A Tribute to a Legend
If you grew up in dark Welsh forests, standing around in the pissing rain, waiting for a split-second glimpse of a rally car to thunder past before you contract hypothermia and immediately die, then this machine will need little introduction. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, or if you think what I just proposed sounds absolutely ludicrous, then you’ve probably never experienced the inane thrill of 1980s rallying and the iconic Rothmans liveried Mark II Ford Escort.
Before the advent of the Group-B monsters, the sport of rallying was a whole different animal. Small, usually rear wheel drive hatches and coupes did battle on stages across the world. The courses were tough; usually dirt or gravel tracks that would stretch on for mile after mile, but the sheer unpredictability of point-to-point racing had made it one of the most popular motorsports in the world by the mid 1970s. Drawing thousands upon thousands of spectators, it wasn't uncommon to have crowds lining the edges of the stage in a tight-knit wall, mere centimetres from hunks of metal barreling along at speeds well in excess of 180Kph.
It was a sport that relied almost solely on driver skill; the ability to keep the knife-edge balance of a rear-drive missile travelling at warp speed on a track barely wider than your average parking spot was incredible. It was not a competition of driver aids or outrageous, super-turbo monsters that could claw back the times on the straight. It all came down to how well you could drive. Piloting these little, sub 1000kg go-karts with power levels comparable to that you’d find in a modern hatchback certainly required first class skill, and an enormous set of testes.
The cutesy MKI Ford Escort RS1600 and its famous dogbone nose had long been a star of the rally circuit, both on the international stages and in the heralded British Championships. The 1600cc lightweight regularly showed its worth against icons such as the Lancia Stratos and the Alpine A110 when the red mist descended. The Escort underwent a regeneration just before 1975 came to an end and the Mark II Escort was introduced, revealing a squarer stance and a more aggressive nosecone for better aero. Despite the refresh, by 1978, with technology rapidly advancing, it was falling further and further off the podium, as lighter, more powerful and more composed beasts were hitting the tracks.
The combination of the European economic downshifts and stiff competition from the continent meant the newly worked car still needed honing to be a winner on the international stage, something a tight budgeted Ford couldn’t warrant doing by themselves without complete assurance of victory. So in ‘79, the Ford works team provided backing to a small UK based firm called David Sutton motorsports. David Sutton was contracted to hand-build each competition MKII Escort works car and craft them for specific rally driving applications. Ford had already experienced great success in the British championships, achieving a victory annually since 1971, they couldn’t afford to add a loss to their gilded résumé.
As a last ditch effort to compete with the ever encroaching turbo threat, the RS1800 1.8L works engine was thrown away and replaced with a forged 2.0L unit that pushed HP output north of 250hp in full race trim. It wasn’t an instant hit, with an ailing Ford Motor Company forced to slash off many of its motor sporting ties as the 1979 season wore on. So Sutton agreed to completely take the reigns for the rallying Fords, and he did so with a very high hit rate. Ford gave Sutton carte blanche with the parts bin and engineering, providing he picked the drivers and crucially the sponsors for the 1980 season and beyond.
After making a bit of noise on the rally stage throughout the 1970s, it was Finnish driver Ari Vatanen who was chosen by Sutton to pilot his newly worked RS1800 for the 1980 championship season, with David Richards as co-driver. It was this magical duo which started the Rothmans winning Formula on the rally stages. Rothmans were a relative newcomer after sponsoring Soccer teams and the odd racing event during the 70s, the 1980s was the hard push in the direction of motorsports. The David Sutton car would lead them to their first championship win, with legendary victories with Porsche cars on the Le Mans circuit to follow soon after. Their WRC Victory in 1980 sparked knowledge of just what could be done with David Sutton’s cars.
