Chapter Two: The 1990 Ford Escort S 1.6 EFI

Approximate Years: Owned 1997-2002, my age 20-25.

History tells us that the Mk5 Escort wasn’t all that good. It was a half-way house between the old Mk4 and the newer Zetec engines that came in the final Mk6 models. Critics are said to have complained about the dull styling, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I loved them. I still love them.

I wanted the S EFi model in particular because this had the same horsepower as the entry level XR3i, which was available with 105bhp or 130bhp. This model also came with the sporty spoiler on the back and colour coded bumpers. The spoiler was matt black along with the wing mirrors to add a touch of difference to others in the range. Crucially though, because it wasn’t labelled as an XR3i, the insurance premiums were affordable (this was of the time when the RS and XR models were hugely unloved by insurers, largely because the majority of them went missing). If memory serves correctly, the S had the XR2i engine, with the XR3i arriving a year later with the newer Zetec model.

I had three main ‘car-guy’ friends at the time. There was Big Dave, who I mentioned in my previous update. He was the last to get his licence as he was a year younger than us, but drove his mums Ford Orion when he did pass and he put an amazing stereo in that car. There was Simon, who had a few cars during my Escort years, ending with a black Mk4 XR3i about a year before I sold my Escort (to him!) Finally, my friend Mitch who had a Peugeot 205 GTI which he purchased around the same time as my Escort. We were all car crazy and used to hang about a lot. The Max Power / Fast and Furious years was a great time to be a car fanatic. Our Escort and Peugeot cars looked great together, one bright blue, the other bright red and we were always cleaning them. I recall on the Escort that the drivers rear quarter used to go dull after a few weeks, so was forever giving it some colour magic and polish to make it match the rest of the car! Whenever we’d go out into town (most Thursdays right through to Mondays), one of us would typically drive, aside from Saturday which was party-mode for everyone. The driver would be the ‘Des’ (remember the adverts?!) and wouldn’t drink -which was never a problem as we all loved driving as much as we loved partying and so the twain never met – and we saved a ton of money in taxi fares too.

My Escort with Mitch’s 205 GTi

Styling wise, the Escort had extra spotlights and stick-on Cosworth style bonnet vents at the front. Neither were of my choosing, but I quite liked them and kept them on. The spoiler and wing mirrors were both matt black, which was standard for the S and again, I liked them and it made it look different to other Escorts. When I initially decided that I wanted to buy one of these cars, my plan was to purchase some TSW Stealth wheels which were hugely popular at the time, but this particular car came with some Wolfrace wheels, which looked very similar and I was happy with those.

These “S” cars were quite hard to come by and the first one I looked at looked fine on the outside, but when I had an inspection done, I was told in no uncertain terms to walk away as this car had signs of serious repairs (I’ve forgotten the details, either crash repair or cut-shut type job – both not that uncommon in the 90’s). I bought my car fairly local to where I lived at the time – very close to the street where my Dad grew up as it happened. The seller was a genuine guy and the inspection checked out.

Inside, I loved the layout of the interior. It had electric windows and the previous owner had fitted an aftermarket alarm which gave it remote central locking too – both very fancy in those days. It felt like a really modern car to me – certainly more modern than anything we’d had in the family before.

Car Culture at the time
I recall when we went into town for a few drinks (Rotherham typically, if one of us was driving), we’d park up at the top of town in an area we called the “Boy Racers car park”. There were always lots of cars up here on a weekend and it meant it was a safe place to park the cars. Most of the guys and girls who brought their cars stayed in the car park, but we wanted to be in town in the pubs so we never really got to meet any of them.

I can remember the craze of the time was the big stickers in the back windows broadcasting the model of stereo you had chosen. Kenwood and Pioneer were the main ones. A few people had Sony stickers and those who had lots of money had the ///Alpine stickers! One guy had “Snap on”!! I have to admit, I loved those audio branded stickers, but I never had one because I also saw it as a big advert for thieves (not that the absence of a sticker helped me, more on that later). The pubs in Rotherham were largely concentrated together with the road through the middle and so the cars would often drive around in circles all night and we’d see them when we were snaking in and out of the different pubs. It was a bit cheesy, but it added to the atmosphere and the hustle and bustle of the nightlife there and if you parked in that car park, it was a one-way system so you had to do at least one lap on the way out regardless. I remember us driving home one night on the dual carriageway out of the town and a car full of girl racers pulled alongside with their boobies pressed against the windows. Haha!!

Choons
Stereo wise, my Escort came with an aftermarket JVC system which was nice, but I wanted a fancy Kenwood ‘MASK’, which were so cool back then. I think this was the Mini Disk system that I had. When you turned the ignition off, the front would reverse itself around electronically and look as though there was no front on the stereo, therefore it wasn’t worth nicking. A genius idea that didn’t work in reality because any car stereo thief worth his salt knew that a black face panel with no indentation had to be an expensive MASK worth stealing – which is exactly what happened to mine whilst we were out on the town in Sheffield one evening, they smashed the window and ripped it out. This left the live wires lose which were sparking as I drove home that night. My friend Worz opted to come home with me for moral support, but we only got so far down the road before we stopped and had to call the AA as it looked like the car might set on fire. Back home, my Dad sorted it – it was the live wire that was touching the metal housing for the stereo. My next stereo was another MASK, a CD player this time, but it was a manual spinning front. Nowhere near as cool but you could remove the front of the radio too to prevent theft, which I always did. I think my Dad still has this radio in his garage actually – I’ll have to check!

