Escort put Ford into subcompact fight
The Pinto and Bobcat were suffering from bad publicity because of poor quality and a propensity for fuel tank ruptures when hit from the rear.
It was a tough time for Ford and for the nation. Unemployment was high, interest rates were in the double digits, gasoline prices were soaring and Japanese imports were growing fast. Ford Motor Co.’s financial house was a shambles. It had profits of $1 billion in 1976 but was looking at $2.5 billion in losses less than five years later.
In short, Ford needed a home run, in a segment largely dominated by the Japanese. To make things tougher, General Motors and Chrysler Corp. were bringing out second editions of small cars.
Jack Telnack, former Ford design chief, said: “We were worried about smaller foreign cars coming on to our shores. We were also concerned about fuel economy.”
Ford of Europe led
Ford of Europe created the lead vehicle for the $3 billion Escort platform, since it had more experience building small cars. The Americans made modifications to suit the U.S. market.
But compared with the previous-generation rear-drive Europe-market Escort, this was a different vehicle. And its similarities — at least on its face — to the American version made the term “world car” apply.
With its first world car, Ford hoped to realize low costs, shared engineering and a common design that could be built in many regions with interchangeable parts. All Escorts had front-wheel drive, independent suspension at all four corners and a hemi four-cylinder engine.
In a 1980 speech, Louis Ross, then Ford executive vice president for North American car product development, noted: “Up to now, a world car was impossible because American cars and European cars had nothing in common. Now our cars are getting close to that 2,000-pound figure, which is more in line with the rest of the world.”
But the number of common parts actually was small, said Rod Mansfield, a retired Ford of Europe engineer who lives near London. Government regulations in various countries, plus internecine politics, forced different parts in different markets.
Telnack estimates that “there were less than a half-dozen pieces between Europe and the U.S. that were common, although the packaging was very, very close. But America wanted a boulevard ride, while the Europeans wanted an autobahn ride” that was stiffer.
Another factor was communication — not just between the European and American engineering arms, but among the regional areas. Ford’s British and German arms had just been brought together, and nationalistic feelings sometimes got in the way of the big picture.
“We didn’t suddenly start working together in perfect harmony,” Mansfield said. “There was a lot of ‘those bloody Germans’ and ‘those bloody Brits.’ There were lots of difficulties in making that all work. If you could save money in Europe on a part, but not necessarily in the U.S., we still would go off that direction.”
The inspiration to become a technical leader in the segment came from knowing that Ford needed to beat the benchmarks.
“We looked very closely at the VW Golf,” Mansfield said. “No doubt the Japanese were having a huge impact on all manufacturers in the West, particularly in reliability. We laughed at them and thought they were funny little cars no one would like, but they were reliable, and we had to give them admiration and respect for that.”
Telnack agrees, since the styling of the Escort was derived more from the Golf and Opel Kadett than any other vehicle.
The basic Escort powerplant had a 58-hp, 1.3-liter hemi-head four-cylinder engine that Ford boasted had a 30 mpg city fuel efficiency rating and 44 mpg on the highway. There was a 69-hp, 1.6-liter hemi four-cylinder as well.
Transmissions were a choice of a four-speed manual or a three-speed automatic — though the automatic had vibration problems early on that delayed its launch. Its fully independent suspension was the first for a domestic small car.
Ross was proud of the engineering details: “The car has been engineered so that many of its components never have to be checked or adjusted. For example, the front wheel bearings and steering linkage are lubricated for life.” Also, the brakes and manual clutch were self-adjusting, while automatic transmission fluid never needed to be changed. The engine had hydraulic valve lifters that didn’t need adjustment — at least in concept.
Initial results were promising. A full 20 percent of Escort trade-ins were import-label cars, much higher than the 14 percent market share the imports had at the time.
The huge development budget meant margins were small. In the first three months the car was on sale in 1980, Ford took 300,000 orders for it, including 170,000 in America.
The Escort did well enough to survive 20 years in the U.S. market. In its first 10 years, it sold 3.5 million units in America, including two years when it blasted past 400,000.
The Mercury Lynx was not nearly the success, selling 691,000 units from 1980 to 1989. It was renamed the Tracer and sales fell further, breaking the 50,000 annual mark only twice in the next decade.
Ford’s obsession with trucks and SUVs in the 1990s hurt small-car development, and it showed as the Escort languished. During its second decade, the Escort sold just 2.6 million units — a healthy chunk of that to rental fleets. It was replaced in 2000 by the Focus, Ford’s most recent attempt at a global small car.
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