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Fast European Ford Racing Sedans

Fast European Ford Racing Sedans

Back in the 1930s came the flathead. And hot rodding was born, ‘V8’ becoming synonymous with Ford, and representing lots of go for less than exotic amounts of money. It was the first time Fords had been sexy, epitomized perhaps by a letter from Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde infamy) to Henry Ford, endorsing the product and saying that he always used it ‘when I could get away with one’.

But the real beginning in England was the hot Cortina, perhaps spurred on by the achievement of Superspeed of Ilford’s success in racing Anglias. There had been a Cortina GT since 1963 – sharing the running gear of the overlooked Capri GT, which set the original fast Ford template of a twin-choke Weber feeding a more ambitiously cammed Kent pushrod engine, with decent extractor exhaust manifold.

One won the Safari Rally in 1963, driven by the Kenyan Ford importer, but in pre-internet and instant news days that was the other side of the world. The Lotus Cortina was a step beyond, and a breakthough into public awareness that Dagenham dogboxes could cut the mustard in the paddocks and pitlanes.

More motor, lowered suspension, extra instruments and stripes didn’t cost much, but they had a major impact on image. Suddenly, with the right kit, Fords could be cool. It’s a tradition that’s continued to this day and these are the highlights of a great success story.

Early in the ’60s, Ford and Lotus got together with Climax engine designer Harry Mundy to devise the Twin Cam – a clever adaptation of Ford’s existing Kent unit – to power the cute new Elan sports car. Wouldn’t it be a wizard wheeze to slide it into the lightweight Cortina saloon – especially as it had grown from 1340cc to 1558cc by the time it reached production – and produce a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

OK, Alfa had fitted twin-cams into its small saloons for years, but it did nothing as blatant as this, sitting lower than standard on wider steels shod with fat rubber, often as not with a dealer-applied green flash that screamed ‘look at me’ – and with that Lotus badge nestling in the flanks, of course. It’s a formula that product planners the world over have tattooed on the back of their eyelids: the aspirational model glamorises the entire range and sells the boggo versions. Ford exploited this brilliantly.

If Lotus could build just 1000, that would make the car eligible for Group 2 homologation. Over to Colin Chapman, who devised a lightening coil-spring rear suspension, and the Type 28 was born, daringly flashing its front valance through quarter bumpers, a fast Ford trademark robbed from the rear of Anglia vans. Initially, the engines were built by JA Prestwich of Tottenham and then Villiers of Wolverhampton but, in 1966, Lotus took over when it moved to Hethel in Norfolk.

As Chapman left it, the Lotus Cortina had Lotus Seven-like rear axle location with A-frame and radius arms. But, of course, it was fragile and the diff tended to leak so, from mid-1965, after the end-of-1964 facelift that brought a wider front grille and better ventilation, Ford replaced it with the leaf-sprung GT set-up (with radius arms), and it didn’t seem to make much difference… except to stop the cars three-wheeling on race tracks.

Two-door meant sporty, even if it had rear seats, and the gear ratios got more compromised as time passed. The subliminal image was chiselled jaw, slash-cut sidies and a Piper Cherokee waiting at Elstree in monochrome early light – at least, that’s what Ford’s marketing would have liked you to think. Actually Jim Clark defined the era, three-wheeling his Slazenger-green-flashed ‘tina, back when F1 drivers were cool enough (and allowed) to race tin-tops too.

Further to boost the image, Ford tried the Cortina in European rallying and Jim Clark was also there in ’66. The two-door monocoque couldn’t stand up to his style, but he famously stuck with the rally crew helping service the other cars, even after putting his own car out. But there was a more potent and suitable rally device waiting in the wings, one that would define the ’70s just as the cool Cortina had defined the ’60s.

As The replacement for the Anglia – baby sister to the Cortina – the Escort was born more than 40 years ago. It was no serious technical advance on the 105E, but it was just enough. Soon the Mk1 became synonymous with Roger Clark’s sideways-to-victory rally exploits, behind a barking BDA (though its first international win with Clark and Porter was as a Twin Cam) – and if you’ve heard its other-worldly howl in a forest, you’ll not forget it in a hurry. It was a marketing man’s dream: get them out winning rallies, list dealer options, create a brand – RS, for Rallye Sport, including the wild side decals – that engenders loyalty. Then watch the sales roll in.

