COAL: 1985 Ford Escort – The Short Timer


Harkening back to the last COAL with the Blazer, it was the fall of 1995 and I was 29.  After some personal reflection, I felt I had to get my life together with an eye toward being an honest to goodness grown up.  I wanted to get debt free with the goal, someday, of buying a house.  I had to find ways to cut expenses to improve my personal balance sheet.  I figured car payment and insurance was costing me $350 a month plus gas, and that was a good place to start. The Blazer sold quickly, and I was out from under.

The solution, or so I thought at the time, was right under my nose.  Dad and Mom both recently retired. Dad had a ‘92 Chevy Lumina and they were going down to one car and were ready to part with the 1985 Escort they owned since new, with barely 60,000 miles on it. I could have it for $700.00 and because it was from a relative, I didn’t have to pay sales tax when I registered it at the Secretary of State. Dad saved me the whopping sum of $42.00 on the transaction. Done.

I cannot recall what the onus was for them to buy the Escort over say, one of the GM J-bodies as Dad was a lifetime GM loyalist. Sister and brother had Ford and GM employee discounts they could pass on. It was the first Ford we had in the family since an old 62 Ford Falcon that was Dad’s get-to-work-and-back car in the mid-70s.   Dad’s 76 Impala was at the end of the line and maybe they had no choice.  But…had they waited a few short months into late spring of that year, the 1985 -1/2 model was a holistically far better car.

The “1/2” sported a new, more powerful fuel-injected 1.9L motor (instead of the carbureted 1.6L), new and improved suspension and a new front end as well as many minor upgrades inside and out. Sold as a nameplate elsewhere since the 1950’s, when it was introduced in the US in 1980, it was touted as one of Fords first World Cars. It was a massive seller everywhere.   420,000 Escorts were sold in 1985 in the United States. A total of 4.1 million Escorts were sold in the nameplates 33 year run in Europe alone.

The US and Euro versions looked vaguely similar, but from online research and reviews, it seems those Fords were made with far better components and engines, more variants, and were more capable all around.  I believe my Grandfather, a very kind man who lived to almost 101, offered to purchase the car for Mom, saying she might as well take some of her inheritance when she could actually use it. Off to Al Long Ford as soon as the snow melted, and it came home.

True to form for my parents, it was a back of the lot stripper. It was Mom’s first (and only) new car just for herself.  AM-only radio, and air conditioning, and that’s all she wrote as far as options. She had a barely 10-minute commute to work and was a very slow and careful driver. On paper a little runabout like this seemed to suit her needs just fine. But it was a hard life for the Escort. Almost no highway driving, lots of start/ stop and short trips and hours parked at work in the cold.  Mileage accumulated on the odometer  slowly, but with 4 seasons and long winters filled with salty roads, despite it living in the garage, mass rust came shockingly fast.

I knew what I was getting into with this simple and basic little car. Fun or exciting it was not, but it didn’t matter to me and I was glad to have it.   It only had 60,000 Mom miles on it and it was reasonably maintained.   All I was hoping for was a couple of years of trouble free, no car payment transportation along with good gas mileage (24 city/29 highway)  and cheap, no collision coverage insurance.   This car certainly had lots of life left in it, right?   Weeks into ownership, the antifreeze started looking like 2% milk, and it was off to All-Nite Auto for a new head gasket for $700.00. As a side note, a few COAL’s back, I mentioned my Dad purchased from his brother Al, a pristine 1981 Escort.  At much lower mileage it had a catastrophic failure… a cracked engine head that was over $1,000 to fix (or $2,300 in 2018 money).

I was now $1,400 into the car. Thinking I’d have it for at least a couple of years and surely it would be rock solid after this repair, I put a cheap tape deck to replace the AM one-speaker radio.  After that head gasket debacle…. I have to say it was serviceable, started and ran, and never left me stranded. There were absolutely no redeeming qualities about the car, it was almost dangerously slow, even when looking at it as basic transportation. It did what I asked of it.

My apartment had a garage, use of which my roommate and I would swap use of in alternate weeks.  It did not like winter. With a carburetor, you did the the old pump-pump-pump on the pedal, then start it. It needed a long warm up to normal operating temperature and would sputter and groan.    I lived down a two-lane road and on those cold days it  would take miles for it to reach normal operating temperature and go above 30 MPH, and a long line of cars would be behind me as the speed slowly crept up.    On the other hand, it was great not caring about the car. I could forget to lock it – nothing worth stealing, and if a miscreant wanted it …well he or she could have it.

The days of the Escort were short. In the spring of 1996, one day I noticed the rear passenger wheel was splaying out. I figured maybe it needed some suspension work. I took it to K-Mart, where the Swedish-expat mechanic told me some bad news. The shock tower was rusted and was jaggedly tearing away from the rest of the car.  This wasn’t something that he could fix, and it could be dangerous. What about welding it? Can’t weld rust to more rust.  The car was toast!  I needed a car that I could depend on, as I did travel around town for work.  I guess carefree hooptee life wasn’t what I envisioned. It had to go.

In retrospect, the Escort was a terrible vehicle and the worst car I ever owned, bar none. I think how cars liked this turned people off to domestic compact cars and sent them, especially outside of Big 3 loyalist country, clamoring for Japanese car dealerships.  It was an 11-year-old car, not even 70,000 miles on the odometer and it was ready for the crusher.  I had the car for just over 7 months. As a cheap and cheerful car, it was a total bust.  I wasn’t any better off financially, and now I had to get into car payments again instead of saving for a house. I wasn’t sticking my head in the sand and you gotta have wheels.  But would I have better luck next time?