Detroit made some momentous introductions of American-built front-wheel-drive small cars during the late 1970s and early 1980s, beginning with the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon in the 1978 model year. That car was designed with the help of Chrysler’s European operations, and Ford opted for a similar plan with its brand-new subcompact made to replace the aging Pinto in the North American market. This was the Escort, which made its debut here as a 1981 model. After much junkyard searching, I’ve found one of those first-year Escorts, finally retired after 42 years.
Ford of Britain began using the Escort name early on, with a cheap version of the Ford Squire estate getting Escort badges starting in 1955.
The 1955-1961 Escort wasn’t a big seller, but the next European Ford to bear Escort badges proved to be a spectacularly successful moneymaker: the Mark I Escort. This car debuted as a 1968 model and quickly became one of the most beloved cars in the UK. It was a simple rear-wheel-drive machine, kept relevant with the Mark II update for 1975. A front-wheel-drive successor would be needed for the 1980s, and so Ford of Europe began designing such a car. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Dearborn needed a replacement for the late-1960s-design Pinto, so American engineers dove into the Escort Mark III’s design process. The last model year for the Pinto and the rear-wheel-drive Escort ended up being 1980.
The “World Car” Escort made its debut as a 1981 model, and the European and North American versions looked reasonably similar at a glance. They shared a general chassis design and were powered by members of the same engine family, but there was enough evolutionary divergence between the two that they should be considered cousins rather than siblings. The early North American Escort rode on the same length wheelbase as the European Escort, but was wider and heavier.
The cam-in-head CVH four-cylinder engine was developed specifically for the front-wheel-drive Escort, and it was the only engine available in North American Escorts until a Mazda diesel option appeared for 1984.
In 1981, the only engine available in the North American Escort was this 1.6-liter rated at 65 horsepower and 85 pound-feet. The Escort wagon scaled in at about 2,100 pounds that year, so that engine power was good enough for commuting. The following year, an 80-horse “HO” version became available.
This car is very, very rough, having spent many years sitting outdoors with missing glass. 1981 Escorts are so rare in junkyards now that I didn’t want to wait years for a nicer one to show up.
Any vehicle sitting in a field in rural Colorado for long enough is bound to pick up a few bullet holes.
Thanks to the five-digit odometer, we can’t know how many total miles were on this car when it stopped driving.
Ford’s official name for the 1981 Escort wagon was “Escort 4-Door Liftgate.” There were five trim levels: base, L, GL, GLX and SS. This car is a mid-grade GL, which had a list price of $6,318 (about $21,847 in 2023 dollars).
The transmission is the base four-speed manual. For an extra $366 ($1,266 today), a three-speed automatic was available. A five-speed manual arrived for the 1983 model year.
Generally, when you see the base transmission in an affordable car, you expect to see few costly options. That’s not the case with today’s Junkyard Gem; this car’s original buyer shelled out 530 bucks for air conditioning ($1,833 after inflation).
Very few American subcompact shoppers were willing to pay for cruise control in 1981, but this car has it. The cost: $132 ($456 now).
General Motors began selling its all-new front-wheel-drive compact, the Chevrolet Cavalier and its J-Body siblings, starting with the 1982 model year. The Cavalier was quite a bit bigger and more expensive than the Escort, though, so GM had to make do with the obsolescent rear-wheel-drive Chevette as an Escort competitor until the Suzuki-built Sprint and Toyota-designed Nova showed up for the 1985 model year.
The Escort was the best-selling car in the United States for much of the 1980s, with annual sales in the 300,000s and 400,000s for each year of that decade. With the F-Series the best-selling truck at the same time, Ford was flying high.
For model year 1991, the Escort switched to a Mazda platform, making it cousin to the 323 and Protegé. Production of Mazdafied Escorts for the American market continued through 2003.
Touting the Escort Liftgate’s fuel economy versus the bigger and plusher Toyota Corona wagon is cheating a bit. Perhaps Ford’s marketers were banking on viewers mixing up the Corona with the Corolla and/or Corolla Tercel.
Look out, world!
The SS trim level included some fairly rad graphics.