Blink And You’ll Miss It: This Mk2 Ford Escort Is One Hell-Raising Hill Climber
Photography by Robb Pritchard
The ultimate Escort? It sounds like an oxymoron. There are so many, over so many years, from the World Rally Championship-winning Waldegård and Vatanen cars all the way to Ken Block’s more recent Hoonigan creations. But burning rubber for YouTube videos aside, what would be the ultimate competition Escort? I found a definite contender nestled in the foothills of the Alps… and was mightily impressed by this many-winged predator.
Arches, splitters, wings, diffusers. It looks like something straight out of today’s DTM or yesteryear’s silhouettes, but the familiar rectangular grill with two round headlights set on either side provides such a contrast of eras that it takes a moment for my brain to register what my eyes are transmitting to it.
America has Pikes Peak, AKA the world’s most famous hillclimb event, but it’s also a very popular sport in Europe and because of the dearth of rules regarding builds these races are the places to see some seriously impressive race cars built by privateers and individuals rather than big-money manufacturers. This absolutely stunning Escort is one of the former, and its crazed appearance certainly isn’t just for show—it’s a leader in the Austrian Hillclimb Championship in the capable hands of its creator, Christopher Neumayr.
The story starts with a 17th birthday gift from his grandma, a BMW 318, which, without going into any incriminating details such as speed limits, he managed to park on its roof on a quiet country road. The next two cars also ended up upside down so Christopher’s dad—wanting to focus his son’s obvious need for speed in a more controlled environment—allowed him to use his precious RS2000 in a local hillclimb event.
“It was a really nice car. It was light so it had a great power to weight ratio and it also handled really well.” Well… It did when all of its steering components did what they were supposed to do. Unfortunately in one of his very first events something broke and pitched him head first into a wall at very high speed. He was lucky to come away with just a few cracked ribs and bruises. But the car? The impact was hard enough to push the engine and gearbox back so much that the rear axle was bent. Needless to say, there wasn’t much left to salvage.
From their hospital beds many people would have looked at the photos of the mangled mess of twisted metal and pool of mixing oil and coolant flowing down the road and decided that tearing up mountain roads at breakneck speed might not be for them. For Christopher though, who might not be wired quite the same way as the rest of us, it was a galvanizing moment which led him to creat this stunning Escort out of the remains of the old one over the next few years. No sheer rock face was going to stand in his way.
The central part of the shell is the only part of the original car left. It was straightened, stripped and, cut out to the minimum amount of metal allowed in the regulations. Christopher chose to run in the E1 class for non-turbo cars as a ‘charger would put him in the top class with the 800bhp 4×4 monsters, which is not the place you want to be if you have anything close to something resembling a budget.
A Sierra Cosworth engine minus the turbo was the chosen power plant, but it is far from standard. A Farndon crankshaft designed specially for non-turbo cars coupled with a stroke that’s been reduced from 77mm to 72mm allows it to rev up to an incredible 10,000rpm. Cylinders are bored out from 90mm to 94mm and fitted with American CP pistons. Smaller bearings create less friction and weight, and the lengthened and balanced con-rods are also from Farndon. The head is special as well. Cut out on a CNC machine it has bigger inlet and outlet ports and a special profile for the cam, which is bigger and has a more aggressive design than the standard Cosworth one. All this makes a healthy 304bhp on racing fuel with 254Nm of torque. This moves the 790kg (1,750lbs) pretty quickly—0-60 happens in “about” three seconds.
The six-speed sequential gearbox is made by Tractiv in Sweden with a pneumatic paddle-shift that Christopher designed himself, although it took a long time to get right. The rear 909 differential and independent suspension setup is from a WRC Focus and is mounted directly to the roll cage, just like the works rally cars. I asked how he managed to work out all the engineering for such a complicated transplant. “I just looked at a lot of photos and saw what part needed to go where,” he says, simply. I wanted to get a good photo of the setup but with the car so low there wasn’t much of a gap under the wheel arches. The front uprights he also made himself but the geometry was hard to get right. “If the setup didn’t feel right I just tried it a different way,” he says. But what he means by “trying a different way” is completely scrapping the previous version and fabricating a new design to install.
The suspension is three-way adjustable by KW with a custom setup that’s specific for this car. Brakes are six piston Tarox units, but the discs are tiny 10cm thick, as all hillclimb races are fast and uphill so there’s no need for any extra kilos of steel on the wheels. Power is important but so is saving weight, and with the minimum limit being just 790kg, if something is not needed it is not fitted. Christopher’s car is exactly 790kg.
Aerodynamics are also more or less unregulated, and if you don’t think you’ve ever seen a Mk2 that looks quite like this then you’re right; all the bodywork is unique to this car. The extreme splitter and wings took a lot of work cutting away foam blocks to make the moulds from.
“It was many hours of scraping and sanding before I had what I wanted, but after about a hundred hours I stopped counting. Many people have asked if they can buy a set from me. I have the moulds so I can repair the car quickly if I have an accident but I won’t sell them. I like having the only Escort that looks like this.”
The huge rear wing and diffuser are nothing I’ve ever seen on an Escort before and they produce massive amounts of downforce. “A friend of mine has a virtual wind tunnel program so we entered in all the car’s dimensions as accurately as we could and ran it and it really, really helped with the setup of the car. Now I can understand how much the suspension is compressed at 200km/h without having to drive that speed in a badly prepared car just to try it. I can go through corners unbelievably fast now!” Some hillclimb events have faster courses than others, so like in many high-speed, high-technology racing series both the wing and diffuser can be adjusted on this Escort. Weather conditions affect setup as well, and if it’s a wet event everything is tuned for maximum downforce.
Generally the courses are short—just a few kilometers or so—so getting off the line as quickly as possible is key to getting a good time. Traction control is how this is achieved. The three-piece BBS wheels are the same size front and rear, as the MBE ECU traction control system measures the turning of the front wheels to control the spinning of the rears. The ECU program has eight vectors for changing the starting line mapping from wet to 100% dry.
The system saves a couple of seconds per run… and it better, costing €4,000 as it does! All in all Christopher estimates he must have over a thousand hours into the build along with the euros. “I finished it when the car was as good as I could get it because who wants to drive a shitty car?” he shrugs. Apart from the time though, the cost just in parts is around €70,000.
The first race was in May 2014… and it was terrible. “There were problems with the electrics, with the engine, and the ECU was completely confused with the traction control.” It was another 18 months of development to get everything working properly. A year and a half of working until 2am every night after coming home from work, designing, fabricating, testing. His girlfriend wasn’t too happy about so much time spent in the workshop, but at least she understood the drive behind it: she rallies a classic Escort in historic events too. One with pink mirrors. And she’s fast! They’re still together.
Christopher’s gritty, never-give-up attitude finally paid off a couple of months ago when he came away with his first win, 3 ½ years after the crash. “It was such a great feeling,” he says with a wide smile. “There were so many times that I wanted to give up because getting the car as fast as it needed to be just seemed so far beyond me, but a lot of friends and fans encouraged me and that always motivated me.”
Two more wins followed and the guy who has dominated the class for the last five years in his ex-works Audi A4 touring car actually gave up the rest of the season to develop a new car. His fiercest rival throwing in the towel mid season has left Christopher looking good for the championships to come. He already won in 2016.
A Mk2 Escort winning one of Europe’s top-flight championships. It’s not something we see every day, and that is another reason to suggest that this could well be the ultimate Escort!