A Song For Erika

The 1981 Escort saw Ford resume its leadership – this time from the front. 

1980 Ford Escort Ghia. Image: curbsideclassic

Throughout the 1970s, the Ford Motor Company’s European satellite produced cars that were precisely what large swathes of the market not only wanted, but actively aspired to. This lucrative recipe was a combination of tried and trusted conventional engineering, slick marketing, a gimlet-eyed focus on product strategy and well judged, contemporary style.

First introduced in 1968, the big-selling Escort model was successfully rebodied in 1975. However, by the latter part of the decade, it had fallen behind stylistically, but in particular on the technical side. With most of Ford’s European rivals moving inexorably towards the front-wheel drive, hatchback layout, the blue oval needed to act. The Erika programme was instigated around 1975 to do just that.

1975 Escort Popular. (c) Ford UK

Ford themselves were no strangers to the technology[1], having successfully developed the compact FWD Fiesta model, which launched in 1976. Engineers at Ford’s Cologne development centre drew from this latter programme to define the chassis layout and architecture of their new B-segment offering. So like Fiesta, Erika would employ MacPherson strut front suspension, and rack and pinion steering, but with a new design-independent rear suspension, instead of the Escort II’s crude leaf-sprung beam axle.

Developed for Erika was a new family of belt-driven overhead camshaft CVH (compound valve hemispherical) engines. These modern higher revving, more powerful and fuel efficient engines were a considerable advance on the OHV crossflow, Kent and Pinto engines fitted to existing Escort models. Initially offered in 1.1, 1.3 and 1.6 litre form, Erika then, was to be a combination of simplicity; light weight, efficient engines, class leading aerodynamics, and sophistication; high levels of specification, convenience features, and attractive, sharp-suited styling.

Image: automania.be

The critical and commercial success of the Volkswagen Golf lent Ford’s product committee serious pause; not only that, but in the interim, Renault, Chrysler-Simca, Fiat and Opel had introduced competitive front-drive hatchbacks into the segment, and with the existing Escort fading, the argument for radical change grew stronger. But despite the necessity to evolve the concept, the product strategists clearly felt that overt radicalism à la Ritmo would alienate buyers.

The chosen design theme for the Erika programme was from Klaus Kapitza[2], who proposed a crisply surfaced, strongly proportioned two volume shape with a pronounced aerodynamic bustle-back, set to become something of a Ford design trademark. The shorter, but wider Erika body, with its pronounced wheelarch flares was intended to evoke a powerful, more athletic stance, said by Ford’s PR to resemble ‘a sprinter straining on his blocks’.

Introduced in three and five-door hatchback form, a three-door estate was also offered. In typical Ford fashion, a wide variety of trim levels were available (base model, L, GL, Ghia); the top line models looking considerably richer and more finely detailed than the distinctly dowdy-looking entry-level versions. Later, a five-door estate was added, as was a Karmann-bodied cabriolet, a diesel-engined version and a three volume saloon, (the Orion) which was marketed as a separate model, in a bid to appease traumatised former Cortina owners suffering Sierra-shock.

No Ford model range would have been complete without a sporting version, but the fact that the XR3 model was not simply a stripes and stickers go-faster model was due to the efforts of Ford’s European Vice President of Design, Uwe Bahnsen himself. According to Patrick le Quément[3], who served as Executive Designer under Bahnsen, the Ford design VP fought hard at board level to ensure the XR3 could be taken seriously as a performance car. So while it might have languished in the Golf GTi’s shadow throughout its career, Bahnsen could hardly be blamed for market perception.

Car magazine famously drove the Escort at Ford’s Merkenich test track at Erika’s press launch in 1980 and rather pre-emptively declared it to be the class of the field. Words were promptly eaten once they sampled the car in UK conditions and its punishing ride came to the fore, suggesting that lessons from the Fiesta had not been learned by Ford’s engineers.

Inside, the cabin ambience was deemed to be attractive and well screwed together, (albeit with areas of painted metal to be seen here and there), but poor rear seat legroom, a consequence of the short wheelbase (even the Mark 1 Golf’s was longer), marked it down against more commodious rivals. Overall however, the new Escort was adjudged a strong contender for class honours and quickly settled into its position at, or near near the top of the sales charts. In 1981, the Escort was awarded the coveted European Car of the Year trophy.

Image: picclick

Journalists praised the CVH engines’ power, but noted it came at the cost of considerable roughness at higher revolutions. On early cars too, the automatic chokes proved notoriously reluctant to disengage. There were also issues with Ford’s electronic carburettors. Ford fiddled incessantly with Erika’s suspension settings over the car’s production run, eventually managing to obtain some semblance of compliance, but at the cost of precision at the sharp end.

