Hardly the best fast Ford to drive, but if you're of a certain age still an iconic one…
By John Howell / Sunday, 28 August 2022 / Loading comments
I’ll level with you. I don’t think that the Ford XR3i is that great a car. Not dynamically speaking. It’s certainly not the best-handling Ford there’s ever been, and not even the best-handling Escort for that matter. Not when the Escort’s back catalogue is full of gems such as the Mexico and RS1800.
Then there are Ford’s engines. The BDA unit, with its Cosworth-developed, 16-valve heads that sat at the heart of the RS1800 and RS1600, was a gem. And stretching back even further, so was the Lotus twin cam that Ford slipped into the Mk1 Escort Twin Cam. Compared with those, the old 1,600 CVH unit in the XR3i didn’t really cut it. CVH stood for Compound Valve angle, Hemispherical head, and the high-swirl combustion design was apparently influenced by Honda’s CVCC high-swirl engine. In Ford’s case, the hemispherical combustion chamber was delivered by angling the valves at 45 degrees with a 7-degree offset that allowed the use of a single camshaft. More swirl effect would ensure a cleaner burn, lower emissions and more power. That was the theory.
But it was a rubbish motor compared with GM’s Family II engines. I can remember racing a few XR3i’s off the lights (back when I were an exuberant lad, you understand) in my knackered-out old Mk1 Astra 1300 S. Talk about showing something a clean pair of heels. It was no sweat getting ahead, much to the chagrin of those Ford boys, who were no doubt paying a fortune for their insurance for the privilege of driving such a sought-after and highly nickable machine. It was also a coarse engine. So coarse that some said that CHV actually stood for ‘Considerable Harshness and Vibration’. Additionally, it prone to cam wear and leaky valve guide oil seals if I recall correctly, although mainly if servicing was neglected and the oil turned sludge.
Back to its lacklustre performance: it was responsible for one of my most disappointing moments as a child when I got to experience its lack of go first-hand. This was when I was about 12, and my mate’s mum gave me a lift home from school in her Mk3 XR3i. Boy, was I excited. It was the first ‘performance’ car I’d ever been in, and I couldn’t wait to experience its speed. In my head it was going to be so fast – perhaps just shy of land speed record fast. But it wasn’t. Even then, without anything much to compare it with and full of the enthusiasm (naivety) of youth, I remember the disappointment was palpable. As we both encouraged her to “Give it some” the acceleration was no better then ‘meh’.
Right, well that’s a litany of negativity about how disappointing the XR3i is, which might have you wondering why the hell I am writing about it. Here’s why: despite the faults, I just love ‘em. Whether it’s the Mk3 or a Mk4 like this one, a warm feeling comes over me every time I clap my eyes on an XR3i. Especially this one, actually, because the guy that worked on our farm when I was growing up had one just like it. I thought it just looked the dogs nuts and would stand looking at it day after day.
Is it just me that thinks this? There is something really lovely about the basic shape of the Mk3 Escort, isn’t there? It’s just pretty. Compared with Sierras, which can look a little gawky on the rare occasions you see them out about these days, I think these Escorts have aged very well. And the Mk4 came along and toned down the angularity of the Mk3 perfectly, without ruining the basic shape. This is the peak, too. The facelift that came in 1989 added a wee bit more fussiness to it in my mind – the extended cooling vent at the bottom of the front bumper and the multi-spoke alloys never quite did it for me. This pre-facelift car has a wonderful purity to it.
I drove Ford’s black heritage car a few years ago. Sure enough, it wasn’t a great thing to drive. That said – and maybe this is because I’d built up its crapness in an equal but opposite measure to the performance potential I expected of my mate’s mum’s car – it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. So if you fancy one now don’t expect any fireworks. But if it’s simply about reliving some part of your youth, then there’s certainly pleasure to be had tootling about in one.
And if that’s what you’re after, I don’t think you could do much better than this one. 64,000 miles, plenty of optional extras – like those pretty five-spokes instead of plastic trims, spot lamps and a sunroof – and the original keys, tax-disc holder, number plates etc. It just oozes that ‘proper car’ feel you get that makes some classics stand out. The thing that strikes me is the condition of the seats. How many Fords of this period, even low-milers, end up with saggy velour. Here, that classic XR3i trim looks taut and pristine.
It’s a lot of money, true, but everything is these days – just consider the astonishing £650k that some fanatic paid for Princess Di’s old RS Turbo. And sure, a Mk2 Golf GTi is better to drive, but while the XR3i is flawed, if you are of a certain age, it remains absolutely fabulous thing. It’s given me that warm glow again, and that’s priceless.
Specification | Ford Escort XR3i (Mk4)
Engine: 1,597cc, four-cylinder, naturally aspirated
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 105 @ 6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 101 @ 4,800rpm
Recorded mileage: 64,000
Year registered: 1988
Price new: N/A
Yours for: £19,995
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