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As part of our search for the most iconic British cars of the last 60 years (head over there to vote for your own favourite) we’re looking at some of Britain’s best-loved cars in a little more detail. Today it’s the turn of the common man’s budget supercar – the Ford Escort XR3i.
Technically, we’re cheating a little here. The XR3i was built in Germany, but originated with the work done by Ron Mansfield of Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering division. The XR3i had numerous performance predecessors to draw from in Ford’s history. The MK1 and MK2 Escorts had spawned such memorable machines as the RS2000 and the legendary RS1600 “Mexico” and the ‘vanilla’ XR3, which debuted in 1981 and was no slouch itself.
The XR3i brought everything Ford had learned about building ‘hot’ versions of its regular road cars and crystallised them into a bountiful little package that remains close to the heart of anyone who possessed or yearned after one during its heyday in the 1980s.
The 1600 litre engine was carefully coaxed to output 109bhp which, while limited by today’s standards, was enough to make the car a serious presence in the hot hatch market of the early 1980s. Moreover, it re-established that while fast Fords might have lacked the design flair or technical prowess evident in other marques (notably the Golf Gti) they could make a driver’s car as well as anybody.
The XR3i delivered handling thrills and performance in abundance to a generation of youngsters who later find such thrills put out of their price reach by increasing insurance premiums. At the time, there was simply no better package of every day practicality and driving fun. The styling was beefed up over the car’s production run – latterly famously sprouting an additional set of rally-style headlights – and the car was fresh enough to remain in production until the Escort name was retired to make way for the Focus in 1998.
Tonally, it was also the archetypal hot hatch with a bruising road presence, much beloved of the boy racing breed that flourished during the 1980s. Later in life, it inevitably grew up a little with greater emphasis on comfort and higher spec, but we think the first version is the true embodiment of what made the Escort XR3i a British motoring icon.