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Ford Escort XR3 by Tolman - Better Than New, 43 Years Later

Tolman Ford Escort XR3

In a long line of fast Fords, it seems that few would pick out the Escort XR3 as their ultimate choice, apart from one person who asked Tolman Engineering to make the ultimate XR3. Ken Pearson investigates.

For the first and second generations of the Ford Escort, the compact mass market model had been rear wheel drive and featured true racing pedigree from the worlds of touring car racing and rallying which spawned homologation specials like the Escort Mexico and the RS2000. However, the first go-faster model of the third generation model wasn’t so brilliantly received in its own right or in the context of the competitors that had formed a new hot hatch class like the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Renault 5 Gordini Turbo.

Whilst today it is regarded as a performance pioneer, when it was new it brought a 1.6 litre carburettor-equipped engine and a four-speed transmission to a field full of fuel injected engines and five-speed ‘boxes. Compared to the XR3i that followed - with the i suffix denoting the addition of fuel injection along with numerous chassis tweaks - the XR3 was described as being hard-riding and noisy but being able to provide punchy performance and good roadholding. Whilst the XR3 could never be considered a sales flop, it was quickly overshadowed by the XR3i that replaced it in the lineup.

Tolman Ford Escort XR3

Comparing this nearly forgotten car to something closer to my era, it makes me think of the original Audi S2 which was available as a saloon, estate or coupé from 1991 to 1995, but requires more explaining to people than the better known estate-only RS 2 which came out three years later. So the short-lived XR3 would seem to be a left field choice for a no expenses spared restoration when the more well known and regarded XR3i is still available to use as a base, wouldn’t it? I think so, but the owner of one particular Sunburst Red XR3 doesn’t, and their car has been subject to a complete overhaul by Tolman Engineering.

The Warwickshire-based outfit have previously restomodded the Peugeot 205 GTI, Talbot Sunbeam Lotus and a whale-tail Escort RS Cosworth to wide acclaim so we should hardly be surprised that the finished XR3 project looks as fabulous as it does. The flared wheel arches look subtle by today’s standards, but they nicely contrast the sharp and accentuated edges of the bodywork elsewhere. The cloverleaf-style wheels sit low in the arches owing to the 14” size and relatively high-riding suspension for a performance car. The fantastic ducktail spoiler takes pride of place on the boot lid, rounding off the classic silhouette with its thick C-pillar and pronounced corners at the edges of every pane of glass.

Tolman Ford Escort XR3

Two headlights clearly weren’t enough, so four additional spotlights have been placed in the grille and the lower bumper, complete with small Ford blue oval stickers in the centre of the lenses. That level of attention to detail is just the tip of the iceberg for this restoration, which took 18 months and began with a part-finished project arriving at Tolman’s base along with pallets and bags of components - some of which were unlabelled.

Step one involved taking stock of everything that they had in front of them and work on a bill of materials to list what they’d need in order to complete the job. Alerts for parts were set on every online sales platform with the team coming close to commissioning a brand new batch of trim before someone in Germany found a seat in their loft and put it on eBay.

The metal was looked at first with the chassis being totally stripped down, repaired and repainted in the original Sunburst Red colour. As it was being reassembled, Tolman took extra care to improve the shut lines and visual build quality that wasn’t attainable when the car was one of thousands moving along the mass production line in Halewood in 1981. With the bodywork done and perfected, the original glass was cut, polished and placed back onto the chassis - complete with the registration being etched into each pane and surrounded with Identicar decals. I typically average one new windscreen per year so for the original glass to last 43 years is mightily impressive to me.

Tolman Ford Escort XR3

The interior has been subject to as intense scrutiny as the exterior, with repairs for sun-damaged plastics, the fitment of hidden clips and a total refurbishment of the instrument cluster all taking place. The needles are once again bright orange and even the heater controls have regained their blue and red identifiers owing to Tolman working out a way to reprint them. These are apparently notoriously hard to get right so Tolman are making these available for sale to help anyone else who is restoring an Escort of this generation.

The fanatical attention to detail extends beyond the interior fixtures and fittings to the accessories, or rather the car cabin fodder which all of us carry around with us in our cars. Racing programmes, a packet of Embassy cigarettes and a Feu Vert air freshener from the era have all been found and placed within the car. If that’s not period-correct attention to detail, I don’t know what is.

Tolman Ford Escort XR3

At this point, if I were talking about a restomod then I may begin to talk about the modifications made to the car in order to boost or modernise the performance on tap, however, this Escort project was meant to be a restoration rather than a restomod. There is no mention of the engine other than the fact that it is the carburetted 1.6 litre four-cylinder that made 96 bhp and 97 lb ft when new and I can only assume that this has been overhauled to make sure it’s at its factory figures again.

The only chassis and powertrain modifications, if we can call them that, are the new CNC-formed brake lines, a stainless steel exhaust and the use of a new driveshaft; Tolman could only find one driveshaft during their internet-wide search for parts which led them to designing the second one in-house and having it made locally. Otherwise, the car seems to be mechanically identical to what the brochure said it was in 1981.

Tolman Ford Escort XR3

So why was the XR3 chosen to be restored rather than restomodded? I can only speculate, but rarity of remaining examples has to be a factor; at least 11,000 XR3s were sold in the first year of production and it is estimated that there are fewer than 200 left on the roads today. Many have been crashed, scrapped or turned into replicas of the later Escort RS Turbo so the XR3 seems to have gone from being seen as the imperfect first attempt at a front-drive hot hatch to the starting point from which all the great two-wheel drive fast Fords would follow.

Correctly restored Escort XR3s are said to be few and far between, so the customer’s request for their car to be “one of the best in the world” has manifested itself in what will surely be seen as the yardstick for third generation Escort restorations that follow. Given the fanatical attention to detail from the paint and bodywork to the instrument cluster and the cabin fodder, it looks to me as though Tolman has nailed the brief.

Tolman Ford Escort XR3

Tolman Ford Escort XR3


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