By on May 28, 2018

1981 Ford Escort in California wrecking yard, LH front view - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
By the early 1980s, Ford needed a replacement for both the image-challenged and obsolete rear-wheel-drive Pinto and the minuscule, German-built Fiesta, and so a Detroitified distant cousin of the European Ford Escort came into being for the 1981 model year.

Here’s a rare ’81 sedan, photographed in a Northern California self-service wrecking yard.

I have seen quite a few first-generation Escorts in the Ford sections of junkyards during my travels, including this 1981 EXP, this 1984 wagon, this 1986 wagon, this 1988 GT, this 1988 GT, this 1988 GT, this 1988 EXP, and this 1990 Pony. In 1991, the Escort went to a Mazda chassis.

1981 Ford Escort in California wrecking yard, engine - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis car has the 1.6-liter SOHC four-cylinder, rated at 65 mighty horses in 1981. Curb weight was just about a ton, so acceleration wasn’t as poor as you might think (though it still required a great deal of patience on the part of the driver).

1981 Ford Escort in California wrecking yard, gearshift - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsMost affordable econoboxes came with a four-on-the-floor manual transmission in 1981, though plenty of Toyota Corolla Tercels had five-speeds by this time.

1981 Ford Escort in California wrecking yard, HVAC controls - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe original purchaser of this car wasn’t pinching all the pennies, in spite of the lack of an automatic transmission (still considered a luxurious option during the Late Malaise Era); this car boasts both air conditioning and cruise control.

1981 Ford Escort in California wrecking yard, cruise control buttons - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsPlenty of LTD and Granada buyers skipped the cruise control in 1981, but this Escort has it.

1981 Ford Escort in California wrecking yard, moss - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe telltale moss and rust around the windows indicate that this car sat for years, maybe decades, before arriving at this place.

1981 Ford Escort in California wrecking yard, Friendly Ford Fresno sticker - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsFriendly Ford in Fresno no longer exists, but at least this car will die within 150 miles of where it was sold.

1981 Ford Escort in California wrecking yard, American flag decal - ©2018 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsBefore there was social media, the American ideal of a “United People” seemed possible. This junkyard is in San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley, so there’s some sort of message here for the nearby employees of Google and Facebook.


Even though the North American Escort didn’t have much in common with its European counterpart, Ford played up the “world car” schtick in 1981.

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76 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Ford Escort GL Sedan...”


  • avatar
    golden2husky

    These were absolutely dreadful. How many died when the owners, most of whom had never heard of a timing belt, had theirs snap at 60K? Not to mention the horrible carbs these came with.

    The best thing to happen to the Escort was Mazda…

    • 0 avatar
      Maymar

      I had one of the Mazda-based Escorts, and I loved it, but if the engine is all you take issue with on the first North American generation, even the Mazdascorts mostly ran Ford’s 1.9 CVH (the updated version of what this ’81 would have had).

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        The best Escorts were made in conjunction with Mazda (no wonder Ford is discontinuing much of its car production.) I owned a 1997 Escort with the SOHC 2.0 – 110 hp. You could tell the basic goodness of the chassis thanks to the Mazda collaboration.

        Bonus was that when the transmission died my guy rebuilt it with the Mazda shift points which were more about performance and less about fuel economy.

        • 0 avatar
          Art Vandelay

          I think I owned one of these from each generation and brought my first born home from the hospital in a 97.

          Yes, the 91 and up drove better. I would hope so since it was a decade newer platform. Still with an auto they were dreadful. All of mine were stick shifts fortunately. My favorite was probably my 95 4 door hatch.

        • 0 avatar
          Shawnski

          You do realize that the previous Mazda 3 was a Focus chassis? BTW, Ford cars such as Focus and Fiesta continue on next gen models in Europe. Facts still matter, sorry.

    • 0 avatar
      s_a_p

      I grew up riding in an ’83 silver Mercury Lynx with that same awful ‘Bordeaux’ interior. However we at least had the enthusiast body style. A manual wagon!! Iirc my brother crashed it when it was given to him as his first car. He later admitted it was distracted driving which in those days ‘91 meant pretty girls walking down the street.

    • 0 avatar
      Guitar man

      “Nasty little cars for nasty little people” Lee Iacocca (and he would know !)

