Curbside Classic: 1981 Ford Escort – You Never Get A Second Chance To Make A Good First Impression

(first posted 12/29/2011)    I really wanted to like the Escort when it arrived in 1981. Just like I really wanted to like Ford then. Ford was just coming out of its dark night of near-bankruptcy, having been taken down by one too-many of their notorious 1970s bulge-mobiles. Their new president, Donald Petersen, was my kind of guy: no BS, soft-spoken, and a genuine car guy. And he had some serious cleaning up to do after a decade of Lido and Hank’s self indulgent ways. The all-new fwd Escort sounded so promising: a clean sheet design, a genuine VW Golf/Rabbit competitor, a world car, no less. Then I drove one, for two weeks. And I’ve been hating on this generation of Escorts ever since. First impressions are lasting ones indeed.

Ford made a lot of hoopla about the new Escort being a World Car, a mostly new concept at the time for one of the Big Three. Not totally, of course, as GM’s Chevette was an Americanized Opel Kadett. But this was different, a new car designed from scratch to be built globally by Ford and its affiliates. Of course, GM was doing the same thing with its J-Car program, which arrived just one year later.

The problem with the Escort was the classic one of too many chefs engineering departments spoiling the stew. Ford had never really tried this before, and the (once) all-mighty hometown team probably had some issues sharing responsibilities, or at least coordinating them. Who knows how it all went down, but the end result was…

…that red 1981 Escort hatchback waiting for us at the Hertz lot in Denver. By that time, I had read a few things about the new Escort in the magazines, but frankly, nobody wanted to be too terribly harsh with it, being that Ford’s future existence (and advertising budgets) were practically riding on its knock-kneed stance.

Yes, the new Escorts had a peculiar tendency to exhibit positive camber on the front wheels, and negative camber on the rears, as in this white coupe, which is serial number 1. That might not necessarily be the end of the world, but in the case of the Escort, it was an all-too effective tell-tale of its road manners: confused, bungling, idiotic.

We were on a two-week vacation in the Rockies, staying in some friends’ rustic cabin right up near the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park. I figured the Escort would not only be cheap, but fun to drive on all the endless mountain roads in that part of the world, a driving paradise. Especially so in the fall, when all the tourists were gone.

I figured wrong; the Escort was ill-suited to the task. And it wasn’t just the very unsorted-out suspension, which made it feel like it was sick, staggering around corners and bobbing on the straights. And that was before we ever left the airport!

Time to get on the highway, and the Escort’s other infirmities quickly made themselves known. Our rental had a stick shift, as I had requested, wanting to make the most of its obviously none-too powerful 1.6 L CVH four. What was Ford’s idea of a stick shift? A super-wide spread four speed, making it essentially a three-speed with an overdrive. Just the ticket for those impressive EPA numbers for the ads. But the worst possible gearing for a 69 hp engine in the high altitude Rockies. EPA-hyping is an old trick, and in this case a hellish one.

Especially since the CVH motor was a gutless lump, which made horrendous noises as it slowly crawled its way up into the rev band. No wonder its acronym became to stand for Considerable Vibration and Harshness. The drive up Hwy 36 to Boulder that night was a major letdown, and an ugly foreshadowing of things to come. The coffee-grinder under the hood couldn’t handle it all in third gear, and second was too low. The spread between the gears was ridiculous, essentially a six-speed with second and fourth gear missing. A seven speed with second, fourth and sixth missing? You get the picture.

I knew this road like the back of my hand, and used to be able to rip up it in my big-bore 1350cc VW Beetle flat out in fourth. Maybe if I trusted the Escort’s handling better, which felt like it was walking on stilts, I might have been able to take the curves flat out in third too. Not tonight, in this car.

Turns out that Ford just barely killed a 1.3 liter version shortly before going into production. Now that would have really made an impression. Good call. Meanwhile, the Euro 1.9 liter Escort Mk III was making 90 hp at a minimum, and more in the higher output versions.

It’s not like the Escort kept us from having a good time – hiking, that is. We drove it all over Central Colorado, and it was an endless exercise in frustration. And Ford was taking on the brilliant, fuel-injected and superb-handling Rabbit/Golf with this? Good luck.

Well, in a way, Ford did luck out. Timing is everything, and the Escort arrived at exactly the second moment in time when Americans were freaked out about rapidly rising gas prices. Folks were practically giving away Grand Torinos, Elites, and such stuff in order to stuff themselves into an economical Escort. And it said Ford on it; nothing exotic or foreign for these folks! The Escort sold like warm corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair.

Like my mother: she dumped her ’73 Coronet wagon and bought an Escort wagon in 1981 or 1982. Well, the Coronet was bigger than she needed, now that most of the kids were gone. And of course, it had to be an automatic. So on my next trip home, I had the joy of trying it out. I can’t quite decide which was worse; that wide ratio stick or the automatic.

The early (1981 – 1985) FLC ATX was a torque-split automatic, meaning that a percentage of the engine torque bypassed the torque converter, in the pursuit of that ever-important EPA number. It felt very much like an old original Hydramatic: quite mechanical, with rather abrupt shifts, and lots of gear whine. The new World Car? I hadn’t expected that. By 1986, fully-hydraulic slush-boxes were back. But by then I was long gone.

OK, I was spoiled by all the that damn furrin’ machinery I was driving or exposed to in California at the time. Which means that as Ford slowly fixed all of the most egregious issues of the early Escorts, I had long lost interest in it. And even though Ford did consistently improve it, let’s face it, the Japanese competition was a very fast moving target during the eighties, as the 1984 Civic makes all-too painfully clear. This generation Escort was perpetually playing catch-up.

In 1983, the GT came along, which is essentially what the Escort should have been all along: genuine fuel injection, which added 20 hp to the paltry base engine. And a five speed, I assume. And a sorted-out suspension, I sincerely hope. I can only speculate, because I never got in one again. Which I possibly regret now, as some folks speak fondly of them. Did the engine speak fondly yet too? Not from what I hear.

That might have been more the case in 1985, when the Turbo GT appeared. Turbos have a knack for making certain rough engines sound smoother, and that’s what this one did. With 120 hp, it was undoubtedly brisk for the times. And apparently, it’s very easy to squeeze out twice that much, as the basic CVH engine is quite tough, when it’s not spitting out valve seats or blowing head gaskets, anyway.

The Escort kept morphing, seemingly year by year. Like a new rear roofline on this one,

along with a new rear end.

The interior followed a similar line of evolution, from cheap red vinyl to cheap corporate gray Ford mouse fur.

My younger brother bought a Pony version of one of the latter years as his first car, and was quite happy indeed. It was a reliable, cheap and economical set of wheels. I’m sure there’s many others out there with happy gen1 Escort memories. Not me; I was robbed of them by my first impression. I did give Ford a pass, by buying a ’83 T-Bird TC just a couple of years later. They were trying harder by then, although my Bird was hardly a highly-refined vehicle.

Exactly ten years after my first Escort outing in the Rockies, my parents threw a family reunion in the Rockies. My rental was another dud, a (Daewoo) Pontiac LeMans. But theirs was a brand-new first-year 1991 gen2 (Mazda 323 based) Escort. I drove it a few times, and that certainly left a mighty fine first impression. There are second chances in life after all.