The Top 10 Unconventional Sporty Fords
A couple of weeks ago, we brought you a list of 10 performance-oriented Chevrolets that could best be described as outside the mainstream, with nary a Corvette or Camaro in sight. Well, of course we couldn’t salute Chevy’s forgotten funsters without devoting equal time to the more obscure speed machines from crosstown foe Ford. You’ll notice that there’s not a single Mustang to be found on the following list (ordered, like the Chevrolet one, in order of the vehicles’ introductions) because, sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for horseplay. Also we’ve limited our selections to Fords that were or are available in the United States, so no whining about how we forgot about the South African Capri Perna V8 or the Laser TX3 Turbo AWD available in Japan and Australia. Okay, on with the show!
By the time the Falcon nameplate retired from the North American market at the end of the 1970 model year, it had long since abandoned almost all pretensions of sportiness and glitz; we say almost because the mid-size Fairlane/Torino based finale (which debuted in January of 1970 as a “1970½” model) could be had with all of its ritzier siblings’ engines, up to and including the mighty 429 cubic-inch (7.0L) Cobra Jet V8. That 370 horsepower brute could be teamed with either the famed Ford “Toploader” 4-speed manual (with a floor-mounted Hurst shift lever) or the C6 heavy-duty 3-speed automatic. Options included a Shaker hood scoop, heavy-duty suspension, Magnum 500 wheels, a tachometer, and a limited-slip differential called “Traction-Lok” by the Ford marketing department, among others. Oh, and you could have gotten the 429 Cobra Jet in the Falcon 2-door sedan or the 4-door sedan. We suppose you could call the latter a primordial Taurus SHO of sorts, but we happen to think it’s something much more badass; of course, this is assuming somebody was actually nutty/cool enough to order a “too-many-doors” 429 CJ/4-speed ’70½ Falcon (A fine question for , that one…).
Considering the first generation American Ford Granada (as opposed to the European one, which served as the brand’s flagship over there) featured formal, rather baroque styling that Dearborn marketers actually had the cojones to compare to that of contemporary Mercedes-Benzes , an overtly sporty version seemed like an odd addition to the lineup. Incongruousness notwithstanding, the Granada ESS (short for European Sport Sedan and offered between 1978 and ’80) certainly looked the part of a two- or four-door sport sedan, with a blacked-out grille insert and trim, painted stripes, bucket seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Heavy duty suspension and wider black-wall radial tires on 14” steel wheels with exclusive body-color hubcaps provided extra stick in the turns, while an optional 302 cubic-inch (4.9L) Windsor V8 and console-shift 4-speed manual transmission (unless you lived here in California, in which case you were stuck with the 3-speed automatic) provided about as much forward thrust as could be expected from a smallish Malaise Era V8. Is it weird that we harbor dreams of sticking a and a in one?
EXP Turbo Coupe
Most of you are familiar with the Honda CR-X, right? The fastback, short wheelbase version of the third- and fourth-gen Civics that was sold as a two-seater in this country and was equal parts commuter car and canyon carver? Yeah, that wasn’t a completely unique concept back in the 1980s. In fact, Ford beat Honda to the punch by more than a year with the Escort-based EXP. The EXP shared its 94.2” wheelbase with the Escort, but the rakish body with its well-hidden hatchback, close-coupled greenhouse and more aggressive front end treatment gave this front-drive runabout an altogether more sporting demeanor. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the EXP Turbo Coupe for the 1984 model year that it had bite to match its bark.
As the name implies, the Turbo Coupe trim level added a turbocharger to the 1.6L SOHC inline-four, as well as electronic fuel injection. The result was 120 horsepower, a 33% jump over the standard EXP’s naturally-aspirated, carburetor-fed unit, and the Turbo Coupe could only be had with a 5-speed manual transmission. Unique aluminum wheels, sport seats and steering wheel, sport suspension tuning and exclusive accent colors and striping also broadcast to the world that you weren’t driving just any EXP.
We’re pretty sure Ford has never gotten as much use out of a single vehicle platform as it did with the Fox platform, introduced in 1978 as the Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr. Before all was said and done, the architecture was used on everything from “secretary special” four-cylinder Mustang convertibles to ritzy V8-powered Lincoln Continental sedans and Mark VII coupes. But one of the most entertaining variants of the Fox Body (even if you throw Mustangs into the mix) was the short-lived LTD LX.
