(first posted 2/10/2014) There have been several points in my life where I thought I was through driving Escorts, and one of those times was immediately after I sold my first one in late 2004. By 2008, I was again commuting in an Escort, but by then it was the “sports model,” this 1998 ZX2. Although I willingly threw myself back into the odd world of Ford’s “World Car,” this little black throwaway compact likely wishes it had never met me and my family.
In fact, the above photographs are the ones I inserted into my Craigslist ad to sell it in November 2011. It and I had both suffered enough indignities to go on any further, and I, as a 34-year-old man, had finally become embarrassed by driving Escorts. It was indeed a sad day, like the last warm fall day before the impending winter, or the realization that you’re a grown up. That’s all nostalgia and sarcasm, however, because I’m not a rabid Escort fan by any means.
My introduction to this Metallic Black example of Ford’s finest was in 2003, when my dad bought it for my sister. Somebody had roughly repaired accident damage on the body, and Dad bought it for something like $3700. I, at the time, was commuting in an unfortunate 1993 Ford Escort wagon, which is a story for another time. My sister drove this Escort for about four years, before looping it on icy pavement on a freeway onramp. She had had enough, and wanted to sell the ZX2.
By 2007, I was driving a 2-door, 2-wheel-drive 2000 Blazer that I liked, but it only squeaked out about 18 MPG in my mixed commute most of the time. It just didn’t make sense for a 45-mile-per-day trip, so I consented to buy the old Escort for $2000. I had already repainted it once, and it had already taken another small hit in the driver’s side fender (which my dad repainted with a spray can).
I made money on the transaction, and was sucked back into the world of Escort ownership that I’d only been removed from for about three years, after swearing I’d never have another one. After all, my wagon had blown a head gasket; utilized a terrible rear brake design that involved the parking brake freezing about once a year, even with regular cleaning and lubrication; and had an “electrical system” where very little worked when the temperature dropped below 35 degrees. Escorts, in my opinion, were not engineering masterpieces.
Over the course of about four years, I discovered that this Escort was much the same as my wagon, except for the engine. This one had the 2.0 Zetec Twin-Cam that could actually climb hills without losing speed, unlike my wagon’s 1.9, which couldn’t without a highly illegal head of steam. Both were, unfortunately, automatics (my sister can’t drive a stick).
It was indeed gratifying to be pulling down 30+ MPGs, saving money for my fleet of classic junkers. Unfortunately, my garage paint job’s clearcoat started peeling as the car sat out in the elements, and there was no way I was going to give it another shot on this $2000 beater, so out came the spray can–flat black, and not even a close match. I was a card-carrying member of the beater brigade.
Often, beaters get relegated to the chore of winter driving, which is part of the game in the lovely Wolverine State. This Escort, unlike my wagon, was ridiculously awful in snow. My wagon had always done what I called the “Escort Dance,” which is this strange, crab-like movement that is nothing like being directly connected to the road. The ZX2 was far, far worse.
I like winter driving, but this car even made a white-knuckler out of me. I managed to keep it all in one piece until I had a Titanic/Iceberg moment with a young girl in a ’90s Grand Marquis who thought she had enough traction to cross the road in front of me. She did not. That big old Panther ripped right into the poor little spinning Escort like an electric can opener into a can of Spaghetti-Os.
To make matters worse, I had to suffer the indignity of having a very nice State Police officer push me a quarter-mile home when the car stopped running at the nearest stoplight to the accident. Things didn’t look good for the old Escort’s survival, but I’m cheap, so I decided to make it work. I visited the junkyard to replace the smashed fuel pump driver in the trunk, which got the car running. With the help of my ’65 Mustang’s scissor jack and some 2x4s, I pushed the quarter panel out, attached the taillight to the car with some self-drilling screws, and duct taped over everything.
I drove for almost a month with one of the beateriest of beaters, all the while looking around for cars that looked worse than mine. There weren’t many. It was hilarious in an almost perverse way; I had, by far, the junkiest car in the work parking lot, but twisted humor can only get a man so far in life. After managing to find a local body shop that fixed it for me for $1000, I was back on the road. Even better, those guys are now my friends and have painted two of my classic cars for me at a very reasonable price.
After that, other than one bored afternoon where I touched up the hood with Rustoleum and a paintbrush, laughing my head off and scaring the neighbors, the Escort and I coexisted fairly peacefully. I changed the timing belt once, replaced a rusted oil pan (!?!), and installed a new radiator when the old one leaked enough to become an issue (my wagon leaked in the exact same spot; it’s nice to see that Ford got its act together in those five model years). In 2011, after poking some significant rust holes in the lower quarter panels and looking at the nearly bald back tires, I decided that enough was enough.
This car was too big a piece of junk even for me, and I put it up for sale. I started at the same $2000 I bought it for, but soon realized that that was insane. After dropping the price to $1400, I eventually sold it to a guy who worked as a deer processor, which is worth mentioning because he bought the car for $1000 and a free deer processing. This felt like I was bartering on the Oregon Trail; I almost asked him to throw in an ox. I don’t hunt, but my cousin appreciated it, considering it was firearm deer season at the time.
Used cars in late 2011 were stupidly expensive for what you got, so I decided to buy the only new car I’ve ever had, a 2012 Focus. I liked the Chevy Cruze just as well, but they cost more. My Focus is an SE with one option–cruise control. I figure that I can keep this thing around, with some luck, for at least 10-15 years if I don’t get too bored with it. My wife and I even call it the “Escort,” indicating that there might be a soft spot somewhere for those old beaters.
I can, however, tell the difference. The Focus has a working electrical system and doesn’t feel like the brake pedal was designed as some torture device for people whose shoe size is over six and a half. Happily, my old Escort is still bombing around town, with just a little more rocker rust than it had under my watch. It even is sometime parked at a house down the street. As for me, I find myself hoping my Escort days are over, but I’m too smart to say that aloud.