Five different takes on familiar Blue Ovals from across the globe — here’s our pick of the classic export Fords.
Ford’s very own street machine came straight out of Australia’s Homebush factory, where even a run-of-the-mill Mk2 Escort van was available with a 1600 Crossflow or 2-litre Pinto stuffed under the bonnet.
Aussies had long been fond of using utility vehicles for leisure (the famed ute pick-ups), and the Mk1 had been offered in a variety of camper guises, including Outback, Overlander, Sunstar and Sundowner. There was also a Little Ripper wearing side windows and bonnet stripes.
The custom-painted Sundowner of December 1977 was Ford’s follow-up – an ultra-desirable take on a lifestyle vehicle, built by souping up a GL with special tweaks and a host of options from the GS Rally Pack found on sporty Aussie Mk2s.
Instead of the usual side glass, a 254 mm circular bubble tinted window was fitted into each rear panel. Up front were circular halogen headlamps, black quarter bumpers, overriders and driving lights, matched by blacked-out window surrounds and colour-coded door mirrors. Bold graphics complemented a selection of bright body colours.
The GL’s 5×13 inch sports steel wheels were wrapped in 70-series tyres and embellished with chrome trim rings, and the suspension was beefed up. Engine choices were the 61 bhp 1600 or high-compression 94 bhp 2-litre mated to a manual gearbox, or low-comp 85 bhp 2-litre coupled up to a three-speed auto.
It was hot property for the Sundowner’s youthful target market, lured into a cabin with sports instruments, three-spoke steering wheel, centre console and reclining bucket seats in Houndstooth cloth; meanwhile, the load space included carpets, fluorescent roof light, vinyl spare wheel cover, internal rear door release and wooden extension behind the front seats designed to hold a mattress. Air con was on the options list, alongside Volante alloy wheels and a laminated windscreen.
Like other Aussie Mk2s the Sundowner received square headlamps for 1979, and the upholstery was swapped for striped cloth. It continued in production until 1981, when Australia stopped building Ford Escorts. It’s reckoned fewer than 2000 Sundowners left the lines, but a couple even made it to the UK.
V6 Cortinas were mainstream European Mk4/5 models, offering a maximum of 116 bhp from carb-fed 2.3-litre Cologne powerplants. Smooth cruisers, maybe, but hot they were not. An XR badge was certainly out of the question.
But not for South Africa. Following the Perana tradition of stuffing oversized engines into unsuspecting Blue Ovals, Ford South Africa built its own Cortina super-saloon: the XR6.
South Africa’s first official 3-litre Cortina appeared in 1973 as the Essex-powered 3000GT Mk3, which gave way to the XLE in 1974. A sporty Mk4 came next – the ultra-cool 3.0S – but it was the 1980 XR6 that set pulses racing.
Offered alongside a 3-litre GLS and 3000 Leisure Bakkie pick-up, the four-door XR6 featured a 2994cc Essex V6, producing 136 bhp and 173 lb.ft torque. With four-speed manual gearbox, that meant 113 mph and 0-60 mph in 8.8 seconds.
South Africa’s Cortina boasted five-linked rear suspension, with the XR6 rolling on 5.5×13 inch sports steels and 185/70R13 rubber. The bumpers were matched to brightly-coloured bodywork, the chromework was swapped for matt black, there was a front airdam, rubber rear spoiler, round driving lamps and XR6 decals. Inside were high-bolstered front seats with Chevron (Escort Sport-type) upholstery, swapped to Laser (XR3 cloth) in 1982.
Homologation into Group One motorsport gave rise to the XR6 Interceptor of 1982, a limited edition of 250 red Cortinas boasting tubular exhaust manifolds, triple Weber 42DCNF carburettors, high-performance camshaft, high-compression pistons, 3.08:1 differential, Ronal 13 inch four-spoke RS alloys and build number on the roof pillar. Power rose to 158 bhp, meaning
121 mph and 0-100 kmh in 8.6 seconds. This so-called XR6 package allowed a couple of Mk5 Cortinas to be rallied (in two or four-door form) with around 220 bhp.
An XR6 TF (Team Ford) limited edition of 500 appeared in 1983, all finished in white with colour-coded grille, RS rims and special blue cloth trim. It was joined by the Simpson Ford dealer-developed XR6 X-Ocet, featuring huge four-barrel Holley carb, wacky cam and sports exhaust.
A 3-litre Essex-powered Sierra took over in 1984, again tagged XR6.
Is it a car? Is it a truck? Is it a custom job created in someone’s back yard? Often mistaken for a chopped-down Escort van, the Bantam was actually a factory-built pick-up from South African Port Elizabeth Ford factory, and later the Samcor plant in Pretoria.
In fact, although it was clearly based on our favourite mid-sized machine, the Escort badge never appeared: the half-tonne truck (or bakkie as pick-ups are colloquially called in their homeland) was always a Ford Bantam, MMI or Mazda Rustler.
Look closer at the bodywork and you’ll see the long-wheelbase platform of the Escort Mk3/4 van but the low roofline of the hatchback or estate. And whereas the Escort Combi had estate doors, the Bantam featured (smaller) van parts. The side windows were taken from the van but the rear quarters and tailgate were unique; the entire front end was Escort but there was special cab glass, and the floorpan was reinforced, adding heavy-duty van-type rear leaf springs.
