As much as it might surprise you to hear it, I can never be a true rally boy. Yes, I have the big warm jacket with the logos on it, the bobble hat and the wellie boots. I have Climbdance bookmarked on my browser. I even have a selection of flasks for keeping my tea warm while I’m out in the forests. But what I lack is any sort of emotional connection to the car that is the bread and butter of rally folklore: the Mark 2 Ford Escort.
Mark 2s, as they’re known simply to rallyists, occupy an almost deity-like status in European rallying – especially in Britain. Just as every estate agent aspires to own a brand new Porsche 911 and each Premiership footballer buys a Bentley Continental GT with their signing-on fee, so all rally fanatics dream of the day they can have a stage-prepared Mark 2 in their garage. Nowhere is this more so the case than in Britain, where the factory Ford rally teams were based when the cars were actually still being made way back in the 1970’s.
Look at the entry list of any rally in the UK today, and you will see starting order peppered with old Fords. Go onto YouTube or the rally forums after any decent-sized event and you will find countless films and photos of these ancient cars skidding round bends, spraying the crowd with gravel as they do so. Such is the ubiquity of the Mark 2 in 2012 that someone unaware of the significance of these cars could quite conceivably mistake a post-rally car park for a scrap yard full of old bangers ready for crushing.
But the thing is, these Mark 2s are anything but old bangers. Serious, serious money is involved. The Mark 2s that run at the competitive end of the field on British rallies are usually built brand-new today out of old body shells that have been stripped down, treated and strengthened. They are fitted with the latest suspension, drive train and braking systems, and often have custom-built racing engines installed. Even in the ‘historic’ championships and events like the Roger Albert Clark Rally, where only ‘period’ modifications are allowed, serious amounts of cash are still thrown around developing parts that bend the definition of what is ‘period’ as far as possible. The lather that people work themselves into when news breaks that a big name driver is ‘building’ a new Mark 2 verges on outright hysteria of the type and scale that frequently swept upper-class Victorian Britain.
So a bunch of people like doing up and modifying old cars, and an even bigger bunch of people like watching them do it. Nothing far wrong with that, you might say, and I’d agree with you. If folk want to spend their hard-earned cash building the ultimate version of their childhood dreams, I absolutely respect their desire to do so. Instead, my dislike of the Mark 2 stems from two much deeper-seated concerns.
The first is what the Mark 2 Ford Escort represents. “Ah Leslie, but the reason you get sick of Mark 2s is because you’re always in the service park interviewing the drivers,” my friends say to me. “Come out to a stage, listen to the BDAs on full revs, watch some of the Escorts sliding round the bends, then I bet you’ll feel differently about them.” I have been out in the stages and I do not feel differently about them. The reason being that the vast majority of people cannot drive them at any sort of speed.
I will admit that a Mark 2 looks spectacular when you see footage of someone like Ari Vatanen or Hannu Mikkola flying through the woods in one back in the day. It’s even impressive when you watch one of the modern-day Escort heroes like Steve Bannister, Calum Mackenzie or Alasdair Graham in action. But for every well-driven Escort I’ve seen, there are at least five that come into corners gratuitously sideways, jabbing away at the throttle and using at least three different gears to try to get round the bend. It might look and sound stunning to a lay person, but if noise, smoke and skidding are your bag, there are enough Ken Block videos out there on YouTube. I’d far sooner be impressed by someone in a new front-wheel drive car that was able to carry as much speed as possible through the corner as a result of neat, precise and above all else skilled driving.
This fixation with getting the back end out goes right to the heart of my first reason for disliking the Escort. The reason Mark 2s tend to corner with their tails out is because they are rear-wheel drive. And for most standard production cars, the kind of cars that are supposed to be the heart and soul of rallying, rear-wheel drive cars fell by the wayside decades ago. So what the Mark 2 represents is old technology, an old way of doing things that bears little resemblance to what is going on in the real world now. Small wonder it is so hard for rallying to get any kind of traction with the public when the most immediate experience people have, the local rallies that take place in the lanes and forests near their homes, are filled largely with cars that companies stopped making twenty, thirty, even forty years ago. Rally enthusiasts all know that the bits under the skin of these cars are brand new, but I sometimes wonder if the uninitiated look upon these car rallies in the same way they might consider a steam fair. It would certainly explain an awful lot about the public perception of rally driving in the UK today.
The second of my gripes is that there are just so many of the damn things. It is not the fault of individuals if the most attractive car for them to go and enjoy their sport happens to be a Ford from the 1970s, that’s something that is up to the rule makers, car manufacturers and sponsors to think through and sort out. I just wish that more of these people that want to skid about could choose an old car other than a Mark 2.
As I said above, many of the top Mark 2s nowadays are essentially silhouette cars – that is, a racing car where only the shape of the body bears any resemblance at all to the road car. If you’re going to put in custom brakes, suspension, gearbox and engine, then why not cover it all in something a bit different? And by different, I don’t mean a Mark 1 Escort, we already have enough of those out there as well. There are a few people out there – Phil Collins (the former Toyota rally team top dog, not the Genesis drummer) being a prime example – who have done very well indeed with top-notch modern Opels. Collins latterly drove an Ascona on modern events, but there are also a fair few Chevettes and Kadetts out and about.
Back in the day, Fiat’s 131 was a bit of a beast on the stages, so why can’t more people find shells and fit some of the bits that would otherwise have gone onto yet another Escort? Yes, I know that people have been developing parts for the Escort for decades but you get my point. Or how about one or two Ladas, using a combination of the work done by Lada’s Soviet-era rally division in Lithuania and some modern bits. And using the same body shell and floor pan, I would buy a very big Terry’s Chocolate Orange for anyone that got a Seat 124 out and sliding through the woods.
What I’d really love to see, though, is some of the enthusiasm that’s sweeping through the wider car scene for older Japanese stuff spreading to rallying. There must be a few of the pioneer Datsuns and Toyota Crowns that came to the UK that would be ripe for dropping in a modern-day engine. A Toyota Crown with flared arches, a six-speed paddle-shift and a GT86 engine? Oh yes.
Now imagine that Crown going up against a KPGC10-look Hakosuka Nissan Skyline on a tarmac rally. Ideally a bright orange Skyline with black Watanabe wheels, screaming its way down the country lanes of Berwickshire on something like the Jim Clark Rally. Something that could match a Mark 2 pound for pound and ideally beat it, something that could be built for similar money (ha ha) and, even just once, prove there’s another viable option out there asides from an Escort if you do want to do the whole expensive historical rallying thing.
The preceding few paragraphs have if nothing else proved that I too like cars produced before I was born. It is of course important to remember where we have come from, and to remember what it was that made the memorable cars great. The problem as I see it arises when these memories of the past come to take centre stage, to the detriment of everything else. Nostalgia has a time and a place in sport, but when keeping the past going becomes the main thing to aspire to and the key attraction, one gets the sense there is something awry.
To the people that love it, the essential fabric of what makes British rally driving great has not altered for forty-odd years. In that time, a lot of things have changed in society. And I guess in many ways that is the problem that rally driving faces. When we still get the most excited about something that happened in the 1970s, and devote all our energies into keeping that alive, we need to take a long, hard look at the sport and think why that enthusiasm can’t transfer to the present. Otherwise, what we’re taking part in is something less like a sport and more akin to a historical reenactment.