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11 May 2017

The new Focus RS is awesome, but it'll never be quite as awesome as its Cosworth grandfather

By Peter AndersonPeter Anderson

Well, we say grandfather but really, the Ford Escort RS Cosworth, to give it its proper title (and we should given its advancing age), is the current Focus RS's great grandfather because it's another even older car with different clothes on.

The first Escort RS Cosworth rolled off the line in 1992. Carmakers used to have to make cars like this to satisfy the FIA's Group A rally competition rules, with Ford intending to put the car to work in the World Rally Championship, then about to enter its four-wheel drive turbo heyday. It had to go up against the Lancia Delta Integrale and the might of Mitsubishi and Subaru.

Carmakers used to have to make cars like this to satisfy the FIA's Group A rally competition rules. Carmakers used to have to make cars like this to satisfy the FIA's Group A rally competition rules.

Thing is, it wasn't really an Escort, not once Ford's Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE) were done with it. Apart from some of the interior, there wasn't actually much left of the donor car. Just looking at it, you could see the huge blistered arches were too much of a stretch for the standard Escort's dumpy body and if you parked an Escort Cossie next to a normal Escort, you'd see that the cars weren't the same size.

The panels came from outside supplier Karmann. The panels came from outside supplier Karmann.

So different were they that the panels came from outside supplier Karmann. And the reason they were so different is that underneath, this was a shortened Sierra Cosworth. The Focus RS? It's a third-generation Focus from start to finish, with some aero to keep it stuck to the ground, not a skunkworks chop-shop job.

Of course, that gigantic - dare we say it? - iconic rear wing is a dead giveaway. That wing was designed by a bloke who would go on to greatness, redesigning two fifties classics - the Fiat 500 and the Mini. He now looks after design at McLaren and his name is Frank Stephenson. Rumour has it he didn't want the wing that ended up on the Cossie but he wanted a third deck to really pump up the looks.

That gigantic - dare we say it? - iconic rear wing. That gigantic - dare we say it? - iconic rear wing.

The production wing was so wild that later in its production run it could be deleted. You lost downforce (the RS had real downforce, front and rear) but you were also less visible - these things were one of the most sought-after cars in Europe for joy-riders and ram-raiders.

Joy-riders would steal them, drive them, then park them up. "They didn't burn them," he said. "It was like they respected it."

Your next clue is under the bonnet. While today's RS has all-wheel drive like the Escort, it doesn't have an engine that sits north-south under the bonnet. The Sierra was a rear-wheel drive car, so the engine was pointed in the right direction to make that happen. The RS Cossie's all-wheel drive system isn't quite up to 2017 standards though. Yes, it's rear-biased but it's 67-33 and it's fixed. No computers shuffling the power around to save your skin, no torque vectoring, just a simple, solid system that dates back to the eighties. And a five-speed manual that probably goes back even further.

Which would you rather? Which would you rather?

In the eighties and nineties, Cosworth was as powerful a brand as M or AMG, supplying racing engines all over the place, including the back of Michael Schumacher's race-winning Benetton B93.

Cosworth gave the 2.0 litre engine (known as YBT) a new turbo, bucket-sized Garrett T35 with a two-stage intercooler and Weber-Marelli engine management for 169kW to push 1275kg. A big turbo meant big lag and once the 2500 unit homologation run was over, Ford came over all sensible. The YBT became the YBP with a smaller Garrett T25 turbo and Ford's EEC engine management. Power and torque fell marginally, but drivability improved.

Three generations of legendary Ford hatchbacks. Three generations of legendary Ford hatchbacks.

Some YBT-engined cars went on to have colourful lives, with up to 1000hp said to be dragged out of the 2.0 by owners who clearly had an unlimited budget for gearboxes, driveline parts and tyres.

By the end of its production run, the Escort RS Cosworth numbered 7142 units (not counting the written-off rally and road cars) and a couple of special editions. The MkI could be had in Motorsport form and lost the dodgy sunroof and some sound deadening, ripe for transformation to a rally car. The MkII could be had in Luxury form (the blue car in the photos) or Monte Carlo (the purple). A well-kept Monte Carlo is now worth a whopping $100,000 at current exchange rates.

This Monte Carlo would be worth over a hundred thousand dollars. This Monte Carlo would be worth over a hundred thousand dollars.

You'll see a canary yellow car below - that's a really special one. This Cosworth rolled down the line as a paint test car. It's the only Escort RS Cosworth in that particular shade of yellow (there was a richer, egg-yolk yellow available for customers) and all three of the cars live at the Ford Heritage Centre in Dagenham, London.

This is the only RS Cosworth to ever be painted Canary Yellow. This is the only RS Cosworth to ever be painted Canary Yellow.

Purely by chance, I met a chap who used to be a policeman in London's East End during the 90s, a rough area. He said the weird thing about the RS Cosworth is that the joy-riders would steal them, drive them, then park them up. "They didn't burn them," he said. "It was like they respected it."

These things were one of the most sought-after cars in Europe for joy-riders and ram-raiders. These things were one of the most sought-after cars in Europe for joy-riders and ram-raiders.

And what's it like to drive? Amazing. Doesn't matter that it's 20 years old. Apart from a slightly vague gearshift (the car we drove was a mint, low-mileage example), it still felt fast, even driven back-to-back with the Focus. Which we did. The Escort rode a lot better around the East End, pulled hard on the motorway and got a lot of camera phone attention. And it could be relaxed if you wanted it to be, something the jittery, rock-hard Focus has trouble with. The Focus is faster - of course it is - but the lighter Escort was a huge amount of fun.

What's it like to drive? Amazing. Doesn't matter that it's 20 years old. What's it like to drive? Amazing. Doesn't matter that it's 20 years old.

I'd think long and hard if I was offered one of them as my only car, but, it would be the Escort.

Would you pick the Escort RS over its Focus grandson? Tell us what you think in the comments.