A Company Car

Launched fifty years ago, we examine the fifth best selling car of all time.

Image credit: viaretro

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.

1959 Ford Anglia: Image credit: favcars

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.

Image credit: maciej.se

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.

The 1300 GT model featured additional instruments, ‘bucket’ seats, fancier door cards and erm, that’s about it. Oh and a parcel shelf… Image credit: smclassiccars

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.

Holy grail? 1972 Escort Mexico. Image credit: classic and performance car

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 brougham option. Escort 1300E. Image credit: hot cars

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.

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

27 thoughts on “A Company Car”

  1. From what I have seen, there is no way the new Focus is going to be a sure-fire hit. It just looks so limp – it could prove to be the Focus’s version of the Mark V Escort which was much face lifted and thus proved to become the last of the Escorts.

    1. Agreed. It is so nondescript and has abandoned all of the Focus design cues, so could be from any manufacturer. Ford really has lost its nerve here. I was uncomfortable with the Mk1 Focus at the time (I didn’t “get” those arcs above the wheelarches) but now appreciate what a bold design statement it made after the dismal Mk5 Escort. I also really liked the severe (VW-esque) rationalism of the original Mk2 Focus, before they fussied it up in the facelift.

    2. They’ve borrowed BMW’s Hoffmeister kink, as BMW don’t seem to want it anymore.

      It’s possible the new Focus will be a more faithful BMW than the forthcoming BMW 1 series.

      So that’s something.

  2. I was always intrigued by one aspect of the Mk1 Escort design, the different treatment of the DLO on two and four-door versions. As Eóin notes, the former employed simple one-piece door and bodyside pressings with integral window frames. The latter, however, used separate window frames which, to my eyes, gave the car a lighter, more expensive and elegant look. The metallic brown XL model above illustrates this.

    I can only think of one other car that uses different treatments for the DLO on different versions. And that car is…?

    1. I can think of lots, actually. VW Up!, both the last and current generation Fiestas … and the one before that too. In fact, I think most 2 and 4 door versions of the same model differ in their DLO. It might be I am missing something.

  3. Sorry, I should have been more explicit in posing the question. I was thinking not about the shape of the DLO per se, but about the engineering treatment of the doors; one-piece door pressings, separate frames or frameless door glass.

    1. One example I can think of is the BMW 3 series, starting with the E36. The 2-door versions have frameless glass, the 4-door ones have frames. But so has every car that is available as a convertible and a closed car, so there are several models with this characteristic. What were you thinking about?

  4. Hi Simon,

    In my mind, I was excluding convertibles for the obvious reason you mention. The E36 (and successive) 3-Series might qualify, although the two-door has a different silhouette to the four-door and was the first 3-Series where the former was described as a “coupé” rather than just a two-door saloon. I was about to rule it out on that basis, then I remembered that, with the car I was thinking about, the four-door actually has a longer wheelbase than the two-door, so also a different silhouette!

    That car is the current F56 MINI hatchback. The three-door has very neat frameless doors with gloss black cappings on the A and C pillars and a hidden B pillar, giving the car a smooth uninterrupted “turret”separating the roof from the body. Unfortunately, the bean-counters got their way with the four-door, which has satin (not gloss) black door window frames and an exposed B pillar. This ruins the effect and makes the DLO look very cluttered, IMHO.

    The early publicity photos for the five-door played down this detail rather artfully, but this is the reality:

    My partner drives a three-door Cooper and I was really disappointed when I first saw the five-door in the flesh. The thick door frames also make it feel rather claustrophobic inside, compared with the three-door.

    Eóin, my apologies for hijacking your post (again!)

    1. Not to worry Daniel, I suspect this subject is more interesting than the Escort, which is for many, something of an automotive wallflower, and a car I remain somewhat ambivalent about. On the subject of the MINI, there is, in my opinion a good deal more wrong with the five-door version than simply the manner in which the side glass is framed. It is quite simply a very poorly executed piece of design work for which a certain Mr. Warming should be thoroughly ashamed to have in his back catalogue.