Introduced at the same time as the Euro-Escort was Mazda’s 323, designed in conjunction with Ford, (the blue oval having taken a stake in the Hiroshima-based carmaker), leading some to believe there was greater similarity under the skin than immediately met the eye. Ford’s Australian satellite, rather than importing the Escort, chose to market the 323 in restyled form as the Laser. Billed as a World Car, there was also a US market Escort model, and although it bore a (very) distant relationship with the Euro model, few meaningful components were shared.

Ford’s decision to package the Escort on such a short platform proved something of an own goal once Volkswagen delivered their second-generation Golf in 1983, which was a usefully larger car than its predecessor and would utterly define the sector for the remainder of the decade, despite the combined efforts of its European (and Japanese) rivals. Ford’s own response – the 1986 Escort Mark 4 appeared somewhat tentative by comparison, much improved as it was in certain respects[4].

Image: Yahoo

In essence, Erika was something of a transition car, the last in a series of finely tailored, crisply surfaced Uwe Bahnsen-helmed designs before the shift to radical soft-formed aero-inspired shapes emerged, first seen with 1982’s Sierra. It also confirmed the ascendency of the Cologne satellite within the European operations, although Dunton would remain central to the SVO side of operations.

Above all, the 1980 Escort was (foibles apart) an accomplished design mating Ford’s traditional market appeal with a newfound styling sophistication. It would be another two decades before the blue oval would be as progressive in this segment again.

[1] Making a debut in the Taunus P4 some years earlier.

[2] Later in his career, Kapitza joined BMW’s styling team under Claus Luthe and was responsible for the E31 8 Series design.

[3] Source: Author, Steve Saxty’s interview with Patrick le Quément.

[4] The Mark 4 Escort will be profiled separately.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

40 thoughts on “A Song For Erika”

  1. Thanks Eóin for this article. Unbelievable, it’s forty years since its launch and I remember it. I must be getting old…

    The short wheelbase is in fact something that I find astonishing on this car. Opel at the same time also switched from RWD to FWD with the Kadett, but chose a standard two-box hatchback shape and over 10 cm more wheelbase for roughly the same length.
    Ford’s choice of the bustle-back and long rear overhang, recalling RWD proportions, was probably meant to accommodate more conservative buyers and disguise the new layout. Opel chose a somewhat different way with their ‘non-hatchback’ version (of moderate success and lifetime).

    1. The Escort also had a proper booted sibling Orion.
      It looked better than the awful VW Jetta but the angular rear door and the curvy rear screen were a strange combination.

    2. Good morning gentlemen. Likewise, I well remember the launch of the Mk3 Escort and thinking just how handsome and ‘modern’ it looked. The six-light design was beautifully wrought and looked much more upmarket than its not unpleasant but rather dated and frumpy predecessor.

      The crisp, linear design reprised the style of the 1977 Mk2 Granada, but didn’t really feature elsewhere in Ford’s European range: the 1976 Fiesta and Mk4 Cortina predated the style and, while the Mk5 ‘Cortina 80’ facelift applied some of the details (squared off roof line, aero grille, ribbed rear lights etc.) the underlying shape still had too much curvature to be wholly authentic. By the time the Sierra was launched, as Eóin said, Ford’s design had moved in a radically different direction.

      The Mk3 Escort was, of course, a world car, but the US version was, astonishingly, ruined by poor detailing. It’s instructive to compare the two:

    3. Yes – certainly smaller than some of the competition. Didn’t do sales much harm, though. For example, I recall the Maestro being seen as unnecessarily large / compromised, by some, as opposed to usefully more roomy.

  2. This is what stood out for me: “once they sampled the car in UK conditions and its punishing ride.. etc” . In 1980. There’s a pattern here. I assumed (indulgently) that the deteriorating road surface was a more contemporary phenomenon. Why, therefore, has the appetite for more ‘German’ suspension setups continued unabated? If a DS mastered pavé in 1955, what do Audis and Beamers offer 2020 UK?

  3. Steve Saxty’s book contains this wonderful sketch by Wouter de Vries of the Erika as it looked in 1976:

    – It’s really extraordinary how similar it appears to 1980’s Opel Kadett!

    I always liked the way the Escort Cabriolet used the estate’s rear lights:

    The Orion used modified Cortina tail lights.

