At first glance this rally-flavoured tuned Mk2 Ford Escort may appear to be as pure as the driven snow. But lift that bonnet and you’ll uncover a very dark Honda F20C VTEC secret…
Rear-wheel drive Ford Escorts are the stuff of legend. You only need to look at today’s auction prices to see that. While these cars were everywhere on Britain’s roads all through the 1970s, the combination of disposability and good ol’ rust has seen their numbers diminish massively. Sure, there’s still a fair few out there, but modern ownership of Mk1 and Mk2 Escorts can be roughly divided into two main groups: firstly, people who appreciate them as focused and pure rally machines, and thus like to strip them out and bounce them through forests. And secondly, people who grew up aspiring to these cars, either because their mum used to drive them to school in a 1300E, or because they used to hang out at the Chelsea Cruise and watching people pulling burnouts in their Harris-engined low-down two-doors. These people are now older, financially secure, and willing to pay top dollar to live out their childhood dreams.
Of course, Escorts have been around so long it’s tough to find new ways of modifying them. Everything, from the old-school South London look to the portholes-and-shagpile era, seems to have been done before. The key, then, is to contemporise. And that’s what Nick Rooney’s done with this 1976 Mk2. Yes, the spec may feature many classic and timeworn upgrades, but the beating heart of it is thoroughly modern. Purists avert your eyes. This tuned Ford Escort is packing the mighty F20C VTEC motor from Honda’s legendary S2000…
As engine swaps go, it’s an inspired choice. Whispered about in hushed tones by awestruck enthusiasts, it’s a unique concept that melds screaming revs – and we’re talking absurdly high for a road car, with peak power coming in comfortably above 9,000rpm – with proper race car tech: aggressive VTEC, molybdenum disulfidecoated piston skirts, the works.
For those unfamiliar with VTEC, it goes like this: when the rev needle sweeps to a place where, in other cars, you’d normally be thinking about shifting up, you simply keep the throttle pinned. Around 5,500rpm, the cam lobes switch to their second, racier profile, using witchcraft and distilled moonbeams (more technical explanations are available, consult an egghead). And when you think you’ve used up all the power, suddenly there’s absolutely flippin’ loads more of it. The engine is immediately more urgent, it’s furious and it just revs and revs until it sounds like it’s going to burst.
You just have to hang on with white knuckles, trust the engineering, then snick up a gear to keep yourself in the zone. By which time you’re far further down the road than you expected to be, and you’re not quite sure where you are. And you really don’t care either. VTEC is an addictive drug. All-in-all, not a bad way to lively up an old Escort, then. “The car actually had an X20 Vauxhall engine in it when I bought it,” Nick grins. “It was running twin 45 carbs and had various other bits and pieces done to it as well – leather Cosworth seats, nice wheels, a half-cage, it even had a full MoT. None of that mattered of course, as I had big plans!”
As the old maxim goes, you should always buy the best project base your budget allows, so it made a lot of sense for Nick to pick up a looked-after runner. All right, some might argue if you’re going to tear the thing back to first principles anyway it’s mad to break up a decent car and you’d be better to start with a rough shell. But that brings its own problems: this car was a known quantity, a proven toy and workhorse, and Nick had no qualms about unbolting everything. He had plans.
“The first weekend I had it, it was totally stripped to a rolling shell ready for dipping,” he recalls. “I sold everything I didn’t want or need – which was most of it, to be honest! And when I got the car back there turned out to be no real hidden surprises. The floors, chassis, engine bay, sills, and arches were all in amazing condition. It was a much quicker turn around for fabrication.” You see? There’s the logic. He didn’t have to spend aeons welding up an old teabag, he was able to get straight down to it and crack on with fulfilling his vision.
Step one toward achieving this dream was to convert the ’76 to full Group 4 specs (the WRC regs that ran from the mid-1970s until the introduction of Group B), which included stitch-welding throughout, a weld-in rollcage, big gearbox tunnel, an exhaust tunnel let into the floor; new wings and front and rear panels also found their way on, at which point Nick was able to build the whole thing back up to a near complete state. Then it was all stripped right back down again for the shell to be re-dipped – because if you’re going to do it properly, you need to tick every box. This build really is a proper job.
“There was a lot of down-time, waiting for that process to happen,” Nick remembers. “But once I got it back, it went to my mate’s place – CN Bodyshine – for some much needed love. This worked out well as it was Christmas time, and there was lots of snow around so he was quiet. But my car was already there! So he got busy with it, and about six weeks later I got it back from paint and it looked awesome! Then I could start the process of the final build.”
