A Car Magazine Convinced Me The 1990 Ford Escort Was Trash. Now That I’ve Driven One I’m Here To Defend It From The Classist And Wrongheaded Editors Of The October 1990 Issue Of Autocar

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A Car Magazine Convinced Me The 1990 Ford Escort Was Trash. Now That I’ve Driven One I’m Here To Defend It From The Classist And Wrongheaded Editors Of The October 1990 Issue Of Autocar

No good deed goes unpunished. I was recently a bit less than complimentary about the unloved 1990 European Ford Escort Mk5 when filling in some backstory for my recent Damn Good Design about the Escort RS Cosworth. I wasn’t exactly sticking my neck out with a scalding hot take for the sake of internet notoriety the standard car was widely panned in the automotive press of the time as being a badly steering wooly handling cheaply built and cynically executed piece of junk. I remember reading those stories and being distinctly underwhelmed when I saw the thing at its launch at the 1990 Birmingham International Motor Show.

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But because the internet loves nothing better than making smartarses like me eat their own words friends of the site and Weird Car Twitter royalty Sion Hudson and Jim Magill got in touch and offered me a go in Sion’s recently purchased one owner from new 62000 mile 1990 Ford Escort Popular. Having had a later model as his first car Sion has a bit of an attachment to this shape Escort. He found this one on the UK version of Autotrader and paid £1200 for it. Car weirdos from the internet. A Mk V Escort. What fresh hell indeed.

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If you haven’t read my piece about the Escort RS Cosworth do so now. Your goth uncle desires fealty. For those who are too pressed for time here’s a quick recap: In the mid-eighties Ford of Europe was short of funds and resources thanks to slow initial sales of the Sierra and the drawn-out development of the Mk3 Fiesta.

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You weren’t getting a lot for your not a lot of money.

The 1990 Escort was designed to be as cheap to build as possible but sold at a higher price to make up for lost profits despite it being little advance over the car it replaced.

Here’s What Autocar Said

How bad was it? Autocar magazine which ran a first drive feature against the Escort’s main rivals in it’s 29th August 1990 issue summed it up thusly:

“How can Ford have got it so wrong? The flaws in the new EscortOrion are so obvious we begin to wonder naively perhaps if the engineers and product planners have driven the competition in any serious manner. And even if they have do the right men in the key positions understand what gives a car the flair poise and balance that makes it more than just mere transport? Or is Ford so influenced by its accountants and marketing department that their vast budget was only spent in the most visible ways?

These are serious questions to have to ask the world’s second biggest car maker after driving and analyzing its new and potentially top-selling models.

You will know by now that in these three twin tests we came away preferring to drive the Ford’s Italian German and British rivals even though two of them are about to be replaced by new models.

And that is an appalling indictment.

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That is word for word what they wrote. For this piece I bought copies of the offending issues from eBay scanned the text and read the article (actual research never let it be said we don’t give you more for your money here at The Autopian so cough up). Having now driven the car myself I think Autocar were guilty of the twin crimes of being snobbish and full of finest-grade road tester bullshit. But first grab your Generation X passport and a four-pack of your favorite alcopop because we’re going back to the beginning of the nineties.

This Thing Is So Old

The linear passage of time has been compressed by the advent of online archivism. Today me driving a car from thirty-three years ago doesn’t have the seismic archeological shock that driving a car thirty-three year old car would have done in 1990. Back in 1957 that would have been the grinding three-speed side valve Ford Anglia 100E a 1956 model of which was the car Mother Dearest was driving when I was hatched into an uncaring world. You can take the boy out of east London but I’m forever stuck in the shadow of the Dagenham plant.

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The original sales invoice.

The Anglia was a fancier version of the Popular back then the cheapest new car in Britain. This is how this bottom-of-the-range Escort got its name. Retailing for a princely £8220 (£19425 in 2023 money) the Escort Popular is so basic the tailgate is butt naked of any trim designation – hilarious given Ford had this sort of model hierarchy heraldry down to an exact science. Inside there’s more blanks than an episode of Blankety Blank (Match Game for you tea throwers). It’s a car that cruelly laughs at your tightfistedness and mocks you for it. There’s an ashtray but the cigarette lighter is a blank. In front of the ladle for stirring the gearbox there’s storage for cassettes but the standard fit stereo is only an AMFM radio the ability to play tapes conspicuous by its absence. Instead of a rev counter you get a car outline graphic with a couple of warning lights. The steel wheels have their modesty hidden by the briefest of center covers.

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It Has A Racing Engine. Sort Of

Mechanically it’s thin gruel as well. Pop the hood and you’re greeted by an expanse of empty space in the middle of which sits Ford’s 1.3 liter HCS (High Compression Swirl) engine which can trace the origins of its design back to – ahem -1959. But – and don’t laugh – this is an engine with competition pedigree. Earlier ‘Kent’ 1.6 liter versions were bolted in the back of Formula Ford racers and in ‘crossflow’ form powered some of the hotter rear wheel drive Escorts. To update the old nail for nineties emissions standards and unleaded petrol the HCS bins the crossflow head and bolts on a new one with a lower compression ratio and hardened valve seats. Breathing through a carburetor with the diameter of a cat’s nostril there’s a rippling 60bhp and 75lbs fit at gods knows what engine speed because the only rev counter is an Mk1 eardrum.

