With radical revisions under and above the skin, Ken Block’s Mk2 Escort has jumped to the head of the Hoonigan fleet. We went to Santa Pod to get to grips with one of the wildest NA cars we’ve ever seen.
It’s hard to think of a contrast more acute than the one before me right now. Santa Pod Raceway in winter is normally bleak, windswept and decidedly unwelcoming, and yet today, just this once, it’s been lent a warm and friendly air thanks to the presence of a DC Shoe-clad Californian with a reputation for doing amazing things behind the wheel. Ken Block manages to make the Pod seem like the place to be, even when the wind is doing its damnedest to blow the motley assortment of gazebos to the ground, and it’s clear from the moment I meet him that he’s an honest, down-to-earth petrolhead.
Block’s public profile has risen massively over the course of the last few years and it’s no exaggeration to say that he’s now a true social media megastar, a brand and something of a 21st century motorsport icon, and it’s all down to the success of his Gymkhana video series.
Now we’re not going to beat about the bush, we’re here because of Block’s latest Gymkhana toy — his Mk2 Escort now with comically-wide wheels and arches, a barking exhaust note, suspension that’d make a WRC driver green with envy and power from one of the mightiest of Millington Diamonds. All manner of extreme Mk2s have graced these pages over the years and many have boasted extravagantly wide arches and aggressive front end treatments, but they all pale into insignificance when compared to Block’s car.
What we have here is a cartoon of an Escort made metal, the kind of thing a teenager would draw if you handed him a pen just after watching some old footage of the Monte Escorts from the early ’80s, and boy is it a treat.
It’s slightly strange talking to Ken about both his car and Escorts in general, mainly because despite the Blue Oval badging, the Mk2 Escort is, despite the origins of Ford itself, a resolutely British car. It calls to mind Dagenham, classic Welsh forest stages and barking BDGs, and hearing an American talk about it with such knowledge and passion takes a fair bit of getting used to. That said it’s abundantly clear that Block’s love for these cars easily equals our own, that much is obvious within minutes of meeting him, but then again this is no regular Mk2.
“Ha, yes, I am fully aware of the almost cult-like following the car has in the UK and Ireland. However, that following didn’t dictate what I’ve done with the car, I’ve built it 100 per cent for my own tastes and I think that it aligns well with the rest of the cars in my garage.”
The long game
This car might only recently have broken cover, but it’s actually been owned by Ken for a number of years — a fact that highlights just how seriously this man takes his rallying. What started out as a Tarmac car has changed out of all recognition and can now stake a claim to being among the most extreme, naturally-aspirated Mk2s out there. Look under that carbon fibre bonnet and you’ll be greeted by the familiar sight of a Series Two Millington Diamond, a motor that’s become the engine of choice for those seeking to build the ultimate NA Escorts and one that’s perfectly suited to Block’s car. The guys at Millington first worked on Ken’s Mk2 back in 2012, the car coming to them with an older 2.4 in-situ. Julian Millington gave us more information:
“We agreed to buy back the old 2.4 in exchange for the guys at Hoonigan buying a 2.5 — one of our top-level engines, the kind found in various Irish Tarmac Escorts,” he explains. “It has all the aspects that our engines have come to be known for; one of our own crank designs, a custom bore and forged pistons, Pectel management, Bremax loom, and roller-barrel throttle bodies with the injectors integrated into the head.”
Julian goes onto explain that the whole assembly was stripped and rebuilt once again, the team at Millington hoping to extract a wider torque band thanks to careful (and highly specialised) modifications to the head and block. This means that the engine in this car is among the best examples of the Millington breed.
There’s a whole lot more to this car than the Diamond though, with vast areas of it having been rebuilt and re-engineered over the last eight years. A look under that widened rear end will reveal an independent rear suspension set-up, fully adjustable, beautifully put together and sophisticated enough to give four-wheel-drive cars a run for their money on sealed surfaces. It’s one of those things that makes you realise just how far modern competition Escorts have come and how potent they can be. Though the building blocks of this car were laid down many years ago by BGM Sport, credit for its latest incarnation and that rear end set-up most go to Graham Quick of Quick Motorsport.
