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Ford Escort XR3

Published: 23rd Oct 2013 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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The Escort XR3 ushered in a new breed of fast Fords but it’s only now being acclaimed as a classic. Is this delay due to the fact that it lost out to VW in the image stakes, or because of any real performance issues?

They say that what goes around comes around and this also applies to cars. Back in the 1960s and 70s, the rise of the sports saloon, such as Ford’s Cortina GT, RS Escort and Capri V6, put the fi nal nails in the coffi n of the antiquated British sports car. Then up pops Volkswagen’s Golf GTi that rewrites the rule books on family performance cars, and so the hot hatchback swept all before it. Naturally, Ford wasn’t going to be left out.

As great as they were, it was obvious that the sporting rear-wheel drive Escort Mk2s were becoming old hat by the late 1970s. Front-wheel drive was now the way to go and the Fiesta pointed the way for future Fords.

The all new Mk3 Escort was as important to Ford as the Cortina almost 20 years previously and naturally it needed a sporty range-topper to give it a halo effect, like the Lotus Cortina provided. Ford by now didn’t need Colin Chapman’s help to make a fast Ford, having learned its trade well with big-engined RS Escorts and Capris.

But for the 1980s, Ford sidelined the famous, iconic RS badge for a new XR title and the Escort was labelled XR3. After the meaty RS1800 and RS2000s, it initially seemed meek to opt for a smaller 1.6, but his was Ford’s new CVH design and kicked out a respectable enough 95bhp in initial twin choke carburettor form.

Note here that the Volkswagen already had the edge on the Ford hot shoe with a fi ve-speed gearbox and fuel injection, but two years after launch in late ‘82 the Escort became so equipped, now boasting 103bhp, about the same as the old and still lamented Mk2 RS2000.


The battle lines were well and truly drawn by 1983 and it became as much as a class war as it did a performance shootout. On the road the XR3 was as quick as the Golf, although the road test cars seemed peppier than the ones bought in the showroom. This is an old trick certain car makers used to pull at that time and the 9.2 second sprint to 60 was, claimed Autocar, “exceptionally good.” But the Golf vs Escort rivalry extended further than who was fastest around town, it also signifi ed your social standing in what was to become an image conscious decade.

However the early signs couldn’t be better with one road test insinuating that the new Escort was outstanding, “no matter what the maker’s name” and that the XR3 “is a real GTi basher.”

By the time the XR3 was introduced Volkswagen had already established the Golf as a cult car and the GTi was simply the icing on the cake. In true classless tradition, as with the Mini, everybody from dukes to dustmen felt good with a Golf.

In contrast, to many the Escort was simply a Ford with a bit of fancy chintz, a blue collar car. Nevertheless, at £5750 when launched in late 1980, the sexily winged and alloy-wheeled XR3 was a resounding success, not simply with enthusiasts but also people who just liked the look of this Escort. Soon XR3s accounted for a third of Escort sales and Ford had found a new marketing niche that it carried equally successfully on with the Fiesta XR2 and the Sierra XR4i.


The euphoria over the Escort XR3 quickly dampened once it arrived in the UK where our roads showed up some pretty serious suspension fl aws. Performance and smooth road handling were top notch – but oh the ride! As one magazine put it, you simply didn’t know what the rear was going to do next. While Ford brushed aside early criticisms of the MK3’s ride (all Escorts and not just the XR3), was it a coincidence that car deliveries were delayed. Motor’s long termer XR3 took an extra six months to arrive and it reported on alleged stories of Escorts parked in compounds that were being given last minute suspension changes where they stood.

Continued revisions to the spring and damper settings only came good once Ford’s SVE Operations at the Dunton, Essex Research & Development plant had a go with the launch of the XR3i which saw an almost complete transformation as a result – good enough for monthly CAR magazine, in a twin test with the Golf GTi, to give the laurels to Ford!

The XR3i was joined by the return of the RS badge with the 1600i. This £6384 XR3i was motorsport-biased, which goes a long way to explain why it perhaps wasn’t as able as a standard model on the road; twitchy handling was one criticism. Today these cars are highly prized, as is the RS Turbo which was launched a year later as its replacement, with a 132bhp turbocharged engine and a special limited slip differential to eradicate the infamous torque steer that high-powered fwd designs inherently suffer from.

A refresh for ‘87 saw a smoother look and a tidier interior. The RS Turbo was tamed and made to look less like the hot hatch it was, leading one magazine to dub it a “Penge Porsche”. Ignoring the RS Cosworth, this was the XR3 family of Escorts at its best because the subsequent rancid re-body for 1990 saw the badge dropped (due to soaring insurance premiums) for a meek and milder Si tag. Nobody was standing for that so, after a slating in the motoring press, a heavily revised Escort was introduced a few years later complete with the long-awaited Zetec engines and a substantial suspension retune. Ye Gods, even the XR3 tag made a return, along with the RS2000, Mexico, 1600E (Orion) plus Ford even called one a GTi. None quite made it to the impact levels of the original XR3 however.


Probably in any other decade the XR3 would have enjoyed a better image. But we’re talking the hedonistic 80s, where you were what you drove. Those that chose the Golf GTi were seen as sophisticated yuppies, only those in the know had the thoroughbred Alfasud TiX before it rusted away, while Renault 5 Turbo dudes became a new breed of boy racers. Sadly, the only way for the XR3 was Essex, where it became the Gazzer and Shazzer special – for Gary who liked racing against his mates in their Capris down the seafront, and girlfriend Sharon who looked dead sophisticated drinking her Malibu and pineapple in the nearby winebar. Well, that’s what everybody in the rest of the country thought anyway!

A shame, because XR3s and their owners could hold their heads high. After the suspension was better sorted and in fi ve-speed XR3i guise it (at £6473) was, as Autocar put it, “The GTi’s only real rival”.

One look at the 1990s Escort and you started to appreciate the XR3 but perhaps it’s because the Old School Ford craze was gathering pace during the mid 90s, that this fast Ford became a forgotten Ford and left to rust – and boy could they do that well enough.

It’s only latterly that the car has started to attract a renewed following. Most collectible are the RS Turbos and the RS1600i but they would never exist if the XR3 hadn’t been such a smash hit. But for many enthusiasts – not least devotees of fast Fords – that wasn’t enough and probably the reason why an XR3 will never be mentioned in the same breath as a Mk1 Mexico. Autocar put its fi nger on it as early as 1983. “The standard XR3 was generally a bit of a disappointment to long-time fans of quicker Escorts… it somehow lacked the tougher image formerly associated with such cars, and the fact that it wasn’t involved in any sort of regular competition left it without a pedigree in the minds of potential buyers.” What it needed was a race-suited Roger Clark to raise its profi le, not a shell-suited Sharon and Gary.

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