There was an excellent indication of what a sea-change the MkIII Ford Escort was at a recent show. On the corner of a stall was an old Autobooks workshop manual. On the cover it proclaimed itself simply to be for the ‘New Ford Escort (Front Wheel Drive)’. No further point needed to be made – 20 years after the Mini brought front-wheel drive to the masses Ford had finally fitted it to its mass-market car.
After an initial wariness on the part of many buyers, the new Escort proved itself to be just as reliable, efficient and practical as its forebears and the MkIII managed to knock the hallowed Cortina off its long-held spot as the UK’s bestseller. Ford’s product plan rolled relentlessly onwards and in 1986 the Escort received a major facelift to create the MkIV, which is what I’m actually driving here.
The radical shovel-nosed front end was squared off while the headlamps and bumpers became somewhat rounder and soft-edged in their styling. The interior received similar treatment – I remember, growing up in a family that drove various Austins and Rovers, that the swoopy plastic insides of Fords of the time was rather shockingly different.
This MkIV Escort is a wonderful representation of the middle-ground middle-England motoring of the late ‘Eighties. In terms of trim level it’s a Bonus, which was one rung above the Popular (a name that, as ever, meant motoring at its most basic). The Bonus lives up to its name by throwing in the likes of head restraints, a parcel shelf, a clock, a five-speed gearbox on the 1.3 model (like this one) and some slightly more jolly seat material.
The 50,000 miles on this Matisse Blue car is rather odd – while it’s low for a car of its age it clearly means that this Escort has been no pampered garage queen either. It’s five years’ worth of normal motoring but it doesn’t look like a five-year old car. It doesn’t look like a 25-year old one, either. In all appearances – outside, inside and under the bonnet – it appears to be virtually new. In fact Stephen Hanks at Blue Dragon Cars showed the car to someone who worked at a Ford dealer in the period that this Escort was current. The verdict was that it was as good as a freshly- PDI’d car!
ON THE ROAD
It drives like a new car too, but without the need to worry about running in or the restrictive tightness of a new engine and springs. The familiar Kent/Valencia engine (still offered alongside the new CVH family in case the thought of an overhead cam was too radical) runs in its usual clattery way but is happy to be worked hard when needed. The transmission is good but is masked by a strangely flexible gear knob that makes an otherwise slick change feel very vague. On skinny tyres and small steel wheels the Escort rides well and a jaunt down some country roads shows it to be surprisingly good fun to drive, in the way that the best sort of basic, low-powered cars can be. The steering is light and accurate, the grip tenacious (unlike its rear-drive predecessors!) and even the rather dramatic body roll is part of the charm. There are some neat functional touches too, like the little ‘cat’s ears’ column stalks sprouting from chunky circular light and wiper switches.
This Escort is typical Ford, in that in appearance and image you’d expect it to be, at best, inoffensively average, but it’s actually genuinely enjoyable to drive, even in one of its most basic specifications. It may have those strangely shiny plastics, a rubbery gear knob, an ancient engine and a rather hilarious name but, in Ford style, it just works and is quite fun to drive while it does so.
If the lifecycle of the earlier Escorts is anything to go by this MkIV will be worth serious money one day, with well-preserved basic models being almost as sort after as the high-performance versions. Even MkIV XR3is aren’t especially valuable and the price asked for this Bonus is right at the top of what a common-or-garden Escort of the time must be worth. But you could keep running it as a practical daily and enjoy its inevitable transition to classic status in a few years’ time.
TOP SPEED: 97mph
0-60mph: 14.1 secs
GEARBOX: 5-sp man