Driven: Bill Gwynne's Ford Mk2 Escort rally car
Forget Italian exotica, a modest 125bhp and a loose surface is all that's needed to have the most fun behind the wheel
It’s increasingly hard to have fun on the public roads. Any mixture of traffic, speed cameras, grippier modern tyres or car-breaking potholes leave precious few moments to enjoy driving. Not to mention that cars themselves are increasingly more anodyne, often leaving the driver to feel remote behind the wheel.
Arguably that’s only made worse if you’re a motorsport fan, more used to seeing cars on the limit of adhesion from lights out to chequered flag, or managing oversteer as they tear up a forest rally stage.
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So going offbeat and belting into a simple, wonderfully tatty Ford Escort Mk2 on a closed gravel course at the Bill Gwynne International Rallyschool became the perfect tonic. This is distilled driving fun.
From the off, the Escort’s spec sheet would leave many underwhelmed. This is one Mk2 to be spared the erstwhile 2-litre Pinto engine, instead retaining a 1600 Kent Crossflow unit. An uprated camshaft has stoked power up to 125bhp. That’s sent through the universally loved four-speed H-pattern gearbox to the rear wheels, split by a Group 4 rally limited-slip differential. The last point of contact are not special gravel tyres; instead the Escort is shod in normal road tyres as to make it easier to unstick the back axle at lower speeds. An excellent choice.
Inside the car it’s a similarly pared-back affair. It’s a bare white shell with a rollcage where once would have been back seats. The driver’s seat is a slightly faded alcantara bucket with four-point harness. With those belts tightened you plug in the microphone to ease communication with the instructor/co-driver. The wheel is wonderfully small and thin in the hands, with just the dials poking through the spokes – although that’s the last time you look at the white-on-black clock faces as any remaining brain space is quickly filled.
In the beginning the gearbox puts up protest. As a first-time Mk2 driver, but one who had heard nothing but unrelenting praise for its shift, it’s hard to gauge whether this particular example’s hard life as a rally car has taken its toll. First gear is found where you’d expect third, somewhere in the middle of the gate with what feels like plenty of slack to the left-hand side. First to second, and then across to third have a pleasing snick to them, however.
Try as you might to imagine it, the Rallyschool’s gravel proving ground is not a stage of the Wyedean forests. It’s more akin to a large lose surface carpark with cones marking out the course. But when your instructor is one of either British Rallycross Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 10 supercar driver Steve Hill or five-time British Rally champion and school founder Gwynne, they’re likely to be grateful for the absence of trees to hit.
With the lighter 1600cc engine more forgiving than the Pinto unit, controlling a slide is a wonderfully forgiving process. Instinct tells you to back off as you feel the rear end try and overtake the front. Instead, you seem to abandon conventional actions with an unnerving ease, mashing your foot to the bulkhead. The power output is controllable and so you let your arms do the work as the engine chimes along quite willingly with the throttle remaining pinned wide open.
Sustaining the slide through changes of direction is the ultimate kick when you get it right. With more time spent with the guidance either of Hill or Gwynne then they press on the importance of refining lines for the sake of time gains, as that’s where ultimately the obsession lies with motorsport. But in the first instance, with that yet to be a problem, it’s cracking the two handbrake turns that provides the most formidable competition.
Situated at either end of the course, both first gear hairpins follow shortly after a high-speed slalom. From there you straighten the car, heel and toe down through third. You’re hard on the brakes, point the nose of the car at the apex and yank on the fly-off handbrake. As the back swings round you then try and slot into first gear, managing the oversteer and dipping the clutch so that you’re ready to put the power back on heading out the other side.
It’s by far the most difficult part of the day as there’s the biggest differentiation between getting it right and getting it wrong. Do it well and the car comes to heel, the cones stay upright and you’re on your way. Get it wrong and you can spin; you can haemorrhage time waiting for the rears to grip if you’ve been overzealous with the throttle. Or you can get your timing muddled altogether, tug too soon on the handbrake without enough steering lock and plough straight on. All of which happen as you begin to perspire more each lap.
AutoClassics doesn’t have the course to itself, with a European Formula 3 driver also jumping in the Escort in an effort to improve his aptitude for low grip driving in wet conditions. He reports similar problems, and being as he is a national junior single-seater champion, it feels like good company to be in.
A day with rear-wheel drive and plenty of opposite lock does not mean AutoClassics has a young Patrick Snijers on its hands, as much as I might like to think it does. But what isn’t in doubt is that this is the most fun driving experience money can buy.
There’s a relaxed and friendly atmosphere at the school, and being in the car teaches more about on-the-limit control than a day of similarly unfiltered karting ever can. Not only is it a day of unrivalled excitement, but you can’t help but feel like a safer driver on the public roads too – an unexpected consequence of flat-out driving.
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