Ford Escort Mark 2: A Rallye Sport World Champion!
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Ford Escort Mark 2: A Rallye Sport World Champion!

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By MarkOastler - 04 May 2016

 

The Mk2 Escort proved to be a championship winner in many parts of the world including Australia. The locally prepared ‘works’ Escort RS driven by Greg Carr and navigator Fred Gocentas  claimed the 1978 Australian Rally Championship and four straight wins in the prestigious Castrol International. Image: www.auslot.com

When Ford released its new Mk2 Escort range in Europe early in 1975, the model was already enshrined in glory thanks largely to the extraordinary motor sport success of its Mk1 predecessor. And the Mk2 just kept on winning, culminating in multiple World Rally Championships that assured its status as one of the greatest production-based competition cars of all time.

The Mk2’s success was inevitable due to Ford of Europe’s insatiable competitive hunger and the stylish new model sharing much of its underpinnings with the mighty Mk1. After its European launch in 1968, the Mk1 had started winning almost immediately and didn’t back off for seven years. It got to the point where some rally events would only become newsworthy if a Ford Escort did not win!

The foundation for the Mk2 Escort’s extraordinary win rate was Ford’s slick vehicle development and homologation processes, which commenced with the Mk1 Twin Cam in the late 1960s. That car was created in remarkably short time by Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO) at Boreham, Essex and proved a prolific winner in local and international racing and rallying.

More high performance Escorts were developed under Ford’s Rallye Sport or RS banner and sold through a network of specialist Ford RS dealerships in Britain and Europe. Those cars were built in the UK on an exclusive AVO assembly line, in sufficient numbers to meet FIA minimum production requirements for competition use.

Ford’s plan to win both the WRC manufacturers’ and drivers’ titles got a major boost after signing Bjorn Waldegard for 1977. The blindingly fast Swede duly delivered in 1979, seen here on his way to second place in the Monte Carlo that year. Note the big flared Escort’s skinny wheels and studded tyres specially designed to cut through the snow and ice on these very slippery special stages. Image: www.redbull.com

These included the RS1600 released in 1970 with a Cosworth-designed 1.6 litre DOHC 16-valve engine with belt-driven camshafts called the BDA (Belt Drive, Series A). Then came the 1.6 litre Kent pushrod-engined Escort Mexico, a less complex clubman’s type of car which celebrated Ford’s win in the 1970 London-Mexico World Cup Rally.

And in 1973 came the RS2000 powered by Ford’s larger 2.0 litre SOHC ‘Pinto’ four, which provided similar performance to the RS1600 (in showroom spec) at a lower cost and with simpler mechanicals. Numerous race and rally derivatives would contribute to unprecedented motor sport success for Ford.

In early 1975, though, the AVO assembly line in the UK was shut down largely due to the global oil crisis which crippled RS sales. All future Escort RS road car production, by then focused on the latest Mk2, shifted to Ford’s mainstream assembly plant in Germany.

However, Ford’s cost-cutting measures also forced closure of the company’s European competition department based in Cologne, with Boreham becoming the factory’s sole focus for global Escort Mk2  development. And to drive that success, Ford upped the ante with two new weapons wearing the esteemed RS badge.

Another Scandinavian member of Ford’s star-studded WRC Escort driving squad was Hannu Mikkola. The flying Finn had previously delivered some of the Escort’s greatest wins in Mk1 form, including the 1970 London-Mexico World Cup Rally and 1972 East African Safari. This is the David Sutton-prepared Escort RS he drove in the 1980 British Rally Championship which featured some intense battles with team-mate and series winner Ari Vatanen. Mikkola did not start in all the rounds, which cost him a shot at the title. Image: www.rwdfords.com

Mk2 RS1800 and RS2000

The Mk2 RS1800 with its Ford-Cosworth BDA engine was a logical development of the hugely successful Mk1 RS1600. Like its predecessor, the RS1800 road car was a bare-boned homologation special produced in the minimum number required to be approved by the FIA for competition use. Unfortunately it was never sold in Australia.

The RS1800 was joined in 1976 by the RS2000 which had proved so popular in Mk1 form. With its distinctive wedge-shaped nose (or ‘droop snoot’ as it’s often called) shrouding four headlights, the new RS2000 was a visual stand-out. It also featured high quality interior trim with full instrumentation and a short-throw gear shift, plus performance suspension tuning and lots of other desirable RS touches.

