For those of us who are fascinated by automotive minutiae, car models that were produced for a partial year hold special allure. Ford churned out several examples over the decades – the 1970 Falcon, the ’86 LTD… and if those aren’t exciting enough, the 1990 Escort. All of these represent the final gasp of long-running models, and this example carries the extra enticement of being the relatively uncommon wagon version. While far from the most exciting car to grace Curbside Classic, it’s unlikely that many other 1990 Escort wagons will turn up, so we might as well enjoy examining this one.
Ford’s subcompact Escort hit North American showrooms as a 1981 model under the guise of a “World Car,” since Ford developed it to replace both its European Escort and the North American Pinto. This model’s importance is hard to overestimate. Debuting at the height of consumer interest in subcompacts, the Escort’s tasks in North America were to simultaneously replace the aging Pinto, and to demonstrate that Ford could make money on subcompacts (which the Pinto never did). The “World” nature of this model was stressed heavily at first, though Ford President Phillip Caldwell was quick to point out plenty of differences between the European and North American versions. Said Caldwell early on, regarding the transatlantic Escort siblings: “Like most sisters, they will look a little different.” Which they certainly did.
North America’s Escort didn’t become the revolutionary or profitable vehicle its proponents had wished for, but it certainly sold in big numbers – exceeding 300,000 annual sales for nine straight years, and topping out at 430,000 in 1986.
When introduced for 1981, Escort came in 3-door and wagon bodystyles – a 5-door hatchback was added for ’82. Wagons accounted for 40 percent of those first-year sales, and even after 5-doors joined the lineup, wagon sales still comprised between 20 and 25 percent of Escorts annually. By the late 1980s, however, Escort wagon sales slipped sharply, as the overall small-wagon sector contracted. By 1989, only 9 percent of Escorts were wagons.
1990 Escort production is somewhat mysterious. Escort’s 1990 model year was abbreviated, since the all-new ’91 models were introduced in the spring of 1990. Production statistics indicate that 290,516 Escorts were produced for 1990, which at first glance seems suspiciously high for an aging model with an abbreviated production year, leading one to question whether that figure includes some 1991 cars as well. However, production of the outgoing 1990 and redesigned ’91 models overlapped for three months. 1991 Escort production began on February 26, 1990, at Ford’s Wayne, Michigan plant, while the last 1990 Escort rolled out of the Edison, New Jersey plant on May 25. Given that overlap, the 290,000 figure appears believable.
Unfortunately, no figures seem available on 1990’s bodystyle breakdown, but given the preceding model years, it seems unlikely that wagons exceeded ten percent of total Escort production. In that event, 1990 Escort wagons probably numbered between 20,000 and 30,000.
With that background out of the way, let’s examine our Spinnaker Blue featured car. 1990 Escorts came in three trim levels – the value-leading Pony and sporty GT ( both available only as a 3-door)… and the LX, which brought plusher interior trim as well as some other nicities and was available in all three bodystyles.
All told, 1990 LX wagon prices started at $8,737 – a competitive price for the times. At about $1,500 under the similarly-sized Civic or Corolla wagons, this price advantage provided the Escort wagon’s major selling point. Of course, build quality and drivability couldn’t match the Japanese competition, but for price-conscious buyers, this was a reasonable choice.
Aside from the missing front bumper cover (replaced by a homemade battering ram), this car has weathered the decades relatively intact, with no visible rust or body damage – an impressive feat for a 30+ year-old economy car that looks like it’s been driven regularly.
Looking closely at the rear seat area from this angle, one can see the single visual clue that this is a ’90 model – rear seat shoulder belts, as required by US law for the 1990 model year. (For dedicated followers of automotive minutiae, the 1990 LX’s optional polycast wheels had a slightly different design – that’s the only other way to identify a 1990 vs. a 1989 Escort.)
Inside we see a well-worn Regatta Blue interior – and someone had been thoughtful enough purchase a protective dash cover at some point. This car was ordered with the Escort’s two highest-cost options, being air conditioning ($720) and an automatic transmission ($439). However, while many Escorts LXs came with the “Special Value Package” that added items such as a rear defogger, power mirrors, and intermittent wipers, this car instead has a scattering of individual options. The defogger and AM/FM radio here were evidently ordered as stand-alone options.
This brochure image illustrates the Escort wagon’s appeal. For well under $10,000 (these often sold at hefty discounts), one could enjoy 59 cu. ft. of cargo room – a good value for a practical car.
Practical – but hardly exciting. The 1.9-liter 90-hp engine produced adequate enough power for the day, though when mated with the 3-speed automatic transmission, much of that power vanished. But one group of people who wouldn’t complain about this car’s power would have been owners of older Escorts. When first introduced, Escorts were “powered” by a 1.6-liter engine with 20 fewer horsepower. The 1990 Escort was a powerhouse by comparison.
By 1990, Escort was showing its age. In terms of both build quality and drivability, these cars seemed almost antiquated compared to the Japanese competition. For example, Honda’s Civic range underwent two complete redesigns between 1981 when the Escort debuted and 1990 when our featured car was sold.
Though Escorts were common enough as to become almost invisible, this was an attractively-styled car – its vaguely European conservatism provided enough style not to look embarrassingly cheap. From a purely styling perspective, the wagon was probably the best-looking model in the Escort range, though by 1990, every shred of newness had long since disappeared.
Ford’s updated 1991 Escort, with its Mazda mechanicals, added refinement that the original lacked, though that advancement came with a cost since the ’91s carried a 10% list price increase over the ’90 models. Given that looming price bump, one can see how frugal buyers in 1990 would seek the outgoing, heavily-discounted older models instead of the ’91s that may have been on sale simultaneously.
Startlingly few of these cars have made in into the 2020s, and the sight of one has almost become cause for celebration…. particularly the largely-forgotten 1990 model. This particular wagon – one of North America’s cheapest station wagons when new – has provided over three decades of service to its owners. It may have been an outdated last gasp of a ubiquitous model when new, but in terms of the durability this car has furnished over the past few decades, this wagon is worthy of considerable respect.
Photographed in April 2023 in Mexico, Missouri.