      • 0 avatar
        Josh

        When did Iacocca say this? I’ve spent an hour trying to find that quote. I thought he liked the Escort (even though he was at Chrysler with the K-Car by then, which was about the same size).

    • 0 avatar
      ponchoman49

      My neighbor lost his son in one of these crap boxes after it caught fire. I never ever drove or rode in an Escort since. The good news is that 99% of these are long gone off the roads in Upstate, NY.

    • 0 avatar
      VWGTI

      None of them died because of a timing belt failure: the engine was non-interference. I worked for a Ford garage and Escorts used to come in on the hook with a ‘no start’ compliant and usually all the ignition parts replaced in a vain effort to fix the lack of spark (because the distributor won’t turn with a snapped belt). The timing belt was easy to replace- I did hundreds of them.
      The carbs weren’t bad IF the TSB’s were done. The 1981 automatics were awful-calibrated to shift out of 2nd at about 4000 rpm, they would bang hard into 3rd. The 1981 1/2 model year (Quality is Job 1 do-over) fixed a lot of problems.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Ford would pull out all the stops on the advertising for these cars. It was almost as bad as the BRZ/FT86 rollout… I remember driving one before I bought my (leftover) 1980 Mercury Capri. It left me totally underwhelmed.

    To be fair, most new cars back then did. In the late 70’s early 80’s, there were huge price increases, the primitive emissions controls that were being used were sucking all of the life out of drive trains and build quality was hit or miss. The car was fairly roomy (thanks FWD!) and practical with the hatch. However, it drove like the typical economy car back then, no power or handling/braking, at least for someone with an enthusiast’s point of view.

    Neat find. I think you’re right, it must have sat for years before ending up in the boneyard…

  • avatar
    pragmatic

    Tercel 5-speed?

    While offered with a five speed, wasn’t the Tercel the last car available in the US with a four speed manual transmission?

    I think you could get them with a 4 speed through the late 1990’s.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      Lower trim levels of the Tercel still offered a 4-speed manual yea, or if you were really masochistic you could have a three-speed auto (ditto the Corolla/Prizm of that time).

      They were also one of the last US-spec cars to have carburetors, holding on to them until ’89 iirc.

      • 0 avatar
        gottacook

        The Corolla/Prizm “of that time”? Even as late as the 2002 model year, the Corolla/Prizm twins offered a 3-speed automatic (as well as a much costlier 4-speed automatic and the standard 5-speed manual).

        • 0 avatar
          Trucky McTruckface

          And today the Yaris is the last car with a 4-speed automatic and one of a few still offering a 5-speed manual.

          Toyota was also pretty late to the party on front wheel drive. Corolla was the last compact to switch to FWD, I believe, in ’84. They’re not exactly a cutting-edge technology company…

      • 0 avatar
        VWGTI

        Honda Prelude had carbs(two of them) in 1992 and the Subaru Justy had one until 1994ish.

    • 0 avatar
      Guitar man

      1981 [Australian] Ford Falcon boasted a three-on-the-tree. A five speed manual (they never bothered with four) didn’t become standard until 1988 !

  • avatar
    redapple

    A friend of a friend of mine drives an early 80s EXP as his daily driver. He has $3,000,000 in the bank.

    I call him CRAZYtown. (for obvious reasons.)

    IT s a rolling wreck and pile o sheet. No A/C either. (in atlanta).

    Hasnt had a girlfriend in 25 years.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    Notice those tiny the outside mirror is on the left side. There is no outside mirror on the right. You had to pay extra for a right mirror, and many people didn’t. Also, if my memory is correct, the horn button was at the end of the turn signal stalk. Even with safety lapses like these, the Escort was still better than the Chevette. We’ve come a long way, baby.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      1981 was just another lackluster year for domestic subcompacts. Besides the archaic Chevette and aging Omnirizon, there was the totally ‘meh’ Escort. The only real reason to get one of those three was to avoid the price gouging Toyota and Honda dealers were doing on Corollas and Civics. Even then, it was more of a financial wash since the Japanese cars would last much longer (and with fewer problems) than the Americans

      Besides the lower (initial) price, it should be noted that when the rudimentary Chevette did break, the parts were at least a whole lot cheaper to source and not particularly difficult to install.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        The mechanicals of the Japanese cars would last longer, no doubt, but overall I think it was a wash. The one thing Detroit was way ahead of the Japanese on in this period was corrosion prevention. By the 90s most of this cars Japanese contemporaries I saw wrerolling rust… And I grew up in Atlanta, not Pittsburgh. The Escorts just continued to run badly.

