We came across a video the other day of the Ford EXP introduction. We were surprised because we certainly didn’t think anyone would ever fondly remember this thing. And we do remember the EXP very clearly… but certainly not fondly. We had first-hand experience.
We never owned one… we never wanted to and we never would even imagine such a thing. But we did drive one once in the mid-eighties. This was in the fall of 1983 (the beginning of the 1984 model year). A brand new 1984 120 HP turbo EXP had just come in at our dealer (1.6 liters, DOHC, transverse 4 cylinder with 5-speed manual). The dealer’s owner, being a friend, tossed us the keys. We closely looked over the car – and it was odd beyond belief. The styling appeared to want to imitate a car with pop-up headlamps… up! Perhaps the budget failed at the last-minute and the car was originally supposed to have pop-ups? We seem to remember a spy pic in AutoWeek of such a thing.
The EXP has a bit of an infamous history. Car & Driver and Road & Track entered matching EXPs against each other in the infamous 24 hour endurance race at Nelson Ledges. These were naturally aspirated cars – with all of ~90 HP! As we remember, both entries failed due to repeated front wheel bearing failure. The hot ticket, discovered too late for the event, was the European Escort Diesel bearing, and of course Ford of N.A. had been cheap with their development budget. Seems to us that the entire line of Escorts have all had this part. Ford apparently never got it right.
The test drive started well enough.. we started the car and remember a nice burble in the exhaust. When we took off, there was huge torque steer (far more than in the Rabbit GTI we had driven a few months before). It was all we could do to immediately let off the gas. One tire was spinning like mad… there was traction from (barely) only 1 side. If the EXP wasn’t already entirely pointless, it sure was once you drove it.
The handling, despite Michelin TRX tires, was also poor. Too much roll, and the limits were easily found. The seats were a cheap version of the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe seats (Lear Siegler), the same cheap seats used in our own (and much-hated) 1983 Mustang GT. Again, in both ways, the GTI was far superior. When we finally got back to the dealer, one front tire was heavily worn (and not from us abusing it, all it did was spin the entire time) and the engine was very hot (Fords were as bad from over-heating in street driving as they have been until just recently).
All in all, this was a very poor effort by Ford – especially given the reputation of the closely related European Ford Escort for excellent handling and a full range of engines. The North American Escort was an early attempt at a “world car”. The platform was identical to the European model, although the body grew by several inches and many pounds all around.
Ford updated the EXP for 1986.5 with a new front end and engines. This was the last evolution in it’s lifespan, and included a move to an improved 1.9 liter “CVT” engine. This engine was the first Escort engine specifically designed for North America, and had reasonable torque and acceleration – especially in the optional high-output fuel-injected version. But, as was so typical of Ford for so many years, the American version never approached the far more serious Escorts in Europe – such as the 1982 Escort RS1600i.
MotorWeek reviewed the new EXP, comparing it against a Dodge Daytona CS. The Daytona wasn’t a bad car (by the standards of that time), despite being K-car based, and it was certainly several levels above the Ford. MotorWeek shouldn’t have compared them. Watch it here:
A few years later, we did come across a much better improvement – but not by Ford. We were at a swap meet in Columbus when there was a huge exhaust and induction roar behind us. We turned around and in came… the EXP from Hell! We walked over to talk to the driver… the car had been converted to RWD and it was powered by a BOSS 429 engine. Built for drag racing, it was nonetheless registered for the street (something you could get away with in those days). This same car was featured in Super Ford sometime later (you may be able to find that issue for reference).
It seems that Ford takes forever to learn, although today the North American Focus ST is identical in spec (although not options) around the entire world. And soon the Focus RS will be too! Finally – after 30 years!