Ford Escort in the 1980s: a tale of three sedans

While the Blue Oval sold the notchback in many countries with nothing but small modifications, there was a time when its family-oriented counterpart required more than twice as much work

1983 Ford Orion
1980 Ford Escort Coupé (Europe)

The concept of car family basically consists of a manufacturer developing several car models using one project so as to reduce costs. In general, this project unifies all mechanical components of those cars, such as engine and suspensions, and leaves the creation of almost all stylistic parts free. The downside of this strategy is limiting which models to create from this single project, since they can’t be too different — it would be impractical, for instance, to develop a large SUV and a compact sports car that way. All things considered, the biggest challenge here usually is to create a family whose members are similar enough to be cheap to produce, but different enough not to compete with one another. Usually.

As you can imagine, manufacturers have a series of other variables to juggle in order to keep their lineup competitive and viable. Each car model has its own production requirements, each factory has its own capabilities, each population has its own preferences, each government has its own laws… In theory, industrial efficiency is achieved by unifying the lineup, while consumer satisfaction calls for individual products. As a result, what manufacturers actually do is execute one of the infinite intermediate combinations of those extreme scenarios every time. Experience makes them use some solutions way more often than others, so the few exceptions which managed to get through became quite interesting.

In Europe, hometown of the Escort, Ford executed some renovations in the early 1980s. The Cortina and the Granada families were gradually replaced with those of Escort (third generation) and Sierra, which were smaller and relied on aerodynamic designs to improve fuel efficiency. Initially, Ford created multiple body styles only for the Sierra, in order to compensate the reduced size. Since that turned out to attract more customers, it decided to expand the Escort’s lineup as well. The Orion was released in 1983 with more conservative front fascia and larger trunk, which was basically a stretched version of the Escort’s signature notchback. It quickly made success of its own, apart from the base model.

1984 Ford Tempo
1981 Ford Escort GLX (USA)

Around the same time, the Escort was only starting its career in North America. While being a Ford boosted its image, it still faced some rejection for being a compact car in a region which historically favors large pick-up trucks, sedans and station wagons — the company tried to fill that market gap with the Fiesta before, but being even smaller made it fail even faster. Ford opted for a more conservative solution for the sedan and developed the Tempo locally and with a coupé version. It was smaller and more modern as a whole compared to the Fairmont it replaced, like the Orion was to the Cortina in Europe, However, it was large enough to seduce people who didn’t appreciate the Escort’s qualities.

The Escort also debuted in Latin America at that time. Ford was streamlining its lineup in the wake of the oil crisis, so the Maverick and the Galaxie families were replaced by the smaller Del Rey, and the Corcel with the Escort. However, those plans would change shortly afterwards because of Ford’s merger with Volkswagen — it started in 1987 under the name Autolatina. The Escort was repositioned above the Gol and, since sedans were popular there and the latter already had the Voyage, it would need such a counterpart of its own. Ford originally considered offering the Orion but, after interviewing potential buyers, opted for creating yet another model, the Verona. This one was the youngest of the three, released in 1989.

Since those sedans were dedicated to only one region each, it’s no surprise that their conceptual differences were complex. The Orion was essentially a more conservative variation of the Escort, with four doors and a larger trunk. The Tempo had larger dimensions and engine and was the only one to come as a coupé as well. Finally, the Verona received a much more specific market positioning because it needed to avoid internal competition with all the car models of the two manufacturers which used to compete against one another. Such scenario made releasing the Volkswagen Apollo (in 1990) difficult to understand, to say the least, but that’s a whole other story.

1989 Ford Verona
1984 Ford Escort

At that time, Ford’s productive activities in each of those regions were practically independent, with several exclusive components, so having three different sedans didn’t hurt much its economy of scale: each one shared parts with other local models, rather than with those produced elsewhere. Orion and Tempo became successful rather quickly because they were well-tailored to the consumer’s needs, especially considering the particular needs of the 1980s. The former sold well enough to give a boost to its entire market category; several competitors either updated their equivalent models quicker than usual or created them for the first time.

Unfortunately, the Verona wasn’t so lucky. The Brazilian market was much smaller than now, so its potential was limited from the very beginning. If we add the fact that it was threatened by the existence of Apollo, Escort and Voyage only within Autolatina’s lineup, not to mention competitors of other companies, it becomes easy to understand how could it succumb to poor sales. Ford would ultimately give it a second chance, through the production of a whole new generation, but its market strategy was different as well; it turned to wealthier customers. The moment when that happened, around 1993, is interesting because it was also important for its siblings.

After a small facelift, the Orion was thoroughly refreshed in 1990 following what was done to the Escort. While it was criticized for the lack of stylistic inspiration, just like the base model, that update brought a significant evolution in overall quality. The Tempo underwent a similar sequence of events, but received its complete redesign in 1988: it became even more aerodynamic and similar to the larger brother Taurus, while moving away from the upscale counterpart Mercury Topaz. The second-generation Verona, in turn, appeared in 1993 adopting the Orion’s body and cabin, but paired to Volkswagen-sourced powertrain. It was also helped by a more concise market strategy.

1990 Ford Orion
1988 Ford Tempo

Over the years, Ford would gradually unify its lineup until it competed in the midsize category all around the world only with the Focus. While consumers have different preferences depending on where they live, they all appreciate high quality. Although this is not an entry-level category, it’s still necessary to offer competitive prices. Ford, like its competitors, decided to concentrate its investment in only one model in order to further improve it on comfort, fuel efficiency, performance and safety. While the Focus became a market success which is coming to the end of its third generation by now, its sedan variation certainly didn’t have a history as surprising as that which predecessor had three decades ago.

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.