19 February 2013
We look back at the models of the era by Corgi and Dinky as we celebrate 45 years of the iconic Escort. ...
It takes more than just sales figures to create an automotive legend. Paul Lumsdon looks at how the Ford Escort MkI propelled itself to iconic status and Dinky and Corgi’s subsequent efforts to reproduce the cars in miniature.
In the mid-1980s, still some years before I started working in the diecast toy industry, I worked for a boss who was the absolute stereotype of the young, upwardly mobile, professional of that era – otherwise known as the ‘Yuppie’. He was in his mid-30s, married with two young kids, cottage in the countryside and a 30-mile commute each day into London (just to add to the long hours he worked anyway). He was shaven headed, sharp-suited and he drove a bright red MkIII Ford Escort RS Turbo!
The best bit was that when he needed an errand running he would often throw me the keys and off I went. For the next half hour it was a case of “look everybody, look at me’” as I floored the accelerator and waited for the turbo to kick in. Even in the rather cramped streets of Hackney in East London it was exhilarating!
So just how did Ford’s ‘family car’ replacement for the 105e Anglia develop from rather humble beginnings to become the aspirational ‘hot-hatch’ of choice for the Boy-Racer and Yuppie classes during Britain’s boom years of the late 1980s?
It all started with the Escort MkI so let’s take a brief look at the history and early development one of Ford’s best-loved saloons.
The start of the legend
The name Escort had first been used by Ford during the 1950s when it was used on an estate version of the Ford Popular. However, it was towards the end of 1967 when the company’s Halewood factory began manufacturing a brand new Escort model to replace the 105e Anglia.
The Ford Escort was a small, 2-door family saloon featuring conventional rear wheel drive and a four-speed manual gearbox or three-speed automatic. Its styling was contemporary for the time with a distinct Detroit inspired ‘Coke Bottle’ waistline and the now famous and instantly recognisable ‘Dog Bone’ front grille.
It was officially launched at the Brussels Motor show in January 1968 and was billed by Ford as a European car. However, initially there was reluctance by the company’s German business to embrace the new British designed model. The Germans felt that the new car was too conventional and so European production commenced at Genk in Belgium in the autumn of 1968.
An instant hit!
The Escort was an instant hit not just in the UK but also in Europe – so much so that in 1970 European production transferred to Ford’s new manufacturing plant in Saarlouis, Germany. Model development expanded rapidly too with the introduction of a four-door model, an estate and a van by 1969.
Sales of the new model were setting records – in the UK in 1972 the Ford Escort overtook the BMC/Leyland 1100/1300 Series to become the second best selling car in the country just behind the Ford Cortina Mk3. In June 1974 Ford announced the two-millionth Escort had rolled off the production line less than six years after its launch. This was an unprecedented achievement outside of the USA.
Ford became the UK’s number one motor manufacturer and in 1975, with the UK economy still reeling from the oil crisis, it was the only one to record a profit.
A lovely example of a 1974 Ford Escort 2-door saloon, fully restored and on show at the Cranleigh Classic Car Show 2012. Photo courtesy of Jack Grover
Racing to further success
Sales alone do not create a legend so what was it that propelled the Escort to iconic status? The answer to this lay within Ford’s Motorsport Division.
From the very outset it had begun to prepare a rally version of the Escort. Its performance wasn’t just good, it was exceptional and the Ford works rally team with their race-prepared Mk1 Escorts became almost unbeatable during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The pinnacle of this success was arguably the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally, which was won by Ford’s Finnish driver Hannu Mikkola and his co-driver Gunnar Palm.
Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm in action during the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally. Their win inspired the now legendary Escort Mexico model.
From track to road racers
To commemorate the victory Ford released a special edition road-going version of the car which it called the Escort Mexico. It was soon joined by the RS1600, another performance car, which married a 1600 ‘Kent’ engine block with a 16-valve Cosworth cylinder head. Built at Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Operations plant at Aveley in Essex both the Mexico and RS1600 featured high-performance engines, uprated suspension and brakes as well as strengthened bodyshells – making them ideal for rallying.
In 1974 the Aveley plant also introduced the RS2000. This was a slightly more civilised version of the RS1600 but most importantly it offered great performance at an affordable price and it caught the imagination of the younger market like no other car. In many ways it had pre-empted the arrival of the hot-hatch and had the boy racers rushing to their local accessory shop for a set of furry dice!
The benchmark for future success
The Escort MkI had truly evolved from a family saloon to a world-beating performance racer in the space of just six years and with this transformation came its place in British automotive history. The legend was born and spawned a series of further models, the MkII and MkIII in particular, that dominated not only the UK car sales charts but also the world rally scene throughout the rest of the 1970s and the 1980s.
Escort in diecast
It will come as no surprise that a car as popular as the Ford Escort has also become one of the most modelled cars in diecast. A comprehensive review of all the models that have been produced since the car’s launch in 1968 would require a far longer and more detailed article (perhaps this is something the editor might consider for the 50th Anniversary in 2018?).
For the purposes of this article I have selected just a small sample of older Escort MkI models from Dinky and Corgi that were produced very much as toys of that era but have nevertheless become popular with today’s collectors.
