COAL/QOTD: 1986 Ford Escort GT – Do You Have a New Car Horror Story?

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I’ve bought several new cars that were clear, unqualified disasters -these cars were so bad they still give me Stephen King-level nightmares.  I always thought the advertising tagline for my 1981 Buick Skylark should have been “Let It Light Your Fire” – because that’s what it almost did to me – literally.

But let’s delve into what I consider to be my worst new car experience.  I know you must think it would be hard to top a car that almost incinerated you, but yes, I have another horrific tale of auto woe…

In 1986 I was leaving a military assignment in Korea and headed to another one in Hawaii.  As I outlined in my Crown post, I had shipped my 1978 MS-85 Crown to Korea, and it had served me well.  I would have taken it with me to Hawaii but to federalize it would have cost an arm and a leg.  So I needed a new car.

You may be familiar with the Exchange retail system on US military bases – the BX or PX.  The Exchange operated (and still operates) a new car buying service, similar to credit unions, insurance companies, and retailers like Costco.  I decided to give it a shot as the prices were very reasonable and if I ordered early enough, the car would be waiting for me when I arrived.

1980 European Escort XR3

So, what to buy.  Well, way back in 1980, I had seen pictures of the then new European Ford Escort – wow, nice looking, and very sporty.  Ford was then touting it as its “World Car”, so I assumed our North American model would be exactly the same.  As we know, that wasn’t quite correct – the NA Escort came out looking frumpy, even in its performance GT trim.

MotorWeek 1986 Ford Line Review – Escort starts at 4:45 mark

But along came 1986 and Ford gave the Escort a significant makeover; new aerodynamic body and fender skirts, an asymmetrical grille, High Output 1.9 liter EFI engine.  I thought it looked like a smaller version of the Merkur XR4Ti which everyone knew was European born and bred.  A positive review on MotorWeek sealed the deal, and I put down my money.

1986 Escort GT (internet photo)

The car arrived in Hawaii a few weeks after me.  It looked great – refrigerator white with a light gray interior.  I got quite a few compliments and questions – what is it?  Is it European?  How much did you pay?  It drove fairly well – the 5 spd manual was a little vague, but it shifted OK.  The 1.9 HO SOHC four ran smoothly with the EFI, though it sounded more “chuffy” than sporty.  The 195/60 HR 15 tires and sport suspension resulted in pretty decent handling.  I was happy and satisfied – for the first six months…

Then one day while going down a steep hill, the engine died.  I coasted to a stop, tried to get it to start, but no luck.  I had to tow it to the Ford dealer who diagnosed a bad ECM module.  They replaced it under warranty.

A few months later I was sitting in traffic and the temperature gauge started rising…and rising.  I parked in a lot and checked under the hood – no leaks.  So another tow to the dealer who replaced the solenoid controlling the fan – under warranty.

A few months later the brakes started acting up – pushing on the brake pedal resulted in a “stepped” stop – the pedal would go down and firm up, then suddenly loosen and go down farther.  It never went completely to the floor but made stopping very jerky and unsafe.  I didn’t see any leaking brake fluid so took it to the dealer.  They found a defective master cylinder and replaced it – under warranty.

And a few months after that, the A/C suddenly stopped blowing cold – just warm air.  Another trip to the dealer – and here things got interesting.  The Service Manager, who I had become quite familiar with at this point, looked at me with his best poker face and asked;

“Have you ever opened up the A/C system?”

Uh, what do you mean by “opening up?”

“Well, did you take off any of the A/C hoses under the hood, mess with the condenser, or go inside the evaporator?”

“No, that’s way above my mechanical ability….why do you ask?”

“Well, we found some debris in the system”…

“What kind of debris?”

“Well, it looks like the remains of a napkin”…

“A napkin? You mean a wipe your face napkin?”


So evidently at the Wayne Assembly Plant where my Escort was put together, someone on the line installing the A/C system must have been eating a Twinkie.  Or maybe it was at the plant that manufactured the A/C components.  Or maybe the napkin story was all BS and it was really some A/C interior insulation or lining that came loose that they didn’t want to admit to, given how many other times the car had been in the service bay for warranty work.  Irrespective, after the explanation, I wasn’t a very happy camper.  It only got worse when the SM said the cost to fix it would be $800, as they had to replace the condenser and evaporator core, and that it wasn’t covered under the powertrain warranty.

Not having A/C in Hawaii is really not an option.  It doesn’t get extremely hot and humid, but the air is very clear so the sun really heats up a car interior.  I wasn’t going to fold on this one so I talked to the dealership General Manager – he said the same thing, sorry, but no warranty coverage.  Their story was I was being untruthful and must have taken the car to a local mechanic who introduced “the napkin” into the A/C.  I then took it up the next step to the District complaints office.  They sided with the dealer.  I finally went to the warranty dispute board in Dearborn – they said no warranty claim, but were willing to submit to arbitration.  The arbitrators said 50/50 – which I went with.

That car, and the whole nightmare with the A/C, so infuriated me that I was a loyal Toyota customer for the next thirteen years.

And the Escort?  I sold it after the A/C was fixed to another GI.  I saw him about a month later – he told me he was going down the H1 Freeway when part of the wiring harness burned up – it was in the shop.  I left quickly before he could take a swing at me…

So, while I sincerely hope you don’t, do you have a new car horror story?