Internet pic of a MASK system, similar to what I had.

This video I found on YouTube shows the mechanism for those who are wondering what on earth I’m talking about!

As for performance, I always felt my Escort’s 1.6 litre, 8 valve 105bhp was the bee’s knees, but it wasn’t that fast really. Probably about 10 seconds from 0 to 60! I remember a traffic light GP at one of those two-goes-into-one roads with a standard Sierra whose driver was determined not to let me in front and she(!) absolutely floored it. I ragged the Escort to the redline and it barely managed to get in front – and I suspect that was only because we must have been going some by then and she backed off. However, for the performance that it did have, it handled well enough and was never out of control.

If you wanted true performance though, the Escort Cosworth was the place to be and I absolutely loved them. The Cossie was (and still is) a dream car of mine, and held a status amongst us car youths of the time as in similar stature to Ferraris. They were just as rare to see, and we knew of two in our locale. A blue one which was owned by a local guy, and a white one whose driver owned the petrol station where it was frequently parked. During my Escort S ownership, a company called Carlton Automotive launched a Cosworth replica body kit for the Escort, which I first saw in a copy of Fast Car magazine. I couldn’t believe it! It looked identical and not being able to afford a true Cosworth, this was the next best thing. I went to see Carlton and was seriously considering it until I talked to the insurance company. They asked what I thought my car would be worth with the kit on it. I gave them my answer and they replied “That’ll also be your premium then”. I’ll never forget that! He went on to say they have seen the replicas and they look almost the same, and “If it looks like a Cosworth, it will be stolen like a Cosworth and we don’t expect you will still have it by the end of the year”. So, I left it at that.

The article from Fast Car magazine. The first time I’d seen a Cosworth replica!

Aside from my current car, this is the longest owned car to date at five years from ‘bought-to-sold’. I really liked this car. The car was used for commuting and pleasure. Whether that be heading to the seaside, or driving to work – my latter job involved a 120 mile a day commute, sometimes four hours a day which took its toll and I was turning into a very tired and angry man. The aging Escort wasn’t designed for a 25,000 mile a year commute and it broke a lot. I had a good set of mechanics at both ends of the commute who kept the little Escort limping along for me with a number of repairs that I can’t even remember now. But such is the passage of time that I can only remember the fun stuff. Although in writing this down, I have just remembered the comical earthing problem with one of the rear lights. When you turned the lights on, I had to get out and tap one of the rear lights to make it light up! 

That commute lasted a year or two before I decided to move out of the family (parents) home and into a house share with some work colleagues, just a mile from the office. I saved quite a bit of money not having to pay for all that petrol and so ultimately changed my car to something a little less practical, a little more reliable, and a lot more fun.

Whilst the ownership experience was quite up-and-down, my over riding memory of the Escort as a car is a happy one. There were some really big life highs whilst owning this car (the nightclub scene, car shows, dating, and the general care-free time that our 20s brings us) as well as some very notable lows; hearing about the twin towers attack on the radio whilst on the way home one day, for example. The biggest personal low during my ownership, and one of the absolute lowlights of my life was the untimely passing away of our dear friend, Big Dave. He was a big part of our friendship circle, both in the nightclub scene, the social scene and of course the car scene. He was the first guy to come out on a ride with me in my Fiesta, and he helped me wire up the stereo in the Escort. At one time, we wired up on of his 4ft high loudspeaker into the boot (which it filled completely), just for giggles and it absolutely boomed out the music. It was laugh-out-loud silly and great fun. He was in his early twenties when he passed away suddenly and it was a gut-wrenching time for us all. We drove our cars as part of the procession to the funeral in his memory – a line which stretched as far as the eye could see. The funeral hall was packed and many of us were outside. The outside areas were also packed. He was a well-loved guy and we all still miss him. Simon, Mitch and I are still great friends, and I’d like to think Dave is still with us too, watching from on high and with us in spirit on our wacky car adventures to date.

It has been almost 25 years since I bought the Escort and Mitch still has his Peugeot 205 GTi!! He keeps threatening to finally finish the refurbishment as an almost good-as-new car and I’m looking forward to seeing it back on the road again and being as polished as it used to be. One day. Maybe.

Those 15″ Wolf Race wheels looked big at the time. 17 inchers were rare and positively huge back then!

As for the Escort, the fun bug never left me and the desire to have another is still strong. I scan eBay and Facebook Marketplace for Mk5 and Mk6 Escorts at least once a week but my sensible trousers are keeping my whimsical madness at bay, as deep down it’ll never live up to the expectations I’ve placed in my head. But… never say never!

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