Friday, 6 May 2016

Driven: FEV 1H

Words - Daniel Bevis; photos - Chris Frosin

I stand in the shadow of a swishing wind turbine, its vast blades arcing through the harsh eddies of a bitter February morning. Icy rain lashes my eyes as I attempt to envelop my face in the fug of sweet-smelling steam from the hot tea in a chipped, Ford-branded mug. This vivifying beverage is all that stands between me and FEV 1H, one of the most significant and iconic Escorts in the marque’s illustrious competition history. And yet I take my time, savouring the brew. I need to steel my nerves, just for a minute or two.

So why is this car so significant, so intimidating? Well, in many ways this is the Escort. The car that proved Boreham’s worth on a global scale, that spawned the Escort Mexico name, that turned a gruelling and seemingly impossible event into a total Ford whitewash. This very car, on its maiden motorsport outing, covered 16,000 miles of largely inhospitable terrain across numerous continents, skimming ground that resembled the surface of the moon with casual aplomb. This, in short, is something very special indeed. And it’s important that I use this sugary tea to cushion my system and stop my hands from shaking. You know, so I don’t break the thing.

The 1970 Daily Mirror World Cup Rally – that was the event for which this car was created. The concept seemed so simple on paper: a rally from London, the site of the 1966 World Cup, to Mexico City, the venue for the 1970 tournament. The event was incredibly high-profile, and every manufacturer worth their salt was clamouring to climb aboard the gravy train. Austin Maxis, Citroën DSs, Hillman Hunters, they all lined up with the Escorts to take on what the world had to throw at them. As it turned out, the world wasn’t all that keen to do the cars any favours, and out of over a hundred entrants, just 23 crossed the finish line. And among their number were six Escorts – five of them in the top ten, and this one, FEV 1H, in first place by a frankly staggering margin.

Seven works Escorts were prepared for the rally in all; four of them – FEV 1H to FEV 4H – were built up at Boreham, with the other three – FTW 46H TO FTW 48H – being built offsite using official parts due to time and space issues. One of the most significant and noteworthy elements of the spec, and one which is much commented upon, is the engine choice. Why use a 1.85-litre Kent engine, when the Twin Cam had made an appearance on the rally stages two years before? The simple answer was reliability. The Twin Cam was relatively unproven (as was the V6, which was tested by Roger Clark on the Alpine Rally but found to be an overheating nightmare), whereas the trusty old crossflow could be depended upon to finish the event without too much drama. What the team was really after was a finish – it didn’t need to be blisteringly quick, just quick enough, because the important thing was actually making it to the end. Furthermore, if there should be any engine problems, the consequences would be rather less catastrophic with the Kent; if a new head were required, for example, the driver should be able to stroll into a Central American Ford dealer and pick up a workable replacement.

The project was overseen by Stuart Turner, who’d arrived fresh from BMC’s motorsport division in 1969 and saw the London-Mexico as the event to make his mark at Ford. The whole thing was, by its very nature, a massive PR exercise, which explains why footballer Jimmy Greaves could be found strapped into FEV 2H. The works Escorts offer an interesting series of contrasts and dichotomies; they’re heavily modified in certain areas to make them suitable for harsh endurance rallying, and yet they’re pretty close to production standard in others. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, if the drivers were to survive 16,000 miles of juddering boulders, they’d need some semblance of comfort and pliancy to ensure that their spines didn’t hammer the top of their skulls. And secondly, of course, there’s that ever-present PR machine. The world was watching. Who could guess how many Escorts would fly off the forecourts if an eminently similar-looking car should win such a punishing event? Sure, your local Ford dealer won’t have a big-winged Type 49 shell with three fuel tanks, a cowcatcher on the nose and a spare set of knobbly tyres, but you could get hold of a pretty accurate facsimile of the winning car…