    2. That 5 door MINI must rate as one of the worst on today’s price lists.

    3. I have always been ambivalent about the whole Mini thing so don’t keep tabs on each successive generation and model as I do with other marques and models. So your photo comes as a bit of a shock. It’s actually quite unpleasant isn’t it?

  5. I have to agree, the five-door is a mess. I know that even the three-door is a less well resolved design than its immediate predecessor, but it’s a brilliant drive and not without charm. This is ours:

    I would be interested in reading a sensible critique of both three and-five door designs, ideally one that doesn’t begin by mocking its size (“…should have been called Maxi.”) Perhaps that’s an idea for a future DTW piece?

    The Issigonis original was certainly charming, but you wouldn’t want to be involved in a crash in one. I was, as a front seat passenger, and was lucky to survive it.

    1. Having lengthy experience of both a ’66-vintage example of dear Alec’s original and a more recent ’06-vintage R50 version, (further information can be accessed amid the DTW archive), I wouldn’t particularly wish to have an accident in either, although I know which of the pair I’d favour.

      Driven to Write is one pair of hands short of the Marie Celeste at present, so with the rest of the editorial team off gallivanting like spring lambs over the Easter period, such requests as Daniel’s above will have to await their return – assuming they do. We’ve already lost a couple of drummers since we began in 2014, so one never quite knows. (And before anyone writes in to complain, I’m fully aware I’m mixing metaphors here…)

  6. I wholeheartedly agree that the five door MINI is a terrible, terrible thing, but it seems to find considerable favour with the MILFs of my neighbourhood.

    It’s the people’s choice – but so was Barabbas, to sound a seasonal note…

  7. To return to Escort matters, according to Liepedia, the eponymous publication had a birth, death and resurrection paralleling its automotive namesake:

    “A monthly pin-up magazine with the title Escort was published between 1958 and 1971. Ten years later Paul Raymond began publishing a top-shelf magazine with the revived title.”

    Further researches reveal that the revived 1981 Escort was set up as a somewhat tardy challenge to a rival publisher’s offering called “Fiesta” which had been on sale since 1966, a full decade before Ford’s use of the name.

    I’ve no idea whether the no doubt worthy Escort magazine still survives. Perhaps it sunk below the waves at the turn of the century, only to be revived in China in 2015

    1. Further to the above, I recall one of the UK’s top shelf organs, (I’m not 100% sure if it was either of those august journals) had a section within which went by the name of ‘Probe’. I will swerve the minutiae for those of a sensitive nature, but it did appear for a time that Ford was going through a bit of a ‘Jazz phase’ back then.

  8. The Escort is also interesting in that it was the original home of the first ‘modern’ production engine (in the sense that it’s basic design still informs the current practice of Otto-cycle engine building), the magnificent and much copied Cosworth BDA

  9. The 1959 Anglia was the 100E. The 105E came out as a 1960 model, but was obviously made from July/August ’59. Which was during our emigration boat trip to Canada. My mother bought a 196o, then a ’64 Anglia Super, but decided to go big time a year later and bought a final year 1965 Volvo 544, with which she continued to terrorize the locals. Best female driver I’ve ever seen and not by a little bit, all 5 foot 2 of her.

    When I returned to the UK in 1969 for graduate work, the Escort was already selling well. Quite how you think its styling was American is beyond me. Wasn’t a US Ford with those hips or that fascia. The big coke-bottle hips started on 1965 full- size GM cars, and quickly spread to the Vauxhall Victor in the UK. As for the 1970 Cortina, they sold them in Canada, saw them on a trip home. Stood out like a sore thumb – nobody here would mistake it for a domestic. Yet I see the same old tired UK theme that these cars were US inspired, over and over again. Amazing. The 1970 Pinto, utter crapmobile that it was, showed Dearborn’s styling ideas.

    My second year in the UK I was billeted with a fellow from Cambridge Consultants where I was gaining work experience. He had an Escort 1300GT which he thrashed quite unreasonably. Every day on the A604 from St Ives to Bar Hill, it was balls to the wall. Nippy car. In spring 1971, Clive Sinclair bought Cambridge Consultants and soon had an Escort 1600 BDA to show off. No, not a Jag or a Wover.

