Launched fifty years ago, we examine the fifth best selling car of all time.
It’s a curious choice when you think about it, connotating little by way of glamour or allure, unlike for instance its Cortina sibling. The car as companion perhaps? A no-nonsense non-specific name for what began life as a practical, no-nonsense car. The Escort name in fact predated this model, first turning up on a variant of the early 1950s British Ford 100E range, but more salaciously, it was also the title of a popular 1970s UK top-shelf publication, beloved of both (secondary) school playground and travel motel dweller alike.
But the Escort in entry-level form at least, was hardly going to get anyone’s heart (or loins) aflutter, being as it was, more of a steadfast and honest (ahem) tool. The default wheels of a million professional journeymen, renta-car stalwart and yes, ultimately, rally weapon and object of young men’s desires from Essex to Essen.
But all that lay in the future when Ford took the covers off the belated replacement for the 105E Anglia at the 1968 Brussels motor show, a car which was by then looking every day of its age.
The first production Ford to benefit from the amalgamation of its British and German operations and Ford of Europe’s second jointly developed vehicle after the original Transit van, the Escort came about through the realisation that Ford’s GM arch-rivals were making hay with the highly successful Opel Kadett / Vauxhall Viva cousins. With authorisation for a new model only issuing from Dearborn in 1964, development would therefore be by necessity, swift.
The Anglia had been developed entirely by the UK’s Dunton division, albeit with styling heavily derived (if not entirely lifted) from Detroit. This proved a double-edged sword, the car’s fashionable (for 1959) be-finned appearance and controversial reverse-rake rear pillars meant it was a car which sold for a good half of its lifespan on the basis of its well-sorted chassis and value for money, rather than its up-to-the-minute appearance.
Its replacement would be a more pan-European affair, marking a point where both styling and engineering worked in concert. Designed for ease and cheapness of manufacture, it featured modern innovations such as body monoside construction and one piece door pressings. As befitted a more up-to-date offering, interior packaging was prioritised over the cramped Anglia, so despite growing only 4.0 inches in width, accommodation was increased by 6.0 inches across the rear and 4.5 inches in front.
Cost was a major issue at this end of the market, but Ford were past masters in this area, paring back the car’s specification in basic form, but offering both a broad range and a degree of personalisation. Offered with ‘Kent’ crossflow engines of 1100 and 1300 cc (a 940cc entry-level model was offered in some mainland European markets), the car’s mechanical specification was simple and proven – the only technical innovations being rack and pinion steering and a switch-like single-rail, four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox.
Debuting in two door saloon form (four-door, estate and commercial versions followed) – styling, which appeared to have been a combined effort between Dearborn, Dunton and Merkenich remained very much in the contemporary US idiom, previewing themes which would appear on the later Mark III Cortina.
The nose styling was conceived by Dearborn stylists to encompass rectangular headlamps within the single-piece bone-shaped grille outline. These proved to be less efficient than the cheaper round units which were confined to misery-specification models. This quickly changed once the halo of the rally-winning versions began to filter through.
Otherwise the Escort’s styling was simple, uncluttered and with its de-rigueur coke-bottle hips, vaguely redolent of US pony cars – a matter which did the junior Ford’s image no harm. Nor did the car’s well-regarded dynamics, assuming of course one specified the optional disc front brakes, wider roadwheels, radial tyres, not to mention the front anti-roll bar which arrived in ’69.
In 1300 GT form the Escort was a decently quick car and soon gained the attention of Ford’s UK-based motorsport division. As race wins piled up, more power was extracted, culminating in the race winning Lotus twin-cam and RS 1600 / 2000 versions. Soon both they and the less powerful Mexico versions would evolve to become temples of lust for legions of boy-racers and rally aficionados.
Built in Dagenham, Genk and Saarlouis, with assembly also taking place in locations as diverse as Cork, Nazareth and Seaview, New Zealand, the mark one Escort racked up sales of over a million cars until its somewhat cynically conceived replacement (dubbed Brenda) came on stream in 1975.
During those few heady years when front wheel drive continued to be viewed with deep suspicion and the compact hatchback as we now know it was but a twinkle in Giorgetto’s eye, the Escort bestrode the sector it helped define – at least in markets like the UK and Republic of Ireland, where simple, rugged machinery was idealised.
The Escort once again demonstrated Ford’s product planning nous, hitting the sweet-spot of the market, becoming (for better or worse) part of the streetscape for three decades. By 1998 the nameplate may have become a spent force but over six iterations, more than twenty million were produced worldwide.
Meanwhile, as the fourth-generation Focus is due to make its debut any day, its second-violin status to the mighty Golf is already cast in tablet. With Ford’s European operations back in red ink, and its medium-term future increasingly in doubt, the Blue Oval desperately needs another Escort-sized hit.
Recently, Ford made much of its exhortations for its customers to Unlearn, yet for all that, management would undoubtedly be thrilled to turn the clock back. After all, as the saying goes, misery loves company.
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