Added to the downsized LTD line (not to be confused with the full-size LTD Crown Victoria) part-way through the 1984 model year, the LTD LX received heavy duty suspension components, front and rear anti-roll bars, larger 10” brakes (discs in front, drums in back), a shorter 3.27:1 rear axle ratio with Traction-Lok and performance tires provided extra stick in the turns, while the Mustang GT’s fuel injected High Output 302 V8 (Yes, children, there was a time when 165 horsepower from 4.9L was considered impressive…) and a 4-speed overdrive automatic transmission provided extra go on the straightaways. The interior, meanwhile, was differentiated by a different instrument cluster with a tach, front bucket seats and a center console atop which the shift lever presided.
The LX returned for 1985, but was gone for the abbreviated ’86 model year, as LTD production ended and the modern, front-drive Taurus assumed its place in the lineup. And while the Taurus SHO did a damn good job picking up the mid-size American sport sedan torch, it wasn’t pretty much a four-door Mustang, either…
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, GM and Chrysler both dabbled in the world of high-performance small pickup trucks with the GMC Syclone and Dodge Shelby Dakota, respectively. However, Ford actually beat them both to the punch by a few years with the Ranger GT. No, it didn’t have a V8, a turbocharged V6 or pavement-focused all-wheel-drive, but the Ranger GT (which arrived half way into the 1986 model year) was nevertheless an enthusiast machine. The upgraded suspension (with front and rear anti-roll bars), 14” aluminum wheels wearing Goodyear Eagle performance tires and shorter 3.73 rear axle with a Traction-Lok LSD got the most out of the 140 horsepower 2.9L Cologne V6 and the standard Mazda-sourced 5-speed manual or optional 4-speed automatic transmission. Bucket seats (with an optional center console) and full instrumentation continued the sporting theme inside the cab.
The Ranger GT’s first full year – 1987 – saw the arrival of a long-bed option (In case you’re wondering, a Supercab GT was never offered.), while the year after that a dope looking body kit – complete with Marchal foglamps residing in the front air dam – debuted the year after that. The 1989 Ranger GT was basically unchanged, though there were rumors that the ’90 version would be powered by the Taurus SHO’s Yamaha-supplied 3.0L DOHC V6. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and the ’89 model year would be the Ranger GT’s last. Still, it was an interesting – and entertaining – three-and-a-half year run.
Thunderbird Super Coupe
Considering Ford chose to benchmark the E24 BMW 6 Series when it was developing the all-new 1989 Thunderbird (Chassis code MN12.), it wasn’t all that surprising when a sports version in the vein of the M6 – the Thunderbird Super Coupe – was part of the lineup. And the use of “Super” in the name wasn’t rooted in childish hyperbole (not completely, anyway): It was a shout-out to the Roots type supercharger perched atop the 3.8L Essex V6. It – along with an intercooler and other engine upgrades – bumped the power and torque summits to 210 horsepower and 315 lb.-ft, respectively (The Super Coupe’s final two years – 1994 and ’95 – saw the figures rise to 230 horsepower and 330 lb.-ft.). A Mazda 5-speed manual transmission was standard, while a 4-speed automatic was optional. A fairly aggressive body kit, larger 16” alloy wheels wrapped in high performance tires, Traction-Lok, and performance suspension (which, like all MN12 derivatives, was independent at all four corners) with adjustable Tokico shocks also distinguished the Super Coupe from lesser MN12 Thunderbirds.
It didn’t take long for the factory-tuned T-bird to get covered in glory, as Motor Trend anointed it its 1989 Car of the Year and other buff books showered it with praise for its brawny engine and resolutely poised handling. Unfortunately, demand for coupes in the U.S. new car market began a steep drop as the ‘90s began, and not even the Thunderbird was safe. As demand for the Super Coupe hit the skids, the model was dropped at the end of the ’95 model year, two years before the rest of the Thunderbird line (and its Mercury Cougar sister) was retired. And unless you’re into the Jaguar-derived retro-a-go-go most recent generation (It’s okay, we don’t judge…much…), the 1989-’95 Super Coupe was really the last truly desirable Thunderbird. That should count for something, right?
While Ford Escort buyers in Europe and many other regions had an embarrassment of riches when it came to sporty versions in the early ‘90s (up to and including the beastly RS Cosworth), options here in the Blue Oval’s homeland were far more limited. In fact, the USDM Escort of the early ‘90s was actually completely unrelated to the Mk. 5 ‘Scort the rest of the world got; instead, it was a re-skinned variant of the contemporary Mazda 323 and Protégé. This wasn’t such a bad thing, as having a zoom-zoom-infused platform made a great foundation for the Escort LX-E.
