Home » Cheap, But Broken: 1995 Ford Escort GT vs 1985 Pontiac Trans Am

Cheap, But Broken: 1995 Ford Escort GT vs 1985 Pontiac Trans Am

Sbsd 2 5 2024
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Good morning! For this week’s Shitbox Showdown contenders, I’m braving the wilds of Facebook Marketplace, instead of my normal Craigslist hunting grounds. Today I’ve found two sporty cars near me that are both dirt-cheap, but that’s a good thing, because they both need a lot of work.

In other words, they’re completely different from the good-running but pricey classics we looked at on Friday. I wasn’t sure which way this one was supposed to go, between an “ugly” survivor Thunderbird and a highly-messed-with Dodge Lancer, but in the end, originality prevailed, and the Thunderbird won handily. I think that would be my choice as well.

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And I remembered it too late to include it, but the “Squarebird” style Thunderbird had a celebrity owner: Cassandra Peterson, better known by her stage name Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Her famous ’59 Thunderbird, nicknamed the Macabre Mobile, actually started out as a hardtop, but was Sawzalled into a convertible early on. It was later restored twice, once by George Barris’s shop, and once by Danny Koker of Counting Cars fame.

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Today’s choices have similar tenuous celebrity connections: One is kinda-sorta K.I.T.T., and the other is a dream car of some guy named Matt who apparently is kind of a big deal in certain (small) circles. Neither one of them is ready to hit the open road, but fortunately, they’re cheap enough that there’s room in the budget for repairs. Let’s check them out.

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1995 Ford Escort GT – $800

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Portland, OR

Odometer reading: 143,000 miles

Operational status: Runs fine, but won’t shift past 2nd gear

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Actually, I am in complete agreement with Matt about this one: the second-generation US-market Escort GT is a really neat little car. It’s based on the Mazda BG platform, and powered by a rev-happy Mazda BP-ZE twincam engine. It’s a fun, zippy little car that also happens to be built like a tank. What’s not to like? Well, unfortunately, a four-speed overdrive automatic was on the option list, and it’s a box on the form that got checked far too often.

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The BP engine in this one runs great, and is up-to-date on its critical timing belt changes. Unfortunately, the transmission only has first and second gears. I did a little research, and it sounds like this could be something simple like a bad electrical connection to one of the shift solenoids, or a faulty or worn-out neutral start switch/transmission range switch. Of course, there is another sure-fire way to fix this problem – a manual transmission swap.

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Apart from the transmission issues, it’s in decent condition. It’s a little grubby inside, but it should clean up all right. Outside, it’s the worst color, but it’s straight and clean. The seller is the second owner, and put the bulk of the miles on it themselves, so they should be able to tell you all about it.

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Really, for eight hundred bucks, I think this car is worth a shot. Even if you just fix the automatic, it would still be a fun car to drive, and I can vouch for the practicality of this generation of Escort in general. They’re getting rare, and they’re worth saving.

1985 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am – $1,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 305 cubic inch overhead valve V8, five-speed manual, RWD

Location: Battle Ground, WA

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Odometer reading: 77,000 miles

Operational status: Engine is disassembled, camshaft broke

Certain cars are so tied up in cultural references that you almost can’t escape them. Mention a ’69 Dodge Charger, and immediately everyone pictures an orange one jumping over a riverbed. Ford Torino? Minds immediately go to two dudes, or maybe one. Or maybe that other one. And of course, you can’t discuss the Pontiac Trans Am without mentioning a certain fast-talking beer smuggler, or for the third generation, a car that talks.

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Pop culture associations aside, I like the Trans Am. It’s an honest, straightforward machine, an attainable fantasy for the working class. It exists only to go fast and look cool doing it. Horsepower went up and down over the years; this 1985 model has a “High Output” Chevy 305 small-block under the hood, good for 190 horsepower, enough for some fun, especially with a five-speed stick. This one doesn’t look stock; it has an Edelbrock carb in place of the stock Quadrajet, and probably some other tweaks as well.

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But unfortunately, someone had a little too much fun with this one, and broke the camshaft. I’m honestly not sure how that happens, unless something else went catastrophically wrong, or it was cracked or defective to begin with. However it happened, the engine is now disassembled. The seller says it’s all there and ready to put back together, but I’m not sure I’d trust it. What condition are the cam bearings in? How is everything else? There are too many unknowns with this engine now, for my taste.

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Luckily, small blocks aren’t hard to come by, so you could drop a known good engine and hit the road. You could even step up a generation in technology and install an LS V8, if you were so inclined.

So yeah, you can’t exactly hop in either of these and hit the road. But someone who’s handy with a wrench should be able to whip either of them into shape in short order. So which would you rather do – troubleshoot a transmission and maybe swap it for a manual, or drop in the small-block V8 of your choice?

