Ford Escort Mk3 at 40: all change for Britain's favourite car

By 1980 Ford's Escort finally joined the trend for front-wheel-drive family cars. Here we have Mk3s from opposite ends of the spectrum

Ford Escort Mk3 1.6 Ghia (1984)
The Escort Mk3 Ghia was the 'luxury' offering, although true to form Ford offered variants to suit all pockets

In  September 1980, Ford announced a new car that shocked and appalled many a traditionalist. Not only did the latest Escort feature hatchback bodywork, but it was also the marque’s third European front-wheel-drive car after the German-market Taunus P4 in the Sixties and the Fiesta in the Seventies.

However, Autocar believed the Mk3 looked as though it could “take over from its older relations without any problems” and it defeated the Fiat Panda and Austin Metro to be Car of the Year in 1981, using the accolade in its advertising. By 1982 the Escort succeeded the larger Cortina as the UK’s bestselling car.

(Incidentally, we will be featuring the Metro next week, when it also reaches its 40th birthday).

This 1984 Ghia has the optional three-speed automatic gearbox. Front-wheel drive freed interior space compared with the rear-drive Mk2

Work commenced on Project Erika in 1974, and the development costs reached £500 million. The Mk3 was the first Escort with all-independent suspension, plus new 1.3-litre and 1.6-litre OHC engines (mounted transversely rather than fore-aft as in the first two generations) – for the more expensive models, at least.

Essex-based Ford of Britain developed the running gear and Ford of Germany was responsible for the distinctive ‘Aeroback’ styling. Meanwhile, television advertisements reassured Mk2 owners that front-wheel-drive motoring need not be overly complicated.

As with all 1980s-vintage Fords, the Mk3 was available in trim levels to suit most pockets/rungs of the corporate ladder and in November ambitious medallion men contemplated investing £5,213 in the range-topping XR3. The top speed of this sporty addition was an impressive 112mph, although Car magazine complained of unrealised potential, the noise levels and the “appalling ride”. 

The Mk3 was a departure for Ford in terms of styling as well as engineering

Those of a more sedate nature often preferred the “luxury specification” five-door 1.6 Ghia, and £5,033 was a reasonable price for an Escort with a glass sunroof and velour upholstery.

Further down the hierarchy were the more modest GL, L and finally the basic three-door powered by the familiar 1.1-litre Kent engine. The last-named cost a mere £3,374, mainly because its “fleet market” specification did not include a heated rear window, reclining front seats or servo-assisted brakes.

The mechanically similar Mk4 replaced it in March 1986.

Shiny trim and the badge of famed Turin coachbuilder Ghia indicated that the driver (or his employer) had stumped up £5,033 for a top-spec model. The base Mk3 cost £3,374

Today the older Mk3 Escort is less frequently encountered than the average Lister-Jaguar XJS. Ian Mackenzie came by one of the few surviving Ghia models on eBay in February of this year, and he was attracted by “pure nostalgia” as his father owned an identical Strato Silver example in 1982. “I hadn’t even sat in one in over 30 years, and the memories came flooding back.” 

His Ghia boasts the 1,597cc CVH (Compound Valve Angle Hemispherical Chamber) engine and the optional three-speed automatic transmission. “It is nowhere near as slick as a modern auto ’box and slightly lazy on the motorway,” he said. “The manuals were known for their ‘woolly’ gearchange as well.”

The base Popular model exemplified Ford cost-cutting at its best, with an old 1.1-litre engine and precious little else. This is a 1985 example

Despite its 1984 A-registration prefix, the Ghia is “nearly as quiet and comfortable as a modern car, and it also brakes really well” said Mackenzie.

The Ghia badge denoted middle-management while Chris Hillman’s red 1100 Popular from 1985 revels in “the sophistication of demister vents for the side windows”.  

When he acquired his Escort in 2013 “the only extra was an MW/LW radio, but I later added colour-coded door mirrors and a cassette player”. Despite these decadent accessories, his base-spec Mk3 still mesmerised visitors to the  2018 Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional with its stunning lack of creature comforts.

Compare this with the relative splendour of the Ghia version

Hillman soon became acclimatised to everyday motoring in a car with a four-speed gearbox, and he finds his Escort “just about usable in modern traffic, although you do have to keep an eye on the temperature gauge”.

The extensive glass area combined with the Popular’s lack of opening rear side-windows can also result in a very warm cabin – “Some of my cassettes have actually melted in the heat,” said Hillman.

No fancy trim or wheels here. Nor even opening rear windows

Mackenzie added that “you can’t stop at a petrol station without someone saying either they had one or their parents did”, while Hillman thinks the low-key appearance of his car emphasises the Escort’s lines.

And to look at virtually any 1981 British street scene, with its array of Morris Marinas, is to appreciate the impact of the Mk3 – the car where “Simple is Efficient”.

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