Are performance cars really getting better? From a technical point of view, we have to say yes. They are faster, smarter, more powerful and safer than ever before. But many of them are arguably too fast, too clever and too capable to enjoy them off an empty FIA Grade 1 track.
Nowadays, making a performance car is a battle against emissions regulations while trying to get increasingly absurd figures of horsepower and 0-100 km / h times. There are of course exceptions. For example the huge Alpine A110 and the new 992 Porsche 911 GT3, which remains stubborn, even if it is hardly stronger than the latest Carrera GTS. But the options are limited. Instead, you could look to the past.
The restomod industry is booming in 2021, with reinterpreted versions of old cars popping up all the time. However, the car you see on this page is not a restomod, as evidenced by the ’70’ plate hanging from the bumper. Yes, it was re-registered in 2020.
It may look like a second generation Ford Escort, but officially it isn’t, hence the ‘Mk2’ badge that sits on the grille where the blue oval would normally be. For the DVLA this is an ‘MST Mk2’ although this is a brand new Mk2 escort in every way.
It owes its existence to the still very strong Mk1 and Mk2 escort rally scene that helped a company called Motorsport Tools build a successful business keeping those old power slide machines going. In its extensive catalog, you can find every single part that you might want to replace on an old Escort, right down to the bodywork, which is made about 40 miles away.
This left the team with a question that has preoccupied them for the past few years: if we are all selling parts, why not putting them all together to build a complete car? The answer is now here in the form of the newly formed MST offshoot and of course the beautifully boxy red Mk2 that sits in front of me.
It looks shiny with its Group 4 spec sheet extensions and 13-inch gold wheels. The Mk2 is a car that has it all – just looking at it you get a feel for how it drives, as if you heard the individual throttle valves growl before the 2.5-liter engine even starts.
This ITB equipped unit is a naturally aspirated Ford Duratec engine producing somewhere in the 200 hp range. It drives the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission from an NC Mazda MX-5 (the Miata used Ford engines at the time, remember) and a limited slip differential. Do you want to go more There are other engine options, including the Cosworth YB-based Millington Diamond, which is great for high-revving thrills and over 300 horsepower.
The old leaf spring rear suspension is being abandoned in favor of an independent multi-link setup, a common conversion for escort rally cars. Adjustable Bilstein coilovers live on every corner, and beneath those tiny wheels are powerful AP Racing brakes.
Inside there is a spartan cabin with a roll cage and bucket seats, but for those who want more comfort, you can leave it all in. Given the rather bare nature of this cabin, the view from the window is thanks to the reflection of the bare shell.
This MST Mk2 is practically a proof of concept – a prototype that will go through the UK Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) process and be approved for road use. The fit and workmanship, MST director Carwyn Ellis tells me, is not entirely representative of the customer cars arriving later. So it takes quite a bang to close the driver’s door, there is a faint hum from the gear stick at higher revs, and I can see a couple of cable connectors that would be cleaned up for the production version.
However, all the important things – the engine, suspension, and brakes – are spot on, and God does this together to make something really special. On a tour of the Welsh peninsula Llŷn, the point that protrudes into the Irish Sea, the Mk2 quickly won me over.
The box-shaped shape and thin pillars of the Mk2 make for a breathtaking 360 degree view of the stunning North West Wales landscape, with the hills occasionally rolling away to reveal the rough sea. The accompanying soundtrack is anything from a muscular inline four bark to its redline of around 7000 rpm. This may be a brand new Ford box engine, but the sound it makes is rooted in the past.
With a curb weight of around a ton, 200 hp is of course a fast car, if not one that feels breathtakingly fast. That’s fine with me – what’s on offer here is solid, exciting real-world performance that allows for a good time at full throttle before going to goofy speeds. In any case, if you don’t want to be scared, you should always consider the Millington engine.
Every gear change with the Miata ‘Box is an absolute pleasure, with an ingeniously short and precise throw. MST says the switch from first to second will improve – the lever had to be moved further back in the car to put it in a more natural position, and the linkage still needs editing. But that gives me no reason to complain.
The tight pedal box makes heel and toe downshifts fantastic, as does the tight, short stroke clutch. And here the speed adjustment is particularly important – neglecting this noticeably kills the rear end.
This was Wales and what turned into a fun beautiful day on the streets around MST’s very rural headquarters has turned into a rainy, muddy mess. With the complete lack of driver assistance and some Kumho Ecsta V700 semi-slick tires disguising those sloppy 13s, I expected the Mk2 to want to light the rear boots at every opportunity, but no.
The traction even under these conditions is surprisingly good, proof of the chassis set-up and the well-considered power output. A typical linear suction force development free of the mid-range boostiness to which we have become accustomed in modern turbocharged cars certainly helps. Of course, the back comes when you want it to, and does it in a predictable, manageable way when provoked.
ITBs give this box-fresh Duratec engine an old-school soundtrack
At the moment it is more the front end that lacks adhesion. When it rains heavier, the understeer increases ugly, but given the driver’s tight bond with the machine, you know exactly what the front tires are up to and manage your inputs accordingly.
As we’ve said before, slow steering with a big old dead center in the middle is one of the main elements that dates a car. In the Mk2, however, there is a much faster rack than the original part (a relatively brisk 2.4 revs lock-to-lock versus a sluggish 3.5) with servo assistance. Nevertheless, the steering is quite stiff at lower speeds and becomes lighter with increasing speed.
Another weakness of the old car, jerky brakes, is certainly not there either. There’s no power assist, so the pedal needs a firm kick, but as long as you’re ready to do the legwork, the Mk2’s braking system happily scrubs speed quickly.
The competitive orientation of the Bilstein coilover kit is always evident when you hit a bump in the road or are faced with a bump, but it subsides more than enough when you drive faster. The ride is judged well, offers more than enough comfort, and effectively combats another “charm” of an old car, excessive body tilt.
That’s not to say that the Mk2 feels like a modern sports car – on the contrary. What it does is a skillful balance between the characterful experience of driving something old and the dynamic capabilities made possible by modern components. And it will be much more exciting and interesting to drive than any conventional “new” car.
Of course, Restomods do the same, which is why they’re so popular that a new one seems to pop up every other week. But if something like the MST Mk2 can deliver that experience without making potentially irreversible changes to an original car from a dwindling population, isn’t that the better way?
MST plans to do 10 of these per year
However, we can’t make any case for the Mk2 because of a restomod to save a lot of money – buying one is still an expensive business. Starting at £ 75,000, whether you choose the Mk2 or the Mk1, the prototype that MST is currently putting the finishing touches to. You may be shy about that, but most customers spend a lot more – whether for chassis, wheels, engines or equipment options, there are countless customization options.
In any case, given the trend in old escort prices, especially for the Mk1, MST’s non-escort seems like great value for money. Also, if you go shopping for a new car elsewhere with this type of cash, you will struggle to get something this grinning that is fun. This might look like a car from decades ago, but I think it might just be the future.