This task was made easier by the fact he’d already done it once, so there was no head scratching or scrabbling around for diagrams. It was more like a huge Meccano set. Even the custom exhaust had been fabricated back when the shell was in bare metal. It was just a case of knuckling down and bolting it all together, ready to emerge from the workshop a few months later, blinking in the light and ready to rock ’n’ roll. Right?
Well, no, not quite. These things never run completely smoothly. “The engine mapping did cause a few problems,” says Nick. “At the first session there turned out to be a problem with the ECU. We tried a few different maps, but had no luck, so I went to an Omex system. That was working fine, but then came another problem on the rollers as it was struggling with oil pressure when the VTEC opened.
“So I tried another oil pump, a new oil filter, with good quality race oil, but still no joy! It was blowing oil out of the dry sump tank in the boot every time it was on the rollers. I took it home and went through everything I’d fitted, thinking it was something I’d done. It turned out I needed a baffled oil tank, so I changed it and that cured the problem! However, I was still having oil pressure issues, and after checking everything twice I decided to strip the engine down. When I dropped the cradle down that holds the crank in, the centre bearing fell out! I put some new bearings in, and after checking the crank was OK, I drove it around for a bit to make sure that it was all right, then a Civic Type R decided he wanted a race, so I obliged – resulting in my engine seizing and my wife having to tow me home!”
Ah, fun and games eh? But that’s all part of the function of being an innovator. Trailblazers don’t have an easy time of it, but they do come out of it with a lot of tales to tell. A new short motor later and all of Nick’s troubles melted away – he had the manic engine of his dreams to complement his retro rally-prepped shell, and his combination of old and new throughout the chassis setup, from the turreted rear to the Hi-Spec brakes at the front, meant that the 1970s Escort was more than ready to play.
“I love to rev an engine, and these engines love to be revved,” he laughs. “It also gives reliable, modern horsepower – a lot of it – and the car really does get properly used. It’s been to Holland and Belgium for shows, I take it all over.”
And we can only assume he does so sideways at all times, at 9,000rpm, with a big silly grin on his face. You would, wouldn’t you? It’s like the classic rally cars your dad used to bang on about, except that here it’s been painted with a modern brush, giving it colossal horsepower and shouty, raspy noises. A very modern interpretation of an age-old formula.
TECH SPEC: FORD ESCORT
Flat-front 1976 Mk2 Escort; full Group 4 spec; acid-dipped and electrophoretic-coated shell; tarmac arches; alloy front spoiler; carbon-fibre bumpers; boot spoiler; lamp guards; green-tint glass; blue mud flaps and brackets; HID xenon headlight kit; 15in rear tubs; fully skidded floor pan; stitch-welded throughout; quad Cibies.
F20C 2.0-litre four-cylinder VTEC (from Honda S2000); 46mm Jenvey throttle bodies and spacers; Omex ECU; alloy radiator; full stainless exhaust system and manifold; dry sump system; Honda 6-speed gearbox with competition clutch; Capri 2.8i Atlas axle with LSD; 230bhp.
8x15in Minilites; 205/15 Toyo Proxes T1-R tyres; Bilstein coilovers front and rear; 6-linked rear suspension; adjustable TCAs; compression strut kit; cross member relocated to fi t engine; motorsport front and rear anti-roll bars with adjustable drop links; Hi- Spec front BBK; Sierra RS Cosworth rear disc brakes; bias pedal box; Aeroquip brake lines throughout.
Retrimmed Mitsubishi Evo VII front seats; modified Escort rear seats trimmed to match fronts; 4-point harnesses; custom carpets; carbon-fibre parcel shelf; centre console and door panels; flocked dash and dash-top; all new gauges; RMD steering wheel; electric power steering kit; Alpine CD player and 6×9 speakers; new black headlining; weld-in rollcage; alloy fuel tank and platform in boot; dry sump; oil tank and platform; fuel pump and fitted boot carpet.
I would like to thank Craig at CN Bodyshine (07803 082063) for painting and maintaining the old girl’s good looks; Paul at Frontline (07960 333340) for doing an awesome job on the interior; and Charlene, my wife, for putting up with the many hours I dedicated to working on the car – but she knows that I love her!
Words Dan Bevis Photography Jon Davies