Thursday 7 April 2011
Codenamed "Erika", the third generation Escort was launched in September 1980. The code name alluded to the leader of the product planning team, Erick A. Reickert. The North American Escort introduced at this time was a derivative. The two vehicles were intended to share component designs, but separate engineering organizations and government regulations made this impractical.
The Escort Mark III was intended to be a hi-tech, high-efficiency design which would compete with the Volkswagen Golf, and indeed the car was launched with the advertising tagline "Simple is Efficient". The Mark III was a radical departure from the two previous models, the biggest changes being the adoption of front wheel drive, and the new hatchback body, which introduced trademark styling cues which would be later seen in the forthcoming Sierra and Scorpio, most notably the "Aeroback" rear end — the "sawn off" bootlid stump which was proved to reduce the car's drag coefficient.
Also new were the overhead camshaft CVH engines in 1.3 L and 1.6 L formats, with the Valencia engine from the Fiesta powering the 1.1 L derivative. The suspension was fully independent all around, departing from the archaic leaf spring arrangement found on its predecessors. The Escort Mark III was voted European Car of the Year in 1981, fighting off stiff competition from Italy's Fiat Panda and British Leyland's Austin Metro. It was also 1982 Semperit Irish Car of the Year in Ireland. From launch, the car was available in Base (Popular), L, GL, Ghia and XR3 trim. However, the car attracted criticism from the motoring press at launch due to how its suspension was set up, with positive camber on the front wheels and negative camber at the rear, giving rise to the Mark III's infamous "knock-kneed" stance. Although this gave the car acceptable handling on perfectly smooth roads, once the car was tested on bumpy British roads the effects of this decision was obvious and the Mark III soon had a reputation for a harsh, unforgiving ride, with questionable handling.
The shock absorber specification was to blame also, and it was not until 1983 that the suspension gremlins were finally ironed out. A three-speed automatic transmission was available on the 1.6 L engine within a couple of years of the car's launch. From mid-1982, a 5-speed manual gearbox was introduced across the range. This was now standard on the 1.6 L versions and could be specified as an option on most 1.3 L engines.
A selection of features were available, either as standard fitment or optional extras depending on model, including a tilt-and-slide sunroof, central locking, and electric windows. All models except for base and L were fitted with a check-light system for low fuel, low oil, low coolant, low screenwash, and worn out brake pads. Power steering was not available on European Escorts although it was available on the US Escort.
In order to compete with Volkswagen's Golf GTI, a hot hatch version of the Mark III was created from the outset — the XR3. Initially this featured a tuned version of the 1.6 L CVH engine fitted with a twin-choke Weber carburettor, uprated suspension and numerous cosmetic alterations. Despite the initial lack of a 5-speed transmission and the absence of fuel injection, the XR3 instantly caught the public's imagination and became a cult car which was beloved by boy racers in the 1980s. Fuel injection finally arrived in 1983 (creating the XR3i), along with the racetrack-influenced RS1600i. The final performance update arrived in the form of the turbocharged RS Turbo model in 1984.
Another engine introduced around the same time was the 1.6 L diesel engine. Developed in Dagenham, it was remarkably economical for its time, and still is to this day, managing over 70 mpg. It was available on the L and GL models. However, the performance was not so impressive, with only 54 bhp (40 kW; 55 PS) and a top speed of barely 90 mph (140 km/h).
The Escort estate was initially only available with three doors, but a five-door version was eventually introduced in 1983. In that year, a saloon version of the Escort, the Orion, was launched. It used the same mechanicals as the hatchback, but had a more upmarket image and was not available with the rather underpowered 1.1 L engine. The Orion name would continue in use through until 1993, when it was dropped and the Orion simply called "Escort".
A convertible version, courtesy of coachbuilder Karmann appeared the same year, significant as it was the first drop-top car produced by Ford Europe since the Corsair of the 1960s. The Escort Cabriolet was initially available in both XR3i and Ghia specification, but the Ghia variant was dropped after a couple of years.
A pickup version of the Escort, the Bantam, was produced in South Africa, while Brazil had a two-door saloon known as the Ford Verona/Volkswagen Apollo, completely different than Orion.
Sales in the United Kingdom were high, and by 1982 it had overtaken the ageing Cortina as the nation's best selling car.
- engine: 4 cylinders
- capacity: 1596 cc
- horsepower: 55 HP
- gearbox: 5+1
- top speed: 160 km/h