Featured: This Souped-Up Ford Escort RS Mexico Is A Perfect Build For British B-Roads

This Souped-Up Ford Escort RS Mexico Is A Perfect Build For British B-Roads

Alex Sobran By Alex Sobran
January 23, 2019
2 comments

Photography by Will Broadhead

I met my friend Nick Bailey last spring as we queued to pick up credentials for the Nürburgring 24 Hours. While most of our compatriots milled about in the hotel lobby carrying on with politely stilted conversations about the race to come, mine and Nick’s noses were shamelessly pressed up against the scale-model display cases along the back wall as we discussed cars and liveries and drivers before we’d even exchanged first names—fast friends and all that.

After lamenting the confines of space and budget in regards to our collections of models, talk soon turned toward our even smaller collections of real cars, with Nick describing a Mk2 Ford Escort RS Mexico that he’d recently purchased. At the time this amounted to the fairly typical story, told in paraphrased summary here: “I’ve always liked the Escorts, and with the space and means to own one now, I found the right example to own, bought it, and have been enjoying it ever since.” The manic schedule of the race weekend didn’t leave much time to get into the details, but we stayed in touch, signing off our emails by asking how each other’s cars have been behaving lately.

“Nothing new, nothing new.” The standard answer, until Nick recently uncovered the original owner of this special Escort and pieced together the car’s mysterious early history, a period of its life that’s eluded the grasp of its owners for decades. Before getting into that bit of the story though, a little primer on the second-generation RS Mexico could be useful for those who haven’t memorized the family tree of fast Fords.

The first true Escorts (not the wagon that borrowed the name in the 1950s) were compact, economical solutions to everyday transportation, but Ford thought it would also make a good starting point for a car that could be chucked skyward and tossed sideways through the dirt in addition to traditional circuit competition, so they decided to go racing and created the road-going Escort Twin Cam in a partial collaboration with Lotus on a more powerful 1558cc inline-four to use as the basis for the fledgling Escort’s motorsport career.

The Twin Cam proved to be an excellent platform for the competition machines in both touring car and eventually rallying guise, and the Escorts campaigned by the Ford works teams racked up wins around the globe, becoming an iconic symbol of plucky British racing prowess in the process. One of the more significant achievements of the Escort’s early years was the overall victory earned at the 1970 London-Mexico World Cup Rally, a marathon of a route cutting across some 16,000 miles and two continents that Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm completed before anyone else in their stout little white and red Escort.

Ford promptly celebrated the win by creating a special edition of the car for the consumer market, called the Escort Mexico. Released in 1970, it was sold alongside the more expensive and faster RS1600 model, which was powered by a belt-driven twin-cam engine developed by Cosworth as opposed to the smaller-capacity push-rod unit found in the Mexico. Both cars featured strengthened body shells to put up with the stress of competition though, and both were built at Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO) facility in South Essex. In other words the Mex’ was no joke, and it wasn’t just a decorative trim package designed to cash in on a race win either.

Soon after production of the second generation Escorts began in late-1974, Ford decided the Mexico name should be carried over to the new lineup of its Rallye Sport versions. Designed as a sort of “entry-level RS” this time around, the second-generation of the Mexico (now called the RS Mexico) was introduced for the 1976 model year and was to be sold alongside the range-topping “droop snoot” RS2000 that it was based on—the RS Mexico was more or less an RS2000 with a smaller engine and a flat rather than slanted nose.

The Mk2 RS Mexico was homologated for competition, but the new racing class of Escorts were instead based on the Escort 1600 Sport and RS1800, and the latter quickly took up the rallying mantle handed to it by its predecessors, handily winning the RAC Rally five years in a row and bringing WRC drivers’ championships to Björn Waldegård and Ari Vatenen, and Ford their first-ever constructors’ championship in 1979. These victories were achieved on the back of the Cosworth-powered RS1800 (which has become a holy grail in the Escort collecting world these days, with only 200-some cars built in period), but the first RS1800s were in fact created from existing RS Mexicos, which aren’t too common a sight themselves.

Without the racing provenance of the RS2000 that sat above it in price nor the 1600 Sport that was just below it, the RS Mexico was a great car that barely sold thanks to sales cannibalization from those two and a lack of visibility in motorsport. Only 2,290 examples are said to have been built between 1976 and 1978, and those were only for the domestic (UK) market, making the Mk2 Mexico one of the rarer versions of the great sporting Escorts, in addition to a pretty potent one.

Now let’s get back to the example sat in front of us, as it’s not your standard-spec Mex’. During a mild restoration in the mid 2000s, the car also received a comprehensive package of period-correct modifications at the hands of Geoff Fletcher, a builder with plenty of experience in and under Escorts. For starters, the 1600cc Pinto engine had been swapped to a 2100cc Pinto unit, which itself is far from stock. Forged JE pistons, con-rods from Cosworth, a lightened and balanced crank, a Kent GTS3 cam attached to a Vernier pulley, and twin Weber 48DCOE carbs are just a few highlights of the built motor, and the power (right around 180bhp now, almost twice the factory output) is now sent through a Ford Sierra-sourced gearbox and into a limited-slip diff with a stump-pulling 4.1:1 final drive connected to the classic four-spoke RS wheels by way of Quaife half-shafts—name even a tangential piece of the powertrain or chassis and it’s probably been beefed up.

