You can add Australia to the list of global markets that received a better compact Ford in the 1980s than North America did. Ford’s much ballyhooed “global” Escort was so thoroughly altered for American consumption – mostly for the worse – that it was almost unrecognizable underneath its similar sheetmetal. At the same time in Australia, where compact cars were becoming exceedingly popular, the European-sourced rear-wheel-drive Mk2 Escort was long in the tooth. For 1981, Ford Australia would field a thoroughly modern, locally-built, front-wheel-drive compact fit for the 1980s. Of course, it was the very same compact that you would find if you drove down the road to the Mazda dealership.
The RWD Escort had a cult following thanks to its rally pedigree and impressive dynamics, as well as its zesty RS2000 flagship and handy panel van model. The Aussie small car market, though, was entering an era of front-wheel-drive dominance. Soon, even rear-wheel-drive stalwarts like the Holden Gemini and Toyota Corolla would shift to the new, more space-efficient layout.
Although the first European FWD Escort was ostensibly a global car, the Asia-Pacific region did not receive it. Instead, the KA-series Laser was introduced in 1981, effectively a restyled Mazda 323/GLC; Ford had acquired a 25% stake in Mazda in 1979. The Laser was even introduced to certain African, Central and South American and Caribbean markets, further undermining the Escort’s claim to be a “global car”. It was really more a European car with a bastardized American offshoot.
Ford Australia apparently considered the “Erika”, as the European FWD Escort was codenamed. In the end, though, it worked out cheaper and more profitable to introduce the Laser. $AUD13.1 million was spent refurbishing the Homebush, New South Wales plant, where Lasers were assembled from Japanese completely knocked down kits.
The 323 was an excellent base for Ford’s new compact, as it had quickly become a critical darling in the Australian automotive media and won the prestigious Wheels Magazine Car of the Year award for 1980.
Ford’s new compact did receive some differentiation from its Mazda counterpart. There was new styling front and rear, as well as different interior trim; five-door Lasers also received a different C-pillar design to the 323. These parts, coupled with some Australian-sourced mechanical components, were enough to result in 50% local content altogether. Ford Australia was insistent the Laser be assembled to the same high-quality standards as the 323, knowing consumers would be more critical of the locally-built car. This emphasis on quality resulted in a pretty well screwed-together car.
Engine choices were limited to transversely-mounted 1.3 and 1.5 four-cylinder engines; a smaller 1.1 was offered only in other Asia-Pacific markets. The base 1.3 put out 64hp and 68 ft-lbs while a bigger 1.5, available in the GL 5-dr and luxury Ghia 5-dr, put out 72hp and 81 ft-lbs. In the 1.5, peak torque was delivered lower at 3000rpm, so although the 1.3 was plenty peppy, the 1.5 was appreciably stronger. In the Sport 3-dr, the 1.5 had a twin-carb setup, good for an extra 9 horsepower. The Sport also carried different seats and extra instrumentation.
A four-speed manual transmission was standard, but a five-speed manual and three-speed automatic were optional. The Laser, like the 323, had four-wheel independent strut suspension which provided good handling and a surprisingly compliant ride. Critics were enamoured with the compact duo’s responsive steering – a rack-and-pinion setup with 3.5 turns lock-to-lock – and their quite mild understeer. Brakes were powered front discs and rear drums.
The Laser received anti-roll bars front and rear, while the 323 made do with only a rear bar. Still, years before Zoom-Zoom, Mazda was showing its engineering and tuning chops: the 323/Laser had a slick manual gearshift, punchy engines and excellent high-speed stability for a compact. Tellingly, though, contemporary reports show the duo suffered from an excess of road noise, something Australian journalists still criticize Mazdas for to this day.
Pricing was scarcely different between the Laser and 323, with the Laser range priced from $AUD5846-7677 and the 323 from $5803-6874. The Laser Ghia, as befitting its luxury nameplate, received a cassette player, alloy wheels, and other niceties not found in the top-spec 323. Interestingly, the RWD Escort actually retailed at a good $500 or so less than its successor, but the Laser’s pricing was lineball with the Datsun Sunny, Holden Gemini, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
A sedan variant would arrive later in 1981, wearing the heritage Ford nameplate “Meteor” and slightly different front-end styling from the Laser. It was initially positioned as an interim replacement for the Cortina, but it’s doubtful anyone ever considered it a valid replacement: the Cortina had been available with six-cylinder engines and a wagon, while the Meteor came only as a 1.5 sedan. The Telstar, based on the Mazda 626, would arrive shortly after the Meteor’s launch and become a legitimate mid-size entry for Ford. Like the Mazda 323 in 1980, the Telstar/626 duo would be Wheels’ Car of the Year for 1983.
It didn’t take long for Aussies to adjust to a modern, front-wheel-drive, compact hatch from a mainstream brand. Sales had been projected at 20,000 annual sales, still a sizeable chunk of a 120,000 unit-strong segment, but the Laser rocketed up to the top of the sales charts, becoming Australia’s best-selling compact by the end of 1982. Sales exceeded 50,000 units and, thanks to import quotas, the almost identical 323 couldn’t pose too much of a threat: the Laser outsold the 323 by around 3-to-1. In other Asia-Pacific markets, where Ford wasn’t seen as a “local” brand, though, the sales ratio was flipped on its head.
For 1983, the Laser was revised; the new model designation was “KB”. Cosmetic changes consisted of a new front fascia, while mechanical changes included tweaks to the engine mounts and exhaust to tone down road noise, as well as revised springs and shock absorbers to improve ride and handling. The twin-carb 1.5 was available in the flagship Meteor Ghia High Performance, but an even sportier Laser would arrive: a limited-run turbo model with 104hp. This would be the first in a line of sporty turbocharged Lasers that would be more and more powerful with each generation.
Ford enjoyed a considerable time at the top of the compact sales charts, going from strength to strength. The “bubble-back” KC Laser of 1985 was extremely popular – it was related to the first Mercury Tracer – and Ford continued to manufacture the Laser in Australia until the mid-90s. At that point, Ford switched to importing the Laser. Prices rose, turbo and all-wheel-drive models disappeared, and Ford lost its spot at the top. Despite the eventual arrival of the impressive European Focus, Ford has struggled mightily in a segment that has become even more hyper-competitive.
The KA/KB Laser showed Australia that a local brand could produce a well-built, fun-to-drive, space-efficient and modern compact. Ford beat Holden to the market by three years, and its arch-rival would try and fail at defeating the Laser’s dominance with its own rebadged Japanese model: the 1984 Astra was a Nissan Pulsar fettled by Holden.
Although the enthusiast community has heartily embraced the last rear-wheel-drive compacts (the Gemini and, to a lesser extent, the Escort), these Lasers provided faithful, reliable and satisfying service to hundreds of thousands of Aussies. And as these pictures show, there are still a few on our roads. How does that American Escort look now?