Published on: Jan 18, 2016 @ 18:00 Originally Published in: 2015 (old website) (C) Jay Auger - website owner & author Notice: Any form of duplication methods (including but not limited to copy/paste of text and screen capture) of the website's content is strictly forbidden.
In the late 1970s, talks by the FISA of major upcoming sporting regulations changes, especially the Group B proposition, made Ford seriously re-evaluate their future in the World Rally Championship (WRC). Their venerable Escort, a mainstay in competitive rallying for quite some time, was however on the verge of a major technical change in its next generation – which would put it at a disadvantage unless a radical solution was found.
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After winning the WRC titles in 1979, Ford surprised everyone when they sold all of their works operation to the privateer David Sutton Team. Ford could then focus on developing a brand new rally car that would be up to snuff with the upcoming Group B regulations. It was a given for the Blue Oval that the Escort name needed to continue wearing its battle flag under the new rules – but the mark 3 would pose a major technical problem.
Contrary to its predecessors, the third generation of the Escort was to be front-wheel drive from the factory. However, the famed RallyeSport Team at Ford knew that such a layout wouldn’t handle the horsepower needed to win international rallies. However, Group B’s much looser rules, which were planned to take effect in 1982, would allow new technical opportunities.
The project was code-named “Columbia” and began with quick study using a Ford Fiesta as a technical mock-up. By doing this the engineers came with the idea of a “silhouette” rally car by dropping a modified MkIII Escort body on a bespoke rear-wheel drive chassis. Ford is often credited as being the first to go in such a route for a Group B rally car. Timetables were then quickly set; the Blue Oval’s upper management planned for the Escort to begin testing as soon as mid-1982 and tackle a complete WRC programme for 1983 – the year that teams had to run Group B homologated cars with their seeded drivers to be able to score championship points.
All the meanwhile Audi’s new efforts in rallying were largely unnoticed, up until they introduced their four-wheel drive quattro rally car. After the Audi’s first outings, Ford weren’t too worried since the quattro turned out to be fairly unreliable and clunky to drive despite its unarguable traction advantage on loose surfaces that led it to some convincing victories. Thus, the Boreham team still continued on building their rear-wheel drive Group B rally car with confidence.
The previous MkII Escort was a highly successful rally car so the engineers designed the new chassis to share most underpinnings with that model. Similarly, again in partnership with Cosworth, Ford went back and used the BDA engine from the previous rally car. However, the new unit would undergo several major revisions such as reducing its displacement to 1778 cc and adding the very critical turbocharging system.
This was explicitly done to maximise the 2000~2500 cc class of the new Group B regulations, which demanded a multiplication factor of 1.4 for forced induction engines (1778 cc x 1.4 = 2489 cc) and would allow the car to weigh as little as 890 kg (1960 lb). In doing so Ford had created the powerful BDT engine: a unit that was originally expected to reliably achieve upwards of 350 BHP in international specs. Although the engine was officially a 1.8L, Ford decided to use the “RS1700T” moniker to differentiate the new rally car from the previous generation RS1800 model.
The Boreham engineers also considered using an alternate “RS2300” powerplant – a 2290 cc normally-aspirated 420R-code unit developed by famed Formula engine designer Brian Hart. 2-litre versions of the powerplant had already seen use such as in the Ralt RT2 and Toleman TG280 Formula 2 cars plus other variations in Can-Am and Thundersaloons racing. The increased displacement to 2.3 litres of the naturally-aspirated 420R could allow the Escort to stay within the same weight category – but with added torque over the 2-litre unit while producing a capable 300 BHP.
Both the BDT and 420R engines were to be mounted in the front and longitudinal position so weight distribution became a huge concern. The engineers came with the idea of using a rear-transaxle system to better the weight bias. This is where the experience of John Wheeler came into play since he had previously worked in the development of the German Porsche 928 – a car also sporting a front-engine and rear-transaxle. The first driveable RS1700T, prototype “P4”, was equipped with the Porsche transaxle for initial testing.
Wheeler’s expertise would also see that the long driveshaft between the engine and transaxle be replaced by an aluminium torque tube which greatly helped in overall chassis rigidity. Other important improvements to the rally cars featured central locking wheels, like a circuit race car, to allow for quicker tire changes. Such new offerings and different setup considerations meant that the project was plagued with a lot of technical problems and delays. This is when the purity of design got however a bit tarnished when the need to use some items from the Ford “parts bin” arose to speed up the process.
