Forget the bodykitted horrors it inspired, the Cossie deserves its place in the PH hall of fame
The ability of cars to reflect the personalities of the people that build them never ceases to amaze. Cue sweeping generalisations about Ferraris symbolising fiery Latin passion and Porsches the German obsession with engineering über alles. Run with the theme and apply it to Essex and, well, actually it still works.
Facts have an annoying habit of getting in the way of such lazy stereotyping, however, and the Escort Cosworth is as much Deutschland as it is Dagenham, but it's easy to go off on one about aggressive, shell-suited types and in-your-face attitudes - the 'premature ejaculation drivers' Ian Dury once sang about. And for some it's this image that'll forever cling to cars like the Escort RS Cosworth.
This is a car that should be on any PHer's radar, though. The shadow of that huge wing looms large, the imitations attached to many an unsuspecting Escort LX back in the day all but destroying the formidable competition pedigree forged in the forests by the likes of Francois Delacour and Carlos Sainz.
These days you'll too often read of those who've revisited the Escort Cosworth nearly two decades on from its heyday and come away seriously let down. An Escort-shelled mongrel built on shortened Sierra Cosworth running gear, the Cossie made few compromises and remains a more single-minded proposition than the more rounded Evos and Imprezas that followed.
First impressions of this Ford heritage fleet example don't do much to overcome that image either. This is a car that suddenly feels of another era, the Duplo dashboard seemingly level with your knees and the combination of Recaros trimmed in Granada Scorpio style ruched leather and a stocky, thick-rimmed wheel hardly dishing up the tactile delights.
Doesn't get much better when you fire it up either. No Cosworth Ford ever sounded that great, the YB engine effective enough but, at best, gruff. Like the rest of this car, it's about getting the job done with no niceties to soften the blow. Proper rally cars rarely sound anything better than a bucket of bolts at the best of times. At least the Cosworth is authentic in that respect.
In its 1992 road test Autocar praised the "delectable quality of the shift" but the gearbox in this car is a pig. Long of throw, balky and slow-witted, its partnership with the woolly clutch and mushy accelerator are hardly the thing of dreams.
This is a later 'small turbo' car with the Garrett T25 fitted once homologation rules had been satisfied and the larger, more sluggish T3/T04B required for competition-friendly 400hp power outputs could be dropped. Spool-up is apparently much quicker and, like any YB-engined Cosworth, the uninspiring engine note is more than made up for by the thrust it delivers.
The gearshift still feels more like that of a knackered old Transit than a Group A rally contender, though, and the fat steering wheel needs a fair bit of encouragement to move off the dead centre. And doesn't offer much in the way of feedback once it does.
Gradually, though, the negative first impressions begin to fall away. The ride is great, body control spot-on and - like a proper rally car - bumps, cambers and crests all get swallowed up. The brakes feel strong too.
With a bit of heat in its veins, the gearbox starts to loosen up a bit too, even if the throw remains long and the gate wide.
Hints of that legendary Cosworth pace also become apparent with a bit more commitment. On-paper stats don't look too impressive, a 0-60mph time of 6.2 seconds in that Autocar road test slower than both the Delta Integrale and Nissan Sunny Gti-R it was tested against and the top speed - not helped by that barn door bolted on the back - just 137mph.
Looking at the Cosworth you expect it to nut you in the face with its performance. The initial disappointment when it doesn't lasts as long as it takes to look at that white-faced speedo with its tiny numbers. Is that really saying...? Oh heck ... it is. Blame the engine's total lack of sonic feedback, the dull whirr overlaid by forced induction whooshes and gurgles offering little sense of what it's actually doing. Without that aural reference it's very easy to rack up extremely naughty numbers, even the standard 227bhp enough to give the Cossie a proper turn of speed.
Once you get used to feeling on top of it rather than in it that speed becomes eminently exploitable too. The truncated wheelbase - 57mm shorter than the Sierra from which it was taken - and fast steering combine to make it feel super-agile, with the kind of built-in instability that a gifted driver could really exploit on some bleak gravel track in the middle of Kielder Forest.
Grip is huge, stubborn even, and if the front end does start to push on you've really gone in very hot indeed and the merest lift will tuck the nose back in. There's never any feel from the steering wheel but the Escort seems to point itself in the direction you look and, as the confidence grows, its speed as a cross-country weapon starts to really hit home. There's a reason rally cars have always made such great road cars in the UK and the Escort suddenly feels as brutally effective as those wild looks suggest it might be.
It's a car you wrestle rather than finesse but after all the negative reports most modern-day testers have returned with it's a real delight to prove them wrong. Yes, it feels its age. Yes, there are flaws. But this is a proper homologation special honed with the same expertise and ruthless ambition that made its rear-drive forebears such winners. On reflection it's good to know the RS Cosworth needs grabbing by the scruff of the neck. You wouldn't want a car with that heritage to be too much of a walkover. Edgy, a bit confrontational ... uh-oh, that Essex analogy looks to be making a comeback. We'll maybe set that Ian Dury lyric aside though.