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The Ultimate Rallying Escort

The Escort Legend

Imagine, for a second, that we’re back in 1979. Lightyears away from the world we know today, two Swedes named Björn stride the planet as respective Gods. While one needed the help of his three bandmates to warble Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! to #1 in Ireland for a single week, the other Björn had a much longer lasting impact on the local landscape.

While dance halls bounced to the ABBA beat, Björn Waldegård was out delivering the glorious tune of a maximum attack BDA engine around the rally stages of the world.

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Armed with the most cutting edge MK2 Escort to ever emerge from Ford Motor Company’s competition base in Boreham, Björn and the RS1800 were a formidable pair. The domination was real, with the affable Swede claiming the World Rally Championship crown with only a single point to spare over Hannu Mikkola, the second Ford works driver. The company also won the manufacturers’ crown, a feat they would not repeat again until 2006.

While winning the world championship was a massive deal for Ford, it solidified the legendary place that the MK2 Escort would come to have in rallying circles. It’s a vehicle that now, 40 years on, remains a fan favourite and in Ireland especially, possibly the ultimate definition of a rally car.

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While 260bhp BDA Escorts were thought to be on a different planet in the late ’70s, I doubt anyone in Boreham could have imagined how far the humble Ford would evolve.

Sat before me today, looking menacing in Audi’s striking Nardo Grey paint hue, is perhaps the current ultimate evolution of the breed, a 2019 take on the quintessential 1979 rally icon.

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When I say the Escort is loved in these parts, I cannot even truthfully express in words the reason behind it. It doesn’t make logical sense in any way, but even today we can see rally events with north of 70 Ford Escorts on the entry list.

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The generation that saw the works teams arriving on our shores, with all the star drivers in tow, passed on the stories, and each few years a new breed of ‘Escort men’ would emerge, thrilling crowds with sideways, tail out action.

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As category structures evolved to allow a wide variety of cars to compete, Class 14 became the top dog. A class for modified 2WD rally cars, this is where this Ford Escort lives. With a limited ‘125% of max factory displacement’ engine size rule in place, one particular power plant has come to the fore.

The Beating Heart

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Sat between the front wheels, in place of where a wheezy road engine may once have resided, is the beating heart of modern Irish modified rallying. The Millington Diamond, originally developed by Roy Millington and later refined by son Julian, has very much become the go-to Escort rally engine.

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The base was originally a YB Cosworth unit, but the Diamond has evolved over the last 30 years to now feature an aluminium block at its heart. A bespoke cylinder head complete with integrated throttle bodies followed as the Series 2 Diamond carried on the Millington legacy.

When Colin Byrne was completing the spec on this car, the decision was always a simple one. Having used a Millington previously, and with the majority, if not all the competition, armed with similar units, it made sense to go this route.

The engine here is the very latest in development from a manufacturer that has never stopped its quest to make a better, quicker engine for its customers. Designated as a Phase 2+, the higher torque is noticeable as the car picks up speed at a rapid rate. The dyno graphs prove this, with a constant pull from 1,500rpm right through to a screaming 9,000rpm.

The exhaust is a custom Simpson system, which begins with a hand-built 4-2-1 manifold that curves off the side of the engine and heads out to a lightly-silenced exit point at the rear.

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With a smidge over 340bhp being produced from the naturally aspirated 2.5-litre unit, getting the power to the rear wheels is a big task. Tractive have come on board to look after this side of the operation, and a huge amount of the firm’s hardware has now found a home here.

The gearbox is a 6-speed sequential unit, controlled either by a traditional pump action shifter or by a Geartronics paddle shift mounted on the steering column. The half shafts and rear diff are both Tractive items too, and these sit as part of a fully-floating wide axle.

Firmly Planted

Hoosier slicks wrapped around 15-inch wheels  (8-inch wide up front and 9-inch wide out back) are the current tyre of choice for Irish tarmac rally events, with the compound developed to deal with the variety of conditions likely to be encountered on any special stage.

Behind the wheels, stopping power is taken care of by a full complement of AP Racing competition brakes with 4-pot callipers all round.

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With all the power being sent to the rear, and with the never-ending sequence of bumps, dips, potholes and camber that this car will be expected to endure at speed, getting the suspension setup right has always been vital in chasing stage times. Out testing, it’s noticeable that the only adjustments made are to dampers, with the smallest of changes perceptible in the body control of the car.

