Picture the mid sixties. The Beatles, Mary Quant, James Bond and Carnaby street set the trend. War ravaged plucky but Merry 'ole England ruled the world. As the sceptered isle, it beat to the drum of the empire where the sun never sets. Thanks to its former colony, the superpower USA.
Whether by design or by accident, Britain reveled in being British and not some island off the coast of the Continent of Europe. It didn't need to pander to Euros across the channel for so long as it had that special relationship with good old American across the Atlantic. Even if Britain's motorists had multifarious in bred home grown brands, mostly being gobbled up [and drip fed] by indigenous BMC, the rest of the market was filled in by their American cousins: Vauxhall of General Motors and Ford.
Treacle and Ploughman's lunch
As early as then, Ford Detroit were already localizing products to fit Britain's quaint village roads and hyper-taxed fuel. Not for Britain were the fin tailed "longer, lower, wider" V-8 powered barges of the Interstate. Ford has been making British [European?] sized cars for British tastes. The post war sales success of the Ford Anglia vs. the Austin/Morris 1100 proved that the Brits were no stranger to Ford's solid values. But Ford had grander designs for Europe. And since they had, how were Ford to market the Anglia to the Germans, Italians and other countries who wouldn't care about the car's Anglo roots?
The Escort was to ride on the wave of Anglomania, showcasing Ford's spearhead into the future. The change of name from a rather provincial "Anglia" to a world embracing, leading edge "Escort". Not only did the Escort break away from the styling of the boxy 2nd generation Ford Cortina, again another localized name, it also introduced many of the new styling cues that were thought to be only proportionally correct for Yankee sized freeways and prairie like vistas.
Two doors only
Like the VW Beetle, the world's best selling car at that time, the first Escort was a two door. Underneath the Detroit derived "Coke bottle" flanks and dog bone grille, the Escort had conventional rear wheel drive and a four-speed manual gearbox, or 3 speed automatic transmission. Par for the course for a small car in 1968, the suspension had a simple live axle mounted on leaf springs, and with an equally simple but new fangled rack-and-pinion steering. These styling features were to be aped by the 3rd generation Cortina/Taunus, launched in the 70's.
DL, S, E
The Escort marked the beginning of variant differentiation. The De Luxe spec had circular front headlights and rubber floor mats. The Super model had rectangular headlights, carpets, a lighter as standard option [they were not called smoker's kit then] and a temp gauge. A 3-door shooting break followed, which was to be the basis of the panel van, which came with heavy duty clutch, leaf springs. The last to appear of the year long Escort roll out was the 4-door saloon in 1969.
Ingenuity: British or bean counter?
The Escort was built to look good and volume built at the most economical level to make a profit. That's why its spec of cart springs and rear wheel drive looked crude compared to the front wheel drive BMC 1100 hydrolastic suspended Land Crab or the rear engined all independent torsion bar swing axle of the VW Beetle.
Engineering or cost cutting marvel?
The Coke bottle waist line reduced the visual height of the car and wide radius curves and creased indentations improved its torsional rigidity. Glass area was kept as a minimum to reduce weight as glass also cost more than stamped steel per square inch. The dashboard was a straight forward ledge with a pod for the gauges. This added to the car's rigidity while keeping instrument upgrades simple. Seats were scaled down to give the appearance of plenty of leg room. The mountings were kept low to keep backrest volumes and shapes economical. The low seating position gave lanky Brits plenty of headroom to wear a fedora [but not a top hat, unlike the Citroen 2CV], even as hats and flat caps were on the way out by then. The Escort improved upon the Cortina's dashboard flow-through fresh air ventilation. The rear tail lights were deliberate made small to give flesh to the rump, and this looked good with European regulation elongated license plates. Slim chrome bumpers succeeded in giving the face and rear focal accent.
Pride of the Union [Jack]
Whether it were the bean counters of Detroit or the Brit designers still influenced by war time rationing, the Escort did not look as pared to the bone as it did on the drawing boards. It looked cheeky in a chubby sort of way, a happy looking car that predated the yellow California smiley symbol of the 70s. It looked more modern, even sexy, compared to the clumsy offerings from Japan at that time and the quirky cliches from France. By June 1974, 2 million Escorts were sold, with 60% of them made in Britain. Though there were Escorts made in Saarlouis-Germany, Genk-Belgium, Homebush-Australia, Taiwan and Israel, the Escort made in Halewood, England breached the high water mark of success when Britain was still a car building nation.
Propulsion was by a most Victorian of engines: the Kent Crossflow engine which traces its roots to the war time era of cast iron blocks and overhead valves. Coming in 1100cc and 1300cc, some heavily taxed markets got a 940 cc version. There was a 1300GT performance version, with a tuned 1.3 L Kent (OHV) engine sporting a Weber carburetor and uprated suspension. This version also featured a tachometer, battery charge indicator and oil pressure gauge. The same tuned 1.3 L had further variations sold as the Escort Sport, and flared front wings. In a bid to capture the budding new class of “executives” with company paid for transport, the 1300E was introduced featuring very English wood trim and door capping plus 13” road wheels.
