Which is the Greatest Escort of All Time?
The Ford Escort is, unsurprisingly, many things to many people – ‘unsurprisingly’, because the classic Escort went through many incarnations during its long and storied career. For some, the Ford Escort is the rear-drive rally saloons that once bounced through forests the world over. For others, it’s your first 80s hot hatch, or a smoky 90s diesel, cracked bumper sealed in place with gaffer tape, driven by your grandfather.
So, how do we plan to celebrate this legend? The usual way, of course: with a trip down Memory Lane. Our story begins in January 1968, in a little place called Brussels…
Mark I: 1968-74
The car that started it all was debuted in January 1968, at the legendary Brussels Motor Show. The Escort was the ultimate, ultra-modern replacement for Ford’s beloved Anglia. It was an instant hit. Small, yet plenty big enough to fit a family and their luggage, it married an affordable price tag with ingenious packaging. Ford would go on to sell over two million.
Despite its Macpherson strut suspension and rack-and-pinion steering placing it firmly at the pinnacle of the family car market, the Escort hid an exciting secret: it was an exceptionally brilliant rally car. Beginning its domination at the Circuit of Ireland Rally in 1968, it would go on to take championships around the world, the most memorable being the London-Mexico World Cup Rally of 1970.
Mark II: 1975-80
If the Mark I’s rally performance had been impressive, then the Mark II’s was utterly phenomenal.
Developed in conjunction with Ford of Germany, it was produced under the ‘Brenda’ moniker, and shared many features with its predecessor. It would bear a pantheon of greats; everything from the base-spec 1.1 litre version to the fire-breathing RS2000 road-racer.
It speaks volumes that, even today, every rally driver wants one. This was the drive of the true greats, from Colin McRae to Ken Block.
Mark III: 1980-86
The Mark III would prove controversial – unsurprising considering the shoes it was expected to fill. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the automatic and unavoidably negative comparisons with the Mark II, the car underwent a radical redesign. The changes were so notable and extensive that, to this day, for many Ford purists, it is still viewed as ‘not a proper Escort’.
However, what the Mark III did get right was that it continued to provide cheap, durable transport for the masses, whilst also churning out top end models capable of delivering thrilling rallying results.
Mark IV: 1986-90
The Mark IV was less a new generation than it was a repackaging. Ford took the Mark III, gave it a quick once over, and decided to swap its metal bumpers for bigger, plastic ones. Despite its divisive restyling, the Mark III had remained popular, and the XRi3 and RS Turbo models had found favour with young tearaways country-wide, a fan base that Ford decided to build on.
In the event, the design of the IV would quickly become synonymous with a less than desirable clientele, and many of the erstwhile drivers who were drawn to them would eventually end up wrapping them around trees or lampposts.
Mark V: 1990-92
The Mark V was, in the eyes of many, the true beginning of the end for the Ford Escort. Built more as a budgeting exercise than an attempt to return the car to the glory of its heyday, it was cheap, basic and rattled something terrible. Judged by Jeremy Clarkson as “a disappointment”, few remain to blight Britain’s roadways.
Mark VI: 1992-95
The Mark VI took the Mark V and built on it, admittedly managing to make it a little less of a letdown. The old 1.6-litre CVH engines were replaced with Zetecs, the styling was reinvigorated and the interiors were made a little neater and more durable. Fuel injections became standard across the range as well, and crash structures were improved to offer a little more protection to the boy racers who made up the majority of drivers. Airbags also appeared to cushion the impact when youthful fool-hardiness ended badly. Did these changes really improve the car? Yes… but not much.
Mark VII: 1995-2000
The final incarnation of the Ford Escort was 1995’s Mark VII. Seemingly unwilling to give up on their Mark VI blueprint, they once more tried to improve on a flawed design, substituting in different engines and trim levels.
Sadly, the Mark VII would prove a disappointing end for such an iconic motor.
Ford would finally admit defeat in 2000, withdrawing one of their most iconic cars from the marketplace. It was a withdrawal that should have happened a decade earlier, and yet, even as the Mark V onwards did their best to ruin the reputation of one of the world’s greatest rallying cars, their original glory was so great that it cannot be dimmed.
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