    1. Hi John. The cabriolet in your photo is actually a Mk4. I only mention this because the Mk4 estate, from which the tail lights are taken, had a protruding black plastic strip down the outside edge of the lens, which wasn’t on the ribbed Mk3 items.

      I wonder if it was an aerodynamic aid, like the plastic ‘ears’ fitted behind the Sierra’s rear quarter window to improve stability? The first Sierras didn’t have these and were a bit wayward, as former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and F1 team owner Frank Williams found out to their cost:


    2. Hi Daniel. Yes, typically I noticed it was a Mk4 the moment after I hit Post Comment! Interesting theory about the black plastic strips, I never actually noticed them before.

      Ford officially called the Sierra’s “ears” aero-strakes. I always preferred the colloquialism “Kinnock ears”! The ones on the Mk3 Granada/Scorpio were much better integrated:

      Was it ever conclusively proven that the Neil Kinnock and Frank Williams accidents were as a result of the early Sierra’s crosswind instability?

    3. Hi John. I’m not sure if there was ever a conclusive verdict in those cases. Here’s the tail light in question from the Escort Mk4 estate and cabriolet:

      You can see the raised black strip behind the guy’s thumb. Would it have been big enough to have an aerodynamic effect? Otherwise, I can’t think of a reason for it to be there.

    4. It would appear that the first Sierra had real aerodynamic problems.
      From this site the rear lift force at 200 km/h is of about 57 kg.
      With a spoiler the force value at 200 km/h was -17 kg, i.e. a downforce of 17 kg: really not much, but apparently sufficient for rally scopes.


      It had therefore, more or less, values comparable to the notorious problematic first Audi TT, which had 148 pounds of lift at the rear axle at 125 mph without the spoiler, and killed more than one driver.


      Interestingly, as reported, one TT driver was killed on a notorious high-speed autobahn curve.
      The dynamics of this accident appears to be very similar of Frank Williams’ one:

      “During the drive to the airport, Williams lost control of the rental car on a slight left hand kink in the road causing it to leave the highway”.

      Slight curve on highway, very high speed (because I suppose Mr. Williams did not want to miss the plane), about fifty kilos lift in both cases…

    5. That’s a very interesting read, anastasio. I find it extraordinary that the Sierra’s waywardness wasn’t caught during its five year £600m development programme. It seems clear that Ford learned their lesson and that every new model since has been carefully tested for aerodynamic instability. Even the latest Fiesta has the little ears bordering the sides of the rear window:

    6. The supposed aerodynamic problems of the early TTs are nothing but an urban myth.
      How can you tell? There were three versions of the TT with identical aerodynamics and comparable speed but only one of the was affected by snap oversteer, the 225 PS quattro.
      Reason was that Audi’s marketing wanted this particular version to be seem as a demanding sports car and deliberately had asked for a suspension setup that emulated the road manners of early air cooled 911s. What they hadn’t taken into account was that buyers of the TT typically only had experience with front wheel drive cars like all kinds of GTI and had no experience whatsoever in handling really dangerous cars.
      The hot TTs problems were solved by fitting front wishbones with rubber bearings giving lots of toe out on lift off and stiffer front anti roll bars and softer ones at the rear, all contributing to resolute understeer under all conditions. Neither the ESP nor the rear spoiler would have been needed but thanks to the campaign journalism of German news magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ (notoriously low in know how of things automotive but very good at running all kinds of campaigns) the buying public was convinced the TT needed the rear spoiler and Audi obliged and fitted one.

  4. My first car!

    I had a three door version with the very desirable four hole XR alloys, as shown above, but sadly just the 1.3 engine. Memory may fail me, but I am pretty sure it had a manual choke rather than the automatic one.

    Being young and feckless, the car I owned was a cheap second hand purchase and not in the best of shape. I once experienced a rather ‘white knuckle’ drive up to Scotland, surprised at just how much the rear end moved about under cornering. I then got it up on a ramp to try and weld up some of the rust that was eating away at the floor pan and discovered both rear wheel bearings were completely shot.

    Oh, and that grille panel above the central heating vents on the dashboard covered the cheapest speaker I have ever seen – essentially, just a cone shaped piece of cardboard. As was the fashion at the time, I screwed a pair of after market speakers onto the parcel shelf to try and make the sound system a little punchier.

    1. Hi Jacomo. Such was the fashion for those speakers that, when ‘Wheeler Dealers’ were restoring* a Fiesta XR2, it was a real struggle to find a replacement rear parcel shelf that didn’t have speaker holes cut in it.

      * I use the word advisedly in this context. When one does an MOT or VED check on the registration numbers of UK cars that have been through the programme’s hands, the attrition rate is, sadly, pretty high.

