Small and affordable or light and blisteringly fast, whatever flavor of Ford Escort was your favorite, we know you miss it. Here’s the case for bringing it back.
Nostalgia is a heck of a drug. Just look at the new Ford Bronco if you don’t believe me. Couple that with Ford’s use (or misuse) of the Mustang badge on the upcoming Mustang Mach-E, and it’s clear Ford knows how to leverage historically successful brand names. Heck, the rumor is they’re going to be using the Maverick name in their resurrection of a light pick-up. And this had me wondering what other nameplate should Ford be looking to dust off and use as a canvas for innovation? The answer came easily, at least for those of us obsessed with rally cars, the Ford Escort.
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Some cars get more than their share of our attention, and the phenomenon is even more pronounced in hindsight. When the Escort was phased out in favor of the Ford Focus back in the early aughts, the change was met with a collective shrug, at least here in the US. In the States, our experience with the Escort was as just one of dozens of unassuming yet affordable compact cars. But in its day in Britain and Europe, the Escort had dominated sales and the growing sport of rally car racing.
The Escort, especially the Escort of Europe, lived something of a dual life. It was at once the best-selling car in Britain, economical and practical, while also being one of the greatest rally cars of all time.
Launching in 1968 as a replacement for the Ford Anglia, the Ford Escort was a small rear-wheel drive car aimed at both mass-market consumers and the rally car circuit. It didn’t take long for the Escort to see success on both counts. From ’68 to ’74, over 2 million Escorts were produced in Britain and it remains Ford’s best-selling car outside the US. The first of many rally car wins came in the 1970 London to Mexico World Rally won by then legend-in-the-making Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm driving an astounding 16,000 miles in a Mk I Escort.
The London to Mexico win led to the release of a special Mexico edition of the Mk I and spurred the development of the RS1600, RS1800, and RS2000 Escort rally cars. These and other Escorts were some of the most successful and dominant rally cars of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
Civilian versions of the Escort were seeing their own form of success. Part of the reason for their popularity was the combination of affordability and a variety of body styles. Though it started as a compact two-door saloon/sedan, the Escort line grew quickly to include a wagon/estate version followed by variants like a 4-door sedan and a panel van. Later generations, like the Mk IV, added still more body types with 3 and 5-door wagons and hatchbacks and even a cabriolet version.
Across the pond in the late ‘70s, Ford had a problem with its current compact car offering. The Ford Pinto had a won itself a notoriously bad reputation with a widely publicized safety scandal and the company looked to reboot their segment offering with the proven commodity in the Escort.
In 1980, the US Escort (and corporate twin Mercury Lynx) began life as 3/5-door hatchbacks and 5-door wagons. Over time, it gained doors and new configurations. In its second generation, in 1991, the Escort swapped platforms to the Mazda B (with the Mercury version getting a new name, the Tracer).
Back in Europe, by 1990 and its fifth generation, the Ford Escort had begun to lose some of its appeal. Increasing competition from Asian automakers, a less than inspiring design, and lackluster driving experience lead to a sales decline for the stalwart Escort. Both in the US and in Europe, the Escort would continue on for another decade, completing its run in 2002 when it was replaced by the Ford Focus.
There were two notable exceptions to the decline of the Escort. The first was the RS Cosworth which debuted in 1992. Today considered an icon of rally, the RS Cosworth was a racing homologation special cobbled together from preceding Ford Sierra architecture and Mk V body panels.
Cosworth had been producing racing engines for the Escort going back to the Mk I, but this latest partnership would be their most well-known to history. The RS Cosworth featured a front-engine 4WD set up with a turbocharged inline-4 making 224bhp and propelling the car to a top speed of 150mph. The car is probably most remembered for its “whale-tail” spoiler.
The second exception was the US Escort’s ZX2 sport coupe designed to take on the likes of the Civic Si and the Dodge Neon SRT4. The tragically short-lived S/R trim (99-00) ran a 2.0L Zetec I-4 making a respectable 143hp. The ZX2 was something of a last hurray for the Escort (Ford even dropped the Escort name in 2001) and was unceremoniously discontinued in 2002.
This brings us full circle to the current trend of resurrecting classic nameplates. So why should Ford consider the Escort in the same breath as the Mustang and the Bronco? Easy, because the Escort is both one of their best-selling models ever (second only to the F-150) and it has a legitimate racing pedigree.
Ford may have bowed out of the “car” business in favor of SUVs and trucks but ceding the passenger car segment to Asian brands is a mistake. The crossover takeover has left a huge hole in the market for drivable, entry-level cars. Want something that’s both affordable and fun to drive? You’re not going to find that in a Ford. That is not unless they take my advice and reboot the Escort.
But, you ask, how does a new Escort not suffer the same fate as the late Ford Focus RS? Here are some ideas.
Make it a rear engine. We waited for decades for GM to get around to properly evolving the Corvette and the results haven’t disappointed (nor has the strong demand for the new C8). The notorious but short-lived Group B legend, the Escort RS200 of the mid-80s was itself a wild and woolly mid-engine monster. What better way to lend some edge to your new Escort than drop a screaming turbo behind your ears?
Even better, make it electric. This kills two birds with one stone. First, electrifying the new Escort would mean Ford would have a smaller, more economical electric alternative to the Mustang Mach-E crossover. And, as the recent reveal of the Mach-E 1400 prototype makes clear, going electric can mean insane boosts in power.
You don’t even need to go full electric, either. As we’ve seen with hybrid powertrains as disparate as the RAV4 Prime and Keoingsegg Gemera, you can get a lot of oomph out of hybrids. But even more importantly, the hybrid option eliminates the one big sticking point for potential EV buyers, range anxiety.
Just imagine for a moment our new Escort. A hybrid powertrain providing snappy acceleration on demand along with a 600-mile range on a single tank and all at a price point below that of your average new crossover. And don’t forget a performance version rounded out with a few classic design cues like RS Cosworth’s “whale-tail” and the mid-90s Escort GT’s funky grille with its off-center blue oval.
Remember, the Prius didn’t succeed because it was slow and dorky, it succeeded in spite of that fact. A new Escort hybrid would replicate all the efficiency and affordability of a Prius while also blowing the doors off all those coal-rolling pickups rumbling at the stoplight. Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard, the FIA World Rally Championship will be introducing a new hybrid class in 2022. Better get cracking Ford engineers!