The new RS2000 was such a great performance package for the price. In fact it proved so popular that it ensured a short production life for its more exotic RS1800 stablemate! More than 10,000 RS2000s were built between 1976 and the end of Mk2 production in 1980.

The Mk2 RS2000 proved to be a versatile race and rally car in its own right (covered in more detail later in this story) but Ford’s world rally championship aspirations were focused on the Cosworth-engined RS1800.

Another high point for the Mk2 Escort RS was Ari Vatanen’s hard-earned victory in the 1981 WRC. Vatanen was yet another of the spectacularly fast Scandinavians to have graced the sport over the decades. His British co-driver was David Richards who would later head up the very successful Prodrive vehicle engineering company. Image: www.alittlebitsideways.co.nz

The standard RS1800’s engine was a bored-out 1835cc version of the 1601cc BDA used in the Mk1 RS1600. This was because as an ‘evolution’ the Mk2 was allowed an engine capacity increase of up to 15 percent, from which pure competition versions could be stretched to just under 2.0 litres.

Ford and its racing engine partner Cosworth had laid the foundation for these capacity increases several years earlier, when the engine limit in European Formula 2 was raised to 2.0 litres. For that role Cosworth developed another of its many alphabetical variants of the BDA, a 1975cc version called the BDF. However with its brazed-in cylinder liners and big 90mm bores in a cast-iron road car block never designed for such extremes, durability margins were being squeezed.

Independent race engine builder Brian Hart soon came up with a winning solution, by designing and making his own cylinder block from aluminium alloy. This had more than enough casting thickness to comfortably take a 90mm bore and produce a reliable and powerful bottom end for the BDA. It was also 35 pounds (16 kg) lighter than Ford’s cast-iron lump, which would provide a critical weight reduction for the Mk2 as it was about 100kg heavier than the Mk1.

Boreham was so impressed with his handiwork that Ford adopted the Hart aluminium block as its own and from late 1972 it was fitted to BDA-powered RS1600 production cars and of course their red-hot competition derivatives. Hart’s block also formed the basis of the 2.0 litre Ford-Cosworth BDG Formula 2 engine of 1973.

The sole purpose of the Mk2 RS1800 ‘homologation special’ was to provide a road car basis from which the full-house Escort RS rally weapon could be developed. Belt-driven camshaft pulleys on the detuned single-carb 1835cc Cosworth BDA engine were the only giveaways to the competition breeding which lurked within this otherwise humble engine bay. It’s believed only 109 of these cars were produced. Image: www.carandclassic.co.uk

The Mk2 RS1800 road cars provided the production basis for the competition variant called the Escort RS. In early 1977 it was homologated in the FIA’s Group 4 category for cars made in very small numbers. It was a pure-bred competition machine produced on a special-build basis at Boreham and available only to competition clients until 1980.

The ferocious RS featured a full-house 1975cc or 1993cc version of the alloy block BDA  with big dual side-draught Weber carburettors punching out more than 120bhp/litre with more than 250bhp (185kW) on tap. A ZF five-speed gearbox, multi-link full-floater live rear axle, powerful four-wheel disc brakes and featherweight Minilite magnesium wheels made the Escort RS one of the world’s most formidable forest racers.

Ford’s official WRC attack commenced in 1976. The RS Escorts were mighty fast and getting faster, but for three seasons the blue oval came close but could just not topple such formidable opponents as Lancia’s legendary mid-engined Stratos and Fiat’s 131 Abarth, despite having drivers the calibre of Bjorn Waldegard, Hannu Mikkola and Ari Vatanen on the payroll.

The Mk2 Escort was also the subject of some wild modifications for circuit racing overseas, even though it did not match the widespread success on bitumen of its lighter Mk1 predecessor. This wild-looking machine was prepared by German race preparer Zakspeed to full European Group 5 regulations. We wonder how well this jigger might have gone in the Aussie sports sedan class? Image: www.flickr.com

It all came together in 1979, though, when Ford won the WRC and Waldegard and Mikkola finished first and second in the WRC driver’s title. This was also the high point for the works Escorts after 12 years of unbroken competition, as the all-new FWD Escort was due for release in 1980.

