1977 Ford Escort Mk2 1.3GL
Fernando Alonso is from Asturias.
Every time I drive in this northern, mountainous region of Spain I remember that fact, and it makes perfect sense. The roads here are well maintained, but twisty. And hilly. The famously fickle weather conditions make things even more interesting, and it’s not unusual at all to charge into a blind corner that seems benign enough at first, only to find that the radius tightens dramatically halfway through. And enters a narrow tunnel. And the road is suddenly wet…
These are roads that keep you on your toes. So it’s not surprising that the region would have produced a multiple World Champion like Alonso, and in fact at times, when I’m really hustling on these mountain switchbacks I find it mildly surprising that every World Champion isn’t from Asturias.
It’s a great place to have the right car, and a Mk2 Ford Escort, to me anyway, is the right car. Or, at least, I was hoping it was. I had read a lot of press but had never driven a Mk2 Ford Escort before I bought this one, and riding shotgun in my friend Javier’s diesel Audi, as we made our way up to see it, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never even seen one.
The USA didn’t get the Mk1 or Mk2 Ford Escorts. We had to wait until the (decidedly less appealing) front-wheel drive Mk3’s before we saw the Escort nameplate, but the first two rear-wheel-drive generations had been tearing up rally circuits all over the world for almost fifteen years in the hands of people like Hannu Mikkola, Björn Waldegard, and Ari Vatanen. Unlike the Mk1 Escort, which had been designed in England as an offshoot of the Ford Anglia, the Mk2 was a cooperative effort with Ford of Germany. The taut, well-proportioned styling was the work of legendary German designer Uwe Bahnsen (who also designed the similarly appealing Ford Capri) and many of the vehicles destined for Europe (including this one) were assembled at Ford of Germany’s Saarlouis plant west of Hamburg. The best elements of the Mk1, namely the platform and drivetrain options, were largely carried over into the Mk2, but the Mk2 added slightly more interior room, considerably better fittings, and a more modern character throughout. It would become, in very short order, the best selling motorcar in Britain, and arguably the most successful overall rally car of the 1970’s.
Asturias is a rally crazed region, and as a result the Mk2 is revered here. A “cult” car of the area. They even hold a rally specifically for Mk1 and Mk2 Ford Escorts called the “Rally Solo Escorts.”
So it would be a good old fashioned adventure! A trial by fire, as it were. A great way to step into a Mk2 Escort for the first time and put it to the test.
FORDS, FORDS, EVERYWHERE
We left Madrid early on a Tuesday morning, heading north out of the city under a typical April day with cool, crisp air and a reliably hot Spanish sun. Past the sierras north of the city, still snow capped in the early spring, the land flattens out and there is a long, straight run up towards Valladolid. There, amidst the wineries which produce some of Spain’s best kept secrets, we pulled off the Autovia to see yet another classic Ford. A Granada Sport 2.8i.
Another German-built car, and as different from the ghastly US-spec Granada as chalk is from cheese, the European Granada was a standard bearer “executive express” in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and a legitimate alternative to the BMW e12. This example, in its original blue metallic paint, is a very interesting car, and a very well kept one, with the factory Recaro seats in beautiful shape and no evidence of rust perforation anywhere. But it had been sitting for 18 months at least, and sloth, as it is wont to do, had taken a toll. We tried in vain for about an hour to get it started, but although the engine turned over with gusto and caught immediately, hidden electrical gremlins refused to let it run for more than a few seconds at a time. That car is a story for another time, I suppose.
Back on the road, heading north, we entered Asturias and, after a lunch of paté and pork loin, continued on the twisting roadways to the town of Cangas de Narcea.
