The cars we loved.
The term pocket rocket conjures up images of quick econoboxes tuned to run with the big boys. Names like Omini GLH, Rabbit GTi and Corolla GTS are dropped by those old enough to remember when the term was coined in the ’80s. An often overlooked candidate for inclusion into this club came from an unlikely source.
Fords homely Escort ‘world car’ was new to the US market in 1979, but despite the family ties implied by the world car title, it was quite different from its European cousin. It would retain the familiar hatchback shape and even have a independent suspension (almost unheard of in small cars at that time – let alone an American car). As nice a car as the new Escort was on paper, it quickly develop a reputation for being nothing more than the cheapest rental or starter car.
Ford’s Mercury division would have its own version of the Escort called the Lynx. The Lynx by virtue of being a Mercury was slightly more upscale and better optioned, but offered no real distinction. They looked so much alike that closer inspection would be the only way to reveal the Lynx vertical grille (vs. Escort’s horizontal) and Mercury logos. The differences in the sporty versions of these cars were not so pronounced either. Ford rolled out an SS model with 65h for ’81. It would remain the top sporting Escort in America until 1983. That year the Escort GT would become the top performance oriented Escort. Mercury soon followed with the Lynx RS, a car that would feature its own take on the Escorts looks, inside and out, but once again remained almost identical.
The look was racy enough, but substance lagged. The boxy shape was aided by aero enhancements that included a chin spoiler and a large flat rear spoiler that assisted in the Escorts shape defying drag coefficient of .38. The Escort GT were the second car from Ford to get the new metric designated tire sizes with a 185/65-14 Michelin TRX.
The Escort GT and Lynx RS were merely adequate small sporty cars when introduced. They sported “Euro Inspired” blackout trim and sports stripes, but did have a slightly more powerful 88 hp 1.6 litre engine. Normally aspirated, it featured electronic fuel injection and a hemispherical combustion chamber with angled valves. Compared to the base cars with their 68 hp, the Escort GT (and Lynx RS) was a step up in performance but still had the image of basic transportation that the base cars had established due to their enormous popularity. Ford was looking for a way to capitalize on the Escorts popularity with a variation that would surpass even the GT’s standard performance.
The answer would come with turbocharging. The Mustang’s bigger four cylinder got turbocharging in an attempt to bridge the gap left in the wake of emissions regulations. It was a marginal improvement over the V8 in only a few performance categories. When packaged in the smaller lighter Escort, the turbo made for a altogether different and more exciting little car.
The turbocharged engine started with the 1.6 litre four from the GT. A special oil cooler, exhaust manifold and intake would further distinguish the turbo models from the GT. Unlike the European Escort Turbo, the US cars had no intercooler. All the modifications resulted in a healthy increase to 120 hp. The power to weight ratio that was actually better than the 84 Mustang GT equipped with the turbo 2.3 engine (145hp). Like the turbo Mustang, the Escort GT Turbo was only available with a 5 speed manual transmission.
While a manual transmission might have turned off some pretenders, the Turbo represented a serious performance car intended for those who took driving more seriously. When equipped with the TRX handling package, the Escort offered similar performance to the Rabbit GTi, but was much faster. Typical 0 to 60 runs were in the low 9 second range while top speed was 115 mph. We laugh at that now, in a time when even the most pedestrian cars can top 120 mph.
For its day the turbo Escort was an impressive little machine. Sure they were a bit scrappy and fit and finish was not up to the emerging standards being set by Honda and Toyota, but the Escort Turbo was a fun car to drive. By contrast, the base Escort was capable of no more than 90 mph at top speed, so a Escort Turbo was stealthy in its own right. This level of performance did not come at the expense of fuel economy. With highway mileage in the high 30’s the Escort stayed true to its economy car heritage.
The inside was perhaps where the Escorts modest origins would betray its upmarket aspirations. Even with a slightly tarted up exterior, you knew you were in an Escort. Cloth seats were standard, although some had fabric patterns that recall Recaro-like designs.
Subtle inconsistencies in fit and finish quality would haunt all Escorts of this era. The media in general was not so forgiving. The Escort would often rank behind import cars with a similar mission due to the lack of refinement. When compared to cars like Honda’s Civic S, the Escort seemed less fun to drive when the road became curvy.
With a starting price of $8,680, sales of the turbo cars were never really all that good to start with. The price premium they demanded over the standard GT was within a thousand dollars of a turbo Mustang. That was too close for most buyers when the Escort GT Turbo was after all still just an Escort. The Escort GT and Mercury Lynx XR3 would have turbo options for only two model years. These would be the best performing Escorts until the Mazda sourced cars arrived in 1991. By that time the ‘old style’ Escort was all but forgotten in the wake of the ’90s cars class leading performance.