PH Heroes: Ford Escort XR3

It's August 1980. On the cover of CAR magazine is a 'World Exclusive!' scoop picture of the yet-to-be-launched third generation Ford Escort. Better than that, though: it's a shot of the hot version. No disguise. Sharp-edged shape. Modern. Racy red. Spotlights and fog lights on the front. A little glimpse of a spoiler on the tailgate. And supporting each corner, distinctive - soon to be iconic - cloverleaf alloy wheels. Because this, folks, was the XR3.

Snigger a bit now if you will, but back then the XR3 was a revelation. It's hard to know whether Ford captured the mood of a new, flamboyant, excessive decade, or whether it helped create it: whatever history eventually dictates, the XR3 was just perfect for the moment.

On the cusp of getting a driving licence back at the start of the '80s, I know I lusted after the XR3 when it was launched, inspired by that news feature in CAR that proclaimed Ford's new hot hatch to be 'a real Golf GTI basher'. The Golf at that stage was pretty expensive and already a bit grown up; the XR3 seemed to be aimed at the next generation and brought with it the prospect of attainability. Sure, we car geeks all had that Athena Countach poster on our bedroom walls, but with driving licences and jobs on the near horizon - and with joyrider-fuelled insurance hikes still a way off - the XR3 provided what must, surely, be an achievable goal.

No one could do go-faster quite like Ford, and the XR3 represented a masterclass in addenda-driven design. The whale-tail spoiler: an instant classic. Ditto those alloys (at 14-inch diameter, puny by today's hot hatch standards). The black plastic spats ahead of both pair of wheelarches were inspired: the front bib spoiler was aerodynamic necessity, yet also appeared butch. Find yourself a picture of a standard three-door mk3 Escort and the changes wrought by Ford's designers are worthy of entry to the Magic Circle. Honda probably wouldn't welcome the connection, but its designers pulled off a similar trick transforming the previous generation Civic three-door - as dowdy a conveyance as ever you saw - into the kick-you-in-the-cobblers Type R.

With hindsight it's perhaps a little harder to defend the XR3's mechanical arrangements. Its 1.6-litre CVH (Compound Valve angle Hemispherical chamber, in case you're interested) four-cylinder engine was hailed as the height of modernity, (though maybe only in the attendant press release), yet could rustle up just the meagre 96bhp.

Even in 1980, less than 100bhp seemed a wee bit lame. But in the XR3's defence - and back then there were plenty of people ready to give it due credit - it 8.5sec 0-60mph time was quicker than the Golf GTI's, with 14bhp less. Oh, and one gear less, too, Ford electing to give its hot hatch just the four forward ratios despite Volkswagen having already establishing that what the market really wanted was five.

Yet the XR3 did passably well in magazine group tests, blending its aforementioned pace with reasonably crisp steering and, on smooth surfaces, lively handling. It didn't much like bumps, though, particularly in the middle of a corner.

Somehow, though, those faults didn't seem to matter much to those of us who weren't magazine road testers - the XR3, to we kids of the '80s, was as much a part of our formative motoring years as the New Romantics were to our record collections. Even if you weren't growing up then, you'll have some XR3 memories, good and bad: one way or another, Ford's heroic hatch has made an impact on everyone's lives, as you'll find if you park one in the street to take photos, as we've just done.

My own XR3 moments? Mocking a mate who left school after sixth-form to sell double glazing, only to choke on my own jealousy when he pulled up outside my house a year and a half later in the brand new XR3 he'd bought with his own money. Riding around in the back of that XR3, the Pioneer speaker that was inexplicably half-covered by the seat squab blaring out Spandau Ballet's Gold.

Total consumption by the green-eyed monster when my girlfriend's rich dad bought her the new, revised and whole lot better XR3i, complete with five-speed gearbox, electric windows, sunroof and central locking, for her 18th birthday; getting over that jealous rage upon discovering that the lovely bloke had also included me on the insurance.