José runs a small dealership in Cangas de Narcea, and although I try hard to buy cars from individuals, Mk2 Escorts are increasingly rare, particularly in such low-mileage form as this one, and José gave me a very good feeling throughout the process. When we pulled in, he and his son greeted us warmly and ushered us into a small, impeccably clean facility with a handful of modern vehicles in the showroom. Inside the office framed photographs of vintage rally cars shared space with others of grandchildren and family members, and rare wheels from unusual competition and street cars sat on the shelves. It felt like my kinda place.
This particular Ford Escort had been purchased by a Belgian who bought a vacation home in Asturias, and kept the car here to drive on holidays. He must not have come very often, because when I bought it the car has covered just 39,000kms from new, which is around 24,000 miles, and looked it. I started crawling around (and under) it, and my jaw kept dropping. The body has been repainted recently, in the original “Nevada Beige” and to a very high standard, and it is difficult to tell when looking it over. The color matches perfectly with the metal inside the engine apartment and under the trunk carpeting. There is no rust anywhere, no signs of damage anywhere. The original tan vinyl interior with biscuit cloth seats is undamaged and stunning, and the overall feel is of a time capsule from the 1970’s. Light RS upgrades include RS Mexico wheels, dampers and an original RS steering wheel. The instrument surround has been replaced with one that allows the integration of a rev counter, but the original steering wheel and original gauge surround were in the trunk. The original spare wheel, complete with its bias-ply tire, sits in the trunk where it always has, and the glove tray holds the original owners manual and maintenance manual, the latter showing all the factory services dutifully checked off to this mileage.
We checked the car over thoroughly, completed the paperwork, and prepared to leave for Oviedo, as the day was getting long and the sun was dropping low in the sky. Before leaving, however, José asked quietly if we would like to see some of his other cars. There was a twinkle in his eye, and although I was anxious to get on the road, the three of us left the Escort for the time being, piled back into the Audi, and headed out of Cangas into the mountains.
LIFT A ROCK AND FIND A SCORPION
About ten kilometers outside of town, we pulled into a nondescript little warehouse with a glass fronted showroom that looked like it was no longer used. No sign on the outside of the building, nothing. Inside the glass area sat a late model Nissan sedan and a Land Rover Freelander, and then, tantalizingly, a lovely Ford Sierra Cosworth in bright silver.
José slid open a garage door and we walked into a well appointed service facility, with lifts and tool chests and all the trappings of a functioning garage. I first noticed a very clean, well restored Land Rover 88, but when we walked deeper into the garage things started to get wild. First up was a Lancia Montecarlo, nearly perfect in red over black. Next to that, a Renault R5 Turbo II sat menacingly. Further in, one of the most perfect Lancia Delta HF Integrales I have ever seen, and a Fiat 131 Abarth rally car next to a perfect original Audi Quattro in white with a vented sport hood. It was rally car nirvana. I pointed to the Integrale and asked if it was for sale. José looked at me with a wry smile and replied: “No creo.” (“I don’t believe so.”) I asked about the R5. Same half smile. “No creo.” The Abarth? “No creo…”
We stood and chatted for a while, and then José led us upstairs. There was a partially completed Talbot rally car project, a Citroën 2CV, an old Audi 4000 Quattro shell (which Javier promptly bought, with the throwaway comment “I will put the drivetrain from an Audi S6 into it”), a BMW R90 motorbike next to a modern paint booth, next to a row of antique motorcycles including two Montessas… There were even a dozen or more vintage bicycles of various makes. Stacks of engines. Shelves lined with wheels and rally lights and suspension pieces and parts of every description. It was like a rally car clubhouse, and I could have stayed longer, just looking and poking around, but the sun was setting and I was jonesing to drive the Escort. We shook hands and headed back to the Ford.
RALLYING AT NIGHT
As the sun was setting we shook hands with José one last time, and I hopped into the Escort. A pull of the manual choke and a twist of the key brought the engine to life immediately, and we set off for Oviedo and our hotel.
