A short history of...the Ford Escort

Rally Ford Escort Mk1
Early incarnations of the Escort were formidable rally machines
"Think of the Escort like Elvis: the Mark I and II are the Sun Records era, the III and IV are the comeback special, the V, VI and VII are the questionable Vegas years"
  • | by Daniel Bevis

The Ford Escort represents many things to different people.

Whether it’s the rear-drive rally saloons you watched bounce through forests, your first '80s hot hatch, or the smoky '90s diesel with its bumpers held together with gaffer tape your elderly neighbour owned, the Escort is indelibly inked into the fabric of motoring history.

And in celebration of this, we’d like to take you down a whimsical path, exploring the model in its various guises and iterations.

So, come with us now to where it all began; Belgium, January 1968…

Mark I (1968-74)

Debuting at the Brussels Motor Show, the Escort was Ford’s ultra-modern replacement for the Anglia.

Its ingenious packaging – small, yet big enough to fit a family and their luggage – coupled with an affordable price tag made it an instant hit. Indeed, Ford flogged over two million of them.

Its Macpherson strut suspension and rack-and-pinion steering set it at the zenith of the family car market, but a drastic revelation really kicked things up a gear…

It turned out that the Escort was a staggeringly good rally car. The iconic Twin-Cam won the Circuit of Ireland Rally in 1968, raising a few eyebrows. It then proceeded to win pretty much every other rally, well, everywhere.

Arguably the most memorable, though, was the London-Mexico World Cup Rally of 1970; Hannu Mikkola’s Escort won it, with other Escorts coming 3rd, 5th, 6th and 8th. And it’s from that event that we got the Escort Mexico – and this marvellous advert:

Old Ford Escort ad

Mark II (1975-80)

And so to the Mark II, the winningest rally car of all time. (‘Winningest’? Sure, why not?)

Developed jointly with Ford of Germany - under the codename ‘Brenda’ - the semi-Brit Escort carried on its predecessor’s legacy by offering everything from the base-spec 1.1 litre version to the fire-snorting RS2000 road-racer.

Ford Escort Mark 2

The latter is memorable for its slanty polyurethane nosecone (remember the one in Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels?), but the Mark II is at its most iconic in flat-fronted battle mode.

The RS1800’s rally victories are too numerous to count, and it speaks volumes that every rally driver wants one. Colin McRae had one. Ken Block has one. This, for many, is THE Escort. Smoky, retro, sideways fun.

Check out the oh-so-seventies launch film – this could well be the greatest advert ever made:

Mark III (1980-86)

Ooh, this was a controversial one. Regarded by many Ford purists as ‘not a proper Escort’, this is the generation that saw the model’s most radical redesign.

It wasn’t just the move to the folded-paper angularity of 1980s design – it was the fact that it had a transversely-mounted engine powering the front wheels. Sacrilege!

The Mark III - codename ‘Erika’ – continued the old Escort line of providing cheap, durable transport for the masses while tarting up the top end of the range to offer some racy thrills.

Ford Escort Mark 3

The latter saw the introduction of the XR3 (and later XR3i) which, if we’re honest, had an iffy reputation. It wasn’t as refined as the Golf GTI that sat so squarely in its crosshairs, although for many that was the charm.

For many more, the Mark III XR3, with its cloverleaf alloys and rubber spoilers, will always go hand-in-hand with the term ‘boy racer’. And that’s even more true of the Mark IV…

Mark IV (1986-90)

This wasn’t so much a new generation as a simple re-skinning of the Mark III – swap the metal bumpers for big plastic ones and you’re pretty much there.

Building on the success of the earlier XR3i and RS Turbo models, these plastic-bumpered variants found favour with cheeky young tearaways who loved nothing better than to get up to mischief in their Dagenham hatchbacks - often resulting in them ending up wrapped around trees or lamp-posts.Ford Escort Mark 4

The kamikaze attitude of many owners, coupled with a propensity to rust, means that the Mark IV is a genuinely rare sight these days. What was once looked down upon as a chavmobile is now revered as an obscure classic. Funny how things change, eh?

Mark V (1990-92)

Ford Escort Mark 5

Urgh. The Mark V really was built down to a price, wasn’t it? A cheap, basic, rattly, horrible thing.

These have also largely died out, and nobody really misses them. Here’s Jeremy Clarkson judging it "a disappointment".

Finding a basic 1.3 litre or similar lowly variant is nigh-on impossible – it’s only the souped-up cars that are still grimly clutched by ardent enthusiasts.

The exception to all this negativity is the frankly sensational Escort RS Cosworth… although that was really a Sierra Sapphire Cosworth 4x4 with an Escort body draped over it.

So instead, let’s look at the RS2000. This was the Ford marketing department’s effort to harness the cachet of the 1970s rally success by applying the historic name to their horrible new incarnation.

Did it work? Er, no. It was rubbish. Trust me, I used to have a Mark V RS2000. It was not good.

But it’s not all bad news – look at this magnificent advert they made for it.

Mark VI (1992-95)

Ford Escort Mark 6

The Mark VI took the V and made it less awful. The old 1.6-litre CVH engines were ousted in favour of Zetecs, the styling was freshened up and the interiors were screwed together a bit better.

Fuel-injection was standard across the range, crash structures improved, airbags appeared, and the RS2000 got a 4WD drivetrain. It was still sort of rubbish though – all scratchy plastics and roly-poly ride.

Ford also dropped the Orion name in ’93 (previously used for Escort saloons) and badged them ‘Escort’ too. Another little cost-saving exercise there.

Mark VII (1995-2000)

Ford Escort Mark 7

The last of the Escort line, and another mild update that was still basically a Mark V, albeit with different engines and trim levels.

Two notable models were the Ghia X, which had air-con and a CD changer as standard – ooh, fancy – and the GTi, the only European Ford ever to wear a GTi badge. This was basically an RS2000 bodykit with a 115bhp Zetec inside. Hmm. No thanks. And, as you can see from above, the Si had really odd wheels.

An ignominious end to the historic line, then? A series of plasticky, rattly hatchbacks which, if you can even find one, are invariably a bit ropey round the edges and looking somewhat tired?

Well, possibly. But then again, every great car has its off days. Think of the Escort like Elvis: the Mark I and II are the Sun Records era, the III and IV are the comeback special, the V, VI and VII are the questionable Vegas years.

As a rule of thumb, the earlier an Escort is, the more interesting it is. The model’s demise and replacement with the Focus was entirely appropriate, ushering in a new generation of design and quality. But what do you think? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

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