Of course we all know that Ford failed to move the nifty Escort on in any meaningful way so that it was crushed by fresh and very talented rivals from France and Germany. The fact it was so popular also diminished the XR3 in enthusiasts' minds. And then the joyriders tarnished its reputation still further, and then, dear lord, Max Power...

So standing here with Adam Spriddell's low-mileage XR3, a 1980 four-speeder, carb-fed, initially feels as though I'm indulging in a guilty pleasure; but then strangers appear out of nowhere, smiling, sparking up conversation with some variation of, "Do you know, I had/had a mate with, this XR3 and I remember when..." As I said earlier, everyone's got an XR3 tale in them somewhere.

Owner Adam, who works in my local tyre specialist, Treadfirst in Diss, developed the XR3 bug as a kid, lusting after the next door neighbour's example. When he was old enough to afford a secondhand model he assumed that they'd all rusted away - a fair assumption, when you look around - so didn't pursue his dream with much vigour. Then out of the blue he found one for sale in Essex, in relatively clean and straight condition and with very low mileage.

As is so often the way with 30-year-old cars, there was more to do fix on the XR3 than at first appeared, and as a consequence he hasn't driven it as much as he'd hoped. In fact, for that reason - under-use - he's now thinking of selling it, though you can sense that his heart isn't wholly in the enterprise. As a used car dealer who wanders up for a chat opines: "There are so few of these left, where on earth would you get another one if you changed your mind back again?"

Though it sits a bit higher than we're used to these days, the XR3 remains a looker. Outside, anyway. Inside, well, you have to cast your mind back to 1980 and what consumer expectations were then. Come to think of it, though, even 30 years ago you might have expected nicer door cards than the grey vinyl jobs the XR3 is lumbered with. On the other hand, having black and red striped upholstery in your car would have put you right at the forefront of a fashion trend that would define the decade; and then be tucked safely out of sight forever...

Still, the driving position is spot-on, the instrumentation clear - the speedo is optimistically marked to 140mph when the XR3 struggled to reach 113mph flat-out; the tacho is red-lined at 6500rpm when only masochists would rev the engine beyond 5500rpm - and the two-spoke steering wheel the right thickness and diameter for small hands.

That wheel is connected to non-assisted steering, so at low speeds some muscle is needed; go quicker and the compensation is reasonable accuracy and swift responses. In an age of commonplace six-speed manual gearboxes, having just four ratios is peculiar, but at least the lever's well placed and the shift is nifty and positive across the gate. As for that old CVH wheezer, it tries its very hardest to be lively and feisty up to about 5000rpm, then its hoarseness and volume rather deter you from thrashing it hard. Can't really comment on the ride because the dampers may be the originals...

How the XR3 drives in 2011, though, is kinda beside the point; some heroes are overtaken by time and events, and this fast Ford belongs in that category. What it was and what it stands for are the important factors; the XR3 was a hero of its era and will remain so for ever more.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (292) Join the discussion on the forum

  • captain ash 02 May 2011

    Great write up, bit before my time but I can see why people went mad for them.

    Sometimes the image and ideology that a car portrays can inspire people far more than how fast it is or how well it handles. This is a prime example.

  • k-ink 02 May 2011

    Rusty, slow shed. Yuk!

  • cerb4.5lee 02 May 2011

    Loved these my dad had one in white with a 5 speed box on a 82x plate.

    I thought it was the bees knees at the time!

    Love old fords.

  • Evo 02 May 2011

    I was always deeply into Lancia's at this time but I still got excited as a child mad into cars with the XR3i's and Xr4i's of the time. Those fog lights alloys and spoilers really did make allthe difference back then including having the all important "i" at the end of the badge on your boot lid.

  • sklar 02 May 2011

    Everyone does have an XR3 story..

    Even at 11 years old I was a car nerd spending hours researching the back of car magazines, so I found it very hard to keep a straight face when a school friends dad gave me a lift home in his 4 year old XR3i and told me that the car was so fast because the injection system kicks in after 100mph to take the car to 140... confused

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