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?
Curbside Classic: 1981-90 Ford Escort (US)
Curbside Classic: 1981 Mazda GLC
Interestingly, the Laser and Telstar were also sold as such in Japan, priced similarly to the contemporary Familia and Capella on which they were based.
I visited Bermuda in the mid 80s and Ford sold Lasers AND Escorts (well, the convertible, anyway) on the small island. Due to laws limiting the physical size of Bermuda’s car (since repealed, I believe) these cars were the largest that Ford could import. Strangely, I never saw a Fiesta while on Bermuda.
Lasers were also sold in Mexico, I think, which I thought was odd considering how cheap Escorts were/seemed to be.
I’ll bet the Lasers sold in Mexico were locally assembled. The Tracer was built at the Hermosillo plant, so it would have been easy to slap a blue oval on the grille for the domestic market.
Thousands of Familias 323s and Lasers still in use here they became a boy racer favourite in the mould of the old Escorts, Geminis are given a wide berth by the tuner community here as they are quite rare and well down on performance, Oddly enough NZ also got the European Ford Escort in the 90s something Australia missed out on and while they really arent much of a car dynamicly they are streets ahead of the Japanese sourced models.
Used to see a lot of the Mazda version in the UK til the rust monster got them.
A nicely written history of a car that played a sizable role in my early life, thanks William! These cars are all but extinct here in NZ now, but back in the early/mid 80’s my parents owned a KA, KB and a KC consecutively before moving permanently to Subaru (with a brief stopover at Holden). All were assembled in New Zealand I believe. The KA was a very basic ‘L’ model three door hatchback that quickly demonstrated that three doors and four passengers isn’t an ideal combination. The next two were Ghia sedans and much more pleasant to ride in. The KC in particular had such amazing luxury features as velour upholstery, a cassette player and power windows! I recall that they were not sporty in the least, even the ‘S’ model being a bit lacklustre. However it may as well have been a spaceship to 9 year old me. Back then, I could easily tell one of these cars blindfolded – they had such a distinctive rattle from the valvegear once they had aged a bit. The lead photo is interesting – the NZ market never got a Ghia version of the hatchback until the KC model (although an upgraded version of the ‘GL’ model was available with the Ghia interior for the KB).
Extinct? I saw more than a dozen yesterday on my rounds, Hawkes Bay is littered with them. When they were new the S was considered quite fast for a 4 banger. The Astra was a joke the dealership my dad was secretary of took on a Nissan range and had the Holden and Nissan versions side by side in the showroom similar to when Geminis and Chevettes shared that space.
Okay, extinct… everywhere except in Hawke’s Bay! I kid. Mostly.
Curiously, there are are 14 for sale in the whole of NZ on TradeMe at the moment, only two of which are in Auckland and none in Hawke’s Bay. You can make your own conclusions from that. Perhaps we’re harder on cars here in Auckland.
Hawkes Bay is a dry climate cars dont rust like they do in the humid north.
I could easily tell one of these cars blindfolded – they had such a distinctive rattle from the valvegear once they had aged a bit.
I had an 85 GLC with the 1.5. There was a little noticed item in the maintenance schedule somewhere around 60-70K miles: “adjust valves”. My valves did not rattle. My car did have a distinctive sound though: a high pitched mix of whir and whine, which I put down to the timing chain. At idle it was the loudest sound the engine made.
You’re probably quite right about the timing chain. I was deliberately vague about whereabouts in the valvetrain that the noise originated. Could be tapping followers overlayed with that characteristic whine.
The first time I noticed there was a Ford-Mazda connection was when the 2nd gen Mazda 121 (see below) was introduced, in 1996. It was a rebadged Ford Fiesta.
Actually the Fiesta is a rebadged Mazda 121 the first series was built by Kia for Ford.
I don’t think so, Bryce. The Mazda 121 above is a 4th gen (1995-2002) Ford Fiesta.
You’re thinking of the Festiva, Bryce.
Another nice one, William. I always liked the reverse-canted front end on the KA. Stylist was a guy called Herb Grasse;
My brother, then sister had a Meteor. They could not kill it.
Agree on the KA styling being the best of the bunch. It lost a lot of distinctiveness with the KB.
(Based on my 5-minute analysis, never having seen either before this morning…)
I’m not seeing the reverse cant on the production KA. Is there something wrong with my device?
Update: I just googled it and see it now. I guess the CC and the ads are all for the KB. We didn’t see that front end on the Mazda 323 obviously.