In late 1979 Ford announced it was withdrawing from international rallying but the Escort still had plenty of winning left in it. Independent UK rally team owner David Sutton, whose small and enthusiastic team had fielded competitive Escorts over the years, was handed the keys by Ford to continue the Escort RS attack with lucrative sponsorship, full access to Boreham’s parts and equipment inventory and two of the best drivers in Vatanen and Mikkola.

Although Sutton’s Escorts dominated the prestigious 1980 British Open Championship, they were not able to repeat Ford’s 1979 WRC success. In 1981, though, with a huge sponsorship boost from Rothmans, Sutton’s team became the first non-works team to win the WRC driver’s crown, with ‘The Flying Finn’ Ari Vatanen powering to a well-earned victory.

It was an incredible achievement for the mighty Escort, after a staggering 14 years at the top of international rallying. However it was also the end, given Audi’s rapid development of its awesome turbocharged Quattro which by then had proved conclusively that all wheel drive was the future.

It was no surprise to see Bathurst winner Bob Holden at the cutting edge of local Mk2 RS2000 developments in Aussie touring car racing, given his long and successful association with the Mk1 which he raced in both Twin Cam and RS2000 forms. This is one of Bob’s early outings in his newly acquired RS2000 at Sydney’s Amaroo Park in 1976.

The Australian Connection: Race and Rally

The Escort Mk1 was launched locally in 1970. Although the sporty Twin Cam model (later badged as the GT1600) was sold through Ford dealerships, local showrooms and frustrated performance car enthusiasts missed out on the hotter RS1600 and RS2000 models available in the UK and Europe.

Things didn’t look any brighter when the Mk2 range was released here in 1975, with the only engine options being the humble ‘Kent’ inline fours in 1.3 and 1.6 litre capacities. Of course there were no RS1800s!

In 1976 pulse rates increased when Ford announced it would be importing a small shipment of the newly released Mk2 RS2000s. However, only 26 examples arrived and most were sold to race teams, with Bathurst winner and small Ford expert Bob Holden at the head of the queue.

That year Bob was also one of the first to race the Mk2 RS2000 at Bathurst, with more of the British cars swelling the ranks into 1977. However the heavier new model failed to live up to expectations and its Mk1 predecessor remained Ford’s pace-setter in the small car class for several years, particularly at Bathurst where it won the 2.0 division in 1976 and 1978.

One of several blue oval stalwarts to campaign the Mk2 RS2000 was Bruce Hodgson, who drove a variety of Fords in local rallying including Mk1 Escorts, the London-Sydney Marathon XT Falcon GTs and the booming XA Falcon GT-HO Phase Four. This is the brightly-coloured RS2000 he shared with fellow rally ace Dave Morrow in the 1976 Bathurst 1000.

Ford Australia later released its own locally-designed version of the RS2000 which on reflection was probably more a marketing exercise similar to that of the XC Falcon Cobra, designed primarily to shift remaining stocks of a model soon to end production. Although it looked like the genuine article, the Aussie version was missing many of the features that made an RS Escort so special.

However, there was another unique Aussie-developed Mk2 road car variant called the Escort 2.0 powered by the venerable 2.0 litre ‘Pinto’ four. Australia and South Africa were reportedly the only countries in the world to build 2.0 litre Escorts using standard Mk2 body shells without the RS2000’s extended nose.

These Aussie 2.0 litre Escorts were also homologated globally by Ford as part of the RS2000 family, which allowed  race and rally teams to benefit from lots of RS parts already approved overseas for competition use. Critically, these local standard grille or ‘flat nose’ versions were also lighter than their European cousins.

Bob Holden’s 1982 season was the high point for 2.0 litre Escorts in Aussie touring car racing, with a string of class wins that made him a serious threat for outright honours in two major championships. Note how tough the Mk2 looked in Group C form with wide racing tyres generating some serious lateral grip, shrouded in big Group 2-style wheel arch flares just like the RS rally cars.

Under the ‘new look’ Group C touring car rules introduced in 1980, which among other freedoms allowed cars to be fitted with bulging Group 2-style wheel arch flares, these potent Mk2s were later listed as ‘2.0 GL’ Escorts in race programs.

