You’re a global OEM with a long and proud motorsport history. But both your most recent attempts to get a purpose built rally machine off the ground have failed miserably. The next version of your mass market best selling car is stinking out customer clinics, a year before it’s even released. You need a halo homologation special, and fast. The problem is all your resources are tied up on other projects, and you don’t have suitable platform available. Time for another Damn Good Design.
If this series were called Damn Terrible Design, we’d be here for a month discussing exactly what went wrong with the design and development of the reviled fifth generation European 1990 Ford Escort, a car so bad it was facelifted within two years of going on sale. The brief version is that Ford had been stung by the initial failure of the Sierra, its futuristic design and lack of a traditional three-box saloon putting buyers off. Ford had to hastily design a Sierra with a boot (the 1987 Sierra Sapphire) to save the car and this lack of sales and mis-reading of the market had consequences in the Ford product planning department. The release of another big-seller, the Mk3 Fiesta, was delayed until to 1989 . As a result of all this turmoil, during the mid eighties Ford of Europe was short of funds and stretched very thin. The strong-selling Mk3 and then Mk4 Escort were the only things keeping it all afloat.
The CE14 (C-class, Europe, project 14) 1990 Escort is a classic case of everyone making seemingly the correct decisions from a business point of view, only for them to turn out to be totally the wrong decisions from a product point of view. Differing requirements between the US and Europe meant the next Escort was not required to be a world car – Ford North America just needed something cheap and economical to bring their CAFE numbers down, so it could sell more profitable, less economical models. At the time, Ford owned 25% of Mazda, so it was decided to based the American Escort on the Mazda 323, which could be built cheaply in Mexico. Ford of Europe needed an Escort that would sell in greater numbers than its predecessor and crucially, make more profit per unit in order to make up for the losses from the Sierra.
Ford of Europe knew exactly how to sweat the assets. By the mid-eighties the Escort it was available as a three or five door hatch, a four door saloon (the Orion), a five door estate, a three door cabriolet, a van, and as the XR3i and RS Turbo hot hatches. It was with not a little arrogance that Ford of Europe management thought they knew exactly the formula for the next one; functionally better in every measurable metric but cheaper to build. It was a design brief born of hubris, that would turn out to be an impossible engineering circle to square. When it emerged in late 1990 the Mk5 Escort was barely an improvement on the Mk4: the mechanicals were mostly carryover, the equipment levels were thin (base models still came with a four speed gearbox) and compared to modern European opposition, it was terrible to drive. Worse still, the range topping XR3i was still at least two years away, and would emerge just as the hot hatch market was evaporating.
Boreham, We Have A Problem
Ford Motorsport, based in Boreham Essex, had a different problem. For years the Mk1 and Mk2 RWD Escorts had been tremendously successful in rallying – winning the world championship as recently as 1981. But the switch to FWD for the 1980 Mk3 Escort meant they no longer had the basis for a rally machine. An attempt was made with the stillborn RS1700T to create a RWD rally car from the Mk3 Escort, but this was scrapped when the world rallying adopted the infamous Group B regulations in 1982. In response, Ford created the RS200, which managed a year of competition before the regulations changed again for 1987. The 4WD Sierra Sapphire Cosworth was then pressed into service as a Group A rally machine, but it was too unwieldy to compete effectively – the Lancia Delta Integrale, a compact hatch with 2.0 liter turbo power and full-time four-wheel drive, was showing the way forward.
The Sierra would have to remain in service in world rallying until 1992, when the road car finally left production. After that, Ford Motorsport had nothing. Although running a works rally program was an expensive endeavor, the PR benefits were enormous. In addition to giving credibility to cooking XR and RS models in the showroom, Ford sold all the works parts over the counter to privateers giving an additional revenue stream. They simply had to be in the game.
It wasn’t just Lancia. Ford knew that Japanese rivals were looking to boost their image by getting involved on the world rally stage. The problem with the Sierra wasn’t just that it was too big, it only really developed downforce at the rear of the car. Any new rally weapon would need to make meaningful downforce at the front as well to give it any chance of being effective on all surfaces.
Making One Car From Two Very Different Cars
By late 1987 the CE14 1990 Escort exterior design was finalized. The exterior clays had been signed off and were being digitized ready for prototype tooling to be made. Ford Motorsport Chief Engineer John Wheeler had an idea. They had a set of well-developed, rally-proven parts from the Sierra – engine, drivetrain, suspension and so on. If these parts could somehow be made to fit into the more compact Escort platform, that might form the basis for a competitive rally car. There was just one small issue – the new Escort was front wheel drive. What if they used the top half of an Escort and the bottom half of the Sierra?
On paper it was possible – Wheeler drafted technical drawings to prove a chopped and shortened Sierra floorpan could fit underneath an Escort body (this is sometimes known in the industry as ‘putting on a top hat’). An extremely convincing engineering mule was built using a MK3 Escort shell to prove the concept. When rally legend Stig Blomqvist threw the half-breed around the Boreham test track faster than the Group A Sierra, Ford management were convinced. Now they just had to make it look like the new 1990 Escort.
The exterior design for the Escort Cosworth had to be contracted out because Ford themselves were too busy. Prototype shells would be made by Karmann who had developed the Escort cabriolet, and MGA, a small British consultancy that had worked on the CE14 van derivative, would carry out the design work. Amusingly, this meant MGA already knew exactly what the front of the new Escort looked like, but had no idea what about the rear. The initial mock-up models were quite rough because MGA were working to a tight timeframe. Although the design was being done in the UK, the all-important aero work had to be carried out at the Ford wind tunnel in Germany, fitted in around aero testing for the Mondeo. This wasn’t to be the only way the forthcoming Mondeo ended up interfering with the Escort Cosworth.