    2. Erikas seemed to be prone to wheel bearing failure – my parents’ one got through a few over 200k miles. I read a suggestion somewhere that the design of the independent back axle was responsible – don’t know if that was true or not. The ride from the rear seat was rather better than in its live-axled predecessor.
      Incidentally, 1.3 – raw power! Times were tough in eighties Ireland: my Dad had a decent job but was still doing well to manage a new 1.1 3 door…

    3. Hi Michael. Don’t remind me, I remember it all too well!

      In 1982 I was earning around £11.5K working as a dealer for an American bank in Dublin, which was a decent enough salary at the time. I was awarded a performance bonus of £1k. My American boss was on an expatriate ‘US equivalent’ compensation package, which meant he effectively paid US, not Irish income tax rates, the bank making up the difference.

      He remarked that I seemed rather underwhelmed by the bonus and asked if I had expected more. I explained that, after tax (65% plus another 8% PRSI and other ‘special’ levies, I would take home £270 of the bonus, which was exactly half the annual car insurance on my VW Polo. So, yes, I was grateful for the bonus but, no, it wasn’t going to change my life! He was simply stunned by the tax rates. It never occurred to him that a relatively junior member of staff could be on the top rate of income tax.

      I left Ireland in 1984 for the UK, very much an economic refugee. Now, we couldn’t afford to go back, even if we wanted to, because everything’s so bloomin’ expensive over there! I’m still immensely proud of the economic and, especially, social progress Ireland has made since I left. No more decrepit Ford Cortinas held together with prayers and baling twine in the rural parts anymore!

  5. My toddler self was driven around in a white XR3i convertible, on white pepper pot wheels. I can still remember the seat’s fabric, which was grey with red inserts. I like that car immensely.

  6. Every external panel is different. The fixed glass on the NA version is glued rather than being held by the rubber seal.

    It’s a bit mysterious why. The NA Chrysler Horizon has a lot of discrepancies too, and not just cosmetic ones. That case is well explained at allpar.com, and perhaps it lends insight into why the two Erikas ended up so different.

    1. Legend has it that a grand total of six parts are interchangeable between the two Erikas, two of which are badges.

    2. The NA Escorts my parents had when I was a child kept me away from Fords for 25 years. Only recently did I reconsider and have been quite pleased with our recently acquired C-Max.

      The NA Escort shared the poor rear seat room of its sister and I can’t imagine it’s road manners were anywhere close to Euro versions as every other contemporary car I road in acquitted itself much more competently.

      No on here remembers the Erika Escort with any fondness, though the later 323-based generation redeemed the name.

  7. As an aside I thought the Scorpio was a lovely looking car. just saying …

  8. Oh we pre- teens lusted over this car in 1980\81. We had no clues to the German intervention or styling cues – just those pepper pot wheels and searching for the Ghia badge. Do today’s children fawn over cars like we did, “back in the day?” Or is part of the feeling due to being denied access to such cars like Erika (didn’t know that until today) and the Sierra as we were too young to drive and few people had them around?
    When such a car is seen, it evokes fond memories of warm, carefree summers with the only distractions being called home for food and seeing that Escort “was only a 1.3 L”

  9. Was never able to appreciate the original Erika / mk3 Escort preferring instead Erika-86,/ mk4 Escort, as far as US versions of the Escort are concerned quite like the looks of the 2nd generation Ford EXP whereas the stretched platform for the 1st/2nd generation Ford Tempo, due to its similar size to the Ford Sierra brings to mind the question of what Ford originally planned for the Sierra as heard FWD was considered during development before Ford Europe decided to stick with RWD (a bit longer together with the mk3 Granada / Scorpio).

    Despite being developed entirely by American engineers, one wonders whether Ford were similarly tempted with foisting the 1st generation Taurus onto Ford Europe in place of the mk3 Granada.

    Had Ford managed to resolve the shortcomings of the CVH engine prior to entering production, to what extent would it have been able to become more like its related Ford Zeta successor many years earlier to warrant the development of the European market receiving a 2-litre version (for the likes of the mk3/mk4 Escort and Sierra)?

    Speaking of Ford Europe, beyond the Cosworth and Swaymar developed versions of the Cologne V6 it is rather surprising there was no push for a new 6-cylinder engine until Mondeo V6.

    1. Bob, regarding the first generation Taurus, that is a fine fantasy in theory. Such a cool, futuristic, beautiful, and clever car, not to mention the SHO variant. Be still my beating heart.