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The horses are noisy but they are willing. Being someone else’s thirty-three-year-old car I didn’t thrash the bollocks off it and I wouldn’t have been setting fire to the tarmac if I did – the quoted 0 -60 time is a glacial 15 seconds. There’s not the wriggle-your-toes responsiveness of the old crossflows that was part of what made those old Escorts fun to drive but it was fine keeping up with modern traffic in and around town wasn’t an issue.

You access all that road burning power through a four – four! – speed gearbox. Even in 1990 this was fucking stingy even by Ford standards. I can’t remember the last time I drove something with that few forward speeds. David’s truck maybe? The shift is fingertip easy but approximate in movement. The gears are all in there somewhere but the shift action is tuned for lightness of touch rather than accuracy. Likewise the steering – I’ve steered pedal boats with better responses to helm inputs but the upside to that is it’s light to twiddle when maneuvering so considering there’s no power assistance that’s probably a fair trade.

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With 13 steelies decent sidewall height and spongiferous seats the ride quality in this old Escort took me by surprise in the comfortable way it bobbed along. Like the frog being slowly boiled in a pan perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to newer cars turning our spines to paste in the name of sportiness. Ford spent a lot of money (over £1bn) in making the Escort as cheap to build as possible and one of their cost-saving innovations was the way the seats were made – the fabric was vacuumed into a mold and then the foam was injected in and glued directly to it – which is probably why there’s no side separate side cushioning. The car was criticized for a lack of lateral support but come on – it’s a family hatch not a bloody XR3i.

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The interior looks modern for the time and the shapes are pleasant. What little stuff there is all works (apart from the radio which needs an unlock code – remember those?) and although the materials don’t really pass what Sion calls ‘the flick test’ the fact it’s all held up well is a testament that Ford did know how to screw a car together. It’s spartan but comfortable like an old blanket. Being a boggo Popular there’s no adjusting the steering wheel or seat height – I had to sit with my legs splayed not really becoming someone of my status but I would never normally be seen dead in the cheap version of anything anyway.

Acceptable Mediocrity

Once you’re recalibrated to the fact you’re driving a car from 1990 you know what? The Escort was absolutely fine. I didn’t recoil in horror at the way it drove the way it looked or how it felt. It was an exemplar of acceptable mediocrity. Was it really that much worse than its rivals at the time? Let us return to the august pages of the world’s so-called oldest car magazine and their first drive test against the Escort’s key rivals.

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First up they compared what was expected to be the volume seller the 1.4 LX against the Mk2 Vauxhall Astra 1.4 LX. They admit the Escort is roomier more powerful faster has a much better dashboard and looks more modern than the Astra which was introduced in 1984. Yet they declared the Astra the winner.

Then they put a more upmarket Escort 1.6i Ghia against a Fiat Tipo. Autocar describes the Fiat as being undergeared having shitty ventilation thrown together build quality and poor digital instrumentation. Yet they preferred the Fiat because of its better gearchange and more secure cornering stance. This is pure road tester gobshite. It gets worse. The final comparison pairing was the top-of-the-range Orion Ghia 1.6i against a Golf of unstated trim level. The Golf has heavier steering and a ‘choppy’ ride less power and they’re basically making up fuel economy figures saying in the text the Golf’s 33 mpg is better than the Orion’s 29. Yet in the specification box the Orion’s consumption figures are better than the Volkswagen’s at all speeds. And buried in the small print is the fact the 1.8 single-point injection Golf is not actually available in the UK. At this point It just feels like they don’t like the Escort and are moving the goalposts to criticize it.

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Ford quickly added a front anti-roll bar to tighten up the front end and in this form Autocar gave the Escort a full road test a few weeks later in their 3rd October 1990 issue. In their summing up of that test they described the car as being designed for ‘Mr &amp Mrs Average’. What their snide remarks ignore is that was Ford’s entire fucking business model and it had served them well for decades. No Ford had ever been the last word in driving finesse or engineering sophistication even the sporty ones. They were simply reasonably well built middle-of-the-road cars for people who just needed transport. And this is where I think Autocar were just being elitist snobs. Rather than judging the Escort on what it was they didn’t like what it represented the default choice that appealed to working people from all over the UK not just east London.

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The 1990 Escort wasn’t a great car but it wasn’t categorically an awful one either and they facelifted it within two years. Could it have launched a year later with better engines? Probably but it would have been more likely two years and Ford couldn’t wait that long. They did the best they could with what they had an ethos working class people are extremely familiar with. I have a complicated internal relationship with my background and where I’m from and all the accompanying cultural baggage that surrounds it. The Escort might not have been for me but it was for my people and despite all my pretentious preening I will always defend that.

Many thanks to Sion and Jim for meeting with me up so I could have a go in the Escort.  Sion has a disturbing addiction to poverty spec cars so if you want some more base model brilliance and a closer look at the Escort check out his YouTube channel  Morsels and Motors. Jim is father to collection of Fiats including a Panda and Cinquecento. This pair of reprobates drive around Europe on various adventures but mostly just to try out different McDonalds. Their YouTube channel is Also Driven so give both a like and subscribe. Relatedbar

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