How did the Escort become a hot saloon when it was conceived as humdrum rep and family transport, with motors as small as 950cc? Story is that when Ford’s Boreham-based competitions department saw one of the new small saloons during 1967, someone reckoned a Twin Cam from the Lotus Cortina would fit (it did, with a bit of dressing to the bulkhead). The advantage?

The Escort was smaller and 134kg (300lb) lighter than the Cortina Mk2 then being rather unhappily pressed into service after the demise of the Mk1. An Escort chassis was blagged, borrowed or stolen, and the whole thing cobbled together over a weekend. Months later it was being marketed as ‘The fastest thing on Ford wheels’.

Would that it could happen so fast today. Twin Cams had radius arms at the rear to calm down the leaf-sprung rear axle, plus discs at the front when most Escorts had drums. The gearbox was the so-called ‘Rocket’ four-speed from the Corsair 2000E, creating another legend. Inside, there were bucket seats, six-dial dash and deeply dished wheel, setting the template for hot Escorts.

The model didn’t last long, superseded in 1970 by the more robust BDA-engined RS1600, the basis for rally cars for the next decade. That motor was another brilliant permutation, a twin-cam, 16-valve head, designed by Cosworth this time, atop the evergreen ‘Kent’ five-bearing bottom end, though this time the 1600. Its ancestry was the FVA (Four Valve Type A), an F2 engine that grew into the DFV, but this time with a toothed rubber belt driving the camshafts.

The RS1600 was the first car built at Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO) at Aveley, Essex, each car essentially handbuilt, and taking over from the Twin Cam as the rally weapon of choice. As Mk1 grew into Mk2, the motor grew to 1835cc, though rally cars were anything up to 2.0 litres and 240bhp. It spawned the Mexico, the same car from the outside but powered by the everyman pushrod 1600 Kent, cashing in on Ford’s 1970 London-Mexico rally win.

Fewer than 1000 RS1600s were built out of a total of more than a million Mk1s. It’s the icing rather than the cake that people notice and, as it became the model that defined the breed, Ford got a helluva bang for its bucks.

before the escort grew up, there was a bit of a diversification. The Capri, born in 1968 (the same year as the small saloon), was developed on a Corsair platform but with Escort rack-and-pinion steering. While Ford UK was image-boosting and creating sales by concentrating on the Escort in rallying and racing, there were big-banger Touring Car classes to win. In Cologne, Jochen Neerpasch, head of the Motorsport Department, was delegated to start work on the racing Capri, based on the 2600GT, Ford of Germany’s top-of-the-range model at the time.

In Group 2 racing trim the RS2600’s Weslake-developed V6 engine was bored out to 2995cc with dry sump and Kugelfischer fuel injection, in which form it made more than 320bhp. Glassfibre panels helped the power-to-weight ratio further, and the RS2600’s finest achievement came in 1972 when works driver Jochen Mass, later to enjoy a successful Formula 1 career, was crowned European Touring Car Champion.

But then BMW brought out its aero package – the fabled Batmobile. Ford needed more power and aero aids, and AVO took over. Starting with the 3000GT as a base, perhaps the ultimate macho-man car to date, it overbored the V6 to the max 3091cc, allowing it to run at up to 3.4 liters as the Essex-based four-cam Cosworth GAA that produced up to 455bhp – comparable with the DFV Formula 1 engine. Chin and ducktail spoilers, giving a claimed drag factor of 0.375, legitimized the barn-doors fitted to the racers.

So where did that leave the road cars? As real homologation specials. It’s been suggested that the paperwork was achieved by showing an intention to build 1000 cars by ordering enough parts, but in reality Ford had no plans to make such large numbers. All 249 were built at the Halewood plant in November 1973, just before the Mk2 came down the line, and, as a result, Ford used up whatever was in the parts bin to get them out of the door as complete cars – some have inertia-reel belts, most have statics, for example.

No optional extras were offered, although dealers would fit accessories if required. Gareth Beynon’s car in these pictures has a dealer-fitted limited-slip differential, along with rear seatbelts and a radio. The RS3100 was pricey in its day at £2450 so Ford gave 23 to sales managers to try to promote them, and sent 50 to Australia.

In truth, the RS3100 doesn’t feel very different from the 3000GT it was based on, but that’s Ford’s marketing genius for you – and it’s torquier than the Mk3 2.8 Injection that ended the Capri line.

