You’re familiar with the term “early adopter,” right? The people who jump on something new as soon as possible, be it a piece of hardware, a type of software, or what have you. While hopping on the bandwagon early sometimes grants knowledge and status, it can also backfire because early products are often terrible. The latter thing exactly what happened to Americans seeking a sporty Ford Escort, because the 1981 Ford Escort SS was a massive case of seemingly IP-infringing disappointment.
Historically, Chevrolet has been the keeper of the SS trim level, bestowing it on high-performance trims of American icons like the Camaro, Chevelle, and, um, Cobalt. However, for 1981, Ford swiped the SS trim level and fitted it to a sporty trim of its Escort economy car. Come to think of it, the 1981 Escort was an early attempt at a world car, although the end result couldn’t have been further from that.
See, Ford of Europe and Ford in America had very different ideas on how to build a small car. As a result, the European third-generation Ford Escort and American first-generation Ford Escort didn’t share a single body panel between them. In fact, Europeans got three Escort-branded body styles never sold in America, and a four-door sedan called the Orion. Sure, the Escort sold in America shared the CVH engine architecture with the European Escort, but it was also the economy car equivalent of fat Elvis, and while Europe got the XR3 for 1981, America made do with the Escort SS. So, what made an Ford Escort SS an SS?
Well, from the outside, the SS treatment certainly made the Escort look tougher than a standard model. The requisite stripes and black trim are here, including a black grille that drastically changes appearance from the regular Escort’s chrome piece. Ford was also proud of the SS trim’s sport mirrors, since both could be controlled by little adjusters in the cabin. Hey, when a car was base in the early ’80s, it was really basic. On the inside, the Ford Escort SS gained high-back seats, extra dials, special upholstery, and a soft-touch steering wheel. The appearance was set, so what about the go-fast bits?
Under the hood, well, there weren’t any. While this commercial talks a big game, the Ford Escort SS featured the same 65-horsepower 1.6-liter CVH engine as any other 1981 Escort. Zero-to-60 mph? Eventually, sure, but the turn of the 1980s wasn’t brilliant for automotive performance. It was the era of the double nickel and federally-mandated 85 mph speedometers, policy failures disregarded by many motorists. Sure, with wider 165-section tires and uprated suspension, the Escort SS should’ve handled better than a base Escort, but that suspension and tire package wasn’t SS exclusive. Hey, if you’re going to write checks you can’t cash, you might as well do it with another automaker’s trim level, right?
Truthfully, the Escort SS isn’t as chock-full of chest-beating faux machismo as some of the stuff Mopar was pumping out in the late ’70s, but the Escort SS was particularly nose-wrinkling because of what happened the very next model year. For 1982, Ford launched the Escort GT with a high-output version of the 1.6-liter CVH four-cylinder engine cranking out 80 horsepower. Sure, that still isn’t a big number, but a 23 percent jump in output is absolutely nothing to sneeze at. By just waiting a year, anyone wanting a sporty Escort would get a noticeable different in straight-line performance that would leave the Escort SS in the dust.
This is where we’d normally include some sort of contemporary review, but this car was so forgotten that no one has seen fit to upload a copy of an old MotorTrend with this vehicle to the internet. Seriously, Matt and I both looked and found exactly nothing. The RCR Reddit calls it the “official car of only existing in abandoned junkyards and sales brochures.”
It’s often said that a decade’s culture doesn’t really start until a few years into the decade. As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the very early 1980s were largely more of the 1970s. It’s unfortunate that the Ford Escort got caught in the crosshairs for its first model year, but that’s the way things go. These days, early Escorts are thin on the ground, rendering the disappointing Ford Escort SS an absolute rarity. Gone with the wind, as if anyone really cared at all.
(Photo credits: Ford)
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