Hot hatches: They are an integral part of the car landscape and combine practicality with sports car speed. Ford has been at the top of the UK hot hatches for decades, but the latest RS- and ST-marked Focuses and Fiestas owe their existence to a car, the Escort XR3, which celebrated its 40th birthday last year.
Nobody really knows where the XR badge came from, although it first appeared on Ford’s US-brand Mercury Cougar XR7 in the late 1960s. At least in Europe, the bosses agreed that Ford should move away from its clichéd “S” brand after the introduction of the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
So there was a desire to launch a new sub-brand while a replacement for the second-generation rear-wheel drive Escort was needed. That was no easy task, because the front-wheel drive Mk3 not only lacked the side flair of earlier models, but it also had to appeal to traditional sedan car buyers who had their heads turned by new hatchbacks. The result was a car with a brief hustle and bustle at the rear, but it was in that tiny trunk lid that Ford would cement its pursuit of a hot hatch.
The base models achieved Ford’s goals of an aerodynamic improvement of 12 percent over the Mk2, but this trunk lid enabled the designers to add a rear spoiler. This further improved the aero and also inspired a generation of auto enthusiasts.
The XR3 was built in Germany but developed with the help of computers in Essex, Michigan in the US and Cologne. It was an instant hit, making up one in ten escort sales. The mix of legendary light alloy wheels with cloverleaf, chin spoiler and Porsche 928-inspired sports seats caught the audience’s imagination. It wasn’t perfect, however: even though Bilstein was called in at the last minute to tweak the suspension, the ride was firm.
That changed in 1982 when Ford’s UK Special Vehicle Engineering stepped in under the direction of Rod Mansfield. The team had made a name for themselves with the Fiesta Supersport and Capri 2.8 Injection from 1980 and 1982, respectively, and were challenged to improve the XR3’s weak points as well as the fuel injection system that its competitors increasingly boasted of.
Rod tells us, “The XR3i was a pretty straightforward project that could have made significant changes with good effect.” While the headlines turned around the Bosch injection system, Rod’s team changed the image of the car. “The XR3 had a strange camber: positive front, negative rear, which made it look like a knee. Suddenly the car looked better, ”says Rod.
This change only lasted a few months, but they didn’t stop there. The team developed a new exhaust and cooling system to withstand the kind of high-speed thrashing this new generation of affordable performance cars was exposed to. The stabilizers have been revised and the ride height has been reduced.
“The car came at a time when this type of project was becoming increasingly popular,” recalls Rod. “Unsurprisingly, the Golf [GTI] heavily included in our plans; It was the car we wanted to beat. I really enjoyed this project. Any unbiased observer who drove the XR3 would think, “ho hum,” but when they jumped into the XR3i it was a sportier car and felt more like a piece. It does anything you want, but in a nice way. “
The changes in Rod’s team had an immediate impact and sales grew significantly. More importantly, however, the fuel injection and the small but strong letter “i” gave the hot escort the praise and modern touch that was required on a hot hatch. The blueprint was sealed and the car caught the imagination of enthusiasts across the country. It was cheaper than the Golf GTI and appealed to blue-collar petrol heads upgraded by Mk2 Escorts.
Thanks to the success of the XR3, Ford launched six more XR models in the 1980s, all of which came through the SVE team in Dunton and covered Ford’s three main model lines: Fiesta, Escort and Sierra. Then in 1990 the XR4x4 arrived. This was arguably the largest XR circuit to date because, unlike the older XR4, which had a custom three-door body, the XR4x4 was based on a regular five-door car, albeit with Ferguson four-wheel drive.
In every way, XR showed performance car buyers that fast Fords could stay within reach. The rubber spoilers and air dams, stripes, stickers and Recaro seats cemented the hot hatch formula that continues to evolve to this day. Ford’s interchangeability of parts meant upgrades could easily be swapped into smaller models, and the number of cars with additional fog lights and reflectors, anti-static strips, and huge audio upgrades meant XRs remained the doyen of the vehicle modification scene for years.
Unfortunately, these cars’ values plummeted in the late 90s and 2000s, leaving many of those that had not been stolen (security was a flaw in Ford’s early 80s) or crashed to quietly rot. As a result, probably fewer than 1,200 XR Fords of any kind will be left on the road.
How does the XR3 stack up today?
“Wow, I haven’t seen anyone in years. My father used to have one. “As we position Stuart Holdway’s XR3 for our photoshoot, two enthusiasts jump out of their car to admire the pristine sunburst Red Ford. Quite often, according to Stuart, people are taken back to where cars like this were worth ten cents.
