Curbside Classic: 1968-80 Ford Escort Mk 1 and Mk 2 – Keeping It Simple, And Profitable

Escort Mk1

Every so often a car comes along that resets the standards for its market segment. Some examples are the Morris Minor (1948), Citroen DS (1956), BMC ADO16 (Austin America, 1962), Fiat 128 (1971), VW Golf (1974), Honda Accord (1976), Peugeot 205 (1983), Ford Focus (1998), perhaps the 2003 Toyota Prius or the 2019 VW ID.3.  Some of these cars took existing technology and formats and just did it better to the extent that they raised the standard – the Minor, Golf, Accord and Focus come to mind; some took a clean(-er) sheet of paper approach and showed us that the future may be a better place – the DS, ADO16, Prius and ID.3.

The Ford Escort (Mk1 & Mk2) set new standards too—primarily in the UK—more in the realms of pragmatism and profitability than technical superiority or advanced technology. That turned out to be a winning formula.

Escort Mk2

1968 was a good year for such events, as we got two cars that did the former – the Jaguar XJ6 and the Peugeot 504. And one that unashamedly did not but was perhaps commercially more significant than anything else launched that year. The 1968 Ford (of Europe) Escort was not technically or conceptually advanced or complex in any way, but its impact on the European and British marketplace was prompt, deep and long lasting.

CC looked recently at the history of first two generations of the Ford Cortina – how a straightforward, uncomplicated but attractively styled, spacious and competitively priced car was able to take on and ultimately succeed commercially over the might of Britain’s dominant BMC. Supported by the glamour of the derivative Capri, Ford ultimately took leadership in the UK not just in the mid market but across the market as a whole from BMC, which slowly collapsed, first into Leyland, then into government ownership and eventually, for volume market cars, into irrelevance. But the Cortina was not acting alone. Without the Escort, and the later, larger Granada, the leadership would have been much less dominant.

The Cortina was conservatively engineered car – OHV engines, four speed gearboxes, rear drive, live rear axle with leaf springs, conventional saloon format. This was in striking contrast to the emerging BMC technical leap forward, with front wheel drive, transverse engines, innovative suspensions, the odd amalgam of Alec Issigonis’s and Pininfarina’s styling ideas and, on the Austin Maxi at least, a hatchback.  But within this format, there were limitations and handicaps.

The British car buyers did not always like the complication, real or perceived, of the front wheel drive, or the (sometimes only assumed) additional maintenance costs and reputation for reliability issues. The uncompromising ergonomics of an Issigonis interior and the small boots with awkward access of the saloons didn’t help either. Ford played the opposite hand extremely well with the Cortina, as well as marketing it with a wide range of engines, body styles, trim levels and options. Ultimately, the Cortina Mk 1 and 2 and derivatives outsold the BMC ADO16 (Austin America, above as a Morris 1100), and did so very profitably.

But there was unfinished business, and not just in the UK.

Ford, ahead of General Motors and Chrysler, was consolidating its European operations into one business, and from the 1965 Transit van onwards all European Fords were multi-national products. In the UK, the Escort took over the mantle of, if not entry level, of the compact family car, from the Anglia 105E, best remembered now for the distinctive styling with the Thunderbird like front and the reverse rake rear window.

Beneath the fashion conscious style was a perfectly capable, if also perfectly ordinary, small car, though not really a generation ahead of the Morris Minor, Austin A35 or A40, or Standard 10 it was originally competing with, visually more polarising than the 1963 Vauxhall Viva HA but a generation (or more) behind the Austin-Morris 1100 (ADO16). Whilst the specification of an OHV engine, four speed gearbox and live rear axle would  endure for some years yet, European rivals were showing Ford that just being more fashionable than old BMC products was not enough. By 1967, the Anglia was looking old – it was a generation behind BMC and lagging Vauxhall, whilst down market from the Triumph Herald.

