When Ford dropped a rorty competition engine into a compact family car called Escort, it created a new breed of rally winner overnight. John Davenport was there.
In the summer of 1967, Tony Fall and Mike Wood won the Danube Rally, a counter in the European Rally Championship, driving a BMC 1800. Irreverently known as the ‘Land Crab’ this uncharismatic rally car came home ahead of Renault R8 Gordinis, Porsche 911s and Citroen DS201s. A little earlier that month and closer to home, Ove Andersson and I had won the Gulf London Rally with a Mark 2 Lotus Cortina against Porsche 911s, Saab V4s, Mini Coopers and Triumph 2000s.
If winning major rallies against the continental manufacturers was that easy, one might have wondered why it was that six months earlier Henry Taylor, competition manager of Ford Motor Company, had decided that Ford ought to build a new competition can The Lotus Cortina had an excellent competition record, and to the casual observer of the rally scene Ford might have appeared safe for a few years more. However, Taylor knew from his own experience as a driver and 12 difficult months in the manager’s seat that all this was about to change.
The Mark 1 Lotus Cortina had struggled against cars like the Mini on tarmac, and the Mark 2 was heavier. Porsche had finished reading the new homologation regulations which had effectively sidelined their new 911 in 1966 and were now getting the 911S into Group 3, the 9111 into Group 2 and the 912 into Group. 1. Alpine had struggled for years with a nice little sportscar based on R8 Gordini running gear, but now the A110 was getting the 1600cc R16 engine. And those tricky chaps down on the north Italian plain were putting a similarsized engine in their Lancia Fulvia.
Henry Taylor also knew that Ford would introduce a new small car in 1967, to be called the Escort. It would be available with nice little engines of 1100cc and 1300cc. However, if Ford was to keep a place at the head of the motorsport table, and rallying in particular an Escort would need something else. Why not just put all the Lotus Cortina power-train into one of these new Escorts? He recalls “We had done so well with a big, bendy car and now there seemed to be a chance to have something smaller and quicker. And most importantly, stiffer. The Escort was built in a different way to previous models with two sides going onto a floorpan and roof. Even Roger (Clark) couldn’t banana that so easily!”
It would be true to say that behind every out standing competition car there is at least one man who had the inspiration to see what could be achieved, plus the determination to see the project through. One thinks immediately of Cesare Fiorio with the Lancia Stratos and of Jean Todt with the Peugeot 205 T16. Henry Taylor certainly fills that role for the Ford Escort, but there are two other men without whom it would almost certainly not have been successful.
The first is Walter Hayes, at that time Ford’s Director of Public Affairs, who had joined them from Fleet Street. He discovered that hidden deep in his job description was responsibility for Ford’s motorsport activities. It was Hayes who moved the Competition Department out to Boreham in Essex and who helped to create the Lotus Cortina Mark 1 and the Cortina GT. When Henry Taylor came forward with the idea of what was to be called the Escort Twin Cam, it was Hayes who supported him and helped to ease some of the internal problems involved in persuading a volume car manufacturer to produce a handful of specials.
The second man is Bill Meade, who was in charge of things technical within the Competition Department. Before committing to building Escort Twin Cams, the company needed to know that what was proposed on paper could be don.e in reality. Ford Engineering loaned a plastic bodyshell replica to Meade one Friday in March. He and the Boreham mechanics had all weekend to see if they could fit the power train and running gear, and then Engineering wanted it back on Tuesday. Bill recalls that “fortunately I had built several Austin Seven specials and an Ashley with Wolseley Hornet running gear, so the idea was not strange. I had spent too much time with all the 750 Motor Club people up at the Red Cow, including Colin Chapman, to think that anything was beyond us. We were young, brash and did not know the word `can’t’.”
Suffice it to say that Engineering got their plastic car back, the installation was proved and at the end of 1967, shortly after the bread-and-butter cars started rolling off the tracks, Escort Twin Cams joined them. The first 25 cars were hand-built at Boreham. They were soon earmarked for racing with the Alan Mann and Broad.speed teams, and fur rallying through Boreham, Ford Belgium and private owners. But it was in rallycross that the car actually made its competition debut, with Roger Clark, Barry Lee and Tony Chappell driving two versions at Croft on the first weekend of February 1968. They won four of the races and Messrs. Hayes, Taylor and Meade could all breathe a sigh of relief. But at that point not even the most optimistic of them could have imagined that success for this car and its immediate derivatives would stretch 13 years into the future and be crowned with three World Rally Championship titles.