Inside the cabin you’ll notice a Safety Devices roll cage, Willans harnesses hung over black cloth Scheel seats, and a bank of Racetech gauges to keep an eye on the fluids and temps. The suspension has been upgraded with Bilstein struts and dampers connected to the car via roller bearing top-mounts, and the steering rack is, of course, quick-ratio. The list of mods goes on like this for a while, and to sum it up you could call this a period-correct Escort hot rod built by a guy who knew right from wrong and didn’t skimp.

But despite all the performance- and appearance-enhancing changes that had been made to this Escort before it came into his possession, Nick still loves to point out the rare OEM pieces, like the factory Ford mud flaps or the correct Italian-made Altissimo taillight housings that belong on the German-built cars Escorts (like this one) but were typically replaced by the more common Butler units used on UK-built Escorts. It’s the little things like this that make us really proud of our cars, and when you’re talking about originality in a machine that’s almost 50 years old and has been regarded as a vessel for “spirited driving” since the very beginning, finding these intact and correct pieces is even less likely—as is the case for a lot of accessible and fun-to-drive cars, many an Escort has been pulled from a ditch.

That’s not to say this car hasn’t born the consequences of an owner who ran out of road, though. Remember the “mysterious history” bit at the beginning? Well until just a week ago, Nick, along with all the other previous owners he could get ahold of, had no idea how the car had come to be re-shelled in the late ‘70s. It was fairly standard practice at the time to fit a new body on a car if it was too banged up to repair but too special to write off, and that’s what happened to this one very early in its life. Just a year or so after it was sold to its first owner, this Mexico had received a new shell, but nobody after the first owner knew the exact reason why, since no accident report had been filed at the time.

If you’re thinking, ah, that’s a little sketchy, you’re partly right. Clouded backstories are one thing, but major repairs really shouldn’t be a source of misgivings if said repairs have held up and proved their quality for nearly 40 years. The truth of the matter is, this car has been with this body for nearly its entire life, so who’s to say what its identity is defined by? Still though, Nick wanted to know how it all came to be, and eventually his sleuthing turned up a name. This name led to an old photo of an exhibition stand, which included a visible, legible phone number, which turned out to still be in operation in 2019. A shot in the dark, Nick gave it a ring.

The car’s first owner answered, and soon the two were deep in conversation about the Escort—what had happened to it, and what it had been up to. Nick learned that it was purchased brand new at Perry’s of Finchley, in London, a piece of land that is now a supermarket rather than a showroom, and though today it’s one of only two known black Mk2 Mexicos in the UK, it was originally Signal Green.

It sat on the floor of Perry’s for a few months before its first owner gave it a real home, and less than a year after taking delivery of his hot Escort, he hit a stone wall on the way home from an Easter Weekend road trip, which prompted the new shell to be fitted a few months afterwards. Coincidentally, even though the car has always lived in a different part of the country, the accident occurred just outside of the town Nick lives today.

The original owner sent along some photographs of the car in period (included below, along with a shot from Geoff Fletcher of the car in the 1980s with its new body and a few questionable racing stripes), and the plan is for him to pay his old Escort a visit to go for a drive when the weather clears up this spring—we can only assume it will remain upright this time.

Surely being back in his old car after so many years apart will bring dormant memories back into focus, but the car still has plenty of capacity to make new ones, and Nick is planning to hold onto it for the foreseeable future. It’s only been with him for a few years at this point, but like all proper British fans of motorsport, the Escort had lodged itself in Nick’s grey matter long ago, over the course of childhood weekend after weekend after weekend of road trips taken with his dad to watch whatever discipline of motorsport was on the local schedule. The Escort was a mainstay in many of these events, even after the Ford works teams had moved on and focused their efforts elsewhere, and in a lot of ways, it was like the Porsche 956/962 of rallying: a contender in the hands of factory teams and privateers alike, and all but ubiquitous on entry sheets for more than a decade.

As such, a sporting Escort was something Nick had wanted to own since those formative years spent watching them as a kid in the 1970s and ‘80s. When he grew up, he filled the Escort gap in his garage with other rally-focused road cars—a Peugeot 205 Rallye being one memorable example—but after having a few nice Fords frustratingly slip away from him the search got serious a few years ago, and he wasted no time when this car popped up for sale at a dealer on commission from a Ford engineer who’d owned a handful of Escorts.

Since then the honeymoon phase has yet to end. Nick enjoys the driving experience for all the reasons you’d expect one would enjoy a car with this kind of power to weight ratio, but I would imagine that its charms extend beyond the act of whipping it back and forth down British B-roads. Even just going to take the trash out and stealing a peek into the garage on the way to the curb must be a moment of caffeination.

To encounter the cars that defined our childhoods is a special moment, regardless of what form it takes—reading about them online or in old magazines, seeing them compete at historic events, ogling concours-level examples at concours-level car shows, etc.—but to actually own one? Who needs rose-tinted glasses if you’ve already brought a precious piece of your past into the present?

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Ae Neuman
Ae Neuman

beautiful car.
everyone chases the twin cams but the mexico is every bit as desirable.

dave wakaman
dave wakaman

Yes, nice story Alex. A proper car story that I can relate to. Like all Mods of my era Escort followed Lambretta like day followed night. And the Mexico ? Wow. you’d arrived! Thanks for this.