First published February 2016.
MEXICO MATTERS – by Nigel Raeburn.
In December 1970, Motor Sport magazine reported on the new Ford Escort Mexico, as follows:
Seven days ago another new Ford came on the market—the Escort Mexico. Motor Sport believes that participation in competition motoring improves ordinary cars and we are pleased when properly developed models are named after well-known circuits or contests. Consequently, we welcome Ford of Britain’s latest new model, which is not an ordinary car at all but a potent 98-b.h.p. Escort, made by Ford Advanced Vehicle Operations at Aveley at the rate of about a dozen-a-week and sold through Ford’s 66 Rallye Sport Dealers.
The Mexico is based on the Escort RS 1600 bodyshell and suspension but is powered by an 80-bore (actually 80.98 mm.) push-rod-o.h.v. engine, the well-proved 1600 GT power unit (see Page 1314). It thus has a cross-flow, bowl-in-piston head and five-bearing crankshaft like the Ford Escorts which finished 1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 8th and took the Team Prize in the London-Mexico World Cup Rally. It differs from these rally cars in being of 1,600 c.c. instead of 1,850 c.c., having wet, not dry-sump, lubrication, no overdrive (it pulls a 3.7 back axle), has a steel and glass instead of an aluminium and Perspex body, and 5-1/2-in. instead of 6-in, rims, but it does have the 9.6-in. front brake discs of the World Cup cars. And the Mexico sells for £1,150 4s., inclusive of p.t. and delivery charges in this country. Whereas, even if exact World Cup replicas were available, they wouldn’t be sold for that sort of price. Moreover, to supplement a red, white or maize finish you can order your Mexico in World Cup livery.
This splendid new car for enthusiasts (over 10,000 Mk 1 Mexicos were built) soon led to the introduction of one-make championships for fairly standard versions of these cars in both racing and rallying. The car had many virtues – enjoyable and fun to drive, very ‘driveable’, reasonably priced and mechanically straightforward to prepare and maintain. In the racing championship, drivers such as Jody Scheckter, Gerry Marshall and Andy Rouse ensured top class racing. In rallying, the fertile mind of Stuart Turner created a rally championship which ran in 1972 and 1973. In 1971 I remember being invited to a meeting of current rally competitors, near Rugby I think, convened by Stuart Turner to help him refine his ideas for the format of the championship. The championship (maybe it was called a challenge) was launched for 1972 for fairly standard Mexicos, with modifications strictly controlled and monitored (a rolling road was used at some rounds to help ensure no special engines). The events, and there must have been about 20 of them, were mostly road rallies with just a few stage or mixed events. Geographically it covered all over England and Wales with one round just into Scotland. There was a little overlap with the established Motoring News road rally championship (another Turner invention) with a few rounds in both – e.g. Bristowe, Torbay, Illuminations, Shenstone. Ford Rally Sport dealers round the country got behind it and were eager to have a sign-written car taking part and competitors were equally eager to gain support from the dealers. A number of leading drivers from the MN series decided to try this new venture, hoping it might prove cheaper to run a standard car rather than the expensively prepared Escorts which were common on MN events. Further entries came from hopeful ‘up and coming’ drivers who hoped the standard cars would allow them to show off their talents against the established stars.
What was soon seen was that the same crews excelled in Mexicos as had been doing well in MN events – the cars were less important than the crew – a good driver and top-class navigator being the requisites for success. However, the cars were a great success and soon over 50 Mexicos were entered on some events – they proved remarkably competitive, surprisingly reliable and relatively economical to run. The established drivers and navigators were filling the top places, in many cases helping to cement their reputations before going on in later years to proper works and supported drives in stage rallying. Early winners were Russell Brookes, George Hill, Tony Pond, Nigel Rockey and Will Sparrow. As can be seen from this list, standards were high.
For Will Sparrow and myself, our move to Ford came with some help from Stuart Turner who (although working for Ford) wanted to recognise our successes in Minis in the previous few years and he oiled the wheels considerably to ensure we had a car and we gained support from Hodgsons of Retford, a Ford dealer in Nottinghamshire run by Bruce Hodgson who was himself a rally driver. As usual, Will did the preparation himself. Our year started well when we managed to win outright the opening round, the Oslo Trophy Rally run by Stockport MC in north Wales. It was a tough rally with some tricky white roads, one of which stopped much of the field on a slippery and grassy climb up a hill on the moors near the Ceiriog valley. I recall having to ride a half-mile standing and bouncing in the boot to help gain traction and shouting navigation instructions to Will in the driver’s seat! As a navigator used to Minis, I found the Mexico a delight – so quiet and smooth I could focus my eyes so much better on the map and didn’t have to shout so much!
We were off to a good start, but there was strong competition and this was the only event which we won outright, although we came best Mexico on the Illuminations (2nd overall on an MN round) and were 2nd Mexico on 5 further rounds. These consistent results (I think we only retired once with a transmission problem), with a few more top 5 Mexico finishes, enabled us to clinch the Championship prior to the final round, which was very satisfying. I had done all the events Will did bar one when Gerry Ryan stepped in on a stage event – a deliberate pre-planned move as we had a road rally round the previous night and I stayed on to ensure the results were thoroughly checked while Will rushed off to get to the start of the stage event. Into second in the championship came Tony Pond with Julian Chitty and Frances Cobb sharing the navigation, and third were our old friends and adversaries George Hill and Keith Wood.
There was a parallel but less well supported championship for Escort Sports – a 1300cc version. This was won by north Wales’ Roland Young and Dave Cowell.
There were attractive prizes – each quarter a drive on a British championship event in a Ford works car – various drivers like Tony Pond, Russell Brookes, Nigel Rockey and George Hill I think had their first ever works drives this way. Will drove a works Escort on the Acropolis Rally in Greece with Henry Liddon co-driving – I was unfortunately too busy at work! Sadly they retired with a car problem.
By 1973 Will and I had moved on to the Vauxhall chapter of our rallying, but the Mexico championship carried on and prospered, with Nigel Rockey and Paul White coming out the winners by the year end.
So it was a very successful period both in promoting Ford and bringing on a great era of British drivers, but possibly road rallying was starting to become less acceptable to the general public and the cars were not really robust enough for forest stage rallying – and the championship came to graceful end.
There have been other one-make championships for fairly standard cars in rallying which have flourished – especially the Peugeot 205s but also Lada, Mazda, Ford Kas and others. It was a great way to tackle rising costs and generate publicity – might anyone be bold enough to try again?