The first thing you notice is how, well… “un Ford” this thing is. Un Ford for the USA, anyway. My previous Ford experience has been Mustangs and such, with long-throw gear levers that feel rubbery and detached. But not here. Not from Ford of Germany. Here, the shifter is notchy and incredibly precise, and the throws are decidedly short. It reminds me a little of the Hewland gearbox in my old Formula Ford, with a flick of the wrist all that is necessary to take the next cog. The steering is heavy and accurate, and the accelerator feel dead-nuts linear. Push a little on the throttle and a little happens. Push more and more happens. It sounds simple, but it’s something that carbureted cars always have and that fuel injected cars never seem to be able to replicate exactly.
The little Kent 1.3L pushrod motor is not the most potent mill that went into the Mk2, but it revs easily and sounds good, and matched to the 4-speed transmission it feels willing enough. In a car that weighs less than 1900 lbs, you don’t need too much power, but a swap to a 1.6L Kent would make a nice little “four door RS Mexico” out of the car, and dropping an OHC Pinto engine into it would make it scream like an RS2000. Something to consider.
But for now, the power felt just fine, and as we hustled off into the twisties, I started to realize what all the fuss is about. Damped the way it is, the car corners very flat, and turn-in is tremendously quick. In a series of fast switchbacks the car feels intuitive, as if it’s anticipating your inputs, and it can sling through corners with pace that would hassle even some modern sports cars. Such is the power of lightness. The brakes are a little spongy, but stop strongly enough once you get used to the feel, and working the gearbox and the steering through the corners brought a huge smile to my face. As I crowded the Audi in front of me, Javier upped the pace. Constant radius bends set up a hint of mid corner understeer, but lift a little and the nose tightens. Go in hot and lift and the tail comes around, and if you bin the throttle you can keep it there for a bit, with one hand on the steering wheel all that is needed to maintain long, languid slides which flatter the driver, because they are easier to accomplish than they look. No wonder this thing won so many rallies!
It was fully dark, and there was little traffic on the AS-15 from Cangas to Oviedo. The AS-15. Ah, the AS-15. My only regret with the trip was that we dallied too long looking at the rally cars and as a result had to make this part of the drive in darkness. It is one of the most involving roads I have ever driven, crisscrossing streams and small bridges, plunging into old stone tunnels, diving downhill with series after series of sweeping S-bends, and then climbing back up alongside old railway tracks… The best of Asturias packed into one challenging bit of roadway. It was fun at night, but during the day it must be truly spectacular.
We stayed overnight in Oviedo, and set off for Madrid again in the morning. Curving national roads until we left Asturias, and then a long, rather boring blast down the superhighways for the remainder of the drive. Flat out, she’ll do more than 145k/ph, but cruises easily nearer 120, and although the four-speed makes the cockpit a rather busy office at speed, it’s perfectly comfortable. Climate control works perfectly and is easy to operate, and it tracks straight and true with no drift or pull. That said, the combination of rather stiff damping and the lack of an independent rear suspension means that hitting washboard pavement anywhere near top speed provides an immediate reminder of how the “live” rear axle got its name. It’s a tradeoff I wouldn’t consider changing, however, as the taut cornering on good pavement is well worth the occasional skittishness over high frequency bumps at speed.
It’s an unusual bird, this car. Rare to see on the roads even here in Europe, it is virtually unknown in the USA, and would be as welcome at a local “cars and coffee” as it would be at a Ford-specific event. There is something cool about an American nameplate on a drivers car designed and built in Germany, which is legendary in Great Britain and which won rallies virtually everywhere, from Wales to Japan, in the hands of Finns and Swedes and Germans and more. As it sits, it’s a disappearing piece of history, and a magnificent little drivers car that has room enough to fit your family. Or, with a 1600 Kent or Pinto engine swap, it would be a nasty little rally screamer capable of virtually any kind of road or track use.
Or you could bring it to Asturias, and just drive the AS-15. Over and over again, until you had it down pat, like your own personal Nordschleife.
I think Fernando Alonso would approve.
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