But Ford was, in the UK, now on a roll, with the Cortina (MK 2 above) about to become Britain’s best seller, and unlike BMC, do so profitably. The route for the Escort now seems obvious – repeat the Cortina’s formula in a smaller package. And you could trust Ford to have carefully thought it through. Despute the Ford of Europe story, the car was conceptually what Ford of Britain would have done,  used British engines and was predominantly built in Halewood in Liverpool,

The original Cortina Mk1 and 2 were built on a wheelbase of 98 inches. The Escort came in at 94.5 inches, closer than you might have expected, but around 10 inches longer than the Austin A40 and Morris Minor, just shorter than a Vauxhall Viva HB and an inch longer than the ADO16. But Ford were planning for the next Cortina, the 1970 Mk 3, to go to a 101 inch wheelbase, re-establishing a clear hierarchy, and in the process setting the key size milestones for the market. Within four years, the key points in the market were reset to Ford’s template, and crucially, BMC/BLMC and Vauxhall were out of step.

Technically, the Escort kept to a tried and tested formula. Monocoque steel bodyshell, longitudinally mounted engine, rear wheel drive, four speed gearbox, rack and pinion steering, MacPherson front struts and a leaf sprung live rear axle. Take the Cortina formula, cut the wheelbase, length and width by proportionate amounts and use 1100 and 1300 engines rather than 1300 and 1600 engines. It wouldn’t win awards for innovation but it didn’t frighten the horses either.

Ford was effectively playing the same tune as the Vauxhall Viva and Opel Kadett (although these cars had more advanced rear suspensions), rather than emulating a Fiat 128 or BMC ADO16. It was a specification that was already working well for GM in Germany and Ford as well in the UK. Front wheel drive was doing well for BMC in volume terms but was perceived as more costly to maintain by fleet buyers, and likely to have been more costly to develop given Ford’s available hardware. A conventional format was therefore almost inevitable – even now Ford feels like a business that likes to see which way the technological winds are blowing before committing – and who would do it better, based on the Cortina experience?

Again, like the Cortina, Corsair and later the Capri, Ford offered the full range. Back in 1962, when the Cortina had been launched, BMC and Rootes both offered ranges of badge engineered saloons, raising up the scale of luxury, may be a bit of sportiness, and the intention of an impression of exclusivity. Variety was, however, almost exclusively limited to trim – the engine in a Morris Oxford, Wolseley 16/60 or Riley 4/72 was effectively the same ageing B series lump.

A second carburettor was the most you could expect. The same thing happened in the newer more modern ADO16 – just an 1100 engine until 1968 irrespective of the brand.

Ford, and to a certain extent Vauxhall, shattered this, first with the Cortina – 1200, 1500, then 1300 and 1600, two doors, four doors and estates, three trim levels, plus a sporting GT and the specialist Cortina Lotus, and then again with the Escort and Capri. How many went to the dealer planning to buy a Cortina 1200 and came away with a 1500 Super? That didn’t happen at BMC.

From a start in early 1968 with two doors and 1100 or 1300 engines, as well as some versions with 940cc for a limited number of tax sensitive markets, mainly Italy. By 1969 you could have a four door Escort, a three door estate or a panel van.

The van became a default choice for its sector. dominating from off against dated competition.

You may be sensing that this was not the most exciting compact saloon produced in Europe in the 1960s, and you’d be right. The Escort was not a like for like competitor for an Alfasud or  Citroen GS, but far more of a European take on the Toyota Corolla. But there was one thing that moved the Escort from ordinary to special in the eyes of many enthusiasts. Ford took it rallying, with great effort, professionalism, and success, and, with lower public profile, circuit racing.

The car was winning races in 1968, and indeed won the 1968 British Saloon Car Championship using an engine developed from the Cortina Lotus. Known as the Escort Twin Cam, the 1558cc twin cam four gave something 105bhp in road trim and up to 200bhp when tuned for racing.

The big rally wins started as early as 1970, with the one off London-Mexico World Cup Rally, timed and planned to link to the football World Cup. The route went from London to Mexico, through west and southern central Europe, turned back west and across Iberia to Lisbon in Portugal, a boat to Rio de Janeiro and then up Latin America through Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru, crossing into Mexico from Costa Rica. Determined by penalties incurred on special stages, the Escorts took 3 of the top 6 places, with Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm coming out as overall winners.

The subsequent Escort Mexico, with a more regular version of familiar Ford Kent 1598 cc engine, albeit still with 85bhp and good bragging rights, came out in late 1970. The image growth for Ford from rallying had started.

1970 also saw the arrival of perhaps the definitive fast Escort. The Lotus based engine was phased out of the rally and race versions for a Coswirth designed BDA series 16v twin overhead cam engines, built around a Ford cylinder block. BDA refers to belt drive type A, with the camshafts driven by a toothed rubber belt, then still an emerging technology. The first market application was the Escort RS1600 (RS for Rally Sport and still Ford’s designation of choice today for the highest performance options) – 1600cc, 115bhp in road tune and the start of many amateur rally drivers careers.

