Curbside Classic: 1987 Ford Escort – Do It Right The First Time

What was the single greatest Deadly Sin that all of the formerly-Big Three committed over and over and over and over…?

Releasing new cars that were half baked.

Here’s just a few of the worst sinners:

1949 Ford

1953 Studebaker Coupes

1957 Chrysler Corp. Cars

1957 Ford

1960 Valiant

1971 Vega

1976 Volare & Aspen

1980 GM X-Bodies

1981 Ford Escort

Let’s stop there, for now, as the list would get mighty long, and our featured car is an Escort. But in each of these cases the cars were either not properly developed before production, or the production quality was just abysmal, or all-too commonly, both. We could spend a lot of time (and we have) on all of these cars and more. And although these are some of the worst up to 1981, almost without fail, first (and often second year) versions of a new domestic car was inevitably something of a crap shoot. There’s a very good reason why it’s much harder to find first and often second year versions of old cars still on the street. And the later in the model run, the more likely one is to still see them.

Of course, this was essentially never the case with Japanese cars. They invariably are as good from day one to the end of a given series. This was really the single biggest key factor that determined the rise of the Japanese brands and the fall of domestic brands. Wait long enough, and the domestics usually got to be reasonably reliable and mostly fleshed out. Like this 1987 Escort.

The Escort arrived in 1981 more like semi-raw than even half baked. In the Escort’s case, it wasn’t any single one fatal flaw, just all-round mediocrity. It felt like a crude prototype cobbled up two years before production was to begin. The suspension and its overall handling were grossly lacking any refinement, aplomb, balance or composure. It dipped and bobbed and slewed its way down the highway and around curves. Its 69 hp 1.6 L four buzzed and whined and bleated, and never delivered the slightest sense of enthusiasm or pleasure.

In addition to its inherent feebleness, the engine was teamed up to a manual transmission that was hell-bent on destroying any sense of performance: a three-speed plus overdrive. Ford called it a four-speed, but its gear ratios (3.58, 2.05, 1.23, 0.81) were clearly those of a three-speed OD transmission. Yes, it was 1981 and squeezing out every bit of gas mileage was an obsession, but a three-speed plus overdrive was a cruel trick to play on the unsuspecting. Which is what I was, when I rented one for a week in the Rocky Mountains. It was a painful driving experience, never mind the cheap interior materials and general tinny quality it exuded.

From Colorado, we flew out to Baltimore. And what was sitting in the garage, where the ’73 Coronet wagon used to be? My mom’s new Escort wagon. In this case, it had 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 oddly like an old original Hydramatic: very mechanical, with abrupt and jerky shifts, and lots of gear whine. In an unpleasant way, all round.

This is all just a brief version of my full 1981 Escort CC, titled “You Never Get A Second Chance To Make A Good First Impression”.

But some years later, when my youngest brother bought an Escort of similar vintage as our featured one, as his first car, I had a fairly short drive in it, and lo! It was quite considerably improved. Under the hood there was a 1.9 L version of the CVH four, making a mighty 90 hp. And the five speed manual transmission’s gearing was now quite normal. And its handling was…about what it should have been back in 1981.

Just to be clear: it was no Honda Civic, by a long shot. And we had reason to know, having had two of them a couple of years earlier. The 1981 couldn’t hold a candle to the gen2 Civic. All new Civics generations were arriving every four years back then, and the exceptional gen3 that had arrived in 1984 made even this somewhat improved Escort feel sadly obsolete. But it gets worse: this generation of Escort was built all the way through 1990, by which time the gen4 Civic was already three years old, and would be replaced by the next one in 1991. The gen1 Escort’s lifespan covered three generations of Civic, meaning it just fell further and further behind, even though it was somewhat improved from its 1981 beginnings.

So who bought Escorts despite their initial shortcomings? Plenty of folks, but undoubtedly their concentration was much greater away from the coasts, where the Japanese inroads were much deeper already. And they sold on price; thanks to the ill-conceived Voluntary Import Restrictions, Honda dealers were fleecing their desperate customers. An Escort might well be had for one to two thousand dollars less. That’s precisely why my youngest brother bought one.

This price gap between Japanese and American small cars was by now deeply entrenched, and was the reason the Big Three couldn’t make any profits on their small cars. Which is why they kept not investing in them and cutting corners on them: a self fulfilling prophecy.

Ford still had a good rep in California in the ’80s; Californians snapped up Taurii like sushi. But unlike the Escort, the Taurus did arrive fully baked. And it went on to be a huge and highly profitable franchise for Ford. There’s no doubt that if the ’81 Escort had arrived as fully baked as the Taurus did, its trajectory would have been quite different.

As it is, the gen2 Escort managed to redeem itself, thanks to it being essentially a Mazda 323 with a Ford engine. It did quite well on the West Coast, and was clearly the most competitive small car from Detroit. Thank you, Mazda!

Gen1 Escorts seem to all have evaporated very suddenly a few years back. Global warming? Which made finding this nicely kept 5-door across the alley from my favorite free plumbing advice shop/plumbers if I really need one (The Plumbing Works) a pleasant surprise.

I’d been digging a 2 ½’ deep hole to repair a broken water line to one of my rentals, and needed some advice as to the best way to fix this properly, as I bodged this splice when I first made it twenty years ago. At the time, I had already glued up the 3/4″ PVC line to the house when I realized I’d forgotten to glue in a line to a spigot in the back yard. So I cut the line and used this compression splice to add a 1/2″ riser for the spigot. I didn’t like the feel of that compression splice; it just felt a bit flimsy, and…half baked. I should have used something better and more durable, but didn’t feel like digging it up more. It was a quick and easy fix.

It worked ok until the summer of 2017, when the utility informed the tenants that their water meter was spinning out of control. I dug down in the concrete-hard dirt and found the fitting. It was hard enough just finding it and digging it that far. I put on some adjustable pliers and tightened the two ends. And that ended the leak; for now. Yesterday, the tenants got the same notice from the utility.

This time, I’m going to do it right, and use a glue-on slip fitting. This is how it looked before I quit for lunch. I was tired and beat. I didn’t want to deal with any more. I went to The Plumbing Works and made an appointment for them to do it next Tuesday. And then went on a hike. And afterwards, late in the afternoon, I got a surge of energy and dug a much bigger hole (no picture), big enough so tomorrow morning (Friday), I’ll install that fitting.

Yes, I digressed. But the moral of the story is the same for both the Escort and my pipe: if they had been thought out and executed properly the first time, there wouldn’t have been all this wasted energy fixing it twice (more often, in the case of the Escort). Do it right the first time. The Japanese figured that out a long time ago. Us dumb Americans are still struggling with that.


Related:  CC 1981 Ford Escort: You Never Get A Second Chance To Make A Good First Impression