There was a lot of pressure on the Boreham bunch to start showing concrete results of the project so, six weeks before the first test planned at the 1982 Tour de Corse, they rushed preparations of two cars (one RS1700T and one RS2300 “Hart”) to begin testing in the Portugal Rally instead. That event would also allow Ford to pit the car in direct competition with the four-wheel drive Audi quattro and compare stage times on gravel.
For this, Ford enlisted the help of flying finns Ari Vatanen and Pentti Airikkala to drive the cars. After the event Vatanen gave a negative review of the “Hart”-powered car, which he also violently crashed. On the other hand, the BDT-equipped version ran 1.5 seconds per kilometre faster than the Fiat Abarth 131 that had won the rally the previous year. This would be the argument to give the “thumbs up” to develop the definitive rally car around the BDT engine. The final review of the event was seen as positive at the Blue Oval, although the cars seemed to struggle to match pace with the Audi quattro’s times, so morale within the RS team was still high and optimistic.
Meanwhile, four road versions of the car were produced for various durability and safety tests, three were RHD, one LHD. Plans to begin production of the 200 homologation units at the Saarlouis plant in Germany were in the final phase when the news came from Ford’s upper management that they now wanted a four-wheel drive car. Upon advice from the engineers, the Blue Oval’s brass approved a two-step program for the RS1700T; for the 1983 season, they would go forward competing with the rear-wheel drive version while developing a four-wheel drive system, then produce a second batch of 200 homologation cars (these would be four-wheel drive) which should be ready to compete in 1984. A few months later, Ford appointed a new motorsport director, Stuart Turner, who would scrap all the plans for the RS1700T in favour of developing a brand new and entirely bespoke rally car from scratch.
For the Ford RallyeSport team, this meant losing over two years of hard work on the RS1700T, of which 18 prototypes had been built. This prompted much frustration within the Boreham bunch. However, not all efforts were in vain as many of the RS1700T’s features would carry over to the new car, including the Cosworth BDT unit (the 200 homologation engines were already built) that went on to power the replacement car, the now famous RS200. It is easy to argue that, if not for the new four-wheel drive standard, the RS1700T would have definitely been one of the main contenders to beat in the WRC.
The remaining RS1700Ts that were not destroyed during testing or gutted for parts were saved by project manager Mick Jones and were sold to Ford South Africa for use in the country’s rallies since they did not require homologation of any kind. After this point the cars were rebranded as the “Escort RST” (RallyeSport Turbo).
Some development work continued on the remaining RSTs to try and solve issues associated to them being largely unfinished before leaving Europe. As such they became quite a bit more reliable. Even then, the rear-wheel drive Escorts were hardly able to match the fleet of local four-wheel drive Audi quattros, but some did manage to score a few podiums including the car’s sole highlight – winning the 1985 Nissan Int’l Rally in the hands of Serge Damseaux and Vito Bonafede.
Some cars were brought back to Europe over the years with owners in the likes of Malcolm Wilson. Today there is only four known surviving RST / RS1700T cars, with a fifth being rumoured to be hidden away in a Boreham storage facility. A few modern replicas have since been built to honour the Group B car that, in the end, never made it.
|Conception/Production||1980~1982||# built: 18|
||WRC x 1.4 forced induction factor
|Output power – torque||
|Materials||block: aluminium (RS1700T)||cylinder head: aluminium (RS1700T)|
|Ignition||electronic / firing order 1-3-4-2|
|Type||rear-wheel drive||Hewland 5-speed transaxle|
|Type||Modified Escort XR3 steel monocoque chassis, converted from FWD to RWD, MkIII Escort bodywork composed of steel and fibreglass, widened fender flares, rear spoiler|
|Front suspension||MkII escort underpinnings, McPherson type struts, Bilstein shocks|
|Rear suspension||McPherson type struts, Bilstein shocks|
|Steering system||rack and pinion||N/A|
|Brakes||Front and Rear: AP 4 pot calipers, vented discs||adjustable F/R brake ratio|
|length: 3970 mm (156.3 in)||width: 1740 mm (68.5 in)||height: 1385 mm (54.5 in)|
|wheelbase: 2395 mm (94.3 in)||front track: N/A||rear track: N/A|
|Rims – tires||centre-lock wheels||
|Weight/power||RST: 2.8 kg/hp / 6.2 lb/hp|
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(C) Article by Jay Auger – website owner & author
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NOTE: An older & abridged version of this page’s article was proudly featured in the February 2017 issue of Pacenotes Rally Magazine!