There was no greater proof of their effectiveness than Bob Holden’s amazing 1982 season. Due to a string of wins in the 2.0 litre class the veteran amassed enough points to finish second overall in the Australian Touring Car Championship, beaten only by Dick Johnson’s booming XD Falcon. And in the Australian Endurance Championship that year, Holden was beaten only by Allan Moffat’s Mazda RX-7 to the driver’s title.

1982 was also the high point for the Escort in Aussie touring car racing. During the remaining two seasons, race promoters started to corral 2.0 litre cars into the 3.0 litre division rather than run a separate class, which rendered them uncompetitive.

The switch to International Group A in 1985 was the final nail in the Escort’s coffin, as it was not well suited to the new rules. With its FIA homologation expiring at the end of that season, sadly the once mighty Escort departed the local touring car scene with barely a whimper.

Colin Bond’s local preparation of factory-backed Mk2 rally Escorts commenced with an RS2000 in 1977 before expanding to include Cosworth-powered RS models. Here Bond and navigator John Dawson-Damer are aboard the RS2000 during the 1977 Southern Cross.

Rallying

The Escort enjoyed its greatest success in the Australian forests when multiple champion Colin Bond established an official Ford works team in 1977, in addition to his touring car duties with the Moffat Ford Dealer Team Falcon GT Hardtops.

A crucial component in the Escort team’s success was Ford’s recruitment of the blindingly fast Canberra-based driver Greg Carr, who was tipped for international stardom after successive victories in the Castrol International Rally in 1975-76 aboard a privately-entered Datsun.

The works Escorts were built from the ground-up in Bond’s Sydney workshop, starting with a Mk2 RS2000 before expanding to several BDA engined RS Escorts. At the time replicas of the Boreham factory cars were being successfully built and rallied in numerous countries and the Aussie team was no different.

Australia got to meet the WRC elite in the 1979 Southern Cross when world champ Bjorn Waldegard made a guest appearance in one of Colin Bond’s locally-prepared RS Escorts. As expected the Swede and his WRC navigator Hans Thorzelius were stunningly fast and led for most of the event until being forced out with differential failure in the closing stages. Image: www.australianrallymuseum.com.au

Using locally sourced pre-ADR27A bodyshells as a starting point, Bond had access to Boreham’s latest parts and technical information required to build the cars to authentic Group 4 factory specifications. The local 1975cc engines were every bit as potent as the UK-built units, armed with two huge 48mm side-draught Dellortos good for 250bhp at a screaming (yet reliable) 10,000rpm.

The late 1970s was arguably the most exciting era in Australian rallying, with Ford and Datsun (aka Nissan) works teams raising the stakes each year in an increasingly fierce fight for the Australian Rally Championship. Top works drivers of the era acknowledge today that the competition became so intense that they were often driving beyond their limits and at times were concerned for their safety.

During the four ARC seasons from 1977 to 1980 the Ford works team competed in 21 rounds, with Bond and Carr winning seven between them. Carr finished runner-up to Datsun in the 1977 ARC before winning the title the following year in the Escort RS. The works-prepared Datsun Stanzas under team boss Howard Marsden snatched the title back in 1979 and defended it in 1980 – the last year of the brutal Ford vs Datsun forest wars.

Colin Bond and team-mate Greg Carr starred in arguably the most exciting era of Australian rallying in the late 1970s, in which their RS Escorts featured in many intense battles with the factory Datsun team for the ARC crown.

It must be said the Ford team was very unlucky on occasions and on pure speed alone the Escorts should have won more events and potentially more titles. Carr certainly showed that with his  dominance of the annual Castrol International Rally, winning the prestigious event four times in a row from 1977 to 1980.

With local sales of the Mk2 Escort due to end in 1981, the demise of the local Ford rally team at the end of 1980 prompted arch rival Datsun (soon renamed Nissan) to do the same and move into touring car racing with its new turbocharged Bluebird sedan.

Privately entered Mk2 RS Escorts continued to prove very competitive in top level local rallying until the mid-1980s, when newer Group A cars became dominant. The mighty Ford Escort was gone, but its incredible legacy of global racing and rallying successes will never be forgotten.