Ford’s marketing for the Escort MkIII should have been business as usual. Most manufacturers try to dazzle potential customers with adverts showing their cars doing amazing things (blasting through exploding fields, dodging attack helicopters – that sort of thing), but most expected Ford to continue its long-standing policy of letting the Escort’s high-profile world rally wins do all the talking. After all, every screaming, BDA-powered works MkI and MkII that triumphed on the world’s rally stages pretty much guaranteed another 1100L finding a new owner on Acacia Avenue.
Faces fell, then, when the replacement for the shovel-fronted RS2000 MkII (which itself was famous for being Doyle’s company car in The Professionals rather than slithering to successive rally championship victories) turned out to be a cheerful-looking front-wheel-drive hatchback, codenamed ‘Erika’ – hardly the gloweringly masculine rear-drive brute that devotees were probably hoping for. In fact, the Escort wouldn’t trouble rallying’s top spot for another 27 years. When the promising (if conspicuously rear-drive) Group B-spec RS1700T monster came to nothing, Blue Oval fans must have feared that it was the end of the hot Escort. In reality, Ford was planning one that people could actually buy.
The XR3’s recipe is pretty straightforward. A new high-lift camshaft and twin-choke Weber carburettor help to boost the 1.6-litre CVH engine’s power by 17bhp and torque by 6lb ft. A lower final drive provides shorter sprint gearing and stiffer suspension with gas-filled Bilstein rear dampers take care of the handling. Factor in the brash body addenda (tailgate spoiler, deeper front airdam, teledial wheels, quad spotlights) and the result was an instant rival for the dearer (by £600) but lighter (by 25kg) VW Golf GTI.
First impressions – crisp styling aside – aren’t promising, however. Dropping into the figure-hugging driver’s seat reveals a compromised driving position; there’s no adjustment for the chunky shirt button steering wheel, which is too low and obscures some of the dials for those taller in the body than the leg. The throttle feels too high, the ride isn’t great over poor surfaces and the CVH engine gets harsher and louder the higher the revs climb.
So how did a four-speed XR3 (ours is a five-speeder) end up neck-and-neck with the mighty Golf GTI in Car magazine’s January 1981 Giant Test? Simple: it’s a riot.
The engine might be a bit coarse, but it just loves to rev. And while the Golf might pip it off the line, the XR3’s superior aerodynamics mean that it starts to pull away over 60mph and is well into three figures at a cruise.
Stick to the period-correct Pirelli P6 tyres and the XR3 will outgrip the Golf – not to mention the feisty little Alfasud we Five Trialled a couple of weeks ago – in the corners, too. Understeer is negligible, even at the limit, at which point it switches to easily caught, easily controlled oversteer. The steering, so arm-bustingly heavy at parking speeds, suddenly comes alive, too, delivering all the information you could ever need. Flick on all six front lights, and lesser hatches will probably scrabble out of your way in abject terror.
Fuel injection brought a slight improvement in refinement in October 1982, but lost a little of the earlier car’s tub-thumping aggression.
As ever, the original is boss.
Flawed driving position and ride quality aside, the Escort XR3 is, after all, just a warmed-over Escort. The seats are comfortable, the boot is big (and bigger still with the rear seat folded) and 30mpg is entirely possible. The steering is hefty at parking speeds, but lightens as speeds rise, and all-round visibility is excellent thanks to the large glass house and easily-judged extremities. The lack of body side protection may make the supermarket car park fraught with danger, though – just make sure that you park at the end of a row!
LOOKING AFTER IT
We repeat – it’s just an Escort; the CVH engine isn’t some highly-strung prima donna that needs expert fettling with myrrh and unobtanium every 50 miles. Ford designed these cars to be within the remit of a driveway mechanic, so if you’re handy with a socket set, chances are you can service one on a Sunday afternoon using parts from a motor factor. We doubt that there’s a part in the XR3’s make-up that you can’t find new, if not secondhand. And if you can’t, chances are one of the clubs, or a specialist like Burton Power, can.
ON THE SHOW CIRCUIT
No-one’s really certain when the Escort MkIII – even the XR3 – went from being a bargain banger you wouldn’t look at twice to a full-blown show-stopper, but a combination of the passage of time, the tradition of sacrificing one car to keep another going and the plain old MoT have combined to render rotters almost extinct. As such, most of the MkIIIs you see these days are gleaming restorations with their bonnets proudly open and large mirrors underneath showing off their pristine nether regions. What classic car show organiser wouldn’t want one of those in its ranks?
THE LONG WEEKEND
We repeat – it’s just an Esco… sorry, that’s getting a bit repetitive. The thing is, though, for all of the XR3’s hooning potential, it’s based on a family runabout. So there’s room aplenty for you, three mates (although those in the back will need to be fairly limber to get in and out) and a truck-load of luggage, and the stiffer suspension can cope easily with the weight. The torquey engine and five-speed gearbox make mincemeat of long distances, and you won’t need to take out a loan to pay for the fuel.
ON THE B-ROADS
This is what the XR3 was born to do. Ford didn’t go to all the trouble of tweaking the engine, suspension, gearbox and – yes, the styling – just so you could help your granny with the weekly shop. This car was designed to go – and go hard – with your foot down, left hand on the gearlever ready for another (slightly long-winded) shift, one eye on the speedometer and the other on the apex you’re about to nail. And if you haven’t got an inside wheel off the ground in the corners, you’re not trying hard enough.