Dinky No 168 Escort MkI
This model was released at a time when Dinky had realised it had to up its game in order to compete with the likes of Corgi. It was a valiant effort packed with features but in my opinion still lacked the engineering finesse of its great Welsh rival.
The overall shape of the model looked good but the opening doors, bonnet and boot were all rather clunky and spoiled the model a little. The interior was also quite basic and lacked any attempt at detail on the dashboard. On the plus side the engine detail, whilst basic, was a nice touch and early models were fitted with cast wheels, which looked quite realistic.
However, collector beware! From 1972 these were changed to Speedwheels which did nothing for its looks as a model but did no doubt make it a faster running toy – and at the end of the day that is what it was designed to be! The underside detail was basic but Dinky did at least make an effort to engrave an exhaust and transmisson as well as the product decription.
Colours available were pale blue, metallic red and metallic blue. Early models were packed in a closed full-colour box whilst later releases featured a card platform and a clear vacuum formed ‘fishbowl’ style window display lid.
The Dinky MkI Escort was released in 1968 and remained in production for eight years until 1976. These models are becoming quite collectible now – particularly the earlier versions in the card box with cast wheels – and prices reflect this with decent examples commanding around £50 to £70. Later examples are a little cheaper.
Dinky No 168 Escort MkI featured opening doors, bonnet and boot. Photo courtesy of Andrew Wood – www.little-wheels.co.uk
Dinky No 270 Escort MkI Police Car
The Dinky model No 270, Escort Police Car, was a variant of No 168 Escort MkI Saloon. It had all the same features but with the addition of a roof-board with police stickers to front and rear.
The model was finished in a typical Panda scheme of the period with pale blue bodywork and contrasting white doors. I’m afraid for me this model is spoilt a little by the rather ‘un-police-like’ red interior but if you can live with this (and the clunky features mentioned earlier) it is quite a nice looking model.
It was released in 1969 and had a shorter production run than the saloon, being discontinued in 1972. Later examples did follow the saloon and changed to Speedwheels and the clear ‘fishbowl’ style window packaging. Again these have become quite collectable and prices are similar to the saloon or perhaps just a little higher for good examples.
A mint example of a Dinky No 270 Escort MkI Police Car, together with a very good box. Note the more realistic cast wheels on this earlier example. Photo courtesy of ‘Corgidave’
‘Rockets’ were Corgi’s rather late attempt to counteract the invasion of Mattel Hotwheels. Launched in 1970 the product was excellent but it never really took off and was withdrawn by 1972.
Rockets had a removable plastic chassis and axle/wheel assemblies that could be swapped. The Golden Tune-Up Key supplied with each model was used to unclip the chassis from the vehicle. Track sets were available and could be constructed to make the models perform all kinds of hair-raising stunts. As you can imagine the majority of the cars were well played with and the tune-up keys were easily lost. As a result many of these models are quite rare today and command high prices amongst collectors
Corgi Rockets No 923 James Bond Ford Escort
Taken from the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service this Corgi Escort MkI was around 70mm (just under 3in) long and produced in white with red interior, racing No 7, ‘007’ and ‘James Bond Special Agent’ decals. To find one today unopened on its blister card is rare indeed and you will part with possibly £300. Even a car on its own in good condition will command £50 plus – a fair price to pay for a 3in diecast toy!
Corgi Rockets No 927 Ford Escort World Rally
This is a Daily Mirror World Cup Rally Car. It was produced in white with racing No 18 and Daily Mirror decals on the doors, bonnet and boot whilst the roof carries a ‘Telegraph Magazine’ decal. The interior was red. The model differs from the Bond release with the addition of bracing bars between the front wings and roof and the front end has rally crash bars and spotlights in black.
This is another very rare item to find unopened in its original blister pack and you are likely to pay between £180 and £200 for a good one. The car on its own with the decals in decent condition will cost over £30.
Corgi Rockets No 927 Ford Escort World Rally Car, a very rare model to find in good condition which commands a high price in collecting circles. Photo courtesy of ‘Corgidave’
Hannu Mikkola’s 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally winning Escort MkI on display at the British Heritage Motor Museum at Gaydon in Warickshire. Photo courtesy of Paul Brown
Hannu Mikkola’s 1970 Escort MkI draws a large crowd as it poses outside the offices of the Mirror Group Newspapers – one of the major sponsors of the car.
Corgi Juniors No 63 Escort MkI Monte Carlo Rally
By contrast with the Rockets releases this Corgi Juniors model was just a standard 3in diecast model with no major features other than the Whizzwheels fitted for extra speed! It was produced between 1971 and 1975 in metallic blue with either red or white interior and rally stickers including racing No 32 on the doors.
The current collector price is also a contrast with the Rockets. For a good, complete blister packed model expect to pay between £15 and £20. For the car on its own prices start from around just £3 depending on condition.
Corgi Juniors No 63 Escort MkI – Monte Carlo Rally. Photo courtesy of ‘Corgidave’
The Corgi Juniors No 63 Escort MkI - Monte Carlo Rally is a much cheaper collecting option than the Corgi Rockets models – even in mint condition. Photo courtesy of ‘Corgidave’
Want to find out more about the Escort MkI in miniature? Then get next month’s issue where we will be bringing the story more up to date with MkI releases from Corgi from the 1980s through to the modern-day.