The rally history of the Escort, Mk1 and Mk 2, is worthy of a series of posts all alone. From a British perspective, rallying in which the winner is the driver and co-driver/navigator achieving the shortest aggregate time on a number of closed road or off-road forest track sections (usually known as special stages) over a period of 3-4 days has been a popular spectator and participation sport for perhaps a century. Events range from one day amateur events to the full World Rally Championship events, with events such as the Monte Carlo Rally, the 1000 Lakes in Finland, the East African Safari Rally and the British RAC Rally (now known as Wales Rally GB) forming the World Rally Championship.

British participation has always been strong, along with British based teams from non-resident manufacturers, such as Subaru and Mitsubishi, and popular support strong. It was estimated in the early 1990s that 2 million spectators watched parts of the RAC Rally, stranding alongside forest tracks and in country house grounds in November, risking being sprayed grit, mud and icy water, sometimes in the dark and always in the cold.

Ford did more than tap into this; the Escort Mk1 built on existing support and took it to another level. The cars themselves were developed either by Ford’s specialist operations team or by separate motorsport businesses, and were usually based on the Escort RS1800 with the Cosworth BDA engine and its derivatives. Different classes called for different entries, and Ford themselves usually competed at the top in European, and later World, and national championships, but the factory cars filtered their way down to the amateurs soon enough.

The famous and popular wins came soon enough. After the London-Mexico Rally win, in 1972 local hero Roger Clark won the RAC Rally in a decisive display of sideways driving. The Escort carried on to win every year to 1979, with Clark winning again in 1976. The Escort won the British Rally championship every year from 1974 to 1978, and again in 1980, and the Scottish Championship 12 times in 14 years, from 1968. The car won 20 World Rally Championship rallies as well, took Bjorn Waldegaard to the World Drivers’ Championship in 1979, and Ford to the manufacturers’ title, and Ari Vatanen as champion in 1981.

“Wouldn’t you like to take off in a Harrier?” Not a bad line to close your TV ad.

All in, the Escort was inarguably one of the most successful top flight rally cars of its generation and, perhaps uniquely amongst its peers, was able to build a strong grassroots competitor-user community as well. For all the greatness and successes of the Lancia Stratos, it was unable to do that. Alongside the company’s (and Cosworth’s) support and participation in Formula 1, Ford’s place in the motor sports fans’ esteem was set for a generation or more, and to many people in Britain the image of a rally car is Clark’s Escort going sideways in the rain and mud.

No wonder even now people stop for Mk 1 Ford Escorts in their hotter forms.

This example posted on the CC Cohort by Nathan Williams has a 2000 engine in a four door body – never a factory combination but many things are possible with an Escort.

Yohai Rodin spotted this pair – an RS1600 and a Mexico.

Incidentally, Ford’s US rivals were left trailing by this success. GM’s UK Vauxhall dealers ran a self-funded team, which appeared on the same events but with a limited number of entries with the Vauxhall Chevette; Chrysler UK, in Ford’s terms, dabbled with the Hillman Avenger and only saw success after the Peugeot takeover with Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. BL’s efforts were little better, with a lot of effort expended for little success with the Triumph TR8.

Ford made the most of this success. Not only was there a consistent, albeit limited, market for the specialist RS1800, the Escort GT continued to do good business, and the accessories available from Ford and Motorcraft was extensive, to put it mildly.

But the peak of this for the regular first generation cars was the 1973-5 Escort 1300E. This took the mechanical specification of the 1300GT and Sport, and added all the luxuries Ford could offer – cut pile carpet, wood effect dash, heated rear window, vinyl roof, driving lamps and alloy wheels.

Glamour, prestige, and value for money – Ford could do all three in one car. All yours for around £1,200 or £15,000 now, or less than an entry level Fiesta.

In six years, Ford built 2 million Escorts, around 60% of them in the UK.

The Vauxhall Viva was relegated to also ran status, the Austin Allegro never got the traction it possibly deserved, the Morris Marina looked odd sized and dated technically and the Hillman Avenger played a pleasant, if slightly larger, second fiddle.

Continued on Page two for the Escort Mk 2

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