There are some old cars you won’t be surprised to see still on the roads two or three decades later. Camrys and Corollas, for example. Old pickup trucks. Exotics. Conservative sedans favored by the elderly. One type of car you definitely don’t expect to see is a 1980s hot hatch like this Ford Escort XR3i.
The third-generation European Escort launched in the final months of 1980. Development of the Escort, code named Erika, had begun shortly after the 1974 oil crisis. The new Escort was a marked change from its predecessor, ditching its rear-wheel-drive, live rear axle, and sedan body style for front-wheel-drive, all-independent suspension and a hatchback body. Ford’s North American operations also joined Project Erika although their version of the Escort reached market only vaguely resembling the European model.
The European Escort drove differently from its American counterpart but it wasn’t perfect. Though critics praised its road holding and handling abilities, as well as some gutsy engines and a slick manual gearshift, it was regularly criticized for poor ride quality and a noisy cabin. Although the Escort had independent rear suspension – still rather rare for its class – it wasn’t as refined as some beam axle-equipped rivals. Ford made some tweaks to the suspension over the years but it remained a sticking point with critics.
The sporty XR3 became the XR3i in 1982 when its 1.6 four-cylinder gained Bosch K-Tronic fuel injection and a five-speed manual. Power and torque were bumped up to 105 hp at 6000 rpm and 101 ft-lbs at 4800 rpm, respectively. The dash to 60 mph was accomplished in a rapid 8.6 seconds, as quick as the ever-so-slightly more powerful Opel Kadett GSE and almost as quick as a VW Golf GTi. At least in the UK, though, the Escort undercut those two on price. Perhaps because of its pioneer status, having popularized the hot hatch segment, the Volkswagen commanded a fairly significant price premium over its rivals from Ford and GM.
A Golf GTi might have had a bit more polish but an Escort XR3i provided plenty of cheap thrills for hot hatch buyers. Lesser Escorts were available with 1.1, 1.3 and 1.5 versions of the new overhead cam CVH engine in the XR3i. By 1983, the range had grown to include a five-door hatchback, a wagon, a sedan (badged Orion), a 1.6 diesel and an optional three-speed automatic.
The Escort range as a whole received a warm reception, particularly in Great Britain where it became the best-selling car. And it helped propel Ford to, for the first time, become the best-selling automaker in Europe in 1984. It was the right car at the right time. But I feel like I saw this XR3i at the wrong time – shouldn’t this fun-to-drive little hatchback have been hooned to death years ago?
No thanks to the black Mercedes that pulled up and blocked good shots of the Escort right as I was going to take them. Photographed near Old Town Prague, Czech Republic.
Curbside Classic: 1981-1990 Ford Escort – You Never Get A Second Chance To Make A Good First Impression
That Escort in Brazil was such a BMW 3 series in the 80’s. Having one of that or its coupe version Ford Verona both in XR3 and Ghia trims mean you’re “mounted on the money” as we used to say.
Those were the obligatory Essex boy* wheels in the UK back in the late 80s early 90s, the classic working class man’s sports car, and its image suffered accordingly. But under it all it was a genuine fun car which seemed to get better the harder you pushed it. There was the slight problem of stopping – the brakes were crap – and I distinctly remember managing to stop 1″ away from the hedge in a T-junction late at night, trying to break my record time going back home from work… Possibly another car I should have kept.
By the way, so strong was the Essex boy/XR3i connection that Corgi issued a model of one in typical, on-going modification stage. Mine was not far from that I have to confess…
Love the reg plate! LOL
Oh, Essex boy had a female counterpart and she’d drive the cabrio version…
An Essex girl flipped her XR3 upside down in a ditch, and lay there injured until paramedics arrived, bleeding into the headliner.
Paramedic – What’s your name?
Essex Girl – Tracy.
Paramedic – Where are you bleeding from?
Essex Girl – Romford.
That one had me chuckling all morning!
Essex boy #1: What would you do if a bird shit on your head?
Essex boy #2: Depends, what does she look like?
The non-Essex variation being:
Q. What do you do if a bird shits on your windscreen?
A. Well, you certainly don’t ask her out again.
What’s the difference between a shopping trolley and an Essex girl? A shopping trolley has a mind of its own.
So who remembers Makepeace and her convertible XR3i in the show Dempsey & Makepeace?
Great find – I can remember when our US version was introduced with its dowdy styling and then seeing a picture of the European XR3i, and thinking what great looking car.
I had a US spec 1986 Escort GT- better looking, 1.8L fuel injected HO engine- but it was built like crap or maybe mine was just built on a bad day at the Wayne Michigan Assembly plant. A/C went out after one year, radiator went bad, and it left me stranded at least four times.