A Reiger 4-way adjustable shock unit has been implemented at each corner, with remote reservoirs allowing manual adjustment quickly and effectively.

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Part of the appeal of the Mk2 Escort has been the huge availability of parts, with a variety of companies dedicated to producing components for the platform. GPR4 Fabrications in Galway have grown massively to cater for the Escort performance market, and their catalogue has been well scoured on this car. There’s GPR4’s impressive modular front suspension setup – heavily influenced by modern WRC technology – at one end, as well as a fuel cell and dry sump tank in the rear.

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In the trunk, the setup of tanks, fixings and spare is all done to such a high level in keeping with the level of this car, that it should not be of any surprise. The pair of fuel pumps are a precautionary move, with the second automatically kicking in should the other fail. And the boot lid itself is another featherweight carbon item, which along with the bonnet, front scuttle, bumpers and other smaller items keep the weight low.

And I mean very low. Fully plumbed, this car tips the scales under 1,000kg (2,204lb), with a power-to-weight ratio on a par with the latest Porsche GT3 RS.

A World Of Pure Imagination

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Swing open the lightweight doors and you’ll find a small cabin that’s strictly race car and dominated by a pair of Atech Racing bucket seats.

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A Tilton pedal box and carbon-Kevlar WRC handbrake are impressive additions, but in keeping with the ultimate level this car has been built to – no corners have been cut here. Vital safety equipment, such as a hand-built roll cage and a fully plumbed Lifeline fire extinguisher provide reassurance that should anything go wrong, the crew should be OK.

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While utilising the latest developments in race engines and sequential gearboxes is nothing new in the Escort world, this car is different thanks to the cutting-edge levels of technology employed.

The wiring, done by Paul Twomey of PT Motorsport Electronics, is genuinely up there with the latest WRC tech, all in a 40-year-old shell. The levels of work are at first hard to notice, but that is down to the way in which everything has been so carefully done that traditional wiring clutter has been eradicated.

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The Sparco wheel is backed by a Volantech carbon plate that houses all the most vital buttons needed by the driver. It’s impressive, but then you notice the lack of wiring tethering the wheel to the car. Yes, it’s fully wireless, and every button can be operated away from the car if need be. Down on the gearbox tunnel, a 15-Way CAN bus touchpad controls nearly every vital feature of the car, with built in diagnostic capabilities to help find issues quickly and easily. Every wire and switch are programmable, with only a software update needed to change the function.

The navigator gets a separate CAN bus keypad with the four most vital functions, namely the headlights and horn should they catch another car on stage. The brain of the car is a DTA S100 ECU, but the chassis and gearbox harnesses are complete custom modular units handmade by Paul. The gear displays, both on the DTA digital dash unit and the gear indicator are touchscreen, allowing even further adjustments to the likes of rev limits and launch control to deal with changing conditions.

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The industry for building cars to this level has grown massively over the last few years, and Den Motorsport in Northern Ireland have been at the fore of late.

A build like this is something some may aspire to doing once in a lifetime, but this has become such big business that a plaque in the engine bay marks this as build No. 85. With the added knowledge of Donal Healy and the team at Healy Rally Prep, the car is now ready to be unleashed on the stages in anger.

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I first caught up with Colin, owner and driver, and Eric, navigator, on a private test day. With no more than 15 minutes running, the first event was always expected to be nothing more than an exercise in finding gremlins – but these guys don’t hang around.

Seventh place finish and a small list of tasks to sort was a great way to christen the new baby, but now it’s time to unleash it on some of Ireland’s finest stages. Killarney’s Rally of The Lakes will be the maiden international outing, before Donegal in June, perhaps the pinnacle of rear-wheel drive modified rally action.

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1979, and the days of Bjorn and the screaming BDA may be nothing more than fading memories relived on grainy YouTube clips, but the MK2 Escort aura lives on. R

ight bang in 2019, this car may now hold the moniker as the ultimate Escort, but as time and technology marches forward, I look forward to the further developments lie ahead.

Cian Donnellan
Instagram: ciadon
Facebook: ciandonphotography

Cutting Room Floor

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