Why We All Need a 90s Fast Ford

7w ago


It's a strange fact of life that in the 60s and 70s Vauxhall and Ford made like-for-like cars. They both sold quite well. But the person who bought the Ford was saying something about themselves. Namely, I don't just want to get from A to B, I want to enjoy the drive.

Because all those Escorts, Cortinas and Granadas had a certain kudos that their Viva, Cavalier and Viceroy rivals lacked. And that was down to marketing.

From the 60s through to the late 80s Ford's marketing was second to none. The cars looked good and there was a version for everyone. And the one everyone wanted was The Sporty One.

In 1963 the inspired marriage of Lotus and Ford spawned perhaps the first ever hot version of a humble car, the Lotus Cortina. The Norfolk firm's fiddling turned uninspiring beginnings into a car that could dominate any race track.

Ford had a hit on its hands. And, Ford being Ford, the firm quickly looked at ways to exploit it. The first thing to go was the active involvement of Lotus - cynics may cry but Ford realised that most Lotus Cortina buyers didn't give a stuff about what they couldn't see, they just wanted a Lotus badge on their car. So the Mk2 Lotus Cortina was built by Ford with a Lotus badge.

From here it wasn't much of an intellectual leap to realise that you could probably do away with the Lotus connection too, provided you could come up with a sporting heritage of your own and use it to nail your own sports badges to your cars.

And so that's exactly what Ford did. In the 60s and 70s Ford were all over motor racing, from the famous Ferrari wars at Le Mans to the rally stages of the world. The resulting accolades gave Ford sporting pedigree, which they quickly bestowed on their humble saloons with badges like RS - for Rally Sport and rally-referencing Mexico. Amongst many others.

But Ford didn't forget that original lesson with the Lotus Cortina. What buyers of sports cars for the road actually wanted wasn't a sports car. They were quite happy to buy a car that simply looked like a sports car. So to create the fast versions Ford simply added more power then dressed them up as tastefully as possible with stripes, biggers wheels and Recaro seats. All of which, backed by the racing pedigree, was enough to persuade buyers to shell out significantly more for a car that was, fundamentally, the same as the cheapest version but with a bigger engine.

This smoke and mirrors approach reached its zenith in the late 1980s with the Escort RS Turbo and Sierra Cosworth, cars with more spoilers than a box set of Midsomer Murders. These were quick, great cars but Ford had spent more time on how they looked than how they went. Rivals from VW, BMW and even Vauxhall were better. Much better.

In the drive to make its cars look fast, Ford also created a problem for itself. The sporty Fiestas, Escorts and particularly Sierra Cosworths were extremely nickable. And also very, very easy to nick. So easy, in fact, that they were hard to insure unless you put a thumping great bollard on your driveway.

By the dawn of the 90s the company faced a problem. The old strategy of selling humble, old tech cars with sporty addenda wasn't working because the rivals drove better and the criminals knew which cars to steal. Things had to change.

That change took the form of one man, Richard Parry-Jones. He was helicoptered in at a late stage during the development of the Mondeo when the European marketing team realised the new car wasn't up to scratch. To succeed it couldn't be like the old Fords - simple underneath but shiny on the top. It needed to shine even in the areas you couldn't see.

Parry-Jones worked fast to transform the Mondeo into a proper driver's car. In turn Ford took a leaf out of BMW and Audi's book and dialled down the spoilers and big wheels. And the sporty versons got a subtle new name, ST, which would confound the thieving miscreants. Of course it would.

But it actually worked. Because every Mondeo was a joy to drive it meant that the ST24 version was brilliant without shouting to the world that it was. It didn't need to.

Ford was so pleased with the result that Parry-Jones was let loose on the new Escort replacement, the Focus. The last generation Escort had clung to Ford's strategy of keeping the shiny stuff shiny and cutting corners on what you couldn't see, so the engines were awful and the ride in particular dreadful. The new Ford Focus was, in comparison, a revelation. Parry-Jones persuaded Ford to spend an extra £50 per car on a trick suspension set up, which transformed the new car with class-leading chassis dynamics. And just like the Mondeo, the basic car was so good that the fast one, the ST170, didn't need to shout about it.

Where Ford dropped the ball was in the performance of the ST24 and ST170. With just 170 bhp they weren't actually very quick. So along came faster versions, the ST200 and RS Focus, which were.

Of course, not every 90s Fast Ford was very good. We couldn't leave without mentioning the Probe and the Cougar, two ill-fated attempts to create a new Capri for the 90s. They were awful, not just because one had a horrible, horrible name but because they were really American market cars repurposed for Europe. So forget about those.

All fast Fords go through exactly the same value cycle - they drop heavily in value before bottoming out at around 25 years. Then they start becoming more valuable. During that 25 year period everyone laughs at the chance that these everyday, common cars will ever be worth anything.

Don't be like those people. Just consider Capri values. Until around 2012 values were on the floor - you could pick up a decent car for £1,500. Now you'll pay at least £10,000 for a 2.8i. Limited run 280s are £25,000 or more.

Fast Fords of the 60s, 70s and 80s are enormous fun to drive. But that's mainly because they're powerful cars with rear wheel drive. They're simple and not much different from the basic models. The 90s Mondeo and Focus are different. They are genuine drivers cars, with a level of sophistication and engagement that earlier fast Fords simply can't deliver. They are also the last outpost of simplicity over complexity. Later cars from the 00s and 10s are overloaded with technology that simply wasn't available in the 90s. And that makes the earlier cars simpler, easier and cheaper to own.

The ST Mondeo and Focus are currently at the bottom of their value curves. There are plenty about and buyers can pick and choose. That will change, because with fast Fords it always does. Scoff at your peril.

Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733

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