Maybe I’m seeing things wrong, but I definitely see a forward “lean” to the nose on both the blue 5-door and the red 3-door in the article photos…
Never mind; I hadn’t had my caffeine yet. And I using a very small screen. It looks decidedly more reverse-canted up here on my big monitor!
Mr. Stopford, thanks for the write up on models we have seen only in different forms. I think the Ford product planners hit on something with this car. It would seem the obvious thing to do was stretch the wheelbase and find a bigger engine to handle automatics and other add ons for the Australian market. Instead little more than emblems changed. They must have sensed that the local content rules meant there could be pent up demand for an overtly foreign model with a youth market that did not want to drive their parents car. Being mainly single, the size issue mattered less, and the way young singles congregate in cities must have also helped this car fit the bill for so many.
Here our some stats for the American market 81 Escort and GLC from automobilecatalog.com. It really shows how light weight the GLC was and how much that helped performance, at least with the MT.
81 Escort MT Disp. 98 hp 69 weight 2044 0-60 13.9 top speed 94 mpg 30.3
81 Escort AT Disp. 98 hp 69 weight 2119 0-60 15.5 top speed 94 mpg 25.3
81 GLC MT5 Disp. 91 hp 68 weight 1869 0-60 12.4 top speed 98 mpg 31.5
81 GLC AT Disp. 91 hp 68 weight 1918 0-60 14.4 top speed 95 mpg 25.5
There’s a part of me that wonders how successful this would have been in the USA–I don’t know how well customers who only bought domestics would have taken to a bread-and-butter compact that was clearly a reworked Japanese model. Mercury tried it with the Tracer once the Lynx had been cancelled, essentially the Laser with a Mercury badge, and it seemed to work okay. But what was successful (moderately, anyway) in 1987 for Mercury may not have flown in 1980 for Ford.
It does bring another question to mind though, and one that I’m sure has already been discussed quite amply – why was the US-market Escort so inferior to the Euro model when there was supposed to be quite a lot of commonality? Determination to use local engines? Cost-cutting?
Well, the Maza 323 was fairly successful.
I covered the US Escort in the CC linked at the end of this post. US Ford still had its head up the ass at the time (end of Iaccoca era), and they thought they knew what Americans wanted: a mini version of a wallowing big Ford. They used the same basic body shell, engine and suspension, but the suspension tuning was all wrong. They probably slathered more sound insulation in it. And the engine was typically Malaise Era.
Keep in mind that this was during the same time that VW Malibuized their US-built Rabbit too, although not nearly as bad. Ford tried (and succeeded) to turn the escort into a mini-LTD II. Yuck….
The CVH engine, especially in it’s early form, was not Ford’s finest hour. To have spent the money to develop a modern overhead cam engine and have such a rough, lax performer to show for their efforts is not very impressive. They eventually improved but I don’t think they were ever world class. A sewing machine smooth engine, that handled an AT but was still able to come alive at high rpm, would have vastly improved the Escort, all over the world.
Yeah Ford had it’s head so far up its a$$ that it turned the Escort into the 3rd best selling car in the US in 1981 and then went on to become the best selling car in the US in 1982 and again in 1987 and 1988 and it placed in the top 5 in those years in between. So yeah Ford had no idea what the customers in the US wanted.
There’s a (million) suckers born every minute.
Eric, I’ve long stopped correlating the sales and the actual dynamic (and other) qualities of any given car. The early Escort is a perfect example of that. Go find anyone who had one and thought it was a better than average car, at best.
Sometimes when I rag on a car, I worry that it might just be me and my jaded attitude, but then when the comments come in of other owners it almost inevitably confirms my POV.
The US Escort arrived as a very half-baked car, with suspension tuning that was not at all sorted out, a feeble engine, and a three speed transmission with overdrive manual transmission and long gearing that made it a truly miserable POS to drive. A VW Rabbit was a veritable gift from heaven in comparison.
Of course they sold; it arrived with perfect timing, right during the second energy crunch. Americans are liek sheep, and when the price of gas jumps rapidly, they all dump their big cars and trucks and will buy anything that has a good EPA rating. In 1981 and the few subsequent years thereafter, that was the Escort, for folks desperate to get rid of their wallowing mid-late 70s Ford LTD IIs and such. Perfect timing….for a truly modest and wretched little wart of a car.
Yes, it eventually grew up to be a middling-to-almost-average car; well barely. Stepping out of an Escort into a Honda Civic during those years was a revelation. Even my dear old mom couldn’t believe the difference when she traded in her Escort for a 1992 Civic…day and night. And she was hardly a “car person”.
