I’ve been reading a new book that author and car designer Steve Saxty sent over for me to review, Secret Fords: Volume One, and it’s a great look into the development of Fords that reached production, as well as a bunch that didn’t. Included in that is the story of the infamous Ford Escort RS1700T and an interesting Porsche connection I didn’t know.
The RS1700T was going to be Ford’s weapon for taking on the Group B era of rallying, and it showed a lot of promise. Ford started on it right after winning the 1979 season with the rear-wheel-drive Group 4 Escort, and it was shaping up to be a worthy successor. Early prototypes were significantly faster not just than the old Group 4 Escort, but everything else competing at the time, logging faster stage times at a rally test than the rally winner running on the same roads a few days prior, as Saxty recounts.
The RS1700T used a turbocharged Cosworth BDA four-cylinder, good for 300-400 horsepower, and seemed to have no problem ripping it up.
The problem was that the Group 4 Escort was based on a rear-wheel-drive production car. This Group B one was working off of a front-wheel-drive platform. That didn’t just mean turning the engine and transmission sideways; Ford needed a transaxle to survive the high power and revs of this design. And if you wanted transaxle tech in Europe in the early ’80s, there was one king of the hill: Porsche.
Porsche had been selling cars with the engine in the front and transmission in the back since the early 1970s. The Porsche 928 was one of the fastest cars in the world, and the 924 showed its concept worked in higher production volumes, too.
How did Ford crack the code on what Porsche had mastered? Ford hired one of Porsche’s engineers to do the job. That’s not all, actually. Ford went out and bought a Porsche transaxle and installed it in a prototype to get things going.
Saxty tells the story of the car’s origin:
In mid 1980, Boreham’s Allan Wilkinson took an aging Fiesta into the workshop. It had first seen duty during the Fiesta press launch before being repurposed as a less-than-perfect rally car. It was soon obvious that FWD was never going to provide enough loose-surface traction for a successful top-level rally car. A different solution was needed. Wilkinson’s third use of the car was wonderfully crazy — he installed a 230bhp BDA engine driving the rear wheels through a rear-mounted five-speed gearbox. It had good weight distribution and made a decent — if slightly twitchy — rally machine. But its propshaft, spinning at 9000rpm, would be too unbalanced for a production vehicle and would swiftly burn out the gearbox. Making such a car viable demanded a rear transaxle, with integral differential and gearbox, connected by a driveshaft enclosed in a small-diameter torque tube and kept stable by bearings, just like the Porsche 924 and 928.
In summer 1980, Porsche engineer John Wheeler was shown a job advert in Autosport Magazine: Ford was looking for someone like him. The British engineer had become something of a specialist in transaxles while working on Porsche’s two front-engined cars and so his experience fitted the bill perfectly.
Wheeler packed his bags and a few months later, in October, headed north to sunny Essex. He was about to begin a decades-long career in which he’d work on three of Ford’s most iconic models: the Focus RS, Escort RS Cosworth, and this, his first project, the enigmatic RS1700T.
Ford showed the car in public midway through 1981, Saxty recounts, and the world expected it to be ready in a year. That’s a year for Ford to fully develop its design, set it up for production, and actually build 200 homologation specials to allow it to race. That was a tall order. The car didn’t handle as well as its naturally-RWD predecessor, and the design was too difficult for Ford to produce on its own. Lotus (already familiar with making rally cars) would have to make the cars for it, but getting the car finalized to even be ready for that stage was taking a long time.
Ari Vatanen, who won the 1981 World Rally Championship in a privateer Escort, crashed one prototype so badly it needed to be re-shelled, the turbo and fuel injection calibration needed work, and the individual car that Ford hoped would be ready to sign off on reeked of gasoline.
Time ran out for the RS1700T. Two years into the program, Bob Lutz got promoted out of Ford of Europe and shipped off to Dearborn. Lutz was a strong backer of Karl Ludvigsen, VP of Governmental Affairs. Ludvigsen oversaw Ford’s motorsports side, and Ludvigsen was the RS1700T’s strongest supporter. Without Lutz to back him, Ludvigsen didn’t have enough pull to keep money flowing to the RS1700T project, and it was shut down. One car made it over to Malcolm Wilson (then a works driver now the guy running Ford’s unofficial WRC program) and most of the rest of the parts and bodyshells made it down to South Africa to run a somewhat airborne campaign there.
Secret Fords spends a decent amount of time accounting for each and every chassis in the RS1700T program, but it also includes tons of great photos, anecdotes, and context for the whole operation at the time. It was an optimistic project. We know because Saxty quotes the young designer in charge of the car’s exterior, his first sports car project. The whole book is like that, and we get a sense of Ford as a complete entity, trying to push the envelope with aerodynamic design in the 1980s, working to stay relevant and profitable in a vast corporate bureaucracy.
The book is on sale now, and if you love peeking at never-before-seen prototypes, I’d recommend it.