What would the result be if a standard Group 1 Ford Escort Mexico was put up against a 150bhp RS1800 road rallying Escort on the classic rally roads in the south west of England?
RS Escorts had started appearing in the second half of the 1971 Motorsport News (MN) Championship and had already won the Cilwendeg and achieved a one, two result on the final round, the 17th Targa Rusticana. Such were their performance levels that it was felt that an RS would be the car of choice for the serious MN campaigners wanting success in 1972. However there then followed an announcement by the Ford Motor Company of a new Championship, the Escort Rally Championship for Mexico and Sport models, to be run in 1972. This made some competitors re-think their choice of cars and, in some cases, their choice of which Championship to concentrate on during that year. For some the choice was one or other of the Championships, some entered their Mexicos in MN events where they did not clash with their chosen Mexico events and some were fortunate to be able to source and finance two cars, their choice depending on whether the event entered qualified as an Escort or a MN Championship event. Whilst being separate Championships, when the qualifying events were announced there was seen to be some overlap with some events qualifying for both. The first of these overlapping events was February’s Bristowe Rally which was to start in Taunton, flagged away by Stuart Turner, the brains behind the Escort series.
That the Escort dominated club rallying at the time was confirmed by the Bristowe’s entry list which consisted of 10 RS1600s and 50 Mexicos along with 18 Sports and 12 TCs – 90 out of the 120 starters! However the real discussion before the start was not so much who was going to win what was always a highly competitive rally but how far up the final result could one of these new Mexicos finish. Many speculated fourth, whilst a few suggested third. What shouldn’t be forgotten was that all of the registered Mexicos were rigorously scrutineered before the start to ensure they all complied with the Group 1 nature of their Championship whilst MN competitors just had their regular safety scrutineering and no strict rulers as to their car’s modifications.
Heading up the first class RS entry running at one and two on the road, were Harold Morley/Peter Bryant and Paul Faulkner/Martin Holmes. The first two Mexicos were at seven and eight crewed by the previous year’s top two in the final Championship results, George Hill/Keith Wood and Will Sparrow/Nigel Raeburn. A further nine Mexicos were then listed in the top twenty, the last being that crewed by Tony Pond and Julian Chitty.
The rally consisted of ten, timed to the second selectives which ranged in length from eleven to sixty eight minutes, all within a route of 200 miles. The RS 1600s were fastest on all of them bar one but, when looking through the top times on each of the others, the Mexicos were recording quick times and generally featured in the top six; on the remaining selective a Mexico was fastest. Most notably, on the longest selective of the night the Pond/Chitty Mexico dropped just fourteen seconds to the fastest RS crew (Jeffs/Davidson) and were thirteen seconds faster than that of the eventual winners, Morley/Bryant - phenomenal performances that required the utmost commitment from the drivers along with total faith in their navigator’s ability to read the roads accurately from their one inch maps.
Harold Morley had probably begun to control his pace somewhat in the second half of the rally once it was evident at the halfway halt that they were leading by over 4 minutes. He then went on to achieve a runaway win, much as predicted at the start. However, much against probably the earlier pundits forecasts, an exceptional second place was achieved by a Mexico, the Norman Reeves entered car for Pond/Chitty. They finished one and a half minutes ahead of two of the fastest regular MN crews in their RS1600s (John Price/John Payne and Bob Jeffs/Don Davidson). Incredibly Mexicos filled another five of the top ten places.
So the answer to the original question was, as anticipated, a win for the RS1600. However, given their competitive performances on the Bristowe, the question naturally then changed as to whether it would ever be possible for a Mexico to secure an outright win against the fastest RS1600s and if they could, when would that happen? The odds were stacked against this as, over the coming months, ten of the twelve rounds of the MN Championship were won by RS derivatives. It was THE car to beat and a Mexico was still some way from winning a MN round. However Mexicos were still “knocking on the door” and in three of these events they had again managed to take second places, so there still remained that possibility.
Four weeks after the final MN rally of ’72, John Brown stood down as Russell Brooke’s navigator to organise the first MN event of ’73, the 18th Targa Rusticana, another round to run alongside the Escort Championship. Russell had the services of Derek Tucker instead, starting at nine, with Nigel Rockey at six in a brand new, Hoopers of Bristol sponsored Mexico. George Hill had by now moved over to a DTV Firenza while Harold Morley had decided to give a Mexico a try, his RS1600 having been the major obstacle for a Mexico win last year. In the first of the “old school” Escorts, Bob Jeffs and his RS1700 were at four with the next RS entries starting way down in the 30s. Seemingly this time the odds were stacked in favour of the Mexicos, thirteen examples starting in the top thirty.
Jeffs was out early having collected a fail and by half way Rockey/White were three minutes ahead of Hill, Morley and Brookes. In the second half Rockey also collected a fail and by next petrol Morley was in the lead by one minute ahead of Hill and Brookes. By the time of the third halt in Ponterwyd Morley had retired after an off, Hill had slipped back after a couple of punctures and Russell had taken over the lead. He was able to hold on to this to the finish taking the honour, along with Derek Tucker, of becoming the first Group 1 winner of a MN round in recent years. To rub this in Mexicos took seven of the top ten places and then three weeks later took a one two on the Bristowe.
RS 1600s were by no means forgotten however and they were soon back to their winning ways. Read about these events and others in Memory Lanes …revisited. All Memory Lanes books are available on the Photohistoric.com website.