Stuart is the Ford Mann textbook. He dropped out of school and immediately went to work in his local Ford dealer’s workshop. Eventually he became a manager. “I was in the dealership when this car started,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow! It’s a sexy hatchback. ‘Back then, if you had an XR3, you really were something. “
A look inside Stuarts almost better than the new XR3 shows that his love for the eighties is clear. He has a set of timed rubber mats with a waffle pattern (“as rare as rocking horse droppings”), and the dealer sticker in the rear window is a replica of the one supplied by his previous employer.
Stuart owned dozens of Fords in his day, and his interest in the XR3 resurfaced a few years ago. “I looked for more than a year until one appeared in Truro, Cornwall,” he tells us. Stuart went downstairs with his wife and combined car hunting with a vacation, but the XR3 was rougher than expected so they went back empty-handed.
The day after they returned, the red car you see here was advertised in Berkshire, just 10 miles from Stuart’s house. This was everything you could hope for from a classic: no crash damage, welding or rot, three previous owners and a history folder the size of a phone book with the original sales contract. At the time it was only £ 4,395 – a fair bit away from today’s agreed insurance value, which is well in the five-digit range.
Not that Stuart intends to sell it; With only a handful of early carburetor models on the road, and even fewer in such perfect original condition, it may simply not be possible to find another one. Since Stuart owned the car, it needs a bit of polishing and cleaning, but has benefited from being properly stored by the previous owner.
Time to see how all that care paid off. Turn the key a couple of throttles to get the carburetor going and we’ll run. Steering without assistance is surprisingly easy at low speeds and the clutch is easier than expected. Driving this around town isn’t a chore.
On the go, the steering lacks precision around dead-ahead, but it weighs well when you apply the lock. The wheel’s thin, small diameter rim adds to the experience. A Golf GTI or Renault 5 GT Turbo may offer more delicacy, but it’s not often that a 38 year old car is driven hard.
Given this criticism of the XR3’s ride quality, I feared the experience might gradually dissipate. But on a fairly slippery road, the Escort felt no worse than a modern hot hatch, although this may be more because of the 60-piece tires. Stuart wasn’t so sure the scarred tarmac experience would be the same: “The suspension is terrible,” he says. “It slides, glides, and jumps across the street, and this strange fall doesn’t help.”
We can both agree that the brakes are ineffective by modern vehicle standards. Due to the compact dimensions of the XR3 (10 cm shorter and narrower than the current Fiesta ST), however, it feels clumsy. In addition, these slim A-pillars offer a strong view to the front.
Ford has learned a lot in 40 years when it comes to interior ergonomics. The optional power windows attached to Stuart’s car feel like they’re built in from back to front. “There’s not a single part that you would take with you to a modern Ford,” jokes Stuart.
As is so often the case with classic cars, the XR3 is objectively exceeded by more modern machines. But as I flip through that old copy of Jackie while Level 42 plays through the stereo, I am transported back to a time and place that is long gone, but which I fondly remember. For me it was promenades and parking lots in the shopping center. For Stuart, it’s back to his early bodyshop days. And the XR3 will mean a thousand things to a thousand other people too.
A Brief History of the XR Fords
1980: Ford Escort XR3 Mk3
The first Ford with the XR badge replaced a number of models with the RS badge, making it the only sports car in Ford’s range. It was an instant hit.
1981: Ford Fiesta XR2 Mk1
The original XR2 was based on the 1300S, but increased the displacement to 1.6 liters, although the stiffened suspension remained unchanged.
1982: Ford Escort XR3i Mk3
In Rod Mansfield’s SVE division, the fuel-injected XR3i received more power and much-needed undercarriage revisions.
1983: Ford Sierra XR4i
The XR4i not only received a double-decker rear wing, but also a unique three-window side treatment. The power came from a 2.8-liter V6 from the Capri.
1984: Ford Fiesta XR2 Mk2
While the XR3i went on to inject, the Mk2 XR2 stayed carbohydrate-fed but felt as eager and scratchy as the black trim and flat rubber suggest.
1988: Ford Escort XR3i Mk4
The Mk4 XR3i never achieved the sales success of its predecessor. It was more refined and efficient, though it was barely faster from 0 to 60 mph.
1989: Ford Fiesta XR2i Mk3
Fuel injection finally came to the XR2 in 1989 and despite being heavier, it was the fastest Fiesta to date. It paved the way for the RS Turbo.
1990: Ford Sierra XR4x4
The XR Sierra lost its bespoke bodywork in 1990, but received a permanent all-wheel drive system developed by Ferguson with a 34:66 front / rear split.
1992: Ford Fiesta XR2i 16v Mk3
Equipped with a 16-valve head, the 1992 XR2i was fast, but lacked the finesse of the Peugeot 205 GTI and the pace of the Renault 5 GT Turbo.
1992: Ford Escort XR3 Mk5
The swan song of XR missed the mark despite new Zetec engines. While Ford gradually improved the Mk5, it wasn’t much better than the Mk4.
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