It Was Never Going To Have A Triple Rear Wing
Gert Hohenester, who had been responsible for the Sierra’s slick aero appearance had by now taken over as chief designer of the CE14 Escort program. As befitted his seniority, he’d seen the forthcoming Mondeo design, and wanted the Escort Cosworth to better reflect its more rounded look. The initial Escort Cosworth models were too functional and boxy – they needed softening up to bridge the visual gap between the as-yet unreleased ’90 Escort and ’93 Mondeo. Luckily, Ford had just promoted the right person for the job – a Scottish designer named Ian Callum who would stay with the project until 1990. Working in conjunction with MGA designer Steve Harper, the rigid wheel arch extensions, side skirts and bumpers were smoothed off, cleaned up and gently radiused. The front bumper was opened out to provide the required cooling for the rally cars, something facilitated by using the larger Sierra Cosworth indicator and fog light units, rather than slimline CE14 items. Below the main bumper a full width aero piece provided the necessary downforce, fulfilling one of the main design objectives. At the rear, the huge biplane style wing introduced on the original 3-door Sierra Cosworth was again used. This had been in the aero program from the beginning – at no point was a three-piece triplane wing ever considered.
Just how desperate were Ford for the Cosworth to sprinkle some fairy dust on the Escort range? When it was launched to the media in late 1990, alongside the regular models a prototype Cosworth was shown to the press despite it being two years away from showrooms. It was a huge mea culpa on Ford’s part. Taken in isolation, the ’90 Escort isn’t a bad looking car – I would even go so far as to call the estate quite handsome. But It’s an expected evolution, rather than the revolution that would come later with the Focus. Compared to its peers it is dreadfully conservative, although its brutal cost-cutting, thin construction and woeful driving experience were bigger factors in its poor critical reception than how it looked.
The Exterior Design
What’s interesting about the Escort Cosworth is just how outrageous it ended up being. Let’s look at the whale tail. It first appeared on the original 3-door rear-wheel drive Sierra Cosworth. It was banished for the successor to that car, the booted Sierra Sapphire Cosworth in an attempt to move the car’s somewhat blue-collar image slightly upmarket. On the Escort it came back with a vengeance specifically to provide a benefit on rally stages. You could order your Escort without it, but why would you – it’s the visual signature of the car. The wing means it’s no longer a humble Escort – it’s a Cosworth.
The Escort is all aggression and purpose – the huge air intake on the lower surface of the bumper wasn’t enough – Harper had to dispense with the radiator grill and create another opening between the lights, and add a further slot above the license plate. It’s simple and menacing, an effect amplified by the large black spoiler underneath the bumper, which you don’t immediately read because it’s painted black. This helps the front bumper hide its bulk. Look at the intersection between the bumper, the sidelights and the extended fenders. Having a deeply defined feature line on the body creates a border either side of which you can have two surfaces going in different directions, but what it leads to here is an area where nothing really matches up. It is a bit messy but this adds to the impression you’re looking at something one removed from a real race car, built to go fast rather than being the last word in shut line management.
In the final result, the Sierra floorpan was shortened to such an extent that compared to a standard Escort, the front wheels of the Cosworth only needed pushing forward about 30 mm (just over 1”). This helps balance the overall increase in length of about 200 mm ( 5”) – all of it in the new bumpers. As you increase dimensions you have to start nudging the wheel size up to keep the proportions correct. Those five-spoke ‘Softline’ wheels (which would be endlessly copied in the aftermarket) show a tease of the enlarged brakes behind. Even with the increased wheel size there’s still a big wheel arch gap – because the bodywork was homologated for the rally car. At the base of the doors the side skirts pull out aggressively and visually strengthens the area between the wheels – to make this look like a tough car that can take a beating off road, exactly what it was designed to do. The profile of the skirt wraps around onto the front bumper before tapering out–it’s important to maintain visual consistency across these body parts to avoid an amateurish, aftermarket look.
The Escort Cosworth falls a bit between three stools visually: the standard car, the extended bodywork necessary for rally success, and the more organic forms of the Mondeo that would mark the next step in Ford’s design identity. It is not quietly aggressive. If a Delta Integrale is crisp muscularity, carving down the Stelvio pass to the strains of Puccini, the Escort is a Saturday night pub brawl soundtracked by Oasis. It’s probably the most outlandish of the nineties rally homologation specials, fitting given the amount of transformation necessary from its mundane starting point.
The Right Car At The Wrong Time
Unfortunately for Ford, the Escort Cosworth never won the world rally championship (although it was competitive and did win individual rounds), and it was launched at exactly the wrong time. The list price was about £24k – the equivalent of £50k ($61k) today, pricing it against some very serious and prestigious opposition. The UK, by far the biggest Fast Ford market was about to head into a massive recession, and rising theft rates of high-performance cars were rendering cars like the Cosworth uninsurable. In a little over four years on sale, just 7145 cars were sold, compared to Sierra Cosworth which sold over 30,000 across all versions in six years.
The Escort Cosworth is an iconic fast Ford and a tribute to the ingenuity of Ford’s engineering and design talent. It represents the zenith of how far it was possible to stretch both the ability and appearance of the prosaic three-door family hatch. The Escort Cosworth might be hiding its humble underpinnings but it doesn’t hide its performance credentials. It shouts them loudly and honestly.
It was almost a car out of step with the era. The Golf VR6 launched around the same time in 1992, marking the emergence of a new breed of more considered, sophisticated and refined big power hatchback. Somewhere, long forgotten in the back of a Ford warehouse is a RWD Escort Cosworth prototype with a 24-valve 2.9 V6 engine in it….
Once again, for further reading see Secret Fords: Volume Two by Steve Saxty. Also, Ford Design in the UK: Seventy Years of Success by Nick Hull.
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