The first rally for the Escort TC was San Remo in March 1968, where it was crewed by Ove Andersson and myself. To be frank, we had not covered too many miles in an Escort at that point, having done the Monte Carlo with Lancia while Ford were building enough Escort TCs to get homologation. I know that we were both impressed with its manoeuvrability compared with the Cortina, but rather less so with the behaviour of the rear axle. The Panhard rod favoured by Bill Meade had been compromised out of the initial production specification so that only leaf springs, anti-tramp bars and the dampers retained the axle.
These latter were inclined at about 45 degrees and, like a labourer on a hot day, after a short period of hard work ceased to do their job. After the rally, Ove took Bill Meade out for a demonstration run up one or the rutted, gravel mountain roads behind San Remo. Bill was impressed enough that the damper mountings were soon modified by the ubiquitous ‘turret’ that enabled them to sit upright within the boot; later they reached straight up to the parcel shelf.
As it was, an excess of snow and an absence of seeding hampered our San Remo Rally and we were pleased to come home third behind Pauli Toivonen and Pat Moss in Porsche and Lancia respectively. It was left to the great Roger Clark to give the Escort TC its first rally win on the Circuit of Ireland in April 1968, and that opened the floodgates. The Escort started winning everywhere with Frank Gardner winning races, and Gilbert Staepelaere and Roger Clark winning rallies.
There was a very significant win in August of that year when Hannu Mikkola won the 1000 Lakes in a works Escort TC. Ford team manager Bill Barnett had spotted Mikkola where he finished second in a Lancia Fulvia to Bengt Soderstrom in the factory Escort TC on the 1968 Austrian Alpine. The result was that Mikkola got an Escort for the 1000 Lakes and promptly won it, with the bonus of a full contract for 1969. He went on to complete an Escort TC hat trick on the 1000 Lakes by winning again in 1969 and 1970.
He was also at the wheel for two of the Ford Escort’s most famous rally victories – the 1970 London to Mexico and the 1972 East African Safari. The first of these was at the wheel of a Pinto-engined Escort that was then commercialised by Ford as the Escort Mexico, the car that launched a thousand rally drivers. The Safari win was in a BDA-engined RS Escort that became the archetypal rally car of the 1970s. Hannu remembers those early Escorts. “Corning from the Volvo 142 that I drove in Finland, the power and torque of the Escort was just fantastic. It was already quite a nice handling car, very to drive – and come easy to drive sideways – and come back. The only negative thing I can recall was that on those first cars it was all understeer when you braked. It encouraged you not too brake too much and to keep the power on!”
His time with the Escort came to an end when he signed for Audi in 1981, though he has driven them to success since: “In 1995 I went to Mexico the second time in one of David Sutton’s cars. It took five minutes and it was as if 25 years had never passed. It was great fun to drive, just like the good old days.”
The early 1970s were the days when it seemed like Escorts were everywhere in motorsport, winning sprint and endurance rallies, touring car races, and rallycross. With the advent of the BDA-engined RS1600, their supremacy, certainly in rallying, was not to be denied. In addition to Roger Clark who repeated his TC trick by giving the RS 1600 its first win on the Circuit of Ireland in 1970, Ford had Timo Makinen, Hannu Mikkola, Jean-Francois Plot, Gilbert Staepelaere, Jochi Kleint, Ove Andersson, Tony Fall, Guy Chasseuil and Andrew Cowan chasing rally success. On the track, the list of works drivers was no less impressive, with Frank Gardner, Chris Craft, Jackie Stewart, Dieter Glemser, Dave Brodie, Claude Bourgoignie, Hans Heyer, Francois Mazet, John Fitzpatrick, Jochen Mass and Gerry Birrell all pedalling Escorts of one kind or another. If one were to set out to name all the successful private owners during that time, then this article would be finished already, but it would be nice to add three that I drove with, namely, Adrian Boyd, Chris Sclater and Billy Coleman.