    • 0 avatar
      gottacook

      Absence of a standard right-side mirror was common even for pricier cars back then. I randomly chose a 1984 Ford full-line brochure just now at oldcarbrochures.com, and right-side photos of otherwise well-equipped cars (a Mustang and a Fairmont-based LTD wagon) show no mirror; possibly the only Ford to have a standard right-side mirror that year was the Thunderbird.

      • 0 avatar
        ponchoman49

        Dual outside mirrors was mandatory for coupes during this time period. Sedans and wagons had them as an option unless it was a higher trim level etc. Of course there could be exceptions to this.

    • 0 avatar
      bufguy

      Even my 1980 Scirocco, a relatively expensive car came without a passenger side mirror…My 1981 Scirocco S however did have one…even with a remote lever on the door

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      The passenger mirror was a dealer add on for my 92 Saturn SL as well

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      Werent passenger mirrors an option even on some BMW/Benzs of that time?

      The Escort did one thing right, it was put to 5mph tests along with other compacts of thst time, it came out with no real damage. The Honda CRX on tbe other hand came in last with a pole test in particular causing serious damage.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Same manual driver mirror found on FoMoCo products for a generation, just like the squarish ones on GM products, and the vertical-oval ones on many Mopar products. (I want to say that full-size Chryslers had a trapezoidal manual mirror beginning with the generation which produced the “Blues Brothers” car, but I’m probably wrong, as most of them probably had remote control!)

      Cars could certainly be had with varying options back then, and not the packages you see now! We saw that 1982 base Ciera with V6 a few weeks back, and I just remembered that my Dad (a regional sales manager) kept an extra company car at our neighbor’s garage while the territory was between salesmen (who would take this car; if memory serves, my Dad used the car as HIS while he was waiting for his own 1983 Regal to be delivered). 1982 Buick Regal Custom Coupe, with literally A/C, tinted glass, and cruise control! Nothing else! Including the manual mirror! My first car, a neglected 1978 Cutlass Salon, was similarly equipped, minus cruise; after my Dad’s cousin upgraded to an aftermarket stereo in his Chevy pickup, I took the Delco pushbutton AM/FM stereo to a local shop, long since gone, which specialized in OEM stereo installation and upgrades! How times have changed!

      • 0 avatar
        Josh

        I’ve seen Tauruses from the ’80s with NO radio and a 3-speed auto! And no A/C!

        Also, some of them did NOT have the chrome window surrounds–they were MT5s with black trim and body-colored B- and C-pillars (a la the SHO). But they weren’t SHOs!

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          Yes, I had the window sticker for my ’87 GL (not even the base trim level). It had just three extra-cost options: the V6 engine, A/C, and a “decor group” that added rocker panels and chrome-trimmed wheel covers. (It also had the no-cost, but rare, floor shifter and center console.)

          Car equipment changed a lot during the ’90s and aughts.

  • avatar
    Trucky McTruckface

    This is probably an ’82 Escort, not an ’81. 1982 was the first year for the five door hatchback and the Blue Oval emblems.

  • avatar
    spookiness

    I was a teenager in the late 80’s with a 2-door 82 in this color scheme and trim. There is nothing more to say about the awfulness of these cars that hasn’t already been said. I think there is at least one left that runs because I saw one on the set of The Americans.

    • 0 avatar
      Gayneu

      Class of ’81 also! Great time to get your license as you had the choice of old Detroit muscle cars (Camaros, Mustangs) and the new imports (Rabbit, Civic, Corolla). I drove a 78 Fiesta to college (no right-side mirror) that was a total gas to drive and was far better than the early Escorts that replaced it. Ripped vinyl seats, 4-speed and no A/C. I later saw a sweet Ghia version of the Fiesta with cloth seats and tachometer – I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

      Over the weekend (Memorial Day), saw a first-generation RX-7 at the gas station – that car is still a looker.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    1981…I graduated high school and Ford still made cars, time flies.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Reppin’ for Class of ’81!

      It wasn’t a bad time to be 18, all things considered. In particular, work was a LOT easier to get for kids back then.

