Words and Photos: Aaron Mai
The Ford Escort and Minilite combo is one of those automotive styles that’ll never go out of fashion. Ever since the halcyon sepia-tinted days of the late ’70s and early ’80s when our dads were cruising town in them, the tried-and-tested formula has remained the same. Mix one hefty dose of rear-wheel-drive Escort with one part naturally aspirated (NA) screamer engine, slam it low on 13-inch wheels, keep the arches stock, add paint, and voilà!
This pretty wee example reared its head in a chat group and immediately it grabbed my attention. Now all you young whippersnappers might be wondering what Nana’s sporty-looking Escort is doing in the pages of NZPC. “It isn’t Japanese!” I can hear you all scream. Yeah, well back in my … wait … when I was younger without grey hair, this was the performance scene for so many of us when growing up. The Escort and cars just like this are what we cut our teeth on. Many of us didn’t have the big bucks to buy those now-iconic Japanese cars brand new — they were reserved for the guys with deep pockets or rich daddies.
Today, we find the pages of NZPC crammed full of Silvias, Evos, and all things Japanese, so to hark back to the tuning era before all those cars became mainstream was super cool for me. What makes this Escort even cooler, though, is the fact that it is owned by a young fella — Tyson Brown.
“I have owned loads of cars, Nissans, Evos, rotaries, V8s, but the old shit is where my heart is,” Tyson exclaims.
This classic whip is a really good reminder that the car scene hasn’t always been about big horsepower, turbocharging, and widebody-adorned computers on wheels costing more than a small house. Remember the phrase your teacher taught you in school: ‘keep it simple, stupid’. This car is the perfect embodiment of just that. No computers to trip you up — if it ever breaks down all you need is a spanner and a can of CRC to make it home. For my generation growing up, this car still had buckets of allure from its motorsport pedigree talked up with the tales of our own dads’ hotted-up examples. It was a giant killer in the World Rally Championship and is still one of the most successful rally cars of all time, and, most important, it was a platform we could afford and spanner on ourselves.
In all honesty, I get more excited seeing an Escort on the road today than a 180SX, and Tyson’s example is a time capsule of what so many of us remember when we owned our first cars. It’s simple, but so perfectly executed and just oozes character. Tyson regrettably sold the first Escort that he had when he was 18 years old, so when this one popped up it instantly piqued his interest. The 1978 1300GT has everything you want in an Escort — great stance, a raspy exhaust note, and an interior in multiple shades of brown! However, while it looks perfectly period, this one has a few modern tweaks hidden away to bring our rose-tinted glasses into 2023.
The engine is factory but breathes through a K&N filter set-up hidden in the factory box nestled on top of a set of factory carbs. And though the recipe for the engine was already ace, although a new set of rings and a valve grind was the order of the day when it came to a freshen-up. When it came to the driveline, it was decided that this needed to be swapped out in favour of a T9 Sierra five-speed manual with a short-shift kit, although this meant widening the transmission tunnel to accommodate the switch. The result was well worth the work, and now Tyson loves to smash through the gears on twisty back-country Kiwi roads, making this car super fun to pedal on weekends. And just like on the rally stages, you can always tell when an Escort is a couple of kilometres up the road; they sound unlike anything else! That classic raspy exhaust note comes courtesy of Pacemaker headers through 2.5-inch pipes, with a couple of mufflers and a dumpy tip at the rear.
The classic theme continues under the skin into the interior, where, just like the 1970s, the more shades of brown, the better! The interior was in need of some TLC and freshening it up was entrusted to a good friend at Top Stitch Upholstery in Foxton. All new linings and carpets freshened the four-decades-old office space perfectly — talk about giving the old girl a new lease of life! A great little addition is the Nardi Lancia Classic wood-grain steering wheel, which sits perfectly at home in the 1600 Sport interior.
After stepping out of 1978’s sportiest brown interior, you can’t help but smile at the MkII’s classic stance. No fancy body kits or crazy arms, yet the final result is just superb. Classic unmolested bodylines finished in a full respray of ultramarine blue show exactly why generations of car lovers went mad for the wee Escort. In classic MkII style, a little rear tuck and front flush fitment with the 13×7-inch JBW Superlites finishes everything off perfectly with a gentle hat-tip to its rally pedigree. The KYB shocks with reset leaves and two-inch (5cm) lowering blocks allow for the classic Escort stance, but to ensure zero guard rub, Tyson rolled the inner side of the guards just a pinch: “Now I can throw it into corners and know there won’t be any rubbing, which is great, despite the car sitting nice and low.” To finish things off, a spot of freshened-up chrome trim, new tail lights, and some Hella Comet 500 spotlights up front are proof that Tyson’s attention to detail is second to none.
For many, the Escort is now seen as the middle-aged boomer of the car scene, the old dude still rocking aviators, sideburns, and a rally jacket in the supermarket. However, in a world of strawberry vapes and ill-fitting skate shoes, it is insanely refreshing to see that the humble Escort still has a place in the car scene in the hands of someone under 30. The saying ‘respect your elders’ couldn’t be more true in this instance, for without the cars that went before, we wouldn’t have the scene we have now.
This article originally appeared in New Zealand Performance Car issue 301