The travelling circus left London on April 19th 1970, easing the teams into the event with a relatively civilised jaunt to Lisbon, by way of Vienna, Belgrade, Sofia, Venice and Salamanca. Aside from the overloaded rears causing some axle trouble, the Escorts fared well. A nine-day Atlantic crossing brought the cars to Brazil, and from Rio de Janeiro they made their way to Buenaventura, Colombia, via Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, La Paz, Lima and Cali. If you look at this on a map, you’ll see a route that starts on the east coast of South America, heads straight down through Uruguay, across Argentina, then all the way up through Chile and Peru. This would be astonishing in 2016 with the benefit of metalled roads, satellite phones and GPS, but in 1970? It was nothing short of heroic. There was little backup along the way; if the cars broke, the drivers parked up under a tree and fixed them in the shade of the leaves. If they needed to ford a river, they made a bridge out of logs. This was primal stuff, all over terrain that deafened the entrants as stones ricocheted off their chassis, often at altitudes that starved their lungs and engines of oxygen.

A three-day sea crossing brought the rally to Panama City, for the final mad dash through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and deep into Mexico. When Hannu Mikkola and co-driver Gunnar Palm crossed the finished line in first place on May 27th they had incurred nine hours of penalties over the course of the rally, but were still 1h18m ahead of the second-place Triumph. Its heroic duties done, FEV 1H was brought home to Boreham and respectfully retired. A living legend, a conquering hero, the car that gave birth to the name ‘Escort Mexico’.

So you can see why I’m nervous.

Climbing into Mikkola’s Escort, the first thing that strikes you is how, well, friendly it is. It isn’t intimidating at all. OK, there’s a set of four-point harnesses and a Halda Twinmaster in there, along with a smörgåsbord of additional gauges and toggle switches, but it still feels like the sort of car that you could trundle to the shops in. Not scary. Twisting the key, the venerable Kent motor barks into life, settling immediately into a busy but even idle. All seems normal. And then a voice in the back of my head pipes up, somewhat unhelpfully, with ‘So, what would this car fetch if it was ever put up for auction? A hundred grand? Two? More?’ And suddenly everything is really rather focused.

The shining star of the driving experience is the gearbox. It’s a peach. That ZF five-speeder is nothing short of perfect, its rifle-bolt action clicking into place with decisive, militaristic precision. Shifting the stick into dogleg first-gear, you find that the clutch feels pretty much like a production Escort’s as well. I guess the last thing you need when you’re leaping over a crevasse is a petulant left pedal.
The dash is dominated by a large Smiths rev counter; there’s no redline marked, but it’s probably safe to assume that 10,000rpm is going to end in a falling-out with Ivan, the car’s curator within the Ford Heritage collection. So I stick to a safe 6k, out of respect for the car – it’s a performance machine that’s still hard-used, but it has nothing to prove today.

The 140bhp engine is torquey enough to give it some genuine shove through second and third gear; it’s fizzy rather than hair-on-fire fast, but of course that was always the point of it – it’s an endurance racer, not a dragster. Nevertheless, it’s quick enough to smear the drizzly Essex countryside into a rapidly diminishing blur, and this plasters a huge grin across your face. Upon reaching your first corner, the mental checklist receives a few more happy ticks as you discover that the brakes – discs all round in Mexico rally spec – have confidence-inspiring firmness, and the steering is perfectly weighted. You know what? It’s comfortable enough to tackle 16,000 miles without shaking you to pieces, I reckon I could handle that. On tarmacked roads, obviously, I’m not Superman.

As the miles tick by, you ease into a rhythm, steering with the seat of your pants, your grip on the thick-rimmed, deep-dish wheel being casual rather than maniacal. There’s no stress in driving this iconic rally machine, it’s amiable and pliant. It’s everything you’d dream it to be. It’s not trying to kill you.

As I pull back into the warm embrace of Ford’s Heritage Centre, I’m overwhelmed with good cheer at this magnificent old Escort. They say you should never meet your heroes, but that’s a load of old toffee. FEV 1H has been a hero of mine since I was a little boy, and it proved to be better than I could ever have imagined.

As I reach to open the door, I’m momentarily dumbfounded. There’s no handle. Ivan and photographer Chris crease up with laughter at my foolishly grinning, befuddled face. And reality is restored.

It’s probably time for another cup of tea.

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