If the sooo ‘90s body-colored body kit of the Escort GT wasn’t your thing, but the GT’s upgraded suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, beefier clutch for the 5-speed manual, equal-length halfshafts and the DOHC 1.8L BP-series inline-four (which would be installed in the Miata beginning with the 1994 model year) contributing 127 horsepower and 114 lb.-ft of torque were your thing, then you wanted to order the LX-E trim level. While not a pocket rocket by modern standards, the Escort LX-E – which was dropped at the end of 1993 – was a legitimate junior Q-ship for hoons of modest means.
Crown Victoria Touring Sedan
When the new aero-look Crown Victoria debuted in the spring of 1991 as a ’92 model, it brought a lot of changes to Ford’s biggest passenger car (despite being based on an updated version of the body-on-frame Panther platform that debuted in 1979): The “LTD” prefix in the name and the station wagon versions were no more (though the latter was in the cards initially), and the long-serving Windsor V8 was dumped in favor of the SOHC 4.6L Modular V8. But there was yet another change for ’92 that only dyed-in-the-wool Panther geeks tend to remember, and that was the introduction of the Crown Victoria Touring Sedan.
While not an out-and-out sport sedan like the Mercury Marauder of about a decade later, the Crown Victoria Touring Sedan nevertheless represented a substantial upgrade over the more pedestrian Crown Vics. From the outside it was distinguishable by two-tone paint, wider black-wall tires on BBS-esque mesh-pattern alloy wheels and “Touring Sedan” badges on the front fenders, while a dual exhaust system bumped the 16-valve Mod Motor’s output up to a more respectable 210 horsepower. The Touring Sedan package shared many heavy duty suspension components with the police package, while speed-sensitive power steering and extra-large sway bars were optional. Oh, and unlike regular Crown Vics, the Touring Sedan did without an electronic speed limiter.
Yes, the Touring Sedan package was pretty sweet…except it sold dreadfully, so much so that it was dropped after just one year. Thankfully, most of the mechanical bits remained available as the “Handling and Peformance” package.
Escort ZX2 S/R
When Ford rolled out the third-generation American Escort in 1996, the 3- and 5-door hatchbacks of old were gone from the lineup. But for the following year, a two-door notchback coupe called the Escort ZX2 joined the sedan and wagon. Unlike those two more practical models, which used a SOHC snoozefest of a 2.0L inline-four, the ZX2 was powered by the DOHC 16-valve Zetec 2.0L four-banger rated at 130 horsepower. But by 1999, the sport compact tuning craze was really starting to catch fire, and Ford decided to use the Escort ZX2 to get in on the action.
The limited production (Just 2,110 were built over the course of the 1999 and 2000 model years.) Escort ZX2 S/R didn’t look all that different from a regular Escort ZX2 from the outside, but it was chock full of name-brand tuner parts and Ford Racing technical know-how. The suspension was spiffed up with Eibach springs, Tockico struts and Energy Suspension polyurethane bushings, while the rear brakes were changed from drums to discs and a set of Goodyear ZR1 performance tires were fitted to 15” alloy wheels. Power was up by 10% for a total of 143 horsepower thanks to a reprogrammed ECU to take advantage of premium gas, a cold air intake system and a less restrictive Borla cat-back exhaust system, while the compulsory 5-speed manual transmission was treated to a Centerforce clutch and a B&M short-throw shifter. The 2,000 S/Rs made for the year 2000 also got unique blue cam covers, sport front seats and a 150 mph speedometer.
The S/R package was gone at the end of Y2K (as was the “Escort” from the car’s name), but it blazed a trail for the even more, uh, focused SVT Focus when it landed in 2002.
In the race for the title of “Coolest New Car Nobody’s Buying,” the Ford Flex is at or near the front. The family-friendly station wagon/chop-top minivan/scaled-up-first-gen-Scion-xB-homage might not have the mainstream appeal or as much interior space as its more conventional cousin, the Explorer, but it is a much louder motoring fashion statement. But it is the EcoBoost version – with a 365 horsepower, 350 lb.-ft 3.5L twin-turbo V6, 6-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive – that is the true hidden gem of Ford’s current North American lineup. If you like the idea of the late, great Mercedes-Benz R63 AMG but don’t want the snootiness of that German label (or the parts and service costs that go with it) and don’t mind being a tad slower, a test drive of the Flex EcoBoost is absolutely, unequivocally worth your time.