It amazes me that I still call myself a Ford guy…
The early European Ford Escort looked so clean compared to its overdone American counterpart.
Granada, Sierra, Escort. A number of European Fords from that era looked much cleaner, and more attractive, than what we got in North America.
The Granada at least had the excuse of being a completely different car sharing the name, the Escort on the other hand is so tantalizingly similar to its European counterpart at the core, the clunky dumpy North American mini-LTD styling details come off all the worse.
The irony is the late Pinto ESS styling looks like a more natural predecessor to the Euro Escort.
The dumbed-down Escort’s dashboard was unnecessarily large, more evidence it was designed to appeal to barge buyers.
That aluminum B-pillar strip looked an imitation of the contemporary Toyota Celica’s. I wanted to tear mine off, but worried about what to do with the attachment points.
My mother’s English pen-pal sent a picture of his Escort, the same color. I kicked myself for succumbing to parental brand loyalty and not buying a GLC or Civic instead.
I don’t see what’s so overdone.
The bumpers were that big thanks to Gov’t regs. The chrome Grille and headlight surrounds?
Front end, taillamps and gobs of chrome
That big and unnecessary hunk of brightwork on the B-pillar for starters.
The Detroit disease of trying to make small cars to the tastes of people in the Midwest who only ever drove big American cars and had no tolerance for anything different (like Detroit executives and their relatives). It led to some horrible small car styling, ride, handling and interiors from all the Big 3.
It would have been fun to compare one of these and one of the contemporary American versions side by side. To those of us in the US, a fun-to-drive Escort from those years is a concept that leaves us scratching our heads.
This is an attractive little car.
This isn’t a side by side comparison, but rather a drive of the American built versions of Escort and Rabbit by British magazine Car. Hint: it’s titled The Poor Relations…
Wow, with the Kamei spoiler, stripes and grille too! Nice find. Long one of my favorites (visually, no hands-on experience), these left me scratching my head when it came to the American “version” that was oh so different, like a Euro Golf vs a Pennsylvania Rabbit, or actually even more so.
And don’t forget the “baboon’s bottom” reflective panel! I don’t think this is a true xr3i however. They were never available in old man beige.
Good call. That explains why it was never wrapped around a lamp post.
I remember them mostly being red, white, silver, or black.
Weirdly, I don’t mind the beige. Probably because it’s not too brown a beige, it’s almost closer to off-white.
I tend to love brown cars but I virtually never love beige…
October 1983 Ford ‘Cars’ brochure quotes just Diamond White, Cardinal Red, Black (at extra cost), Strato Silver, Nimbus Grey and Caspian Blue (the last three metallic) for the XR3i. Exactly the same colours were also listed for the XR4i.
Looking more closely this car also has the wrong bumpers (simpler, plainer type used only on base and L models) and no black plastic sill extensions. Looks like a fake.
That’s disheartening. Thanks for looking that up! I thought it seemed a little too squeaky clean.
I guess the hunt goes on for a real XR3i. I wonder if any of our UK and European Curbivores have seen one?
I posted one as part of a walk in France a few years ago. White XR3i…pix 27-30
Yeah, unlikely, innit Bern T? As if some tosser’d buy an XR in the same colour as me Gran’s f***n’ hearing aid. S’ a bloody fake.
Wot is it Stopford, you true to name or wot?
I don’t know wot yer on about, ya daft wanker!
After having a base trim 85 for a short time, I can tell you I would’ve much rather had one of these European escorts, any trim level, any Powertrain, over mine.
These were great looking cars, everything just seemed “right”, except perhaps an inch or so drop on the ride height.
I see what you did there in the title…(“phone dial” wheels, for those of us old enough to know what a phone dial is).
It was more an allusion to the name “Escort”. But yes I guess the title has ended up being a triple entendre!
William, have you ever seen a Ford Laser TX-3 (the KB model)?
[For everyone else, these were the Oz three-door locally built versions of the Mazda 323 (or GLC) from ’83-’86, complete with telephone dial wheels and stripes and a unique suspension and nose, but with a twin-carb 1.5 Mazda engine, not Ford engine & injection]
I ask because the I’m curious if you think the very-similar looking Euro XR3 here looks better. In my view, the Escort somehow looks way nicer. Not sure why.
Actually, given your age vs. mine, I should just ask if you’ve ever seen a Laser TX-3?!
I haven’t seen one in a long, long time. Yes, the Escort looks more resolved, more mature.
Now a KC TX3 versus this Escort… that’s another story! Those bubbleback Lasers were good-looking cars!
Nice find Will.
Always liked the XR3 better than the GTI
I’m amazed at how widely used that early 80s Ford front end was. Escort, Cortina, Granada, Falcon… And how many other models?