Ford’s mighty little family sedan, the clubman’s weekend warrior and World Rally Championship victor turns 50 this year, and like those who believe that life begins at this tender age, the Escort shows no signs of slowing down.Jeff Cameron looks back over the history of the Mk1 Escort in rallying.
From late 1967 until 1980 over 3 million were built, and a good number of them around the world today are still setting the pace in historic motorsport.
Motorsport, rallying in particular, was linked with the Escort almost from its launch in early 1968. In February of that year the Escort Twin-Cam was competing at a rallycross meeting at Croft, while its international rally debut came only a month later when Ove Andersson and John Davenport took a Boreham-built car to the San Remo Rally in Italy, finishing third outright.
It was British heroes Roger Clark and Jim Porter who took the new model’s first rallying victory, the 1968 Circuit of Ireland. A star was born.
Roger Clark pushing his Escort Twin Cam hard on the 1970 Circuit of Ireland. Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
Over the next 12 years, the remarkably versatile Escort won rallies in dozens of countries around the world, on all types of surfaces, and launched the careers of many of rallying’s big-name drivers.
The cars were extensively and continuously developed by the Ford works team at their Boreham base, and even today development continues with modernisation of materials and componentry within the confines of historic competition. Fittingly, it was in the car’s final year as a works entry that it claimed the biggest prize, the World Rally Championship.
In this article we look back at the four models of Mk 1 Escort that saw service as works cars, since it was this shape that first appeared all those years ago and the model that enjoyed the greatest mechanical diversity.
So, grab yourself a piece of cake and come for a trawl through the family album, as we wish the Ford Escort a very happy 50th birthday.
Wide wheel arches on the Twin Cam Escort of Roger Clark on the 1969 RAC Rally. Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
Escort Twin Cam
It was reportedly Boreham workshop foreman Bill Meade that uttered the words, “Blimey, one of those things would go like Hell with a Twin-Cam engine in it”.
Of course, he was referring to one of the prototype Escorts he and team manager, Henry Taylor, had seen circulating at the Ford proving ground in late 1966.
Over the coming months of 1967 a great deal of effort was put into getting the necessary approval and resources within Ford to assemble a prototype, this being finally achieved over a secretive weekend in March ‘67.
It was a squeeze, but the Lotus Cortina Twin-Cam engine and running gear could be made to fit, but it took many more months of internal politicking and creation of four more prototypes later in the year to secure the go-ahead for production.
1970 Scottish Rally - Roger Clark / Jim Porter, Escort Twin Cam. Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
In order to have cars available for start of the 1968 motorsport season, the first batch of 25 Escort Twin-Cams were built at Boreham. It was one of these machines that Ove Andersson and John Davenport took to third outright in San Remo.
As a result of this debut appearance, the first step in the long development of the Escort into a rally winner was taken.
Andersson insisted there was a problem with the rear suspension, since the rear shock absorbers had followed the norm of regular Escorts and were mounted at a steep angle, compromising efficiency as the suspension travel was taken up.
Roger Clark retired from the 1968 RAC Rally with engine failure in his Twin Cam. Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
With the pounding they received under rally conditions the shocks were ‘going off’, leaving the rear axle practically bouncing up and down. Back at Boreham the team quickly developed the rear turret kit that allowed vertical mounting of the Bilstein dampers, a fitment to serious rallying Escorts to this very day.
From this point the development continued apace and the car’s speed and reliability improved. In time, bulging wheel arch extensions, 5-speed ZF gearboxes and heavy- duty Atlas rear axle housings with 4-wheel disc brakes all became part of the Escort package.
And what a successful package it was, with wins coming thick and fast in Ireland, Holland, Austrian Alpine, Acropolis, the Scottish and Finland.
Even though the Escort was becoming faster, so was the opposition. By 1969 it became apparent that more power from the Twin-Cam would be needed. The 1594cc Group 2 Lotus Twin-Cam was producing around 150hp, but after casting a special batch of ‘siamesed’ blocks with 1800cc capacity, up to 180hp was possible.
This modification meant the car was now beyond the class limit of 1600cc, and as a result Ford could only enter 1.8 litre Twin-Cams in events that catered for Group 6 prototypes.
But by now, the RS1600 was in the offing and the Twin-Cam was retired at the end of 1970, although a team of six cars were specially prepared for the Safari Rally of 1971.
