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The Escort saga

CAP looks back at 30 years of the Ford Escort and what made it a British institution

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Ford Motor Company

F O R D   H A S owned the Escort name for many years: it first popped up on an estate version of its Popular. But to most car buffs in most of the world, the Ford Escort saga began in 1968 with the release of Ford of Britain's replacement for the Anglia.
   Initially considered too conventional and unadvanced for production in Germany, Ford of Europe management persisted and dual production was set up. The car quickly topped the sales and production charts (2,155,301 built between 1968 and 1975; 18M to date) - its proven formula was a hit. By 1969 it had helped Ford of Germany recover 2.2 per cent of the domestic market. In Britain, it overtook the BMC 1100/1300 series as the second top-selling car in 1972. Ford soon became Britain's number one manufacturer, and the only one to show a profit in 1975.
   The Escort legend does not begin with volume sales, however. If we talked only about production figures, we would also refer to the Toyota Corolla as legendary - but we do not. Escort, both in Britain and on the Continent, became an icon.
   When the Escort was launched, Ford prepared a rallying version, which was later marketed as the Escort Mexico, commemorating the car's victory in the London to Mexico Rally of 1970. A 1600 cc engine in a car whose standard model came with an 1100 was astonishing, and the car caught the youth market's imagination. Thus was born the Escort's reputation as the Essex lad's car, with the RS 2000 model following in 1974. This was the model for which furry dice were essentials.

Escorting us through the years

Escort Mexico
The legendary Escort Mexico, in its first 1971 model year

Mark II and the folded paper school of design: the two-litre RS2000

Escort Mk III
Crisp hatchback styling with plastic bumpers for 1981 - the world car shared with America

Escort sedan
1997 model year - the Escort sedan. The external styling is about as exhilirating as the everyday fridge

   The squared-off Mark II version followed in 1975, and unlike the disappointing Cortina and Granada which followed, it furthered the reputation of its predecessor. Rallying continued successfully, with both Mexico and RS 2000 models. New sports and luxury versions were introduced. But most importantly for Ford, the RS 2000 received an important publicity boost by being the mode of transport for Martin Shaw, a.k.a. Ray Doyle, in the cult TV show The Professionals. By now, too, the Escort had won three World Rally Championships (1968, 1969 and 1979).
   Ford's expertise in export markets helped spread the word worldwide. In Australia - a country where big-capacity vehicles sell well (never mind the oil crises) - two-litre Escorts were more common. You didn't have to go to the top of the range sporting RS 2000 - lesser Mark II Escorts, such as a GL, could be specified with the two-litre Kent motor, and the distinctive plastic sloping nose (remember, most grilles were upright at this time) came as standard on the higher models.
   By 1980, the Escort went into its third generation as a much-vaunted "world car". This term was misleading: the American Escort/Mercury Lynx shared only a handful of parts with its European sibling. Meanwhile, Asia, Australasia and Africa sold a rebadged Mazda 323 as the Ford Laser and Meteor.
   The car was revolutionary in terms of style: a squared-off modern hatchback with an attractive rear bustle developed in association with Ford's Japanese partners, Mazda. Gone were the RS 2000 and Mexico, but there was an XR3 model for Europe (later replaced by the more acceptable XR3i, with fuel injection). This began another trend, forcing Ford's Advanced Vehicles Operations to develop XR versions of other Ford models. XRs became de rigueur for 1980s boy racers - and joyriders. And, both the Princess of Wales and Sarah Ferguson drove Escorts.
   Americans were introduced to the Escort but Stateside the car was more a commodity than an icon. Seen as Ford and Mercury's answer to the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, it was hugely successful and manufacture of the car on both sides of the Atlantic made it the world's top selling nameplate for most of the decade - although it cannot truly lay claim to being the world's top selling car, given that the Japanese were truly putting out single models for the world (e.g. 1982-6 Nissan Sunny/Sentra).
   However, Americans did see the Escort-based EXP and Mercury LN7, sports coupés which tried to boost the small car's image at the lower end of the market.
   Australians bid farewell to the Escort and were introduced to the Laser in 1980 - but it is remembered with less fondness. Though successful in its own right, the Laser lacked the Escort's following, although in the 1980s Ford Australia's Laser TX3 and the short-lived 1994-6 Laser Lynx introduced some sparkle to the range. The current Australian Laser hatchback is still, in our view, one of the best-looking Australian-designed cars.
   The European Escort continued without much change until 1990, although Escort fans will not forgive us if we do not mention the special variants, such as the RS 1700 T - a fierce turbocharged Group B rally car; the Cabriolet, sold even in Asia as a premium model; and the RS Turbo, seen as the spiritual successor to the RS 2000 of the 1970s.
   The fourth-generation European Escort of 1990 was a departure from the world car: by now, the American Escort was also a reskinned Mazda 323. It was also a disappointment - the press citing cost-cutting, putting the Escort near the bottom of its league. An item on BBC's Top Gear also showed that these 1990-2 models were flawed. It was not until 1995 that the problems were fixed, but by then the Escort did not hold the same affection amongst the motoring public. There was only the Escort Cosworth, the model carrying on the RS spirit, for enthusiasts to turn to.
   Its American counterpart was rebodied in 1996 and an attractive ZX2 Coupé was added but neither could be called cult cars.
   The revolutionary new replacement, to be launched at the Salon de l'Automobile in Paris next spring, will bear a new name. Initial reports say the car bears a futuristic design, and there will also be a British-built minivan. This is meant to be a world car, sold in America and the Asia-Pacific, and also by Mazda of Japan. Only Africa and South America will stick with the Laser and 1990 Escort for the time being.
   The last 30 years have seen the rise, rise and subsequent fall of the Escort. While the car still sells well, Ford may benefit from beginning with a clean slate for 1998 and, possibly, creating a new cult following.

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Ford Escort (Europe), Ford Escort (US)