With the US-version of the Escort, Ford was trying to achieve two things : tapping the compact-car market and selling the same car on both side of the pond. It failed. Twice.
The Ford Escort mk1 was a great success in the late-60s and the early-70s. In Great-Britain, but also in Continental Europe. Ford integrated its British branch and its German branch into a single European structure. The Escort was the first pan-european product. The Mk2 arrived a year after the Golf. The German had set a new bench-mark. From now on, customers wanted front-wheel drive hatchbacks. The Blue Oval choosed to go with the flow. And thus the “Erika” project was born…
Meanwhile, in the USA, the Big Three were critically hit by the oil crisis. The large sedan were outdated. The compact and sub-compact market boomed. The Big Three didn’t know how to make small cars : the Ford Pinto was a flop. The Blue Oval looked at its European branch and its Escort. The “Erika” project looked promising.
It was decided to replace the dull Pinto with an American-built mk3 Escort.
But as the project moved on, the American made a couple of change. The front was sligthly different, thanks to the US norms. The European Escort started with the 1.1 Kent and 1.3 and 1.6 CVH. Due to US norms, the 1.3 CVH became underpowered. The US Escort only had the 65 bhp 1.6 CVH. Also, they completely changed the suspension.
The US Ford Escort appeared in september 1980, a few weeks before its European counterpart. Ford also launched the better-equiped Mercury Lynx. It was a new dawn for the Blue Oval. It was far better than its American competitor and it could rival the imported products.
The best car in the world
The European Escort was voted European Car of the year. Ford USA used this fact to promote its own Escort as the best car in the world ! Hey, it’s the US-version of the best European car. Therefore it’s the best car in the world ! You can’t beat that logic… The Lynx sold itself as the American car ready to take over the world, using futuristic music by Vangelis and a creepy voice-over.
Just like its European cousin, the Escort and the Lynx got a 5-door-version in 1982. They also had a station-wagon. The Lynx even offered a very posh faux-woody version :
Ford’s analysis was wrong. The manufacturer believed people who demanded compact were motivated by fuel economy. They marketed both the Escort and the Lynx has economical cars. Meanwhile the Japanese had another point of view. They sold compact cars with more powerfull engines and more standard features. The Japanese had a very agressive marketing strategy and it appealed to younger consumers. American cars have been pleagued with reliability and quality issues. The Escort could rely on its “European” image, but the Lynx couldn’t.
In 1986, the European Escort was replaced by the mk4 (codenamed “Erika 86”), which was also produced in Brazil. In the US, Ford choose to only give a minor trim to the Escort. The greatest improvement was the engine : a 1.9 petrol engine replaced the slow 1.6. In Australia, Ford launched the Mazda 323-based Laser, also built in South Africa. Back in the USA, Mercury discontinued the Lynx and replaced it with the Tracer, a badge-engineered version of Australia’s Ford Laser.
The Japanese Escort
The Mercury Tracer was seen has bland and completely boring. Yet, the recipe was very simple (and cheap.) Take a Mazda 323, give it a new body and you got yourself a Ford Laser. Then, just make it LHD and you got a Mercury Tracer !
In 1990, Ford Europe launched the Escort mk5 with a brand-new platform. Ford USA prefered the Tracer path. The 1991 Escort was a brand-new Ford Laser (itself, a Mazda 323) produced in Mexico and Michigan. Surprisingly, it does look like an Escort mk4. The hatchback versions came first. Then the American got a 2-door, 4-door and a station-wagon. They were available with the old 1.9 engine and a 2.0 Mazda engine. The GT was just a trim, it didn’t get any extra-horsepower.
At this point, Ford was trying to compete with the Japanese anymore. The sporty Honda Civic and the cheap Toyota Corolla were out of reach. The Escort was marketed as an affordable car for low-income household and fleets. Still, the Escort tried to capitalized in its European roots. Then came 1994. The powerfull NHTSA targeted the Escort. They had severe quality issues. The front suspension might collapse. In the event of an accident, the front seat might detach itself and the airbag might not deplay correctly. Also, the car built in Mexico had a faulty tank which might eventualy crack. The young urban consumers were concerned about that and they were done with the Escort. That was a huge blow : they were the one who bought the top of the line versions
The once migthy Escort was now a dead-weight. In 1996, Ford Australia launched a brand-new Laser, but it wasn’t economicaly relevent to bring it in the USA. In 1997, the Focus mk1 appeared in Europe. The US wanted it, but it took 3 years to adapt it. Meanwhile, the old Escort and Mercury Tracer soldiered on. The got a Mondeo-inspired facelift in 1996. It also had a single petrol engine : a 2.0 from Ford.
The 2 door version was marketed as a sporty-coupe with a 2.0 Zetec engine, called the Escort ZX2. In 2000, the Focus finally made it stateside. The Escort was discontinued, save for a fleet-only 4-door version. The ZX2 solderied on, dropping the Escort moniker. The sales were slower and slower. In 2003, the curtain was dropped and it was hardly noticed.
The American Escort had its own story. Unlike in Europe, it didn’t play a significant role. Many Escort, Mercury Lynx and Tracer got trashed through the cash-for-clunkers scheme. And nobody’s bothered by that.
The Escort name still lives on. In 2014, Ford chinese arm, ChangAn-Ford launched a Focus mk2-based Escort. Chinese have never heard of Escort before. It’s marketed as a low-cost sedan, replacing the Focus Classic (an mk2 Focus that was sold along the Mk3.)