Loose ends

This is the last year an Escort will lead Ford’s rally effort. Matthew Franey honours an icon and lets rip in Mikkola’s London-Mexico winner and Kankunnen’s WRC contender – the first and last of the line

It’s a stark contrast. Unfair, really. Watching the little car bounce and kick its way across tile rough ground, propelling rocks the size of a clenched fist back towards my windscreen with unnerving force, there is nothing it can do to stave off its pursuer.

Looming large now in my field of view, its low burble barely succeeds in forcing its way into my cabin, a faint rising note as its engine revs increase between the pine trees. Then a loud bang and its signature tune is replaced by something altogether more purposeful: the short, sharp report of popping exhausts as my car continues its inexorable progress.

Another gunshot, this time followed by a body-jarring clunk as the transmission finds a higher ratio, and smaller still becomes the gap between the two. From the side of the rocky track, it must appear the most unfair of chases. For these two cars are as ill-matched a fight as you could ever wish to see. So little links them, in looks or performance, that it would be easy to dismiss one as a no-hoper, a ragbag of parts thrown together to make the other look good. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For there is a link. A very obvious one. A Blue Oval adorns both cars; although one exhibits considerably less modesty in displaying it than the other. But it is in name that the true heritage of both machines stands out: Escort. For 30 years, Ford's family runabout has etched its name in rallying history. From the first Mark One used in competition, to the latest 2-litre Escort WRC, the car that took over from Ford's previous motorsport icon, the Cortina, very soon became one itself.

Escorts shone on their 1968 rally debut, winning the Circuit of Ireland and the Tulip, Acropolis and Scottish rallies. Success on the 1000 Lakes was soon to follow and for 1970, Ford put its mind to tackling an event that would capture world-wide imagination: the London-to-Mexico World Cup Rally. A mind-numbing 16,000 mile trek across two continents, ostensibly with the purpose of watching England defend the cup at that summer's tournament, the rally had its own special demands.

The World Cup cars were fitted with bomb-proof 1.8-litre pushrod Kent engines to cope with poor fuel on the 12,000-mile South American leg, and above the 140bhp block sat special struts to strengthen the roll-cage. Twin fuel tanks were fitted to contend with gruelling 600-mile stages and behind the driver sat a large drinks container; there was no time to stop for refreshment 15,000 feet up in the Andes.

Seven Ford Escorts were entered for the rally. Incredibly, five finished. What's more, the cars and crews rolled into the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City in first, third, fifth, sixth and eighth places; Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm accepting the spoils of victory and a £10,000 cheque.

Winning the London-to-Mexico spurred Ford onwards, the dominant Escort winning the RAC eight years on the trot. A world champion in 1979 with Bjorn Waldegaard and again with Ari Vatanen's privately entered machine two years later, the Escort left the world scene for the exotic Group B RS200s, only to make its official encore in 1993.

This season, however, it bows out for the last time, Ford's new road car, the Focus, being primed for action in 1999. For now, though, the Escort has the remainder of a world championship to fight, and fresh off the transporter from the Safari Rally, where Juha Kankkunen’s second place took him to the top of the drivers' points table, the Escort WRC awaits in partnership with Mikkola's rarely driven World Cup winner. The performance may be in a different league, but the pedigree is unquestionable.

Even in its stripped down 'rally-ready' form, the Mark One's modest background is apparent. Take for example the cloth-trimmed seats that offer no more support than any standard road-going car of its time. Soft and flat, the thought of thousands of miles across rock-strewn Brazilian stages is unimaginable. A Halda trip meter, the navigator's best friend, sits atop the dash along with an assortment of fuses and switches, but there is little else to impress upon you that this was a high-tech solution to what was then the longest rally ever devised.

The large, leather-rimmed steering wheel proves to be comfortably located, but at your feet the pedal spacing is so poor that heel-and-toe driving, something you would imagine is a pre-requisite, is almost prohibited. Behind the front seats there is nothing the bench ripped out to allow for spare tyres and a vinyl bag to hold tools and maps. Twin fuel fillers on the C-pillar hint at the Escort's endurance, but take away the Telegraph Magazine livery and 'llama bar' and you would be hard pushed to tell it from stock. By contrast the 1998 version is as far removed from its modem road car relation as you could imagine. Inside and out, the WRC screams its aggressive intent. From the barn-door rear wing, flared wheel arches, and over-the-top ride height, to the huge Recaro bucket seats, electronic dash readouts and tall aluminium sequential gearshift, there is no doubt what this last rallying Escort was built to do.

Yet for all its macho posturing, Kankkunen's car feels right. It easily accommodated two oft-plus drivers on the day, even with the suede steering wheel thrust way out towards your chest, the tall shift just inches from the rim. Gripped by the seats and six-point belts you are going nowhere, and that, I can now tell you, is a very good thing indeed.

Both cars fire up on the first turn of the key... or press of the button. And while the little-used elder statesman is decidedly uncomfortable at tickover, the modem car is a revelation, happy to sit burbling away while photos are taken and drivers swap over.