At 767kgs curb weight, which could have made Lotus' Colin Chapman proud, the Escort was a natural candidate for rallye and race. In fact, Lotus was the England's engine supplier for the 8-valve twin cam 1600's that powered Escort Twin Cams winning races for Hannu Mikkola in the 1970 World Cup and Roger Clark's win in the 1972 RAC Rally. This engine series was later replaced by the RS1600.
The Mark I Escorts became very successful as a rally car and went on to become one of the most successful rally cars of all time. The Ford works team was practically unbeatable in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Fans point to the Escort's greatest victory in the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally driven by Finnish legend Hannu Mikkola. This bequeathed the Escort Mexico (1.6 L "Kent" engined) special edition road.
Cosworth to Pinto
In addition to the Mexico, the RS1600 had a Kent engine block with a 16-valve Cosworth cylinder head from the Formula 3 BDA, for Belt Drive A Series. Built by Ford's AVO [Advanced Vehicle Operations, inspirational predecessor of today's Ford SVO] in South Essex, also produced a more civilized RS2000 model using a 2.0 L Pinto (OverHead Cam) engine. The Escort eclipsed the Vauxhall Viva in Britain, though GM's Opel Kadett was the Escort's perennial rival in other markets.
Having had a taste of commercial success, Ford became bolder. Besides facing up to competition eager to create their own world car blockbuster, the Escort Mark 2 of 1975 was an Anglo-German effort. Gone were the curves of the Mark 1, replaced by larger angled glass panes and square cut lines. Platform was an improved Mark 1. The Escort continued with the same variant nomenclature: "L" and "GL" models (2-door, 4-door, estate), the "Sport", "RSMexico", and "RS2000" in the performance market, the "Ghia" (2-door, 4-door) for the still to be established small car luxury market, and "base / Popular" models for the bottom end. Panel-van versions were maintained for the considerable tradesman following. A cosmetic update in 1978, involved L models gaining the square headlights (previously exclusive to the GL and Ghia variants).
As with its predecessor, the Mark II had a successful rallying career. All models of the Mark I were carried over to the Mark II, though the Mexico gained the RS badge and had its engine changed to a 1.6 L OHC Pinto instead of the OHV. The RS1800, which had an 1800cc version of the BDA engine was essentially created for rallying, and surviving road versions are very rare and collectible today. The works rally cars had highly specialized bodyshells with heavily strengthened body members. They had wide wheel arch extensions while the BDA engine was bored to 2.0 L producing 270 bhp (201 kW; 274 PS), a phenomenal figure in 1979. It had a strengthened transmission, five-speed straight-cut ZF gearbox and five-linked suspension. As with the Escort, It was not the most sophisticated of the rear-drive saloon cars that dominated rallying in the late 1970s, but it was reliable and powerful, and good enough to win in the hands of some of the best drivers of its day.
Finnish winning streak
The Mark II Escort continued its predecessor's unbeaten run on the RAC Rally, winning every year from 1975-79. In the 1979 season of the World Rally Championship, Björn Waldegård took the drivers' title, Hannu Mikkola was runner-up and Ari Vatanen finished the year in fifth place, all driving Escort RS1800s. It will take 2006 for Marcus Grönholm and Mikko Hirvonen to win a title for Ford in a Ford Focus RS WRC 06, though Vatanen won the drivers' title in 1981, in an RS1800. This despite the arrival of the all conquering Audi Quattro to the WRC scene.
Body and Doyle, 1977 to 1983
Television was to play a part in cementing the Ford Escort, particularly the droopsnoot RS2000, popularity. The Professionals, secret agents from MI5's fictional CI5, were to introduce British standard hooligan style driving in within the narrow streets of London which all possible thanks to the RS2000's 110bhp, 01-00 in 8.9secs and 177km/h top speed. Ford's fleet sponsorship to US cops and robber's TV series spilled over into Blighty with similar marketing success.
The Philippine experience
Not only did the Escort wean the Filipino public away from the notion of American cars as big gas guzzlers, it also showed that the American giants, through savvy marketing, can compete with the Japanese at their own game. Despite this, Ford essentially held on to its Ford loyalists, who were at the core, American brand loyalists defined simply as being a Ford man [who will never consider buying a GM product] or a GM man [won't be caught dead shopping in a Ford dealer]. The Escort was not any less value for money vis-a-vis the Japanese but the Japanese brands tended to be holistically consistent in the level of modernity, unlike the American brands that tried to hide proven but vintage technology. Though corrosion resistance was still Jurassic in those days, the public perceived Escorts to corrode quicker than the rivals, even if this meant only a difference of a few months. Motorsports cast a halo on the popularity of the Escort, just as Toyota at that time had its own band of racing gentlemen do the same promotional gig with the Corolla.