If you were a car enthusiast in the 2000s, you were almost certainly well aware of the sensation around tuner cars sparked in part by The Fast And The Furious. It seemed like just about everyone was bolting up wild wheels, underglow, and aftermarket stereos to their cars. Gamers got to build the tuner cars of their dreams in Need For Speed: Underground and Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition, while car manufacturers began offering their own interpretations on tuner cars. Back in the late 1990s, Ford predated the tuner craze with an Escort. The rare and forgotten Ford Escort ZX2 S/R was a factory-grown tuner with a lineup of mild go-fast parts and a 0-to-60 mph time that was halfway decent for its era.
Last time on Holy Grails, reader r1ma78 reminded us that General Motors of the 2000s was bonkers, but in an endearing way. The General was willing to sell Americans cheap speed from economy cars like the Chevy Cobalt SS to genuine roadsters like the Saturn Sky Red Line. Enthusiasts with families got something a bit special as well. In 2006, the Chevy TrailBlazer SS came with a 395 HP 6.0-liter LS2 V8 ripped right out of a Corvette for $10,000 cheaper than a Corvette. This was an SUV that you could tow your trailer with or race to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds. If you wanted a bit more refinement, you were able to get the same firepower with a Saab badge in the rare 9-7X Aero.
This week, we’re staying with domestic automakers and with cheap speed but implemented in a different application.
In the 1990s, compact performance cars were a popular segment and the market was only growing. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1999, the compact performance market of the late 1990s was populated with Japanese cars. The Honda Civic entered its sixth generation in 1998 and, in 1999, would get a new Si model featuring a 1.6-liter four making 160 HP capable of getting the car to 60 in 7.1 seconds. Over at Toyota, 1999 marked the start of the Celica’s seventh generation. Here in America, our performance model was the GT-S featuring a 1.8-liter four making 180 horses, making it faster to 60 mph than the Honda at 6.6 seconds.
Even domestic automakers were churning out their own interpretations of the formula. Chrysler and its brands had the Neon while Mercury tried to market its Cougars. And while not nearly as spicy, General Motors had the Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire twins on deck.
As the Los Angeles Times reported back then, Ford was squarely in fourth place in the performance compact segment, trailing behind Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. The automaker knew it and was brewing up something it hoped would entice young buyers away from the Japanese brands and into a Ford. That car was the Escort ZX2 S/R.
Ford’s World Car
In 1967, a freshly-formed Ford of Europe launched the Escort. The name was first used on the Ford Squire in the UK back in 1955. That Escort was a stripper version of the aforementioned Squire. When the name made its return in 1967, it was applied to a vehicle replacing the Anglia. It was notable for being the first passenger car to be built by Ford of Europe and the Escort went on to be a smash-hit in Western Europe, especially in the UK. Just six years into Escort production, Ford moved two million copies of the vehicles. The rear-wheel-drive Escort would go on to become a rallying legend respected the world over.
Here in America, we had to wait until 1980 to get our own Escort. As Hagerty writes, when it came time to give the European Escort its third generation and replace the Ford Pinto, Ford conjured up a plan for its European and North American arms to share resources and spread out costs. Europe would get a new Escort while America would also get an Escort. Initially, the two vehicles were supposed to have a common architecture and components, not unlike the global platforms you’ll find today. However, during development, the two vehicles diverged, becoming two very different cars. By the time development ended, the European Escort and its American counterpart were really distant relatives, largely sharing parts like an engine and an automatic transmission. The vehicles were otherwise so different that the cars didn’t even share body panels.
Despite that, when Ford started its marketing blitz for the new Escort, it advertised the vehicle as a “World Car,” a pretty fresh concept for America’s automakers at the time.
Ford believed in this marketing push so much that 1981 Escorts got a little globe on their fenders. Every time you hopped into your Escort, Ford wanted you to know that your car had some European influence in it. Ford says that the Escort went on to become one of its best-sellers in the 1980s.
The first-generation North American Escort sold from the 1981 model year to 1990. Along the way, Ford sold a performance-oriented Escort SS and Escort GT. The Escort was even spun off into a two-door two-seat coupe called the EXP, which looks a bit like a Foxbody Mustang if it were described through a telephone.
The Escort would get a second generation for the 1991 model year. Ford kept the idea of the World Car alive with the second generation, but instead of partnering with its European division, the new Escort rode on the Mazda B platform and included the BG Mazda 323/Protegé as a sibling. This would spawn one of our early entries in the Holy Grails Cinematic Universe, the Mercury Tracer LTS.
Today’s car takes us to the third and final generation of the North American Escort, which made its debut in 1997.
According to the brochures I could find, Ford stopped leaning on the World Car concept with the third-generation Escort. The car still rode on Mazda B platform bones, but Ford marketed the car as one that was smart, would save you money, and was safe due to its improved safety cell construction.