Fast Fords became more refined, partly to keep up with a maturing buyer base – but they still had two doors. The alternative to the Escort RS1600 was the RS2000, essentially the same car but with the European-designed overhead-cam Pinto engine – weighty, but it just fits. As Ford updated the Escort in ’75 with the ‘Brenda’ reskin, for which the Mk1s had been prepared with a floorpan change in ’74, there was a small lag before RS2000 Mk2 appeared in 1976, built at Saarlouis in Belgium.

For the first time consciously aiming the car at Essex man rather than as a circuit-racer spin-off, Ford distanced it from lesser models with a plastic ‘droop snoot’ nosecone, taking inspiration from the cool, concept-car appeal of the rival Vauxhall Firenza HP. And it worked, reducing drag by a claimed 16% and lift by 25% front, 60% rear – though you’d be hard pushed to make no improvement over the barn-door Mk1, even armed only with gaffer tape and cardboard. It sold 10,039 in the UK alone compared with the Vauxhall’s 204.

In September 1978 the Custom appeared, with the fabled Recaro ‘fishnets’ and four-spoke alloy wheels, and most were ordered that way. The rally boys, of course, eschewed the plastic nose, and ran flat-front cars…

It’s a softer device than the Mk1, showing the direction Ford was going with the Capri too; there’s a story that the optimum spring rates for best handling were found, then softened off just enough so that five fat ladies would be comfortable driving it down a country road. It’s not far behind the RS1600 in performance, delivering roughly the same performance in a more accessible, less frantic package for a lot less money.

Fishnets and Customs had a lot to answer for, and spanned many wannabe derivatives such as the Harrier (a dressed-up Mexico), but rally teams turned up their nose at the Pinto and stayed with the faithful old BDA in RS1800 form, though it actually displaced nearer 2.0 liters Fashion – dragging a perhaps reluctant marketing department behind it – waits on no man and, to bitter regrets from petrolheads, Ford killed the rear-wheel-drive Escort in 1980, replacing it with the front-wheel-drive Mk3.

A properly fast Escort with the rear wheels driven wasn’t to return until 1992.

Suddenly we’re back on track. If the DFV didn’t make Cosworth a household name, the Sierra did, first of the much-raced, thrashed and stolen Cossies. All the while Escorts were dominating motor sport, there was no fast Cortina, unless you count the hot-rod V8-engined Peranas from South Africa. But its replacement, the Sierra – the first medium-sized rear-wheel-drive Ford to have independent rear suspension – retained Pinto power, just
like the Cortinas and the RS2000. And the Pinto was about to grow up.

Turbocharging was the key to Touring Car wins – and Ford wanted wins badly. In the spring of 1983, former BMC and Ford works rally mastermind Stuart Turner had recently been appointed head of Ford Motorsport in Europe, and he knew right away that Ford was no longer competitive. As Audi had proven with the Quattro of 1980, blowing a motor can unlock unnatural amounts of power. Cosworth had already started developing a 16-valve turbo version of the Pinto, codenamed T88. And in Turner’s own words, this is how it happened…

‘The start of it all was perhaps going to Silverstone with Walter Hayes [Ford PR supremo, and driving force behind the Le Mans-winning GT40 and multiple F1 World Championship-winning Cosworth DFV engine] and seeing Rovers winning things. When I was asked back into running Motorsport I took the president and chairman to Cosworth to meet Keith Duckworth and to see an F1 engine.

‘As we walked through the factory to the F1 test bed, we passed a 16-valve conversion [of a Pinto] on a bench – I’m sure the passing was not a coincidence. Keith said they thought they could flog a hundred or two as conversions. Over lunch I said “If we put that conversion into a Sierra and turbocharge it, Rover won’t win another Touring Car race.”

‘I’m not saying “Thus it came to pass” because there was a lot of analysis done by Rod Mansfield and his SVO team before they produced such a great car. But the fact that the two top decision-makers were at that lunch did no harm at all!