By the end of 1981, Ford had dominated the field and had podiums in almost every WRC race and packed a huge field of cars in the British RAC rally championship across different teams. Vatanen and Richards took home the win for the drivers championship, and crucially, the constructors championship. It was a great year for Sutton Motorsports, Ford Racing and Rothmans, but when the 1982 season did come about, it was a completely different animal. With lax manufacturing restrictions allowing forced induction, lightweight monocoque constructions and all wheel drive systems to come into play, with only a tiny amount of units having to be sold on the forecourt to register eligibility. Ford’s momentum had been crushed and the humble Escort would not win another championship race until 1993 with the turbo powered R.S. Cosworth. Group B had begun...
Although it might look millimetrically perfect, this is not an original Sutton Motorsports car. This one had been handbuilt from the ground up to form one of the most perfect competitive rally cars to ever grace the streets in its illustrious Group 4 guise. Owner John acquired the car and embarked on a five year process to manufacture it using the style and methods that the original David Sutton cars would undergo, making this perhaps the world’s most accurate replica of a factory built MKII. John’s labour cannot be underestimated. He built the entire car from scratch, outsourcing only the roll cage to meet CAMS approval and final layers of paint which were applied with the strokes of master mechanic Stephen Hirst, who applied the final layers after countless hours of prep work by John. The MKII’s livery, which replicates the car fielded by Vatanen and Richards in the 1980 season, contains no vinyl colours, with each line, colour block and insignia painstakingly painted by hand to ensure the highest quality finish.
Sitting on a set of bronzed superlites, the whole car has a low stance, a wide track and flared arches muscling their way out of the squared body. Firing up the 2L naturally aspirated engine reveals a snarly, uncompromising engine tone. A 205 block was fitted out with forged Mahle pistons, racing bearings, enlarged valves and a ported and polished cylinder head to reach around 220hp in its most conservative tune. Twin sidedraft Weber 45s give the Ford a healthy gulp on the way in, with a custom Ashley exhaust making a very sweet note on the way out. The whole car shakes and rattles as the oil and fluids slowly warm themselves up, every jolt and turbulence amplified by the completely stripped interior. The characteristic gearbox whine of any racer is immediately apparent as soon as tight shifter selects first.
This is an uncompromised racecar, it is road legal, but only as a CAMS motorsport vehicle much like the original cars would have been registered to power between rally stages under their own steam. On road the ride is harsh and noisy, but you can’t look past the way it holds and just how that little four banger can crank out so much power at seemingly any rev. As soon as the throttle is tickled, the whole car jolts forward and screams its way to the best part of 9000rpm.
As with the original works cars, some body panels were prepared as alloy pressed pieces for the arches, spoilers and sump guard, giving better rigidity at a lighter weight. The chassis and body was firewalled then seam welded, with a 6 point cage massaged into the body around enlarged diff and gearbox tunnels for safety and razor sharp rigidity, with a custom fabricated alloy pedal box making good use of the tight space. The running gear comes in the form of a 4 speed close ratio box with quick-shift into a Borg Warner 4.1 LSD at the rear. The boot houses a custom fabricated 12 gallon alloy fuel tank and dual pump system, fitting safely and snug around the spare wheel.
To match the striking exterior, the interior of the Escort is an exact replica of the 1980 season FIA car, with the only changes or additions being essential modern safety equipment to meet FIA or CAMS requirements as the car still competes in hillclimbs and rally sprints. The hugging Sparco race seats complete with harnesses ensure you sit tight and low. The dashboard stretches out, covered in alloy additions and a myriad of gauges, original-specification timing equipment and a dash mounted bias controller.
When you take a seat and strap yourself in, you know it’s more than just a replica. This is a full blown racecar. Ford’s Mark II Escort RS1800 took on the world’s best at the dawn of Group B rallying and won, against all odds. The guidance of David Sutton Motorsport powered them into the history books as one of the most iconic cars of the era. John took a standard Escort road car and crafted it into a the most potent of rally racers. The spirit of the original Sutton cars has been captured perfectly in this ultimate tribute to an icon.