drivers of the early versions.
By the standards of the day, both the Ford and the Austin benefit from tasteful interior décor, the Escort favouring a low-key approach while the more overtly traditional Maestro seems primed for a brisk but respectable spin to the rotary club.
In contrast, the Escort looks genuinely sharp and conveys a sense of attainable luxury. The Ford flatters the owner’s self esteem with its contemporary air and that ‘Durham and Crushed Velour’ upholstery.
As for the Maestro, it initially appeared suited to Sunday motoring but its performance, particularly from June ’84 with the S-series engine, belied its looks; a Q-car for the Terry and June generation, perhaps?
FORD ESCORT 1.3 GHIA
Sold/no built 1980-’86/1,857,000 (all MkIIIs) • Construction steel monocoque • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 1295cc ‘four’ • Max power 69bhp @ 6000rpm • Max torque 74lb ft @ 3500rpm • Transmission four-speed manual, FWD • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts and anti-roll bar rear MacPherson struts, transverse and longitudinal links • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes discs front, drums rear • Length 13ft 4in (4059mm) • Width 5ft 21/2in (1588mm) • Height 4ft 41/2in (1336mm) • Wheelbase 7ft 101/2in (2400mm) • Weight 2024lb (920kg) • 0-60mph 14 secs • Top speed 96mph • Mpg 36.7 • Price new £4876 • Price now £4000
AUSTIN MAESTRO VANDEN PLAS
Sold/no built 1982-’94/605,411 (all Maestros) • Construction steel monocoque • Engine all-iron, sohc 1598cc ‘four’ • Max power 85bhp @ 5600rpm • Max torque 97lb ft @ 3500rpm • Transmission five-speed manual, FWD • Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts and anti-roll bar rear trailing arms, transverse torsion beam and coil springs • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes discs front, drums rear • Length 13ft 31/2in (4051mm) • Width 5ft 61/2in (1689mm) • Height 4ft 81/2in (1435mm) • Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2515mm) • Weight 2174lb (986kg) • 0-60mph 10.5 secs • Top speed 104mph • Mpg 32.3 • Price new £6775 (1983) • Price now £4000
Mk4 CABRIOLET vs VOLKSWAGEN GOLF
The 1980s brought about a revival of the convertible, an automotive idiom that many observers believed would be doomed by the end of the previous decade.
In the early 1970s, there were rumours that impending US safety legislation would outlaw soft-tops altogether; thus, the launch of the Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet in 1979 marked the return of a once-familiar genre – the open-air version of a family car – and was also perfectly timed for the MGB owner who now required a back seat.
The Cabriolet was constructed by Karmann of Innsbruck, with VW supplying the components, and while the standard Golf was updated as the Mk2 in 1984, the convertible retained the Mk1 body until April 1993.
Later models were given ‘Clipper’ colour-coded body panels that resulted in a reasonably svelte-looking Golf – just right for transporting its owner to a ‘Power Breakfast’ at Canary Wharf.
Alex Wilkinson modestly describes his splendid 1991 GTI as: “Not perfect, but still standard. I bought it in 2015, at which time it had been sitting in a field for five years. I got it running and through an MoT, and I’m slowly getting the imperfections sorted.”
With its 15in BBS crossspoke alloys and hide trim, the VW conveys that ‘Croydon’s answer to the Miami Vice’ look, especially with its electrically powered roof.
Only the most awe-inspiring of ’80s Escorts could hope to compete with the Golf – and Barry Woodward owns just such a car. Any Mk4 XR3i Cabriolet in original condition is now a rare sight, but this example in Flambeau Red over Moonstone Blue is positively decadent.
As with the Volkswagen, the Escort’s body was devised by Karmann, and when it was given its debut in 1983 it was the first official Ford drophead since the demise of the Consul/Zephyr/Zodiac MkII. The elaborate work involved in strengthening the floorpan resulted in a price increase of around 25%, so it was only available in Ghia or XR guise yet, by the late ’80s, the Escort Mk4 was the best-selling convertible in the UK.
Whether you would opt for a Ford rather than the Volkswagen would probably have been less to do with the price factor and more to do with your own vision of summer motoring.
The latter does suffer from a hood that looks awkward in comparison with the XR3i, but any Golf enthusiast will be more enthused about its chassis, its steering and its sheer quality.
“The engine is just so smooth and because the Golf is such a lightweight car it handles so well,” says Wilkinson. Its rival, meanwhile, seems to be a slightly more approachable car, one that blends an exceptionally well-devised top into a sporting Ford that genuinely could be used every day.
“The acceleration is quick,” says Woodward, “but its nicest aspect is that it takes you back to driving in the 1980s.” It might only be 30 years old, but nostalgia really is what it used to be.