Your argument is sad; you think if Ford had done its homework a bit better and made the Escort even half as good as the mazda 323, for instance, folks wouldn’t have appreciated it? In 1981, the Big Three could sell anything with a 30+ mpg EPA rating, but that doesn’t mean it was any good.
Is it a mere coincidence that the gen2 Escort WAS a Mazda 323; and was universally regarded as quite a good car; much better than the prior generation.
No I don’t think that the average customer would have liked the Escort more if it was more like the 323. Fact is a lot of customers don’t care about 0-60 times or how fast a car can go around a corner, more so in 1981.
Certainly the Escort sold so well in its early years because of the second gas crisis. During or shortly after a big jump in fuel prices is when US buyers generally make compact or sub compact cars the best selling cars. However 87 and 88 were past that period of the gas price scare. Fact is Escort owner loyalty was high, there were many families that had multiple Escorts at the same time and returned for more of them. That of course does not mean the Escort was the “best” car of its era, just that it was what many buyers considered the right car for them, squishy suspension and all. Just because people who post on automotive websites don’t like a particular car for what ever reason does not mean that everyone feels the same way. If you believe that the internet commenters know what the overall public really wants no one would buy SUV/CUVs and the station wagon would be the most popular car, with diesel power, and manual transmission and of course only in brown.
Of course they sold; it arrived with perfect timing, right during the second energy crunch. Americans are liek sheep, and when the price of gas jumps rapidly, they all dump their big cars and trucks and will buy anything that has a good EPA rating.
True, then there is the fleet sales factor. One of the local newspapers here in Motown ran a table of the top ten sellers in calendar 98. The Taurus and particularly the Escort, had total sales numbers that were close to Accord, Civic and Camry. The difference was that, while about 90% of the Honda and Toyota buyers were retail customers, half of the Fords went to fleets.
And in the what goes around comes around department, with the market flooded with off lease cheap Fords, I picked up a loaded Escort for about $5,000 less than a comparable Civic would have cost.
Stepping out of an Escort into a Honda Civic during those years was a revelation.
Yup. Having owned both a late 90s generation Civic and a late 90s generation Escort, I’ll confirm that. In the case of the 81 Escort, I only had two test drives to experience the rubber band suspension and the dead end in the shifter next to third, that trapped me a couple times. I was sitting in my apartment one day in 81, heard a car drive into the parking lot then an upshift met with a ZZZIIIP of grinding gears. I said “that sounds like an Escort”. I looked out the window as the car went buy. Yup, it was an Escort. I also had several opportunities to drive an 81 Mazda GLC. It lacked both the rubber band suspension and the trick shifter.
What I don’t recall anyone mentioning was Ford’s concept of pedal placement in a manual trans car. The 81 Escort’s clutch was seemingly about 2 inches closer to the driver than the brake, while the accelerator was several inches farther away than the brake, so driving was a matter of stretching to reach the gas, while pulling your left knee halfway to your chin to get your foot on the clutch. The Mazda also lacked this bizarre pedal placement.
I’ll stick up for the styling revisions Ford USA made to the Escort, though. They weren’t great looking in the original chrome-slathered form but the basic bodyshell’s “softer” details nodded toward the aero look and meant that it aged better than the Euro version.
The 1991 Escort *was* a Laser apart from continued use of CVH-derived engines in the volume models. It’s odd that Australia didn’t get the wagon and continued with a prior-generation 323 wagon.
Since 1991 there have only been a couple of small wagons sold here at any one time, the Mitsubishi Lancer until the late ’00s, the Corolla for a few years only and more recently the Peugeot 307/308, VW Golf/Jetta and Renault Megane. Most people buy hatchbacks instead, or larger vehicles. From memory the Laser wagon continued past 1991 by a couple of years.
I’ve always been intrigued by the 1991-1996? Laser as it was the same as our Escort. I remember reading about the TX3 model. Was that a all-wheel-drive version or? I remember it had the same wheels we got on the Mercury Tracer Sport and LTS, and I seem to remember it being available in three-door form versus four-door sedan form.
Yeah the TX3 was turbo 4wheel drive a ex GFs dad had one quite a rocketship in its day he traded a V8 Commodore for it and never regretted it.
We got the Laser in South Africa as well, but the second one , which replaced the Estcourt. For most of the 80s and 90s , our Fords were rebadged Mazdas. Its funny how most Ford fans complained then that we were not getting “True Blue ” Fords , yet sales numbers were great. Now that we get the “Real” Focus and Fusion, they dont sell too well.
