From Showroom to Rally Champion: The Journey of the Ford Escort Mk1

Replacing the Ford Anglia - for millions of Britons the first new car they’d own - was no mean feat, but the Ford Escort Mk I, with its potent blend of practicality and performance, was more than up for the task. This is the story of the 1st generation Ford Escort, the car that helped usher in the age of modern motoring.

Automotive History
8 April 2024

The Mk 1 Ford Escort’s odyssey from showroom staple to motorsport marvel is a tale woven into the fabric of motoring history. Launched in 1968 at the Brussels Motor Show, it hit a particular sweet-spot in the evolution of the motoring industry, proving to be the ideal car for its time. Whether it was an affordable 1.1-litre runabout, a spacious family car, or a high-revving twin-cam that breathed fire, there was a Mark One Ford Escort for everyone.

The first iteration of the Ford Escort was created by Ford of Europe to meet the growing demand for a small, affordable family car that could appeal to a wide European market. Designed to replace the Ford Anglia 105E produced between 1959 and 1967, the Ford Escort Mk 1 offered a more modern and practical car that could challenge its European competitors including the Fiat 124, the Peugeot 204, and the Renaults 8 and 10.

The new Escort, with its tried and tested front-engined, rear-wheel drive layout, aimed to provide a blend of reliability, economy, and versatility, making it suitable for everyday use, as well as those who needed a little more poke for their pound.

One motoring journalist said the new Ford Escort Mk 1 would be a ‘strong force to reckon with’. No-one could have foreseen quite how strong. This is the story of the 1st generation Ford Escort.

The Ford Escort Mk 1: The Full English

Ford Escort 1300 (Credit: Fairfax Media Archives via Getty Images)

At its launch in 1968, the Mk1 Ford Escort showcased a distinctive American-inspired ‘Coke bottle design’ and a dog-bone shaped front grille. It was introduced with a variety of models right from the start, such as the base model Escort 1100 with 40 hp and a 1.1-liter engine. It also offered the 1100 De Luxe and the Super, which featured a more robust 1.3-liter 1300 GT equipped with enhanced suspension and a Weber carburetor, in addition to the high-performance Escort Twin Cam.

The latter was built for Group 2 rallying and was home to the excellent 1.6-litre eight-valve twin-cam originally developed for the Lotus Elan. Driven by Australian Frank Gardner, a 16-valve, 200 hp version of the Twin Cam went on to win the 1968 British Saloon Car Championship at a canter, winning all but two of the eleven races.

The Mark One Ford Escort elevated the brand to astonishing heights of success and popularity. A four-door version was introduced in 1969 and, with an estate and commercial panel van in the line-up, it was a car that truly catered for all sections of the market. Ford even supplied Britain’s police forces with 200 Escort panda cars.

Later iterations of the Mk I included updated versions of the 1100 and 1300 with both manual and automatic gearboxes, as well as a torquier version of the rather excellent 1300 GT.

All told, between 1968 and 1975, around two million classic Ford Escort Mark I models were built, setting the stage for future iterations of the Escort, which continued to evolve in response to changing consumer preferences and technological advancements. However, when it came to this iconic motorcar, it was the AVOs that really got the juices flowing.

AVO It: The Fast Mk I’s

1975 Ford Escort RS2000 (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Like AMG at Mercedes and M-Sport at BMW, the Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO) division of Ford was responsible for the creation of high-performance versions of the Ford Escort Mk 1, producing models that have since become nothing short of motoring icons.


Ford’s first homologation car – a car designed for racing that requires a certain number of road-going versions to be built, in this case 1,000 – the RS1600 (RS for Rally Sport) used the Ford Cosworth BDA (Belt-Drive A-Series) 1.6-litre double overhead cam 16v block. It was described as ‘unsophisticated, crude, rugged, sweaty, even primitive’ but it went on to become one of the most successful rally cars of the 1970s, helping to launch the career of Finnish rally legend Hannu Mikkola.


Launched towards the end of the Mk 1 Ford Escort’s production cycle, the RS2000 was recognised by its unique ‘droop-snoot’ front end and was powered by a four-cylinder 2.0-litre engine. This model combined the performance expected of an AVO car with a higher level of comfort and practicality, making it an attractive option for those who wanted a performance car that could also serve as a daily driver. It’s been argued in some circles that the RS2000 pre-empted the hot hatch market.

The Escort Mexico

When talk gets round to the most famous classic Ford Escort of them all, look no further than the Escort Mexico. An almost unbeatable Ford works team in the late 1960s and early 1970s culminated in victory in the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally, a 25,700 km (16,000 mile) marathon that started at Wembley Stadium on April 19th and finished in Mexico City on May 27th. It was won by Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm in a 1st generation Ford Escort – with Escorts finishing third, fifth, sixth and eighth – and it spawned a legend.

Named in honour of the Escort’s victory, the Mexico, at just under £1,200, featured a robust, simpler, and more affordable 1.6-litre engine, which made it accessible to a wider audience. Its appeal lay in its legendary balance of performance, reliability, and affordability, targeting drivers who wanted the thrill of driving a car with a strong racing heritage without the complexity or cost of a high-strung twin-cam engine. Pitched between the 1300GT and the RS1600, outselling the latter by ten to one, the Mexico – of which just 10,352 were built – hit the perfect sweet spot.

The Mark 1 Ford Escort: A Racing Legacy

Ford Escort RS2000 rally car (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The Mark One Ford Escort range from Advanced Vehicle Operations were not just road cars with added power. They were carefully engineered to excel in competitive motorsport. Their racing pedigree was established through numerous rally and circuit victories, proving the cars’ capabilities in some of the most demanding conditions.

This success on the track greatly enhanced the cars’ appeal off it, as drivers were drawn to the cachet of owning a car that could race to high-speed victory on Sunday afternoon and do the school run on Monday morning. The combination of performance, reliability, and motorsport success made these AVO Escorts highly desirable to a target market that appreciated the combination of everyday usability with competitive prowess.

The legacy of the AVO Escorts continues to this day, with these models being highly prized by collectors and racing enthusiasts for their historical significance, performance, and direct connection to Ford’s golden era of motorsport.

The Magic Machine: The Mk 1 Ford Escort

1969 Ford Escort Twin Cam (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The Ford Escort Mk1’s journey from an everyday runaround to a rally champion is a testament to the engineering achievement, versatility, and vision of its creators.

With its humble beginnings as a practical family car, the classic Ford Escort transcended its initial purpose to dominate the racing world, thanks in no small part to the legendary AVO models, which captured the very essence of the early 1970s zeitgeist.

The Mark 1 Ford Escort’s legacy, characterised by its remarkable adaptability and success across diverse realms of motoring, continues to resonate through the automotive world.


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