Honestly, the brochure looks like something from a high school art project with wavy text and pages plastered with pictures of people doing activities not at all related to the ownership of an Escort. Here, take a look for yourself:
This Escort was available in a four-door sedan and as an adorable wagon. In 1998, the Escort ZX2 was introduced as a sporty coupe, replacing the Escort GT and slotting into the sort-of-place also once occupied by the Ford Probe, which ended production in 1997. The ZX2 came with a 2.0-liter Zetec four making 130 HP and 127 lb-ft torque. For a compact coupe from the 1990s, this wasn’t too bad, but it’s not our grail.
Debuting in March 1999’s SEMA show was the Ford Escort ZX2 S/R: a tuner in the style of The Fast And The Furious two years before the movie even came out. It was a collaboration between Ford Racing and the company’s Small Vehicle Center Product Development. This is a vehicle that both Jack Trade and Rootwyrm have nominated as a grail:
Ford’s attempt to cash in on the early Fast N Furious craze, it’s more impressive to me for being the last of a nearly two decade spanning attempt by Ford to offer a U.S. domestic market pocket rocket.
From the EXP performance models of the ’80s to the Escort GTs then ZX2s of the ’90s to the just plain ZX2 of the early ’00s, Ford may not have always been successful, but it took a pretty worthy, long-term shot at it.
The S/R version was basically a pre-fab hot hatch(ish) street racer, an Escort coupe with a ton of Ford Racing Performance Parts bits but from the factory (though I recall dealers had to install some of it?). You could even get them in yellow.
I looked at one in the early ’00s…but ended up passing in favor of a Mustang GT b/c I always wanted RWD and a V8. But part of me knew that come 20 years later, the ZX2 S/R would be way more rare, cool, and though I didn’t know it then, dare I say autopian?
Hope Adrian’s feeling better/back to his normal and not sick curmudgeonly self; it’s hard to tell…
Amazingly, I could find just one press photo, so most of what you’ll see here will be from the very few for sale ads I’ve found archived on the net.
The bright yellow coupe (which also came in black and red) was given a shopping list of mild upgrades. Under the hood was a Roush intake system and a recalibrated ECU. The engine also punched its exhaust out through a Borla system. This was good for a modest power increase to 143 HP and 146 lb-ft torque. Backing up the power was a B&M Pro-Edge shifter, Centerforce clutch, Eibach Pro Kit springs, Energy polyurethane bushings, P205/55ZR15 Goodyear Eagle F1 tires, Tokico shocks and struts, and all-wheel disc brakes.
The suspension parts lowered the car an inch and the other platform changes meant that when MotorTrend tested the ZX2 S/R, it did 0.08g better on the skidpad than a stock Escort. In terms of straight-line performance, a regular ZX2 hit 60 mph in 7.8 seconds while the tuner ZX2 S/R did it 0.2 seconds faster. Not bad for the mild improvements under the hood.
At the time, MotorTrend already found the regular ZX2 to be faster than many other under-$20,000 cars on the market and this one was just a touch faster. According to MotorTrend, the extra go-fast bits were just $1,495 on top of a regular ZX2, which was $11,660 for the ZX2 Cool and $13,340 for the ZX2 Hot.
MotorTrend noted that Ford also planned to offer a Dynamic Suspension kit, which consisted of 500-pound rear and 300-pound front coilovers. These would be fitted to adjustable, race-spec struts plus an adjustable rear anti-roll bar. Ride height would be adjustable through the spring seats while a camber bolt kit allowed two degrees of negative camber front and rear. Ford even planned on a more hardcore suspension bushing kit featuring racing polyurethane bushings with steel inserts, urethane engine mounts, and a limited-slip differential.
Sadly, as The Drive points out, these extras were never produced. Thankfully, the aftermarket picked up the slack and offered up turbos, camshafts, headers, ECU tunes, and so much more for the Escort platform.
Apparently, these cars are pretty rare, too. Ford produced 110 of them in 1999 and another 2,000 examples in 2000, then the model was killed off. Basically, Ford toyed around with a tuner car just a couple of years before the style would really take off. This Escort was just a body kit, wheels, and underglow away from fitting right in with the modding craze of the 2000s. Aside from the MotorTrend test, which was just a few paragraphs, I couldn’t find any other professional reviews.
The good news is that you can find these for sale, but they might have high mileage or a bit run down. I found just one for sale for $3,500 and it’s not in the best shape. So, if you can find one of these in good shape, know that you’re not only getting a rare and forgotten car, but you’re probably also finding a gem!
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at email@example.com or drop it down in the comments!
(Top image: Seller via Smart Motor Guide)
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