“Ken came to me raving about an amazingly quick Mk2 he’d seen beating everything over in Ireland and it turned out to be Phil Collins’ one — a car I built and developed the rear suspension for,” explains Graham. “Before long we’d agreed that I’d rebuild his car, develop and fit a similar set-up and lighten and strengthen the shell, though it’s probably worth pointing out that this happened back in 2010, long before the Gymkhana videos became a big deal.”
The Mk2 was swiftly crated up and shipped to Quick Motorsport where Graham wasted no time in pulling it apart to assess its condition in detail. Various forestry excursions and encounters with the scenery had left the shell looking a little worse for wear in places, and it became clear that a fair amount of work would be needed if it was to ever approach the level of Phil’s class-leading machine. A fully triangulated T45 roll cage was drawn up, built and fitted, with the rear arms reaching and bolting to the rear top mounts for extra strength and rigidity.
“It came to us fitted with a traditional Atlas axle, known to struggle with power over 300 bhp or so and not exactly the last word in rallying Escort technology nowadays. Ken made it clear that he wanted a car that could handle the rigours associated with Gymkhana events on grippy Tarmac, so strength really was the order of the day.”
The independent rear suspension that Graham developed several years ago has proved its worth countless times over and in all conditions, with one highlight undoubtedly being the time that Phil managed to beat Colin McRae’s similarly-equipped car over a tricky Irish tarmac stage, so it’s fair to say it’s well regarded in the rallying community. Graham’s swift to point out that the key to its success, other than the fact that its independent layout is light years ahead of the standard solid beam, is the amount of travel built into the system. 200 mm of wheel travel ensures that the tyres are seldom off the ground and that component stress is kept to a minimum. This, when combined with a Ford Motorsport 9 inch diff, the coil-overs and numerous other examples of high-end suspension kit, results in a competitive and consistently reliable arrangement.
Quick Motorsport’s work on this Escort stretches further than the suspension and chassis though, with the steering set-up also having benefited from Graham’s decades of experience. The electric power steering is a case in point, and while EPAS isn’t exactly a new development in the world of rallying Mk2s, the kit developed and sold by Graham is rather more sophisticated.
“Ours is clever as it can be adjusted to fade out or even shut down entirely at high speed, say above 70 mph,” explains Graham. “Over that and PAS just becomes a hinderance, it makes the car twitchy and skittish and that’s precisely what you don’t want on a tight stage.”
This is all very well and good, but we’ve yet to discuss the most obvious and perhaps divisive feature of Block’s car — that Rocket Bunny kit. Kei Miura’s Rocket Bunny offerings are seldom anything less than extreme, and over the last half decade or so he’s drawn on motorsport for influence to create some of the wildest bodykits the world has ever seen. Subtle and understated? Not exactly. Do they work on the slab-sided Mk2 Escort? We’ll leave it up to you to decide that for yourself, but they are a massive departure from the more common forest or Tarmac arches and lend Block’s car a uniquely aggressive look.
“We didn’t initially know who’d make the bodywork for the car,” recalls Ken, “but then Rocket Bunny started to blow up in the tuning world and we had a contact there, so we reached out and they were down to take on the project. As of right now, it’s a one-off and we think it looks fantastic.”
From there to here
When all’s said and done this is an Escort quite unlike any other. Yes some of the things we’ve come to associate with top-drawer Group 4 Escorts are present and correct, the Millington and the Quick Motorsport rear end for example, but others are totally alien and distinctly American in flavour. Take those Fifteen52 wheels for example, an alloy that we very much doubt has ever been fitted to a Mk2 before but which strangely works when set against the black paint, extreme kit and the US-inspired livery. It isn’t a car that will please everyone and we doubt whether the vasty majority of Block’s American fan base will have the faintest idea what it actually is, but we’re very glad it exists.
Hearing that Millington screaming at the upper reaches of the rev range at 9000 rpm, is spine tingling in the extreme. It’s a distinctly American take on a very British car, and that’s no bad thing.
This feature on Ken Block’s Mk2 Escort first appeared in the February 2016 issue
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