      Built by Yamaha. So just like with HAL in 2001, or Jurassic Park, nothing could possibly go wrong.


      Also, note the driver’s side door in this example (from curbsideclassic.com) is fully closed and reported to be watertight. See how the body parts overlap? That is so alignment wouldn’t matter so much, improved -perceived-quality. Clever, right?

      Phew! I got through this post without mentioning the steering.

    2. As gooddog shows in his post, I guess the answer is no: Ford probably never got past the problems of how to divide the work (EuroFord would have to have been involved and that would have led to a culture clash) and how to compromise the car. The EuroTaurus would, I suspect, have been too big and too cheaply made for the Europeans. And a Taurus that would have suited the Europeans would have been too small and too expensive. We now have the equivalent in the Mondeo and while it is decently made and looks handsome, it´s way too big. Is it big enough for the Americans?

    3. Have to agree regarding the Taurus not being a suitable car for Europe.

      What am trying to get as is since the Scorpio was heavily based on the Sierra platform and FWD was contemplated early during the latter’s development, would be what Ford Europe had in mind on what to platform to base the FWD Sierra on aside from the Escort-based Sierra-sized Tempo if development of the Scorpio was dependent on the Sierra.

      It is likely the Tempo platform could not be stretched further into a Scorpio-sized car nor be equipped by the Cologne V6, which would really leave only the Vulcan V6 as a 6-cylinder option unless a Euro-spec Vulcan V6 would be significantly more potent compared to the equivalent aging Cologne V6 (as well as capable of lower-displacements below 3-litres).

    4. Bob,

      FWD was never considered for the Sierra for the simple reason that Red Poling told Bob Lutz they couldn’t afford it. This led Lutz to tell his team that there were still plenty of other interesting things they could do. Like embrace aerodynamics and modern technology. He pointed out that BMWs were RWD and had excellent dynamics. Ford’s packaging engineers also considered themselves the best in the business, so FWD was thought to be less important for a Sierra-sized car.

    5. The Taurus was actually sold in Europe as an estate, when the Scorpio was only available as a hatchback, and Ford probably tried to keep its large Granada estate customer base. It was somewhat common in Switzerland, but of course never reached Granada levels of sales. I remember seeing one as a teenager and being quite impressed by the electronic door lock with its small numbers keyboard.

  10. As a reader of “Car” magazine in those days, I still remember their euphoric , embargo-breaking account of the Mk3 Escort, leading me to wonder if they had driven it at all. And I also remember that early examples of the car, before the hurried re-engineering, had odd camber angles for front and rear suspension, so the poor road manners were not due to UK road surfaces.
    This wasn’t a “first” for Escorts – the early Mk1 Escort dispensed with the anti-roll bar component of the front suspension and used a compression strut instead to locate the bottom of the hub.It didn’t take long for them to change it to a proper MacPherson layout.

  11. Hi, great review, I’ve found DTW recently and I’m loving the articles. There is one more sprout of the Erika project, the Nevada project made in Brazil for a two door sedan which originated the Ford Verona in 1989. At that time Ford and VW created a local joint venture named Autolatina and VW gained its own version of the Verona, the VW Apollo.

    1. Thanks for that Gustavo and I appreciate the kind words. Heavens, that’s a curious one. Part Erika, part (post-facelift) Toni. Was it a local Ford design job?

    2. Hi Gustavo. The Verona is an intriguing confection of different influences. In addition to the models Eóin mentioned, I can see Mk1 Fiesta in the upswept rear side window (which sits uncomfortably alongside the arrow-straight door window line) and VW Santana in the rear end, although it’s pure Mk4 Escort at the front:

  12. Correct me if I’m wrong, Gustavo, but didn’t the AutoLatina cars have VW engines? Making them an even more interesting sprout?
    There was still the odd one to be seen around, usually in a pretty tired state, when I visited Pernambuco between 2013 and 2015.
    On a further digression, I was very surprised to see that Ford decided recently to walk away from local production in Brazil. Can you enlighten us as to why they made that decision, and how do (a) people in general feel about it, and (b) car enthusiasts feel about it?

  13. Ford’s Mexican outpost adopted the Laser, too—albeit with the Mazda Familia front end! There were so many permutations of the BD Familia—four- and six-light hatchbacks, a saloon with a Cortina-esque grille, the Meteor in Australia (predating the Orion)—they made for fascinating reading when I was a lad.

  14. Here’s a film by Ford of America about their new ‘World Car’, from 1980. It features both European and American versions of the Escort. I thought the most interesting part was the bit about aerodynamics and the reason for the rear ‘bustle’.

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