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(Image credits: Facebook Marketplace sellers)

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Stephen Walter Gossin
Stephen Walter Gossin
18 days ago

Trans Am, all day and twice on Sunday!

Great piece, Mark!

Xpumpx
Xpumpx
19 days ago

this should be the easiest one ever. Trans Am for the win

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
19 days ago

If I got the Trans Am would I be required to grow a mullet?

El Jefe de Barbacoa
El Jefe de Barbacoa
19 days ago

Nah, you’ll wake up the first morning after driving it with a full, bushy and glorious mullet. And more chest hair.

Greensoul
Greensoul
19 days ago

If it runs fine but won’t shift past 2nd gear, IT DOES NOT RUN FINE!!! Geeeeeesh already

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
19 days ago

Always TransAm over a damn Ford Escort

Robert Stanley McLaughlin
Robert Stanley McLaughlin
19 days ago

The Trans-Am is has the suspension of a homemade go-kart, It feels like they bolted the wheels to the body

Andrew Pappas
Andrew Pappas
19 days ago

I’m in the neither camp

05LGT
05LGT
19 days ago

A 29 year old escort for $800? That’s value right there.

Stephen Reed
Stephen Reed
19 days ago

Either a 454, a 350, or an LS in the Trans Am.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
19 days ago

Let’s see on one side you have a dirt cheap simple fix or fun swap tranny in otherwise good condition. Versus paying $400 more for a broken down ugly pos that even the most desperate charity would refuse. I’ll take an Escort to the manual transmission section of the salvage yard please.

Cyko9
Cyko9
19 days ago

I do like the Escort, but the T/A is worth putting time & money into.

Myk El
Myk El
19 days ago

I can make the better case for the Firebird, but if I’m honest, since I can’t do the work myself…I’m gonna NOPE out.

DEcarTrouble
DEcarTrouble
19 days ago

I would take the Escort all day and swap in a manual. 140K on the clock is nothing for that car, but the automatic transmissions were the downfall. Drove at least 2 of similar vintage for a few years sadly neither belonged to me.

JDE
JDE
19 days ago

the TA would become a KITT Car with a little love. I would go that route.

CTSVmkeLS6
CTSVmkeLS6
19 days ago

Slicktop 3rd gen F-body. Ditch the boat anchor 305 and replace with 4.8, 5.3, 6.0 truck LS-family engine for some cheap fun.

Isis
Isis
19 days ago

TA has the right transmission and a simple motor to work on or replace. The escort is nice enough and probably an easy fix and also a really good engine but just not the same with a slusher.

Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
19 days ago

I voted for the TA, but I would like to have seen some interior pictures. Parts are cheap and plentiful and it would not be too hard to make it into something fun. No matter what, the Ford will always be an Escort.

Mike TowpathTraveler
Mike TowpathTraveler
19 days ago

Trans Am, all the way. This car can easily be fixed a million different ways by thousands of suppliers. Not so much at all with that series Escort as I found the parts well drying up when working on Dad’s 94 LX Wagon. The bottom of the barrel used T/A’s and Camaro’s of this generation can ride the wave of high dollar, low mileage examples of the breed which is on going right now. No such market exists for this Escort generation.

I always had a soft spot though for the Ford-built first gen Escort GT’s and EXP’s, in particular the last model years featuring the off-set front grill and aero headlights. Always found the Mazda Escorts like this one to be more flabby looking…

Mike B
Mike B
19 days ago

Trans Am, if for no other reason than it would look cooler sitting in the driveway.

I actually LIKE turd gens though, so I would like to see this one revived. Like everyone else mentioned, the hardtop/ M5 combo makes it a good start, as long as it’s not rusty.

Dr. Asteroid
Dr. Asteroid
19 days ago

Escort GT. Way cooler.

Parsko
Parsko
19 days ago

I ain’t gonna kick a blown motor outta bed.

TriangleRAD
TriangleRAD
19 days ago

Look at the article from last month’s NC reader gathering for a taste of what can be done with an Escort GT.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
19 days ago

F-body is the right answer here. The Escort GT would have won if it was a manual, and doing a swap isn’t worth it.

Meanwhile you can get that F-body running well for not a lot of coin. They did make those 305’s with cams made from peanut butter back then, cam issues were common.

I’d take the F-body, throw in cheap used 350 with good compression with a better cam and be done with it. Manual F-bodies from the 80’s aren’t that common to find anymore, so that’s a big plus…adding that it doesn’t have T-tops and I’d say that’s a really good shell to start with.

Last edited 19 days ago by Bizness Comma Nunya
Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
19 days ago

Escort GT for me… either repair the automatic or do a manual swap.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
19 days ago

A Mazda in Ford clothes sounds a lot more fun than growing a mullet. First thing would be ditching that sick slushbox for a proper stick like Mazda intended. Next would be driving the snot out of it. Lastly would be selling it as a swapped car for a little bit of profit. Hopefully.

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