There is one name missing from the list above, and that is Markku Alen. His time with Ford was short but electrifying. Like Timo Makinen before him, David Sutton gave him his first chance in an Escort after Stuart Turner had noticed him in a Volvo 142 on the 1973 1000 Lakes. Actually, it was hard to miss Markku, as he finished hot on the heels of Makinen’s winning Escort RS. Sutton entered him on the Lindisfarne where he went over maximum time fixing a steering rack but carried on just for the experience, and would have been second behind Roger Clark’s winning car. His second rally in the Escort RS was the RAC. I was with Hannu Mikkola and lots of us crashed in Sutton Park but somehow Markku got the car out and carried on. He was classified 176th at that point but, with a drive of sheer sideways abandonment that was a delight to watch, came back to finish third overall.
I got a chance to see Markku’s technique at close hand the following year when we did the Welsh together in a factory Escort RS. At that time, he had a dual contract with Ford and Fiat and had come back from doing Portugal in a Fiat 124 Spyder. Asked how he remembered the Escort compared to the Fiat sportscar, his answer was quite illuminating.
“Very different. The Escort was more like a racing car with a really powerful engine. The Fiat should have been better on tarmac but it just didn’t go. Even the 131 engine was not as good as the BDA. You had to use all the revs all the time in the Fiat. And of course the Escort was super on gravel.” Certainly I do not recall any lack of tarmac performance on the roads of the Eppynt Ranges back in 1974 even in the pouring rain. With a budget squeeze at the end of 1974, Markku went to Fiat full time for a more complete World Championship programme and by 1976, they had come up with the 131 Abarth which was, if anything, a homage to the Escort.
The Mark 1 Escort shell, habitat of the TC and the RS 1600, was replaced in 1975 with the Mark 2 and the name changed to the RS 1800. In rally form there was not a lot of difference, but since the Escort story is one of continual development, I can remember that Billy Coleman felt immediately that the car was gentler, more progressive – and quicker. As always, it was Roger Clark who first got to try the RS 1800 on an event but this time it was the Granite City rather than the Circuit of Ireland. However, the result was the same, with Clark winning in style.
The RS 1800 had four years of success with the works team from Boreham and a further two years with David Sutton in that same but unofficial role. By now the drivers were Bjom Waldegaard, Hannu Mikkola, Ari Vatanen and Pentti Airikkala, with Roger Clark and Russell Brookes keeping the home fires burning. Waldegaard won the World Championship Driver’s title in 1979 with Ford taking the Manufacturer’s title. Then in 1981, under the direction of David Sutton, Ari Vatanen won the Driver’s title after a season with some of the most amazing changes of fortune one could possibly imagine.
There have, of course, been other Escorts in competition since the RS 1800 took its bow from the World Championship stage at the end of 1981. There was the RS 1600i and its successor the RS Turbo, campaigned for three years by Louise Aitken-Walker, Chris Lovell and Malcolm Wilson of which the most one can say is that Wilson probably prefers his present job (running the WRC Focus programme) as it is less of a strain! The Escort RS Cosworth made its debut in 1990 but it was not until 1993 that a full programme got going with Miki Biasion and Francois Delecour. It was not without success, winning in 1994 the Monte Carlo with Delecour and 1000 Lakes with Tommi Makinen, but this 4WD Group A car never really seemed to find its feet. When the Escort WRC came out in 1997, it won two World Championship events, the Acropolis and Indonesia, both with Carlos Sainz at the wheel.
The original rear-wheel-drive Escorts and the rallies that they did were ideally suited to the in-house environment of a traditional factory competition department like Boreham. The exotic flowers which now adorn that herbaceous border that is the World Rally Championship never flourished there, and it is no coincidence that Ford was the last major company to put their rally effort outside the factory system. It certainly looks as if Martin Whittaker has chosen the right path for their new Focus WRC by investing in Malcolm Wilson Motorsport, not to mention the right people to drive the cars that he is building.
If the Focus has as long a time at the top as the Escort, then what has happened in the last 18 months may be as momentous for rallying as Walter Hayes’ decision to move the Cortinas from Lincoln Cars to Boreham in the beginning of 1963.