This Ford Escort RS1600 Is A Fake, And More Fun Because Of It
Photography by Robb Pritchard
If it looks like an ex-Roger Clark Escort, drives like an ex-Roger Clark Escort, and an ex-Roger Clark Escort mechanic says its an ex-Roger Clark Escort, then it must be an ex-Roger Clark Escort, right?
For thirteen years, German rally driver Max Schneider had enjoyed his Mk1 Ford RS1600, winning his class in important classic rallies like the Rallye Köln-Ahrweiler, all the while believing it was a test car prepared in Ford Motorsport’s Boreham factory that his hero Roger Clark had once driven somewhere…
I like to look deep into a car’s history to find out who did what with it and why. Especially cars with connections to racing, as the grey period between their competitive climax and not-yet-classic status is often fraught with stories. On this car, the first indication that something was wrong arrived when Google returned nothing on the VIN. “Maybe because it was a prototype car that wasn’t for the public?” Max offered hopefully. A call to my Ford expert friend, Baz Cannon of Rally World in the UK, a man who if he cut his finger would probably bleed blue, also came up with nothing… Perhaps what was written on the original papers Max got when he bought the car should have sent up a red flag—I don’t call myself an expert, but I know that a Mk1 Escort doesn’t look too much like a Transit van…
Whereas some people might feel aggrieved to find out about the seller’s deceit, Max is refreshingly philosophical. “I’ve loved this car from the moment I bought it, and have so many really great memories with it, so nothing can take that away.” Max is no stranger to replica rally cars, as the Escort shares a garage with a Ferrari 308 Group 4 replica, a very serious machine that started its life as a road car. “From owning the Ferrari I know that there are several advantages to owning a replica, such as being able to drive it as hard as I like without worrying about bending anything. If you crash an original car I imagine it must feel absolutely terrible,” Max says. “That would be a bit of history destroyed. In an accurate replica though it looks and drives just like the original, but if you have an accident it’s just some damaged metal. So maybe now I can drive the Escort even faster.”
The story he was told before purchasing the Escort was that it was a test car, and therefore had to be identical to the rally cars driven by Clark and other drivers in the official team or else any data they got from it wouldn’t be valid. It was used in rallycross events in Norway for some years then put up for auction at Bonhams… where it didn’t sell. Apparently to save himself some import taxes, the seller had taken it to the UK registered as a Transit van… which would cause a bit of hassle later. “It seemed a valid reason…” Max shrugged. Max came across it online and flew to the UK to have a look, and it was just what he wanted. It was a fair sum, but still—what seemed like—a bargain. Because he couldn’t get such funds out of a bank in the UK, the seller agreed to put it on eBay so that Max could purchase it that way. A bit of a step down from Bonhams, but it was only there for three minutes before the online payment was accepted.
Once it had been trailered back to Germany, Max checked all the oil and water levels and took it out for a test drive… and almost immediately broke the engine. Not ideal, but a good friend of Max’s was also a Ford mechanic back in the ’70s, so knows these cars inside and out. And in Max’s defense, even he thought it was an original works car. All the switches in the cabin look correct, all the ancillaries on the engine are what they are supposed to be, and anyone can see that it was really a no expenses spared build.
“Looking back I can see that it was too good to be true, but it was my dream car and it was an opportunity that had to be taken when it was available, which is why the first thing I did was buy it rather than check it.”
Fixing the engine wasn’t the main issue though, the TÜV, the German equivalent of the DMV, weren’t too impressed with the Transit Van paperwork and told him to go away. That could have been a disaster, but fortunately he had a friend at the official Ford importer who managed to pull some strings to get it re-registered correctly as an RS1600. That’s a simplified story though, as there was a period of a few months when Max didn’t know if he’d ever be able to drive the car.
It might not be the real thing, but it’s not like someone took a sticker set to an Escort and called it a day: “It drives like it should,” Max smiles. I am no stranger to sitting next to nutters, and I’ve raced in the King of the Hammers, the Baja 1000, and the Mint 400, but still, I like to have absolute trust in a driver before I’m comfortable going sideways with them round blind corners. Thankfully, Max has exclusive use of some farm tracks not too far from his house, and we had a quick drive around to check that there was no machinery in the way and to warm everything up… Then I had just a moment to tighten my harness before we launched down the rough tarmac…
From the outside, and untrained eye might assume this is just an old family car with some bubble arches, fat tires, and some stickers. However, the tuned BDA engine puts out 230bhp, and the stripped-out car only weighs 960kg… and those fat tires grip really well. With just a bare shell to sit in, the engine and transmission noises make this a truly visceral experience. It’s loud, it shakes, you hear every bit of everything that’s kicked up at the floor and into the wells. I look up through a tight gap in the hedge and notice that the road turns to gravel and then abruptly ends. Part of my brain thinks it’s the beginning of a big accident or at least a spectacle nearing one, but what I thought was out of control sliding is the start of a masterful Scandinavian flick, and the view of the trees out of the front window become a blurry view out of the side window as we spin around and blast back onto the tarmac at a speed that had me really wishing for a helmet.
The tail-happy car handles amazingly well though, and Max drives like an absolute demon, flicking it about with the handbrake and stabbing the gas to guide it around the gravel-covered hairpins with a near constant spinning the rear wheels. With just about forty years of rallying experience in Porsche RSRs, Escort Cosworths, and his Ferrari, Max knows how to properly scare a journalist. I bailed with the excuse that I needed to take photos and shot him doing his thing a few times on the same corner, sliding ever closer to a big pile of logs. Maybe he wouldn’t have got so close if he still thought it was an original Clark car… “It doesn’t matter all that much that Clark never drove it,” Max says. “This is my car, and that’s what’s most important.”