Featured: This Portuguese Rally Fan Built His Dream Car: A Rally-Spec Mk2 Ford Escort

This Portuguese Rally Fan Built His Dream Car: A Rally-Spec Mk2 Ford Escort

By Robb Pritchard
May 3, 2019

Photography by Robb Pritchard

The way the world works, at least for us normal people, is that we live our lives doing what we can afford to do rather than what we really dream of. Some of us though, those with dreams of true staying power, manage to save up enough to finally make one of them come true. Fernando Falcão’s dream was to rally a Mk2 Ford Escort, and he has spent the last few years putting together this stunning homage to the Escort raced by Hannu Mikkola in period. Though still a work in progress (as these projects are wont to be), especially after a high speed trip into the undergrowth, I went to Castelo Branco in the hills of eastern Portugal to see the car for myself.

A few years ago, Fernando started driving his father-in-law’s Datsun 260Z on local regularity rallies, but the low-speed events did little to fulfill his yearning for adrenaline and true speed. With only three other models in Portugal, parts, if they could be found at all, would come at a serious premium, so any upgrades he wanted to do would require a serious budget.

With the proliferation of performance parts available for the Escort though, it would be a very different story than the Z. Even if it wasn’t going to be an exact Group 4 BDA-powered replica, Fernando could still have a seriously well-performing car for a very affordable price… Which is exactly how he presented the idea to his wife.

To avoid the complicated importation paperwork for a foreign classic car, he looked for one already registered in Portugal and came across a straight, rust-free 1978 example on the island of Madeira for €10,000. With just 45,000 km (about 28,000 miles) on the clock, it had recently had a full restoration, although that didn’t matter too much to Fernando, as it was really only the shell that he was interested in.

The project didn’t have the most auspicious start, though, for when it was unloaded at the port on the mainland, the car refused to start. Without a proper tool kit there wasn’t much that could be done either. Loaded on the back of a tow truck, €300 was burnt out of the budget before it had even turned a wheel. Fortunately it was just a bad distributor contact. Once fixed it fired up just fine. Then real the work began.

The engine, the entire transmission, suspension, and interior was all surplus to requirements and was sold off to various places around the world—the carbs for example ended up in Florida. Once the shell had been reinforced by tack welding it on the stress points and then painted, the shopping spree began in earnest. The best performance versus budget solution for the engine Fernando found was a two-liter RS2000 block from Spain, which got fitted with a big valve head and FR33 Kent cams. This gives 150bhp and a little under 200 lb-ft of torque. Plenty for this little lightweight.

At €2,500, the five-speed synchro gearbox from Quaife was the single biggest expense, and was a Christmas gift from wife Sonia (who is also Fernando’s co-driver!). With the new close-ratio gears in the same housing, it was simply bolted back up to the engine. The clutch is a standard LuK unit. In 2012 an ex-engineer from Quaife branched out to start 3J Drivelines, and the 4-9 LSD differential resides in an English axle.

The front suspension wishbones are Group 1-spec pieces from Burton, while the coilovers, top mounts, and struts are fully-adjustable Bilsteins. Everything in the rear though is still standard, as the Group 4 setup he wants is not a simple plug-and-play bolt-in solution like the front. “The car is a work-in-progress,” Fernando smiles. “The rear suspension will be a serious amount of work as it will need new brackets and that means cutting into the shell. So something to look forward to for the future.”

Stopping power is provided by M16 calipers up front, complemented by standard RS2000 units at the rear. The wheels pictured on the car are from Compomotive, seven inches wide in the front, eight in the rear.

The choice of livery was an easy one: Fernando’s favorite driver from the Escort years was Hannu Mikkola. “I always loved his style, how he was always aggressive yet in control. And always sideways, of course!” Secondly the blue-striped scheme that Ford ran in the early events of the 1979 season before switching to the Rothmans livery is the one that Mikkola won the 1979 Portugal Rally with. So these colors are instantly both recognized and liked by all Portuguese Ford and rally fans. The graphics were made locally using a scale model as a template.

With the color-coded wheels, the car looks absolutely gorgeous. And at just €30,000 all-in, including the initial purchase, it’s cost to enjoyment ratio is quite good.

Just about one year after he’d collected it off the ship and brought it home, it was ready to be enjoyed as the Boreham engineers intended it to be, but with no previous competition experience outside of the regularity rallies (which, really, is not the same level of motorsport as a traditional race or rally) Fernando didn’t fancy entering open-class rallies.

But, seeing as the car is far from a perfectly accurate replica, especially with the engine, it’s also unfortunately ineligible to enter in the very popular classic rally festivals such as the one held in the Eifel mountains each summer. And yet Fernando has found a place power sliding it for fun after all: in demonstration events in Portugal and Spain. One that he enthuses about is the Solo-Escort Rally in Spain, which is open to just Mk1 and Mk2 Escorts.

“It’s not a timed event, you just drive for fun, but when you see the spectators lining the stages and shouting out encouragement there is no way you can drive slowly!” The stages in the Galician hills are made up of rough tarmac often strewn with gravel, a combination which can easily catch out the unwary. Still unused to pace notes at the time, Fernando misheard a call from Sonia in the co-driver’s seat… or as she suggests, he just got his left and right mixed up.

But whatever the issue, the result was that the car flew into the trees, damaging the front end. “All the stages are very, very fast, so if you have a problem anywhere you will have a dead car,” he shrugs. Fortunately the damage was confined to the bodywork and wasn’t anything structural, and although Sonia was too afraid to get back in for another year it was a good excuse for Fernando to buy a new set of lightweight fiberglass fenders and a hood.

In the two times he’s been to Transmeria, he’s made a bit of a name for himself by bringing with him vast amounts of Portuguese wine, cheese and the local delicacy, bacalau; salted cod. Apparently the English teams love him. Another great memory for him was at the Motorsport show in Porto a couple of years ago when Mikkola himself came to see the car, and with a nostalgic smile signed the dash and bonnet.

So what’s next for this lovely Escort? Apart from a new set of Kumhos, Fernando is set on installing the Group 4 rear suspension kit. One day. Also, he wants to learn how to drift the car in a controlled power slide properly. “I do rally shows, so it’s the show that’s important, not the speed and time like in usual rallies. Although its not as fast, it still takes a lot of nerve to drive sideways around concrete blocks in a car you made from scratch! It wouldn’t be too easy to pay for repairs if I crashed it again. I’ve had to pull twisted body panels off before and I don’t really want to do it again. Not everyone can drive like Frank Kelly!”

“Also,” he says quietly so that Sonia can’t hear, “when I retire I want to sell everything and live in a motorhome that I can tow the Escort behind and just go from one event to the next around Europe.” Still in his thirties, that’s a long ways off yet. Another dream to chase.

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