However, it was an inglorious end with only two of them making the finish in fourth and sixth places. The way forward for the Escort now would clearly require BDA power.
Rauno Aaltonen's World Cup Rally Escort after finishing in third place on the 1970 event. Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
Escort 1850 GT / 'Mexico'
A marathon event of an all-consuming [and expensive] kind occurred in 1970 with the running of the Daily Mirror World Cup Rally, held to link London with the football World Cup in Mexico City, 16,000 miles (25,000km) away.
There were to be no homologation restrictions and many of the big works teams were entering. Stuart Turner, now team manager at Boreham, was given official approval by Ford and was provided with a budget of ₤40,000 to get the job done.
The big questions now were what cars to use and whether they should run two or three-man crews aboard them?
During the process of car appraisal, Roger Clark was given the task of test-driving an Escort fitted with a German 2.3 litre V6, then a giant Ford Zodiac, but neither ticked all the boxes. Many other cars from the Ford range were considered, but in the end, it was decided a two-man crew would be sufficient and for this an Escort was the perfect size.
But still the powerplant was undecided. After the London-Sydney Marathon failure the Twin-Cam was ruled out, and Stuart Turner did not want to risk the new-born BDA, so in the end serviceability and reliability gave the nod to enlarged Kent pushrod engines of 1840cc, giving around 140bhp.
Roger Clark and Timo Makinen were stars in the Mk1 Escort. Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
In keeping with the enormous task at hand, the rest of the specification was also built to super heavy-duty standards, including ZF 5-speed gearboxes with wide-spaced ratios and overdrive, Atlas rear axles, beefed-up crossmembers, additional fuel tank capacity and the distinctive external “Llama bars”.
All this strengthening came at the cost of weight; despite light alloy doors and no bumpers, the cars still weighed in over 200 pounds (90kg) heavier than a regular rally Escort.
Ford had amassed a mighty team of seven cars, and had included retired footballer Jimmy Greaves amongst a host of world-class drivers such as Hannu Mikkola, Timo Makinen, Roger Clark and Rauno Aaltonen.
From the start in Wembley Stadium the Escorts fought with the big Citroens through Europe, but by Lisbon after just one week of rallying, the additional weight of the Escort was causing unexpected breakages in the axle tubes of the Atlas housings.
While the competitors and their machines sailed across the Atlantic to South America, Roger Clark was flown back to England to begin development of a solution. In the time available a simple, but crude, external brace was fashioned out of alloy plate, and Roger took an Escort to Bagshot and proved after countless jumps that the axles were now unbreakable.
While it had been a rush job, the effort proved totally worthwhile since the Escorts sped into Mexico City two weeks later in first, third, fifth, sixth and eighth places outright. Mikkola and Gunnar Palm took the win in the car registered FEV1H.
As a result of the total success, Ford developed the most popular British clubman’s rally car, naming it the Escort Mexico. It too was a winning sales success, which is fortunate since Stuart Turner in fact spent over ₤127,000 pounds of Ford money to get the job done!
Russell Brookes slides his RS2000 on the 1975 Tour of Britain. Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
Launched in 1973 the RS2000 slotted into the Ford product line-up between the clubman’s favourite Mexico, and homologation special RS1600.
Offering near-BDA performance without the complication and high maintenance nature of the RS1600, the RS2000 came with more refinement for road use and therefore appealed to a broader market than the Mexico. While never enjoying a full works career, the single overhead cam RS did have its moments in the sun.
Ford took the opportunity in 1974 to promote the new model and give the opposition a break from the dominant Roger Clark in his works RS1600, by building up an RS2000 in which he would tackle a British National event, the Mintex Dales.
To give Clark a fighting chance, the 2-litre engine was much modified to give 160hp and the chassis bore a very close resemblance to his usual works mount. In the end it still took an almighty effort behind the wheel for Clark and Jim Porter to defeat the more powerful opposition by just two seconds, a task the driver seemed uninterested in repeating.
Ari Vatanen (left) and Jim Clark racing hard in the 1974 Tour of Britain. Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
While that was the end of the RS2000’s works forest rallying career, there was one further, and no less successful, moment of glory.
The 1974 Avon-Motor Tour of Britain saw Ford enter a pair of cars for Clark / Porter and an on-loan Gerry Marshall, with Paul White alongside. The Tour catered for showroom Group 1 cars, testing competitors over a 1000-mile (1600km) tour of race tracks and loose surface stages, drawing entries from Formula 1 drivers such as James Hunt and Jodie Sheckter.