Ford Escort MkIII Laser II
I remember reading at the time that the fwd Escort and fwd 323 had been developed in tandem, and certain powertrain parts were interchangeable ( gearbox ?).
My wife’s elderly aunt wanted to change her Escort for the new one, but the Ford dealer could supply only promises, no actual cars. I sat her in a new 323 and she was smitten. The new Escort was savaged by the UK motoring press for its shortcomings ( eventually eradicated). The 323 served well for many years, until the sweet little engine lost some water one night and the aunts’ daughter, who was driving, ignored the warning lights.
Yes some of the manual transmission parts are the same between the first FWD Escorts and GLC/323.
“New Escort” as in this 1990 Escort Mk5 ?
It was mainly criticized due to the fact that Ford kept on using the old engines from the previous generation. Later on, in 1992, Ford introduced their new Zetec DOHC 16v engine-family. Displacement 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 liter.
The 1990 Ford Escort Mk5…with its nonstop updates, modifications and face-lifts, till it was superseded by the 1998 Focus (which was quite a revelation).
The new 1981 front drive Escort. I can remember seeing them on the road for many years afterwards, and they looked to have positive camber on the front wheels and negative at the back. I think the sheer amount of under-steer this produced took many motoring hacks by surprise.
Huh! I was not aware that the Ford Laser was not sold in the US! We had it in Puerto Rico (US territory) along with the Mazda GLC (323 elsewhere).
The Laser was a great car and seemed like it was a bit more upscale compared to the Mazda version….at least with the Ghia trim level.
Great article by the way.
I had a 1987 (Euro) Ford Escort Mk4 with the carbureted 1.4 liter engine, 75 hp. The Mk4 was basically an updated and face-lifted 1980-Mk3.
Everything was manual: the 5-speed transmission, the choke, the windows, the seats, the mirrors and the antenna. Nothing special, just a simple and good car. Good quality paint job too. It served me very well for 5 years, with only routine maintenance.
There is a very strong stylistic link, around the bonnet/front wings, door profile and glasshouse between the 323/Laser and the Euro 1980 Escort.
Are we sure there is nothing in common, or expected to be in common at some point?
Supposedly there was some “input” from Ford on the 323, but essentially they are different cars, similar looks aside. Despite certain stylistic similarities, the dimensions and the fundamental proportions are different.
I drove one of these Lasers in Taiwan, where they were locally assembled by Ford Lio Ho back in the late 80s. Easy to drive and service.
They were considered to be more robust (heavier sheet metal) than the competing Nissan (Yue Loong, now Yulon) Sunnys/Sentras – and would hold up a bit better in a fender bender, but at the expense of slightly higher fuel consumption.
Great article on a very influential car. One minor point: the ad you’ve used the illustrate the KC actually shows the facelifted KE. Great car; I used to have one. The Mazda 3 I drive now feels heavy and clunky in comparison.
Having owned a couple of Mazdas over the years it is less of a mystery to me that Ford went the route they did with the US Escort. A common complaint (and one of the few) with Mazdas to this day (I think) is that they are not very quiet. From my experience road noise was the major culprit but perhaps not the only one. My other complaint was that, even with a 5-speed manual, if you were going over 65 mph that engine was running north of 3000 rpm. These two things together tells us that these were not cars for the Griswold’s yearly vacation. When time came to introduce the Escort the large majority of buyers here were used to being able to take off on a trip in quiet comfort (if not much else). They may not have executed well but they knew their audience.
My other complaint was that, even with a 5-speed manual, if you were going over 65 mph that engine was running north of 3000 rpm. These two things together tells us that these were not cars for the Griswold’s yearly vacation
Didn’t seem to bother mine any, and it spent the last two years I had it slamming down the freeway 120 miles at a crack, 4 times a month. The trick was it wasn’t happy at 65. Must not have been generating quite enough ponies at that speed in 5th. Step it up to 70 and the engine was a lot happier. iirc the torque peak was at 3500, so struggling at 65, turned into a relaxed cruise at 70.
Wind noise was an issue. I noticed that the airflow at 70 sucked the tops of the door window frames out enough that I could see daylight between the window frame and top of the door opening in the body. According to a road test in Road & Track, the late 70s Ford Fiesta had the same issue.
Nice article William, I have been keeping my eye out for early Lasers but I seem to only find KB models, and hardly any KA’s. I remember these when they were new (while my aunt had one of the last rwd 323s), what a difference from the equivalent modern models. Apart from being at least a size smaller, and less space efficient due to lower height in particular, they were just on the right side of being light and flimsy. That was quite common among early-80s cars designed during the fuel crises of course.
