Launched in January 1968 as a replacement for the Anglia and using much of the same technology – MacPherson strut front suspension, a leaf-sprung live rear axle, slick-shifting four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox and pushrod four-cylinder engine – the Ford Escort was a roomier, sleeker package and available with two or four doors, as an estate or as a van. It had sharper rack and pinion steering, while Ford engineers spent considerable time eradicating Noise, Vibration and Harshness.
At launch, the first cars came in two- or four-door form, had 12in wheels, and were powered by 1098cc or 1298cc pushrod ‘Kent’ engines producing up to a whopping 57bhp. If that was too much, a 939cc version was available for some export markets.
It was clear that the nimble, balanced chassis could handle more power. Thus the Twin Cam was the first ‘interesting’ one, incorporating the Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine used in the Elan and Lotus Cortina, built at Halewood and launched at a list price of £1162.78. Production really started in May 1968, with the quick ones coming under the remit of Ford Advanced Vehicle Operations. As well as extra power and those wide-lip front wings, AVO Escorts had radius arms parallel with the front halves of the leaf springs on the rear axle to eliminate axle tramp.
The RS1600 replaced the Twin Cam in 1970 as the hottest model in the range, using the new Ford Cosworth 16-valve BDA (Belt Drive Type A), a close relative of the chain-drive FVA F3 engine described as ‘half a DFV’. A much more aggressive device than the Lotus, it produced 120bhp in standard trim and up to 240bhp in 2-litre works form. In 1972, the block material was changed to alloy, allowing up to 1975cc. From 1970, the Mexico, produced like the RS1600 in the new AVO factory at Aveley in Essex, was essentially an RS1600 with an 86bhp 1600GT pushrod engine.
The Mexico capitalised on Ford’s win on the 16,000- mile London-Mexico rally with a team of Escorts powered by over-bored versions of the pushrod engine, and entered as ‘1850 GTs’. Hannu Mikkola won in FEV 1H and sister cars took third, fifth and sixth places. If the RS1600 was too frantic and expensive – and the Mexico a bit underpowered – the 1973 RS2000 was the answer. It used the larger, heavier ‘Pinto’ 2-litre in essentially the same car, for an understressed 100bhp and more torque, was German-built and with the German-type four-speed gearbox. This needed an electric fan, as it no longer had room for a mechanical one.
In 1975, the Mk1 was replaced by ‘Brenda’, as the Mk2 was termed during development. Under the square-rigged reskin, the structure and mechanicals were the same, except that the rear suspension had changed to place the rear dampers more vertically – in fact, the last Mk1s had been built on this updated floorpan. Estates (now weirdly popular among the drag race fraternity) and vans kept the Mk1 sheet metal from the door pillars back. Although there was the specialised BDA-powered RS1800, mostly made to turn into rally cars, the RS2000 would not return until 1976. RS Mexicos and 1600 Sports got a 1593cc version of the Pinto instead of the 1599cc ‘Kent’, while a base 1098cc Popular made an appearance. The model range was phased out in July 1980, when the rear-drive Escort was replaced by the front-drive Mk3. A nation of motorsport enthusiasts gnashed its collective teeth.