The Mk2 Escort was always going to be an incredibly hard act to follow. Especially with Ford switching from a rear-wheel drive platform to a new generation front-wheel drive platform, enthusiasts were concerned that this switch could ruin the Escort.
With this in mind, Ford’s engineers took plenty of time to analyse the whole front-wheel drive moment that was then being spearheaded by the Golf GTI, and with that, they sought to eliminate any difficulties encountered by their competitors. The result of years of research culminated in the launch of the Mk3 Escort in 1980, and a sporty model named the Escort XR3 aimed at dethroning the GTI.
It was easy to spot an XR3 by its rear spoiler and side stripes, while up front it featured twin spot lights much like old 1600 Sport. The interior was slightly different too, featuring racy longitudinally striped seats in soft cloth and some changes to the instrument cluster which now included a tachometer.
The XR3’s ‘high performance’ 1600 CVH motor incorporated a specifically profiled camshaft and a twin-choke Weber carburettor that boosted maximum power to 70kw at 6,000rpm – an increase of 21.5% over the single venturi version in the 1600 GLE – while peak torque of 132.5nm was achieved at 4,000rpm. Strangely, instead of fitting a 5-speed manual, Ford opted for a 4-speeder, where the 4th gear served as an indirect overdrive. Because of the high gearing on the XR3, it was slightly slower off the line than the earlier Sport variant.
Despite that, dialling up the revs and dropping the clutch could induce epic burnouts, and the gutsy 1600 CVH motor had no issues revving to its 6,200rpm redline. It scampered from 0-60kph in just over 6 seconds, while the benchmark 100kph was done in 14.9 seconds. It eventually topped out at a true speed of 167kph – a top speed that wasn’t far off the Cortina 3000 S. Braking was an area that needed huge improvement over its predecessor, and this was taken care of by 240mm discs up front, and 180mm drums at the back.
Another big talking point was its independent front and rear suspension, which came at a time when Ford was still grasping the concept of a sporty front-wheel drive car. Even with that limited knowledge, Ford managed to tune the suspension to gift the little XR3 with handling characteristics that were akin to a slightly understeery rear-wheel drive car, than the usual understeer that was normally associated with front-wheel drive vehicles. And as you imagine, this was a highlight of the XR3.
Ford South Africa’s XR3 was priced at R6725 when it launched in 1981, and was very well received in the tuning market too, with performance specialists like Basil Green Ford and Steyn Ford offering hotted up versions, which could be had for a few thousands of Rands more.
Ford even released a special edition of the XR3 called the XR3 TF, of which 500 were produced. This ‘Team Ford’ coloured XR3 also used the 1600 CVH motor paired with a 5-speed gearbox; featured diamond white wheels with black nuts, a white front grill, an XR3 spoiler, bodyside mouldings and sport seats, and was priced at around R9720 when it debuted.
However, it was only when the sportier XR3i arrived did Ford enthusiasts really start salivating for the Mk3 Escort. The XR3’s Weber carburettor system was essentially binned in favour of a Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system which saw output leap to 78kw at 6,000rpm, a top speed of 185kph and a 0-100kph time of around 9 seconds.
Even though the XR3 broke Ford’s lineage of rear-wheel drive sporty cars, at the time, it was a car that every petrol head lusted for. It might not be one of the all-time greats when one speaks of performance Fords today, but it was a car that came with tons of racing pedigree behind its badge, and that alone made it instantly desirable.