‘Jim Clark played a posthumous part. We had to sell 5000 for homologation. Ford of Britain had to take a healthy percentage. I was struggling a bit in a presentation to Ford of Britain when the wonderful chairman, Sam Toy, pointed at a painting on the boardroom wall of Jim Clark on three wheels in a Lotus Cortina, and asked “Are you saying the Cosworth will do for Sierra what the Lotus did for Cortina?” I wished I’d said that because it summed up the car perfectly. He became a convert. And the rest is…’

Cosworth had called its own initiative the YAA. Turner put in an official request for a turbocharged version (designated YBB) capable of 180bhp on the street and 300bhp in race trim, though Cosworth accepted on the basis that it would be at least 200bhp and Ford would take 15,000 engines. That’s why there was a four-door, second-generation Sierra Sapphire RS Cosworth. Although it’s certainly a worthy and discreet device, the Sapphire is not quite part of this exclusive club, having four doors.

The Pinto is a heavy old lump with a strong crank as standard, but the rods are weak. Everything had to go, and even the block was strengthened, topped by the new alloy twin-cam head, fed by Weber injection and fired by Marelli ignition, boosted by a Garrett T3 turbo and crammed into the lighter, stiffer three-door bodyshell from the poverty model – and sporting the biggest, tallest rear wing the motoring world had seen since the SEAC TVRs.

Aerodynamics whizz Lothar Pinke insisted it was essential to keep the car on the ground at 150mph, the extra snout between the headlights fed air to the intercooler, and the wheelarch extensions were there to cover 10in wheels on the racing versions – which is what the car was all about. Early Cossies were a slightly nervous steer – 205-section Dunlop D4s seem laughable now – and they were famously deadened-off a little after the press had driven the first batch.

Though dealers reckoned they could sell only 1500, in the end 6021 were manufactured, of which 500 were sent to Tickford for conversion to the RS500, a homologation special with a thicker-walled cylinder block, larger Garrett T31/T04 turbocharger, larger air-to-air intercooler, a second fuel rail and injectors (unused in the road car), reworked oil and cooling systems, and alternative rear suspension mounts. Oh, and just in case anyone missed it the first time, an even more outrageous biplane rear wing.

Of course that was really needed on the road too... It got results: the 1987 World Touring Car Championship came like a gift. Sierra racers had only 340bhp to play with in the first half of the season, but when the RS500 arrived, with up to 500bhp, Fords took pole position in the remaining six events, and won five of them.

The Sierra went on to become the fastest Escort in 1992, when the 4x4 Sapphire floorpan was trimmed and adorned with an Escort-lookalike body (look at one next to a front-drive car, if you get a chance) to create the Escort RS Cosworth. That all came after the unrelated, aborted Escort RS1700T rally programme, which led to the mid-engined RS200 Group B rally car – whose banning led to the creation of the Sierra RS Cosworth…

Incest, nepotism and skulduggery are woven through the creation of these cars, but they got results and defined the fast Ford breed.

Thanks to Ford Heritage; Legends Automotive, legendsracing.co.uk; Gareth Beynon and Luke Taroni.


1966 Lotus Cortina

Engine 1558cc four-cylinder, DOHC, two Weber DCOE 40 carburettors
Power 105bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 108lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Recirculating ball
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, leaf springs, telescopic dampers
Brakes Discs front, drums rear
Weight 905kg
Performance Top speed 108mph. 0-60mph 13.6sec

1974 Ford Escort RS1600

Engine 1598cc four-cylinder, DOHC, two Weber DCOE 40 carburetors
Power 120bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 100lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, leaf springs, radius arms, telescopic dampers
Brakes Discs front, drums rear
Weight 872kg
Performance Top speed 111mph. 0-60mph 9.9sec

1974 Ford Capri RS3100

Engine 3091cc V6, OHV, Weber twin-choke carburetor Power 148bhp @ 5000rpm
Torque 187lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, leaf springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Discs front, drums rear
Weight 1050kg
Performance Top speed 125mph. 0-60mph 7.3sec

1979 Ford Escort RS2000

Engine 1993cc four-cylinder, OHC, Weber twin-choke carburetor
Power 110bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 120lb ft @ 3750rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, leaf springs, radius arms, telescopic dampers
Brakes Discs front, drums rear
Weight 941kg
Performance Top speed 109mph. 0-60mph 8.6sec

1987 Ford Sierra RS Cosworth

Engine 1993cc four-cylinder, DOHC, Weber/Marelli fuel injection and management, Garrett T3 turbocharger
Power 204bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 204lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Power-assisted rack and pinion
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
Brakes Discs, vented at front
Weight 1220kg
Performance Top speed 143mph. 0-60mph 6.2sec

Published Dec 7th, 2015

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