Ford Escort Mk1

The simple but effective Mk1 – in all its variations – might not be so readily available today, but its many successes on track and stage mean it’s still hot property
By Richard Heseltine

Everything was figured out on the fly, the initial ‘hot’ Escort being a masterwork of improvisation and ingenuity. One that would have some far-reaching consequences for generations of race and rally drivers, tuning houses, traffic light Grand Prix legends and purveyors of sticky-backed go-faster addenda. The insertion of Lotus’ proven twin-cam into the hull of the then still secret Escort GT (the Mk1 tag was, of course, a retrospective one) in early ’67 was really just an exercise in hot-rodding; a weekend’s shoehorning on the part of the Henry Taylor-run competition department at Boreham. Would the Lotus Cortina Mk2’s mechanicals fit into the smaller Escort’s ’shell? They would, and did. At a stroke, the performance Escort was born.

Not that the idea of warmed over small Fords was a new one, mind. For much of that decade the Anglia 105E had been a mainstay of national-level drivers and boy racers alike. The moneyed among them could opt for a Superspeed or Allardette version (the latter complete with Shorrocks supercharger), more enterprising enthusiasts home-brewing all manner of concoctions: 1.5-litre pre-crossflows, Lotus ‘twinks’, Cosworth MAEs even. There was room under the bonnet for even more exotic powerplants but Ford itself never bothered offering a performance-orientated ‘catalogue’ model to rival the Mini Cooper. It didn’t need to; it had the Lotus Cortina.

Yet Taylor was aware of the need for a successor, one that would be suitable for both racing and rallying. The decision to build that first Escort hybrid was taken more out of expediency than anything else: having proved that it was possible to mate the ostensibly disparate widgetry, he had something to show his savvy boss Walter Hayes. And, having vaulted one hurdle, there then followed the small matter of persuading other, more bottom line-minded suits into ponying up for a production run – about 1000 units should make the rule makers happy. They capitulated, agreeing that a batch of cars would be assembled at Halewood on the regular Escort production line (mainstream models having been launched late in ’67), but completed in a special department. With manufacture not getting under way until the spring of ’68, that it made the requisite number of cars to appease homologation requirements by May 1 of that year was nothing short of, cough, miraculous…

Featuring two-door bodyshells with minor changes around the transmission tunnel to accommodate bulkier gearboxes, and with pick-up points altered for the twin radius arms, much of the running gear was pure Lotus Cortina.

The DOHC engine, mounted slightly askew, produced a healthy 106bhp at 6000rpm – enough to propel the raucous Twin Cam to 113mph outright. By 1968 standards this was a seriously quick little car; faster still if you removed the ignition cutout from the distributor. That said, it required a raft of changes to make it competitive in competition – ZF ’box, Atlas axle and the like. Nonetheless, it was worth the effort.

With the first 25 cars being largely hand-built at Boreham and supplied to racing and rally squads, it wasn’t long before the Twin Cam began making its presence felt. And backing it up trackside was the altogether more mainstream 1.3-litre GT with its newfangled crossflow cylinder head. For the 1968 British Saloon Car Championship (BSCC), Broadspeed was responsible for fielding the latter, extracting 145bhp from the 1298cc ‘Kent’ engine. Running TJ fuel injection, highly-modified cast-iron heads (complete with downdraught inlet ports), plus coil-sprung rear suspension, all-round disc brakes and lightened ’shells, there was little to touch the gorgeous silver on burgundy cars of Chris Craft and 1966 BSCC champion John Fitzpatrick. But only when they made the flag. Fuel injector and lubrication problems hobbled their efforts to the point that Fitzpatrick won the 1.3-litre category a ‘mere’ four times (Craft being a double winner).

“Ralph Broad prepared the best cars, did the best engines,” claims ‘Fitz’. “The Anglia had been a great little car but it wasn’t really quick enough; other cars had closed the gap. The Escort was a step forward, no question. It had a wider track, it handled beautifully and in time we were quick enough to beat the Capris.”

Fitzpatrick ended that first season with BSCC class honours, with Frank Gardner’s dazzling gold-over-red Alan Mann Racing Twin Cam winning the series outright. “For 1969 we had better reliability,” recalls Fitzpatrick. “Having said that, I didn’t have the best start to the season.” Team-mate Craft got off to a flier, though, winning his class nine times only to narrowly lose the series crown to Mini racer Alec Poole. And with Mann selling up at the end of the season to run a trawler, it was left to Broadspeed to prepare the works Twin Cam for the 1970 season. Craft won his class six times to finish second in that year’s title race while Fitzpatrick, running once again in a 1300GT – by now with a reliable 149bhp – scored seven category wins in a year where stricter Group 2 regulations ensured his car ran leaf springs rather than coils.

Changes, though, were afoot. The Twin Cam had served its purpose, the Blue Oval putting its full weight behind a concerted competition programme with the Escort. The famed Advanced Vehicle Operation (AVO) concern was established at South Ockendon, Essex, where a new strain was prepared – the RS1600. Essentially a Twin-Cam but with the newly-developed 1599cc (actually 1601cc, but scrutineers didn’t need to know that…) Cosworth-Ford BDA (Belt Drive A Series) substituting the outgoing Lotus unit, the Broadspeed race variant was a contender for outright BSCC wins in 1971.