The user-friendly nature of this car is remarkable given the potency of the engine. The four-cylinder 2-litre turbo gives out a press release-friendly 300bhp – a figure you might safely guess was a good 50 horses shy of a true reading – while all around sit the control units for a plethora of devices that would have Ford's works team from a generation ago shaking their heads in disbelief

The permanent four-wheel drive is controlled by active front and centre differentials, while both the engine and suspension have telemetry sensors that allow engineers to plunder the car's inner secrets in the middle of deepest Africa. The six-speed sequential gearbox allows its driver to make full-throttle clutchless shifts, and the turbo's anti-lag system means that however tight the hairpin, the power is always on tap. The Escort WRC is as state-of-the-art as they come.

Both cars have clutches that demand a strong left calf muscle and more than a little care. Engage the dog-leg first on the Mark One's five-speed ZF gearbox, raise the revs to a healthy 2,500rpm and quickly but smoothly feed in the clutch. As the ageing Goodyear Ultragrips begin to bite, keep squeezing on the power and let the car take over.

A very low first gear quickly makes way for a long second; perfect for comer to corner sprints as the car twisted across the Alps and Andes. Acceleration is as you would expect from a portly car with just 140bhp, but it is in traction and sheer poise that the Mark One cleans up. The loose mud and rock that makes up the test site crumbles under the assault, but the Escort pushes on with scarcely a flicker, the next gear coming with a swift throw of the lever. The change is not light, but the 'box definitely feels strong – another hint of competition demands.

From within, the noise as you accelerate up to 7000rpm becomes ever more dramatic, the deep resonance as satisfying as it is involving. Ignore the rev counter and you soon learn to change gear by the clear note of the workhorse engine. Brake firmly and although the discs don't retard your forward momentum much, they do enough to unsettle the rear end, and from there on in, it is just a case of who can do the best Roger Clark impression.

Now the old Escort is at its finest, the steering alive in your hands as you instinctively set it up for the right-handers with a little tug first to the left, followed by a great flowing amalgam of righthand lock and full throttle. Swathes of corrective oversteer come next as driver and car exit the corner as sideways as the narrow route will allow.

This is both impressive and, here's the crux, easy. If you are prepared to let yourself be led into a bend, then it will allow you to haul it out the other side with a minimum of mid-corner fuss and a maximum of opposite lock.

It is, in so many ways, exactly what you might expect from a car that formed its own meritocracy. The Escort was the true universal rally car; as accessible and driveable for the clubman as it was for the Mikkolas, Clarks and Vatanens of the sport. That it led from the front across for the globe for the better part of a decade is all that needs be said.

The same of course, is not so true of the modern World Rally Car. With 80 people needed just to turn out and run a works team, the pinnacle of the sport now boasts levels of technology that put it beyond the average man. Thankfully, the same cannot be said of the cars that they produce. The Escort WRC, for all its computer-driven aids and space-age gadgetry, is as forgiving as its forefather. And while no-one would claim that its success comes from going down the uncomplicated route taken by earlier Escorts, the result is still simplicity itself.

Peel back the veneer of technology and the WRC is as user-friendly as you want to make it. Like the Mexico winner, the clutch is fierce and it takes an almighty heave to engage a gear before setting off, but once into its stride, the left pedal now an irrelevance and the shift lighter at speed, things become abundantly clear. There is as much ability in the modem rally car on gravel as you could find In any supercar on a race track.

The torque from the 2-litre block is staggering, the car pulling like a locomotive in any gear from almost any revs. This is real acceleration, and belies the fact that you are skimming across the loose stuff. The steering, too, is precise and sharp, although the lightness and lack of feel is unnerving. The Purpose, it seems, is to let your arms remain relaxed while the car absorbs the punishment. It works, although again you have to learn to trust the vehicle, watch the nose closely and rely on the Signals that come through the tight-hugging seat.

And again you are not let down. With a set-up to survive the rigours of the African savannah, the WRC has chassis response and ride that you have to experience to believe. Externally the wheels pump to and fro, casting aside boulders and filling in potholes at will. From the inside you remain aware of the car's balance and attitude, but all unnecessary information is damped out of the equation.

Like the superlative suspension, the four-wheel drive system take some beating as well. Again the fastest way is not always the most reassuring at first but once you learn to accept that you have to think in performance terms that are out of the ordinary, then it all becomes rather more obvious. Understeer is the Escort's natural inclination, the driven rear wheels tending to push the car straight on if you come off the power entering a corner. So again do the alien by accelerating hard and early, often with a quick tug on the handbrake, and the car will just pull itself through the corner with almost neutral handling. Allied to the abundant amounts of lateral grip from the Michelin tyres and you have a car that is at once both reassuringly easy and dauntingly quick.

Ferrari Grand Prix driver Eddie Irvine once said that he was unimpressed by 1.5-litre F1 cars of the 1960s. "I went quicker round Silverstone in my Formula Ford," he opined. He may be right, and I am sure that Juha Kankkunen would be similarly underwhelmed by the performance of the Escort WRC's predecessor. But it would be missing the point to accuse the first of the truly great Escorts of not living up to the performance of the new kid on the block. It may not do on paper, but in reality, and therefore where it counts, they are every bit as good as each other.