Ford surprised everyone by turning up with a pair of 140hp machines sporting a host of just-homologated goodies, including dual downdraught Solex carburettors, twin-downpipe exhaust system, close-ratio Rocket gearboxes and single-leaf rear springs with the usual Bilstein dampers.
The idea had been for Marshall to show the way on the race tracks, while Clark would lead on the stages. However Clark, with some spectacular tyre smoking sideways displays on the bitumen, proved very difficult to get past, leading the team home to a 1-2 victory.
A year later Tony Pond repeated the win in another privately entered Mk 1, and then in 1976 in Mk 2 guise, Ari Vatanen won again, proving the RS2000 had exactly what was needed for success on the road and track.
1971 Circuit of Ireland. Chris Sclater becomes the first driver to win a rally championship in an Escort (navigated by Martin Holmes). Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
While many readers would immediately associate the RS1600 with the Ford-Cosworth BDA, that famous engine made its debut in a Ford Capri when it was announced in January 1969.
The BDA wasn’t destined for the sports coupe, just filling a gap until the V6 arrived.
Ford’s new 16-valve power-plant first appeared in a prototype RS1600 [a converted Twin-Cam] on the 1970 Circuit of Ireland crewed by Roger Clark and Jim Porter.
The 1790cc cast iron block produced around 160hp, which was enough to take a win, however en route to power outputs closer to 200hp there was a period of unreliability as the team came to grips with the new engine.
Clark suffered three more failures during 1970, so for 1971 Ford chose to use Twin-Cams for the Safari, however, after that dismal result Boreham knew there was no turning back and got stuck into turning the BDA into the winner they knew it could be.
With significant budget cuts administered by the Ford accountants, combined with a serious pay strike that brought the parent operation to a standstill, Safari aside, 1971 was a quiet season for the works rally program.
In contrast, 1972 was to be a very successful year for Boreham, the team bouncing back to take one of the most significant Safari wins of all time, the first by a non-resident driver as Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm beat Zasada’s Porsche by 28 minutes in a 1.8 litre RS1600.
L-R: Chris Sclater and Martin Holmes are interviewed by Paddy Hopkirk before the 1971 Circuit of Ireland. Photo: Martin Holmes Rallying
Although the BDA shared the same basic block as the 1599cc crossflow [as found in the Mexico], with some calculator trickery the new engine had been homologated at the upper limit of 1601cc, allowing a maximum capacity of 2000cc. This was to prove a significant factor in the Escort’s continued competitiveness.
In 1972, the vital ingredient for increasing power beyond 200hp was discovered, quite by accident, when team manager Peter Ashcroft tripped over the new all-aluminium 2-litre block in Brian Hart’s workshop.
Once again, the job of testing the new engine fell to Roger Clark and Jim Porter, however it was to be a complete success when they took “Esso Blue” to a win in the Jim Clark National Rally in June.
With international homologation following in August, a four-car team was entered for the RAC Rally a few months later, where it was the home team of Clark and Tony Mason who took a most important victory in a 2-litre Lucas fuel injected, 235hp RS1600, LVX 942J.
After wins on two British nationals for Clark, in New Zealand for Mikkola and the 1000 Lakes for Timo Makinen, a six-car line-up was assembled for the 1973 RAC. In the shadow of the looming oil crisis Timo Makinen and Henry Liddon took the first of their hat-trick of RAC wins.
Tony Pond got it all wrong on the 1973 Burmah Rally, but wasn't the only driver caught out in the dark. Photo: Martin Holmes
When the oil started flowing again later in 1974 it was Hannu Mikkola who took an Escort with 15” wheels to a win in the 1000 Lakes, with the big wheel’s instigator, Timo Makinen, second. The 15” wheel experiment continued to the RAC where Makinen and Liddon again won in a Colibri Lighters sponsored RS1600.
Even though the new-shape Mk2 Escort was waiting in the wings, the Mk 1 would make a few more appearances throughout 1975, mainly due to a shortage of rally-ready Mk 2 shells.
As the last chapter of the Escort’s life as a works car was being written in 1979, the once simple little family saloon clinched rallying’s biggest prize, the World Rally Championship. The car lives on into the 21st century, continuing to prove it has much more winning left in it yet.
- Jeff Cameron
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