“It was a fabulous car. I had some great battles with Frank [Gardner] who was then in the SCA Freight Services Chevrolet Camaro,” recalls Fitzpatrick. “I won at Brands, was second at Snetterton, but had a nasty off at Thruxton when a front stub axle broke. It very nearly destroyed the car. Once we’d reshelled it, I won again at Brands. Unfortunately, there was another race at Brands [the Motor Show 200] at the end of the year where Frank and I got a bit carried away. We both started from the front row and got into a barging match. The Chevy was faster on the straights but I stuck with him. Well, the Camaro had a blowout and then nudged me into an end-over-end series of rolls. Frank went off, too, and Gerry Birrell won in a Capri. Ralph wasn’t best pleased as he’d already pre-sold the car to a guy from New Zealand, who’d flown over to see ‘his’ car racing…” Nonetheless, Fitzpatrick rounded out the year with seven class wins from 12 starts and the 2-litre title.

By now there was a slackening of the ties between Ford Motorsport and Broadspeed, to the point that the team wasn’t above also fielding a BMW. And although the Escort would remain a touring car mainstay for several more years, official involvement was noticeably ebbing. In rallying, however, factory cars were cleaning up, with Roger Clark and ‘TV’s Tony Mason’ taking a popular home win on the 1972 RAC Rally. Timo Mäkinen and Henry Liddon would take back-to-back wins in 1973-74, the model being ever more competitive once Brian Hart developed the BDA further with a light-alloy block; this not only removed 40lb heft over the front wheels but allowed larger displacements of up to two litres where permissible.

With the AVO facility having the space to produce up to 5000 cars per annum, it’s no great surprise that a sister model to the RS1600 was introduced in 1970. The Mexico, so named in honour of Hannu Mikkola’s brilliant World Cup Rally win, would soak up excess capacity. Essentially a Twin Cam but with a 1.6-litre pushrod boat anchor lifted from the Cortina GT, it offered great value for money and spawned a prototypical one make race series. But if the thrashy Mexico was a mite too basic, and the RS1600 too exotic, there was always the RS2000. Announced in July ’73, and built for only 18 months, it made a lot of friends.

This was due as much to it being cheaper than an RS1600 (£1586 versus £1864 in 1973) as to it looking downright groovy with flash racing stripes. Though hugely popular, and a useful competition tool, this 2-litre Pinto-powered derivative was nonetheless never a frontline weapon.

And then came the bombshell. The 1973 Fuel Crisis saw demand slump across the board, but worse was to come. With the arrival of the restyled Mk2 edition in January 1975, Ford’s number crunchers decided to close down the AVO department. There would be future RS models but they would now be assembled in Saarlouis, West Germany. The Mk2 would, of course, continue to clean up but that is more a testament to how much Ford got right to begin with. And for what once represented street furniture as much as the Everyman competition tool, the Mk1 is nowadays a rare sight. All of which has served to ramp up prices as variations on the theme re-emerge in historics.

John Cropper of XS Racing, which claimed the 2008 MSA British Historic Rally Championship and runs the likes of BTCC race winner Mike Jordan on the loose, agrees it is possible to blow six figures on an Escort but says it’s not compulsory: “It depends on the customer. The choice of engine leads you on to what ’box you’ll use, which in turn relates to the axles and so on. It is possible to spend a lot of money but equally the Escort is still a great Clubman’s car. It’s very forgiving to drive. Recently we’ve seen more RS2000s out there as the high price of the BDAs pushes them out of reach.”

Though Ford didn’t invent the performance small car movement, it did a brilliant job of exploiting it. And with the Escort it possibly introduced more hotshoes to club motor sport than can ever be quantified. The beauty here was that even if you couldn’t stretch to an RS1600, you could probably afford a Mexico. And by fitting little more than a ’cage and some harnesses you could get stuck in. Few other cars we can think of are so evocative of their era, be it Roger Clark flying the friendly skies in British forests, Dave Brodie besting V8 opposition in his ‘Run Baby Run’ Special Saloon or Barry Lee becoming a World of Sport staple on dusty Hot Rod ovals. The Mk1 Escort was – and remains – an entertainer, and proof positive that complicated isn’t always better…

One to buy

Ford Escort MK1 – £46,995
From: Oakfields 01256 760256

This delicious on-the-button 1971 Escort RS1600 has been built to full ‘works’ Group 4-spec and is based around a lightweight ‘Gomm’ bodyshell, complete with ‘forest arches’. It’s fitted with a hot 2-litre Cosworth BDG ‘four’ on Lucas fuel-injection allied to a Wildman-prepared five-speed ZF gearbox and a Gartrac Atlas rear axle. It also has genuine Minilite wheels. The engine has recorded just 300 miles since build and much of the running gear is brand-new. It’s competitively priced and eligible for all manner of historic rallies and tour events. Full spec is available from the vendor.