One story I heard when they were introduced in Ford’s Sydney plant was that where the old rwd Escort had slotted tabs where components bolted or screwed together, the Laser had round holes which was rather illustrative to the different approach or culture of Japanese designers vs the rest of the world at the time and why the Japanese industry boomed.
Cars in most regions of Australia tend to hang around forever providing they are maintained. I’ve seen the odd shocking rust case in some beachside communities, but due to the mild climate we don’t need to salt the roads.
When I lived in the US I was amazed to see cars of less then 10 years old with quite bad rust. And I learned firsthand how taxing snowy winter driving can be on cars.
I noticed something interesting in the Mazda 323 at near the top, the reference to the 1979 Car of the Year award not being given out. From what I can remember, the new XD Falcon had been a shoe-in for the award, but Edsel Ford II was at the helm of Ford Australia then, and virtually all of the country’s motoring media had a vapid hatred of the man, for reasons which were unclear to me. So, the award was petulantly withheld.
Great article, as always, William! These and the 323 equivalent used to be everywhere in NZ; being great first cars for many years. At one time we had three in the family – my sister’s ’86 323 SS, my Uncle’s ’86 Familia GT, and my cousin’s ’87 Laser L. The keys were almost interchangeable between them – the Laser key would open the Familia’s doors but not start it, the 323 key wouldn’t open Familia doors but would start it. Lot of fun!
Great cars.A friend I know had one of these but as a Mazda quite a long time ago and the space and everything for an 80’s car was well good.I hadn’t driven an early laser before but did my l plates on later variants with a driving school and three years later tested out and almost bought the very final variants.it was unfortunate my late fathers mentality of you won’t save much if anything by buying badge engineered variations didn’t help.styling might not have been as attractive as the original but there’s nothing some alloys and maybe a rear spoiler cannot fix.I did test the later Focus out of interest and it reminded me too much of my mothers mercedes to the point people would ask me is that her run about you’re driving today.
Another tidbit from the Ford Australia designer Wayne Draper: apparently Mazda designers were unimpressed with the bubbleback KC Laser designs. They thought it looked like the last RWD 323, and would be a sales flop.
Interestingly, given how much badge engineering went on in Aus, especially with the Button plan of the mid 80s, the Laser is the only twinned model which outsold the original model. (Although I’d also guess the Telstar also outsold the 626)
I guess that shows the might of the Ford marketing machine?
South Africa didn’t get the KA/KB Laser – it had the European Escort until 1986, which included a local pick-up (or ‘bakkie’) called the Ford Bantam. When the Escort was axed in favour of the KC Laser, the Escort-based Bantam remained in production, with a Mazda-badged version called the Mazda Rustler sold alongside it. Note the ‘Mazda’ white lettering in the right hand corner of the grille.
Zimbabwe, however, did get the KA/KB Laser – following independence, Ford took advantage of there being a local assembly plant which had been assembling Mazdas after Ford had pulled out after Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence in 1965 and sanctions were imposed.
The KE Ford Laser featured in the 1989 advertisement above is a South African one – I recognised the number plates, and the fact that about the time this advertisement appeared, the KH Laser, which formed the basis of the North American Escort would have been released elsewhere, but Ford had pulled out of SA and Samcor, which built Fords and Mazdas under licence, had to soldier on with this model until 1995.
Incidentally, Herb Grasse’s website has disappeared and no archived version exists, so, sadly, that bit of car design history has been lost.
In 1984, my father imported a new Ford Laser Ghia Sedan to Sri Lanka and I was impressed with the luxury interior and accessories fitted to this model as standard. In 1990 I migrated to Australia and purchased a 1984 model Laser KB Ghia Hatchback which I still own and use regularly. The Australian assembled Laser Ghia has given me trouble free service for the past 31 years and I have maintained it in original condition. The Australian Ghia models were fitted with alloy wheels as standard whereas Japanese export version had pressed steel wheels. The front grill, headlamps, velour interior and body fittings are identical in both.
The Australian assembled sedan is named as Meteor and has a slightly different front grill and headlamps to the Laser. Posted below is a photograph of the Laser Ghia.
Posted below is the brochure issued by Ford Japan in September 1982 on the Ford Laser Ghia Sedan for export. My father owned an identical car from 1984-1993 in Sri Lanka and it is different to the Ford Meteor sedan assembled in Australia. The frontal view and engine specification etc. are similar to the KB Laser Ghia Hatchback assembled in Australia from 1983-1985.
Brochure is posted below: