If you’re going to pamper and mothball your collectible car, you might as well have bought a vase or an oil painting. Iain Holt is enjoying every moment driving his rapid modified Ford Focus RS Mk1, because that’s what it’s for.

That Sierra RS500 changed the tone. You know the one, it sold for close to £600k at Race Retro recently, and it got a few collectors all excited in the process. No, one Cosworth making telephone numbers at auction doesn’t mean that all Cossies are worth half-a-million-plus, but the mood slightly shifted that day, and the manner in which values of classic, retro and modern-classic Fords have been rising was thrust into a wider spotlight. All of a sudden you’ve got seasoned Ferrari collectors wondering about the investment potential of Escort RS Turbos. So it’s only natural that the more collectible elements of the Blue Oval back catalogue should be jealously guarded, kept factory-standard, hidden from view and cocooned in heated air-tight garages rather than actually being used, isn’t it?

driving shot of modified Ford Focus RS Mk1

Drive your collectible cars!

Well, no. Sod that. If you’re not enjoying your car for what it is and are thinking solely about its value, you’re not a proper car enthusiast; keeping it nice for the next owner might net you a bigger resale profit, but they’re the one who’s really benefitting from your sacrifice even if they do have to pay more for the privilege. Bottom line: cars are machines, and machines are meant to be used.

They don’t know how old or valuable they are, they’re just made to do a job. And in the case of fast Fords, that job is to transport the driver from Point A to Point B (preferably via a lengthy jaunt down the winding route to Point C) in as entertaining and rapid a way as possible. So for lifelong Ford enthusiast Iain Holt, there was never any chance that this modified Ford Focus RS Mk1 was going to be mothballed in a garage and occasionally wheeled out to be trailered to a concours lawn. Wringing the necks of RS Fords is intertwined within his very DNA, and Iain knows exactly how this game is played.

RS badge

Iain’s car obsession

“Like many enthusiasts, my interest in cars came from my dad, Jim,” Iain explains. “He competed in motorsport, and in the ’90s bought a clean, standard S2 Escort RS Turbo that got used for sprints, hillclimbs and track days as well as attending shows and events with the Central and East of Scotland RS Owners Club. This was my first experience of an RS-badged car, and I was hooked! Sadly he passed away when I was 16, but the love for all things fast Ford and motorsport had been instilled. And over the years I’ve had three S2 RS Turbos, a big-turbo Escort Cosworth (the dream car when I was a teen, and the one I really regret selling), a Mk3 Focus RS, and a Mk8 Fiesta ST, all of which have been modified to some degree.”

rear 3/4 shot of modified Ford Focus RS Mk1

Buying the Ford Focus RS Mk1

The acquisition of this Mk1 Focus came about after Iain had taken a bit of time out from playing with Fords, having a quick dabble with RenaultSports. He’d spotted that the market for the early Focus RS (FRS) was starting to climb, and figured that the time was right to pick up a nice one before they all got soaked up by cynical collectors. “The Mk1 was also highly rated for its handling, so I knew it would make a great show and track car,” he reasons, as if further justification were necessary. And so the hunt was on.

Iain initially found what he thought was the one up in Scotland, even going so far as to put down a deposit – but the seller backed out of the deal and gave his money back. Having come so tantalisingly close to realising the dream, this hardened RS devotee was now champing at the bit to find the right car and get cracking, and before long Iain pinpointed this one down in Dagenham. He booked a flight from Glasgow, shook hands on the deal and found himself with a very interesting car indeed: a pleasingly tidy Mk1 FRS with a smattering of tasty upgrades. It was running 260bhp thanks to an uprated exhaust, manifold, larger charge-cooler radiator, and remap; set up with direct boost, it was very laggy before coming on song, but all the right pieces were in place. This was the perfect base for what Iain had in mind.

modified Ford Focus RS Mk1 engine

The plan for modifying the Ford Focus RS Mk1

“The aim of the build was always to have a clean car that could hold its own on track,” he says. “After a couple of years showing the car, the decision was made to get it ready for track use, and the first thing to go on was the big brake upgrade to get it stopping properly, as I knew more power was coming next. This was done the week before Ford Live at Knockhill in 2018 by myself and two mates, and even just having the big APs fitted got the car plenty of attention from bystanders.”

Shortly after this, the RS was taken to Sabre Tuning – renowned for being the masters of the Mk1 Focus RS – to receive their full Stage 4 Sabre 420R conversion. This comprised the 420R hybrid turbo, larger MAF conversion, bigger injectors, uprated fuel pump, 3D boost controller and live mapping, and at the same time Paul at Sabre also fitted a new organic clutch and a Pro Alloy intercooler with custom shortened pipework. The result of all this was a mighty 398bhp at the flywheel, and vastly improved drivability.

Be sure to check out our Ford Focus RS Mk1 tuning guide for advice on modifications for your FRS. 

Pro Alloy Intercooler

Mechanical setbacks

“After collecting the car, a play with a Nissan GT-R on the way home confirmed that it was money well spent,” Iain laughs. “The RS really was transformed, and it ran faultlessly. Well, until five laps into a track session at Ford Live in 2019, when the water pump decided to call it a day. Then at Ford Fair in August the same year a hose clamp let go, blowing a boost hose off just three laps into the Mk1 FRS-only track session.

For the RSOC National Day in 2019 I was booked on track and the temperatures on the day were set to go above 30-degrees; the decision was made to fit an oil cooler behind the front bumper, mounted on the crash bar – a modification that meant losing the bonnet catch and having to install Aerocatches, all within the week leading up to the event. And further down the line, I actually thought I had melted a piston in 2021, en route to a show and teaching a Mk7 ST and Mk2 FRS to respect their elders…”

details on engine in modified Ford Focus RS Mk1

Getting the modified Ford Focus RS Mk1 back up and running

These mechanical battle scars are all evidence of a life well-lived; after all, you can’t be sure that you’re exploiting the limit of the car’s potential unless you occasionally cross over that line. However, that round of automotive hijinks in 2021 did feel like a bit of a setback, with Iain leaving the Focus untouched in the garage for the best part of a year before biting the bullet, clenching slightly and sending the car back to Paul at Sabre to investigate the engine knock. “Thirty minutes after receiving the car, he sent me a video of it running perfectly,” he grins. “Two bolts had come loose on the water pump pulley, which was causing it to send a knocking through the block. So a suspected rebuild turned out to be just the tightening of two bolts… it’s not often a fast Ford lets you off that lightly!”

Aftermarket wheels

New wheels for the Focus RS

A bullet dodged, for sure – and with enthusiasm renewed, Iain hit the ground running with a fresh keenness to make the Focus into everything he thought it should be. “Since buying the car, I had seen a picture online of a Mk1 Focus RS on 18” Compomotive TH2 wheels, which really suited it,” he continues. “But Compomotive had stopped making them in 18” for over ten years, and they rarely came up for sale on the used market.

Many an email and message was sent to Barry at Compomotive for more than a year, trying to convince him to remake the 18” TH2; at first he was resistant, as he didn’t think he would sell the volume required to make it worthwhile. But I got more and more owners to express their interest, and finally the news came that they would be remade! These are, in my opinion, one of the best wheels for the Mk1 FRS.”

modified Ford Focus RS Mk1 interior

Interior modifications

You can see how ‘show’ and ‘go’ have gone hand-in-hand throughout this process, and the final stylistic flourish was to have a set of more supportive Sparco buckets expertly retrimmed in the style of the original-equipment interior. This was carried out by Auto-Trim Systems in Leicester, after Iain had witnessed the impressive job they did on fellow Mk1 FRS owner Neil’s car, retrimming a Mk2 FRS interior to fit the older model. Much like the rest of Iain’s car, his tasteful cabin upgrade achieves the twin aims of making it better to drive on road and track, and making it more impressive on the showground. Of course the car gets used hard, but the pride Iain takes in it is evident in every gleaming and pristine inch.

“After moving south in 2016, I joined the Northants RSOC Group and would attend events with them or with the Mk1 Focus RS Owners Club,” he explains. “My favourite circuit to drive, and where the car is most often seen lapping, is Donington Park. The Focus RS always gets a good reaction, especially as you are now seeing fewer and fewer of them getting used as they are meant to be.” And that’s very much the point for Iain. Don’t worry about the trends, forget the values, ignore the hysterical market analysts – this was a machine conceived and built to be fast and fun, and so it remains. In fact, it’s been getting faster and more fun all the time, and long may that continue.

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Photos: Ade Brannan.