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The 1980s Ford Escort RS1700T Was Half Porsche

I read a new book that author and car designer Steve Saxty sent me for review. Secret Fords: Volume Oneand it’s a great look at the evolution of Fords that got into production as well as a number that didn’t. This includes the story of the infamous Ford Escort RS1700T and an interesting Porsche connection that I didn’t know.

The RS1700T was supposed to be Ford’s weapon in tackling the Group B rallying era, and it showed great promise. Ford started right after winning the 1979 season with the Group 4 Escort with rear-wheel drive and developed into a worthy successor. Early prototypes were not only significantly faster than the old Group 4 escort, but everything else that was competing at the time, and they recorded faster stage times in a rally test than the rally winner, who had driven on the same roads a few days earlier, as Saxty reports .

The RS1700T used a turbocharged Cosworth BDA four-cylinder that made 300 to 400 horsepower and seemed to have no problem ripping it open.

The problem was that the Group 4 Escort was based on a production car with rear-wheel drive. This Group B worked on a front-wheel drive platform. That didn’t just mean turning the engine and transmission sideways. Ford needed a gearbox to withstand the high power and speed of this design. And if you wanted transaxle tech in Europe in the early 80s, there was a king of the hill: Porsche.

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Porsche has been selling cars with a front engine and a rear gearbox since the early 1970s. The Porsche 928 was one of the fastest cars in the world, and the 924 showed that its concept also works at higher production volumes.

How did Ford crack the code for what Porsche mastered? Ford hired one of the Porsche engineers to do the work. That is actually not all. Ford went out and bought a Porsche gearbox and put it in a prototype to get things going.

Saxty tells the genesis of the car:

In mid-1980, Boreham’s Allan Wilkinson took an aging fiesta into the workshop. It was first used during the Fiesta press launch before it was repurposed as an imperfect rally car. It soon became clear that FWD would never provide enough traction on loose surfaces for a successful top-class rally car. Another solution was needed. Wilkinson’s third use of the car was wonderfully insane – he installed a 230 horsepower BDA engine that drives the rear wheels through a rear-mounted five-speed gearbox. It had good weight distribution and made a decent – if a little twitchy – rally machine. But its cardan shaft, which rotates at 9000 rpm, would be too unbalanced for a production vehicle and would quickly burn out the transmission. To make such a car functional, it required a rear gearbox with an integrated differential and gearbox connected by a drive shaft enclosed in a small diameter torque tube and, like the Porsche 924 and 928, held stable by bearings.

In the summer of 1980, Porsche engineer John Wheeler was shown a job advertisement in Autosport Magazine: Ford was looking for someone like him. The British engineer had become a gear specialist while working on Porsche’s two front-engined cars, so his experience was a perfect fit.

Wheeler packed his bags and headed north to sunny Essex a few months later in October. He was about to embark on a decade-long career working on three of Ford’s most iconic models: the Focus RS, the Escort RS Cosworth and his first project, the enigmatic RS1700T.

Ford showed the car in public in mid-1981, Saxty says, and the world expected it to be ready in a year. That’s a year Ford needs to fully develop its design, set it up for production, and actually build 200 homologation specials in order for it to race. It was a big job. The car wasn’t as manageable as its natural RWD predecessor, and the design was too difficult for Ford to produce on their own. Lotus (already familiar with making rally cars) would have to make the cars for it, but it took a long time to get the car ready to even be ready for this stage.

Ari Vatanen, who won the 1981 World Rally Championship in a private escort, crashed a prototype so badly that it had to be fired again, the turbo and fuel injection calibration worked, and the single car that Ford was hoping to deregistered could get smelly of gasoline on.

The time for the RS1700T was running out. Two years into the program, Bob Lutz was promoted to Ford of Europe and shipped to Dearborn. Lutz was a strong supporter of Karl Ludvigsen, Vice President for Government Affairs. Ludvigsen oversaw Ford’s motorsport, and Ludvigsen was the strongest supporter of the RS1700T. Without Lutz to back him up, Ludvigsen didn’t have enough money to put the money into the RS1700T project and it was closed. One car made it to Malcolm Wilson (then a factory driver, now the guy running Ford’s unofficial WRC program) and most of the other parts and bodies made it to South Africa for an air campaign there.

Secret Fords spends a lot of time considering every single chassis in the RS1700T program, but it also has tons of great photos, anecdotes, and context for the entire operation at the time. It was an optimistic project. We know because Saxty quotes the young designer in charge of the exterior of the car, his first sports car project. The whole book is like this, and we get a feel for Ford as a whole, which in the 1980s tried to push the envelope with aerodynamic design in order to stay relevant and profitable in a huge corporate bureaucracy.

The Book is on sale nowand if you love looking at prototypes never seen before, I would recommend it.

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