      • 0 avatar
        Sub-600

        No, life was not too bad for back-end Baby Boomers in ‘81, there were plenty of opportunities and less BS. We survived Watergate, The Cold War, and Malaise…then went on to survive the Cabbage Patch Doll Riots, Y2K, and the Mayan Long Count Calendar.

      • 0 avatar
        bking12762

        Ahhhh the early 1980’s……20% interest on car loans and 14% interest on mortgages…The good ol days. My rear view vision glasses aren’t quite as rosy as others. But Billy Joel still rocks!

      • 0 avatar
        ponchoman49

        The worst thing about this time era was the cars. Things were simpler, music was cool, muscle cars were all the rage at high school from the 1960’s and early 70’s. The cars were still interesting despite the obvious lack of power but boxiness was part of the styling theme of the 1980’s on many. Lots of many great memories

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Also Class of ’81 here.

      My dad had the Fiesta which preceded the Escort; the German-built Fiesta was excellent for its time. He was doubtful of the American-built Escort, and we never owned one. In fact, I’ve never even driven one.

      As a closet Republican forced to join the United Steel Workers, he took flack for driving the Fiesta to work, and he was afraid some coworkers would vandalize it (they never did). Still, he considered the Escort, but then the mill closed and he moved on to other things.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    Interesting little story about these. If I remember it correctly, Ford engineers were convinced Mazda was using different transmission components in the 323/GLC than Ford was using in the U.S. Escort, because the shift quality of the Mazda was so superior. But when they tore down the Mazda box, they found to their surprise it was the exact same design, just built with vastly superior precision.

  • avatar
    stingray65

    Awful car except if you were trading in a Pinto – then it was a revelation.

  • avatar

    Thanks to epic deprecation the 81-90 Ford Escort was the go to car when you’re poor (like I was) and couldn’t afford a far better vehicle such as the 323, Civic or Corolla.
    Their design and execution was crude in comparison to the Japanese competition – and stone age today – but fairly reliable IF you stayed on top of maintenance (especially the timing belt).
    Truly a disposable car.

  • avatar
    Ermel

    Looks completely different from the Euro version, but just as bland. But this one is a hatchback, not a sedan — or didn’t you get the three-box in the US? *googles* No you did not. I had also completely forgotten that the sedan was called the Orion.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Orion

  • avatar
    Garak

    What was the point in building a car that shares the name, looks sort of similar, but is in fact a different car? It’s bizarre.

  • avatar
    VW4motion

    Friend had one of these in High School. Diesel version, it was slow. But, it just wouldn’t die. Think it made it all the way through college.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Worked part-time in the service department of a Ford dealership circa 1981. The Escort was by no means the least reliable vehicle we sold or serviced. However the primary market were those with Ford ‘brand loyalty’. Not too many purchasers who cross shopped other, manufacturers.

    Perhaps one other reason to purchase this other than a Honda Civic was the fact that the Ford offered factory A/C.

    And don’t even ask about the finance rates that were being charged in that era.

  • avatar
    ernest

    Ah, the memories. As awful as the Escort was, it wasn’t the worst small car you could buy, or the least reliable. The Japanese made a vastly superior car… but many rusted to dust in flyover country before the payment book was empty. (Anyone remember those?). VW made a vastly superior product… if you could keep it running.

    I bought the wife a Subaru GL 4×4 wagon back in ’80- a great car, but rust wasn’t an issue in the Pacific Nwst.

    • 0 avatar
      road_pizza

      “VW made a vastly superior product… if you could keep it running.”
      Uh, what? A vehicle that one cannot keep running is hardly “vastly superior” to anything.

  • avatar
    rcx141

    My buddy had a 1985 1.6 UK Escort. What an atrocious bucket of bolts that was.

  • avatar
    MrFixit1599

    I personally had the Ohio State Patrol certify the top speed of my 1981 Escort with the 4 speed manual and around 95k miles is 85mph in 1989 or so.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Sold you a raffle ticket, did they?! ;-)

      More like “presented to you involuntarily?”

    • 0 avatar
      Josh

      Somewhat surprised they were even able to catch the Escort back then, esp. if you were at highway speeds.

      In ’89, most cop cars were slow–the top dogs were the 122 mph Caprice and everyone was shocked it broke 10 sec. to 60 (9.8), but it was the first year of the big 5.7 motor with TBI. Up to that point they were stuck with old 4-bbl. Rochester LM1s and a bit less HP (155 or so, although they went to a roller-cam engine in ’87 with 180 hp).