FORD ESCORT XR3i CABRIOLET
Sold/no built 1986-’90/1,885,000 (all Mk4s) • Construction steel monocoque • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 1597cc ‘four’ • Max power 104bhp @ 6000rpm • Max torque 102lb ft @ 5500rpm • Transmission five-speed manual, FWD • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts and anti-roll bar rear MacPherson struts, coil springs, transverse and longitudinal links • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes discs front, drums rear • Length 13ft 4in (4064mm) • Width 5ft 41/2in (1638mm) • Height 4ft 6in (1371mm) • Wheelbase 7ft 101/2in (2400mm) • Weight 2137lb (980kg) • 0-60mph 9.8 secs • Top speed 117mph • Mpg 35.9 • Price new £11,584 • Price now £8000
VW GOLF GTI CABRIOLET
Sold/no built 1980-’93/400,871 (all cabrios) • Construction steel monocoque • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 1781cc ‘four’ • Max power 112bhp @ 5800rpm • Max torque 112lb ft @ 3800rpm • Transmission five-speed manual, FWD • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts and anti-roll bar rear torsion beam, trailing arms and anti-roll bar • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes discs front, drums rear • Length 12ft 6in (3815mm) • Width 5ft 4in (1630mm) • Height 4ft 71/2in (1412mm) • Wheelbase 7ft 101/2in (2400mm) • Weight 2128lb (965kg) • 0-60mph 10 secs • Top speed 107mph • Mpg 36.7 • Price new £12,166 • Price now £6000
Mk5 RS2000 vs RENAULT 19
The phrase ‘there are few historical periods more remote than the recent past’ may now be something of a cliché, but this doesn’t mean that it no longer holds true. To see the bright red Escort RS2000 and Renault 19 16v patrolling the mean streets of Dagenham is to recall a lost era of ‘Cyber Cafes’ and the days when Have I Got News for You was still funny.
When the fifth-generation Escort took a bow in September 1990, it did not meet with universal approval. Motorists complained about its torsion-bar rear suspension, how bland it looked in comparison with the outgoing Mk4 and, worst of all, that it seemed to be built down to a price.
The RS2000 that arrived two years later was more than simply a sporting Escort in the great tradition: it also spearheaded a revitalisation of the Mk5’s image.
Under the bulging bonnet lay a Sierra-derived twin-cam, 16-valve engine with EEC IV electronic management, while inside there were grippy Recaro seats – essential for any early-’90s enthusiast.
Graham Marshall’s RS2000 is a genuine one-family-owned car. “My father bought it in 1992,” he explains. “When he passed away in 1994 it went to my mother, and thereafter to me.” As with the Mk1, the RS2000 is unusual in that it is all-original.
“So many have been modified or raided for parts,” says Marshall of the now-rare sporting model. “I love the handling, too – it really does feel as though it is on rails!”
Appearing opposite the Ford is a car that remains one of the most underrated hot hatchbacks of its era. The Renault 19 16v blends the hottest Clio’s powerplant with styling that sits just on the right side of the flamboyance/vulgarity divide.
The 19 had been in production for two years when La Régie unveiled the 16v in late 1990, during which time it had not exactly earned a reputation for charisma.
But with the new flagship, Renault dealers could now offer, to quote Car magazine (January 1991), a car that felt ‘special all the time’.
This is an opinion shared by Andrew Waller, owner of the survivor featured here: “My 19 is a 1991 Phase 1 model, so it has the ‘bodykit’ look as opposed to the more subtle Phase 2 – although the car is completely stock. It is just such a good Renault to drive and the engine is so flexible.”
Production of the 19 ceased in France in ’96 and the final Mk5 was built the following year. The Escort name was last seen on a new Ford in 2004, by which time it had come to symbolise an entire market sector.
The spicy RS2000 makes a grand conclusion to our trip to Dagenham; it’s an Escort in the true spirit of the 1968 Twin Cam.
For me, however, the car of the day has to be the Mk1. The engine note alone is enough to return those of us of a certain age to another world – and another time.
FORD ESCORT RS2000
Sold/no built 1991-’97/c6000 • Construction steel monocoque • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1998cc ‘four’ • Max power 150bhp @ 6000rpm • Max torque 140lb ft @ 4500rpm • Transmission five-speed manual, FWD • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts and anti-roll bar rear trailing arms, torsion bars, coil springs and anti-roll bar • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes discs • Length 13ft 3in (4040mm) • Width 5ft 61/2in (1692mm) • Height 4ft 7in (1397mm) • Wheelbase 8ft 31/2in (2525mm) • Weight 2478lb (1124kg) • 0-60mph 8.5 secs • Top speed 130mph • Mpg 28.6 • Price new £15,995 • Price now £7000
RENAULT 19 16v
Sold/no built 1986-’96/na • Construction steel monocoque • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1764cc ‘four’ • Max power 138bhp @ 6500rpm • Max torque 119lb ft @ 4250rpm • Transmission five-speed manual, FWD • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts and anti-roll bar rear trailing arms and torsion bars • Steering rack and pinion • Brakes discs • Length 13ft 71/2in (4153mm) • Width 5ft 6in (1676mm) • Height 4ft 71/2in (1410mm) • Wheelbase 8ft 4in (2540mm) • Weight 2315lb (1060kg) • 0-60mph 7.7 secs • Top speed 127mph • Mpg 37.2 • Price new £13,635 • Price now £3000
Images: Tony Baker
Thanks to Ford Heritage; British Motor Museum; Magic Spells Brewery; Affordable Classics; Vauxhall Heritage; Ford RS Owners’ Club; Maestro & Montego OC; Mk1 Golf OC; Renault OC; XROC; Sporting Escort OC; Vanden Plas OC