    Next year in London, my flatmate had an Escort 1100, and two years later bought an Escort estate into which a 1600 crossflow had been substituted. I liked the Escort a lot – it certainly showed up my parents’ Pinto for the junk pile it was.

    As for that first Anglia, well I look back on it with fondness. Passed my driving test in it. Loved those engines and gearboxes. Still, let’s be fair, it was obvious that the Volvo that replaced the Anglia Super was far better made.

    1. Funny you should say that Bill. My mother had a ’67 Ang Deluxe during the 1970’s – so called, after my older brother slid off the bootlid, taking half the namebadge with him. Didn’t go down well. It was (predictably) black with a red interior, registered OZB 364, if faulty memory serves. She loved that car and drove it (and everything else which came her way) with considerable verve and skill.

      I apologise for taking an unoriginal tack with regards to the Escort’s styling. You may well be correct in the assertion there is no direct influence, but from the reading I’ve done, it has been stated that the bulk of the styling was carried out at Dearborn and that Ford’s US styling team believed the bone-shaped grille / headlamp arrangement would be considered ‘sophisticated’ in the old World.

      For myself, I see elements of what some would term ‘Pony Car’ in the Escort’s forms – shades in particular of the first series Camaro, but I will concede the timelines don’t really allow for any meaningful cross-pollination. I’ll also say this is merely an observation and as such, subjective. What I think we can perhaps agree on is the notion that American style remained a huge global influence at that time and given that both Ford and GM’s European styling teams were at the very least, massively informed by what their Detroit counterparts were up to – if not actually managed by Americans – the perception of ‘American styling’ can hardly be simply pulled from the air. Not with a straight face anyway.

      The Mark one Escort was an honest little car and with the right degree of fettling, a quick and wieldy one too; factors that perhaps explain its devoted classic following today. The car that replaced it was by comparison a far more cynical device, advancing nothing, apart from Ford’s profits. By the mid-70s, owners deserved better from the blue oval.

  10. Eóin, you’re right about the MK2 Escort being a pretty cynical exercise, but at least it had a more contemporary (and quite pleasant, IMHO) body concealing the outdated engineering. (Apart, of course, from the estate, which was nothing more than a Mk2 nose grafted onto the Mk1 body.) However as an exercise in cynicism, it is easily outdone by the MK4 Escort, which was worse in every conceivable way than the MK3. IIRC, Car Magazine at the time dismissed it as “not worth tooling up for”. I drove a MK4 hire car in Scotland shortly after its introduction and the steering was truly terrible, making it difficult to place on country roads. The engine was harsh and unrefined and the ride unsettled. Subjectively, the design was dismal after the quite smart MK3, particularly those cod-Audi Quattro flared wheelarches.

    1. Daniel, at the risk of needless pedantry, I would suggest you mean the 1991 Mark five Escort, the Mark four being the soft-nosed facelift Mark three from 1986. I had plenty of exposure to Marks three and four, which were never less than broadly competent. However, a rental Mark five – an example with too few miles on its odometer to have been meaningfully abused – was just short of the single worst new car I’ve ever driven*. Nothing about that car’s dynamics achieved even basic adequacy and Ford were rightly pilloried for it. It did however act as a catalyst for the change of ethos at Merkenich which saw an emphasis placed on dynamic excellence and driving pleasure.

      *The worst was a brand-new Volvo 340 – a car so comically inept, I feared for my safety.

  11. Yes, Eóin, you are right, of course. I have lost track of Ford’s rather arbitrary mark designations for the Escort and Fiesta. I’m amused to see you also found the Mk5 a terrible drive: my passenger, a work colleague, thought it was my driving at fault!

    1. That Mk5 (in my mind, it’s also a Mk4, by the way) was heavily facelifted and revised after only two years. That pretty much says it all about this car. It seems that it has actually been improved, but fundamental flaws remained.

  12. Such a great looking car. Very difficult to design something that looks so right, especially when it marks such a clean break with previous forms, but Ford pulled it off.

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