      And this is a big upgrade from around ’82-83, where they were topping out around 115. This was the same speed roughly until ’89 when they got the FI Caprice.

      So the cop cars might catch a few compact cars but they would have to be quick about it. On the highway they had no chance against exotics or pony cars.

      Shame the Diplomat never had TBI (CPI as Mopar called it–central port injection). Ford called it CFI (Central Fuel Injection).

  • avatar
    conundrum

    My best friend at the time traded in a perfectly okay Pinto wagon on a brand new ’80 Escort. His forward progress then proceeded in a series of fits, starts, lunges and lags. A completely amateurish tune, but it was the malaise era. I had a new ’80 Jetta which was a load of rubbish, but when actually in gear at least had a smóoth engine. The third member of our trio had a two-door (coupe?) Accord and it worked flawlessly. The Escort was simply a load of rubbish and annoying to drive in manual guise.

    In 1983 we went to the UK on vacation. We hired a UK Escort that looked great, sooo much better, drank leaded, and was smooth. Not only that, all the doors, hood and trunklid actually fit properly, the paint actually shone, and it had interior plastics without that US Ford cheapo “grain”. It was actually a proper car. Amazing how much better it was. You’d actually consider buying one if ours were like that.

    An employee’s ’85 Escort diesel ran very well if slowly, but handled as you’d expect with that huge lump of iron up front. Understeer at moderate speeds and moaning thirteen inch skinnies trying to keep rolling contact with asphalt.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I worked for a bank courier service during my year off from college after a disastrous freshman year in ’87-88. They ran a fleet of Escorts, diesels until they couldn’t get them anymore. The diesels would rack up 500-600K easily, the gas motors were done by 300K. This was with an on-site mechanic. Pretty awful cars all around compared to the ’85 Jetta I had at the time, but pretty hard to kill when you ran them around the clock in shifts.

    I did have my worst accident ever in an ’88 – T-boned a K-car that pulled out in front of me at 60+mph – I got nothing but a shoulder bruise from getting the door open to get out. That Escort was considerably shortened…

  • avatar
    N8iveVA

    My stepfather bought one of these in 81. Blue with a blue vinyl interior. It had AC and AT, but that was about it. I don’t remember it giving us any problems but man was it slow with the AT. And you didn’t even think about turning the AC on when trying to “accelerate”. Unless you floored it to hit the AC cut off. He traded it in 85 for a LTD.

    My grandfather bought an 83 that I learned stick on. He loved it. Ran well for him but he never kept cars more than 4 years.

    I owned an 86 GT, and a 92 GT that were both fun cars that were trouble free but were both totaled before 100K miles. The 86 was totaled by me with 88K, and the 92 by a friend with 32K miles on it.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    “Before there was social media, the American ideal of a “United People” seemed possible”

    Adroit point Murilee. Perhaps this was one of the reasons it was introduced (this and disinformation).

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Back in 1983 my sister bought a 81 Escort L 2 door in black with a tan vinyl interior with a 4 speed. The higher trim models like many compacts of the era had the 5 speed.
    It was a decent car but became problematic after its first year with a head gasket issue which we replaced. For some reason they recommend new head bolts when replacing it. Also the CV joints suffered from premature wear.
    Ford would have been better off giving us an Americanized European Escort than this US designed as they called it “world car”

  • avatar
    rnc

    My first car was an 83′ hand me down (AC, CC and AT), got me through 2 1/2 years of HS. Only catch was you always had to make sure you had a passenger. Randomly it wouldn’t start and the solution (via a ford mechanic) was to whack a solenoid with a small hammer while the other person turned the ignition (and this worked every time)

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Who’s gonna save it?

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    The next-door neighbor (retired guy) bought an ’81 Escort L four-door, with the four-speed and a/c like this one. It was my first attempt at driving a manual, and after numerous attempts to start off, and instead stalling, he, and I, gave up. It would be two more years before I’d learn how to drive a manual, this time my then-girlfriend’s ’77 Datsun B-210 hatchback with five-speed.

    A year later, he traded the Escort for a Chevy Cavalier four-door, this time with an automatic.

  • avatar
    DweezilSFV

    Seats look fantastic for a near 40 year old car.

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