The Bantam was released in 1983, initially offered with 65 bhp 1300cc Kent Crossflow and four-speed gearbox, joined in 1984 by an 84 bhp 1.6-litre CVH-powered version. Three specs became available: 1300, 1600L (adding cloth trim, rev counter and vented discs) or 1600 Leisure, boasting five-speed gearbox, white wheels, tinted windows, sports gearknob and driving lamps. All models had a unique bench seat.
A badge-engineered MMI Rustler arrived in 1985, as 130 (1.3) or 160 (1.6); both were otherwise identical to the Bantam.
For 1986 Ford swapped to the Mk4 Escort shape, adding smoother styling to the South African bakkie. The 1300cc Kent was ditched, replaced by a 74 bhp 1.4 CVH, and the 1.6 continued, still with four-speed ’box unless in Leisure spec – which also added tow-tone paint and tonneau cover. Meanwhile, the meaningless MMI brand was swapped for Mazda, presenting a range of Rustler 1400, 1600 or LX.
The Bantam/Rustler continued until 1990, when it was replaced by a Mazda 323 pick-up with Ford Laser front end; yes it was still called Bantam but the Blue Oval interest ended there.
Glance at a Brazilian Escort XR3 and you’ll wonder what the fuss is about. The styling’s the same. The interior looks like its European counterpart’s. The wheels are identical. Under the bonnet is that familiar Renault engine…
Hang on. Renault engine? That’s right. While UK Mk3 Escorts received the then-new CVH, Brazil’s version – launched in 1983 – was powered by a four-cylinder Ford CHT (Compound High Turbulence), closely based on the Renault Cléon-Fonte unit of 1962. The XR3’s was improved with bigger valves, inlet and exhaust manifolds, running on ethanol to produce 83 bhp. Top speed was 107 mph; 0-to-60 mph took 10.4 seconds.
A limited-edition XR3 Pace Car celebrated the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix in 1984; finished in Diamond White with blue decals, 350 were produced. An XR3 Laser edition came the following year, in white with blue stripes and 14 inch steel wheels rather than the regular XR3’s cloverleaf alloys; 1000 Lasers were built. An XR3 convertible was added to the range in 1985, built in Brazil by Karmann with bits shipped over from Germany.
Brazil’s second-generation Escort (equivalent to the UK Mk4) arrived in 1986, with the XR3 retaining the 1.6-litre CHT but receiving lighter pistons and 86 bhp. Externally it resembled the Euro XR3i but for matt black bumpers and Mk3 rear wheel spats. A drop-top was also offered, becoming the most expensive car in the country.
And then it got even weirder.
In 1987 Ford’s South American subsidiaries merged with VW, resulting in the XR3 receiving a Volkswagen AP-1800S engine, making 99 bhp and topping 114 mph when running on ethanol (a petrol version managed 111 mph). XR3s were then treated to an RS Turbo bodykit: initially matt-black, then colour-coded from 1989.
Best of all was the limited-run XR3 Formula of 1991, which boasted Recaro seats, air conditioning, diamond-cut lattice-style 14 inch alloys and electronic shock absorbers, which changed load as the speed increased.
Finally, a Mk5-based XR3 appeared in 1992, packing 109 bhp/116 bhp petrol/ethanol from its Golf GTi-sourced AP-2000 engine. It was axed in 1995 in favour of the Escort Racer.
A German-built, American-market, British Touring Car Championship winner? Only one car can fit that description: the Merkur XR4Ti.
Merkur was a concept created by Ford of Europe boss Bob Lutz, whose idea was to import the Sierra to the USA as a sporty rival to the BMW 3-Series. The name (pronounced mare-coor) was the German word for Mercury, whose dealers would stock the new compact executive machines.
The European XR4i was chosen as the basis, thanks to its futuristic styling and impressive handling. But federal emissions laws would have stifled the Sierra’s Cologne V6 powerplant, so the Mustang SVO’s turbocharged 2.3-litre Lima — a four-cylinder Pinto-type unit — was selected instead, lacking the Mustang’s intercooler
but packing 175 bhp when accompanied by the stock Type 9 five-speed transmission; detuned
to 145 bhp when mated to an optional
Tagged XR4Ti (due to its Garrett turbo), the Merkur required more than 850 new components to suit American and Canadian markets, resulting in its construction being outsourced to Karmann in Germany. The floorpan was modified to fit catalytic converters, impact beams were added to the doors, and the bumpers were extended for the sake of safety legislation. Meanwhile, the suspension was raised and softened, under the consultancy (and TV promotion) of F1 champ Jackie Stewart.
Most of the European XR4i styling and cabin remained, but options included heated seats, leather trim and electric windows.
XR4Ti production continued long after the Sierra version had died, offering single-colour paintwork in 1987, swapping the original 14 inch pepperpot alloys for 15 inch ‘pie-spokes’, and gaining a Mk2 Sierra dash without the central speaker vent.
More updates appeared in ’88, including Mk2 tailgate and single rear wing instead of the previous biplane affair. But the Merkur disappeared in 1989, considered a flop despite selling 42,464 examples and gaining an impressive reputation for tunability.
Yet the Merkur’s greatest achievement was its role in the Cosworth story, being raced to victory 14 times in the BTCC by Andy Rouse while the Cossie was still being developed, and taking the 1985 championship crown.
Words Dan Williamson
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