Friday, 2 November 2007

Classic - Ford Escort XR3

There’s something brilliantly satisfying about being the underdog. Obviously there’s a weight of pressure from being severely outclassed, but this just serves to make potential victory all the sweeter. Look at David and Goliath – normal-sized man throws rock at colossal bastard, colossal bastard goes down, normal-sized man drives the girl back to his penthouse. Or something. Robert the Bruce surprised a few people at Bannockburn. The British fleet clawed some rather significant chunks out of the supposedly invincible Spanish Armada. Basically, odds that appear insurmountable are never quite the brick wall that they seem to be.

Optimism in the face of adversity was very strong in Dagenham in the early eighties. At the turn of the decade, Ford had done the unthinkable and given the latest iteration of the Escort a front wheel drive layout. At the time it was unimaginable, and it’s still looked on by enthusiasts as an improper classic; if it doesn’t steer from the rear, it just won’t do. Nevertheless, Ford were determined to maintain their exemplary motorsport credentials. After all, the mkI and mkII Escorts were celebrated heroes on the racetrack and rally stage – performance models were part of the process.

With the dawn of an entirely new Escort, it was decided to leave the old sporting monikers in the past and usher in the new: Mexico, RS1800 and RS2000 were out, XR3 was in. This is another point that irked the purists. Not only was it front wheel drive (with a goddamn fairyboy transversely mounted engine), but the old Pinto was ditched in favour of the shiny new CVH – complete with wobbly cambelt and weird ability to swiftly turn oil to sludge. And it was only a 1.6 – where was the fire-in-the-belly 2.0?

As if all this heckling wasn’t enough, there was a whole emerging breed of fwd hot hatches to contend with. The Golf GTI led the charge and was a formidable opponent; lithe, sleek and unstoppable on a b-road by all but blue lights or stray foliage. Ford have always been canny though, and they had an ace up their sleeve...

You see, the XR3 was a superb car. For starters, it was cheap. That always helps. But it was also really rather attractive. With the simple addition of front and rear spoilers, a pair of spotlights, some aerodynamic add-ons at the trailing edge of the arches and a set of rather sexy cloverleaf alloys, the plain-jane mkIII was transformed into an aggressive and purposeful little beastie. This wasn’t all, of course – it could handle too. Really well.

It was an unusual learning curve for the Escort aficionado. With the rear-drive Escorts of yore, the technique generally involved lots of revving and gearbox-stirring to keep the Pinto singing, combined with deft Scandinavian flicks to swing the tail out through the corners. The XR3 involved turning into a corner, putting the power in… and that was it. It just gripped. Then you’d have to take the corner again, just a little bit faster. And again. And again… over and over until the grip limit was reached (surprisingly suddenly) and you found yourself 40 yards into a ploughed field wondering how to explain your actions to your fleet manager. Marvellous.

The inexorable stomp of progress led to the development of a fuel-injection system in 1983, and a change of name to XR3i. This did wonders for performance and tractability, but for the purist there’s nothing quite like the savage suck of a Weber carb at full chat – and of course the original carbed model is so much rarer now.

The XR3 was quick to win petrolhead hearts. It may not have had the ruthless efficiency of its German contemporaries, the temperamental charm of the Italians or the playful tomfoolery of the French, but it was a good honest motor, and people appreciate that sort of thing. Simple, cheap and bags of fun… the spritely little scamp that shouted and bruised and took its rivals down a peg or two. How very Essex.

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