The Ford Escort RS Cosworth is The Best Rally Special from the 1990s
Living out our very best Group A dreams
Be more like Cory Muensterman. That's the lesson after an afternoon with the affable mechanic in his tidy-but-crowded shop that serves as both workspace and storage. Vocationally, he's got it about as good as it gets; after squeezing between two Renault 5 Turbos in different states of repair, you're greeted with a space almost entirely occupied by hibernating automotive superstars. A pair of Carrera GTs sleep under tight-fitting covers just a socket's toss from a 993 Turbo and first-generation Ford GT. In the corner, tucked behind a white Defender 110, a pair of pre-war Bentleys with sequential serial numbers—originally built for a husband and wife—sleep under a thick coat of dust.
Closer to the front of the shop, you'll find Muensterman's favorites. "This is the coolest car in here," he smiles as he points to a gray Lancia Delta S4 on storage lift. A Ford RS200 he previously owned sits silently underneath the S4, sold a while ago to fund the restoration of his well-known "Busby" 1978 BMW 320i Turbo race car, an ultra-boxy E21 weapon from the glory days of IMSA GT. Pragmatically, he reminds me that most of us take this whole vintage car thing too seriously. "You don't need to be gentle with it," he explains as he whips the door open on the 320i after staff photographer Brandon Lim cautiously touched the windowsill. "I'm definitely not."
"They're just cars," he tells us. That attitude extends to his old RS200 and the three Renault 5 Turbos littered around the space. "I can never figure out why people are so scared of working on those things," he sighs when asked about the mid-engine French uber-hatch. "They're so simple once you understand them. " Don't mistake him for jaded; spend enough time around any car, and all the myths and legends burn off like condensation. He's owned, operated, broken, and rebuilt nearly every type of 1980s homologation special save the disastrous Citroen BX 4TC. At the end of the day, these are rough, mechanical tools built not for comfort or regular road use, and he's seen them at their very worst.
Muensterman's personal Group B fleet is long gone these days, but he's still in the homologation special club. I made this house call for a rare rally special from a different era; when not futzing with customer's cars or prepping the Busby 320i, he scoots around the South Bay in a 1995 Ford Escort RS Cosworth, one of the many non-USDM performance specials from the American automaker and one of the most prolific rally specials of the 1990s.
There's precious few "forbidden fruits" truly worth losing sleep over—stuff like the then-new Porsche 959, older Nissan Skyline GT-Rs, and the new Toyota Yaris GR spring to mind as the more lamentable omissions—but overseas hotness from Ford is an outlier. The Blue Oval is about as American as shooting an apple pie with a star-spangled rifle, but for the better part of the 20th century, its overseas operations were mostly left to their own devices when it came to product planning and development, particularly in Europe and Australia. This means there's a whole heap of tasty performance coupes, sedans, roadsters, wagons, and hatches wearing the Ford crest that we never got our sticky little fingers on.
Sometimes, this separation begat parallel product lines that shared a name but had little relation to one another, like the Ford Escort. Production of the USDM Escort ran the course of three generations from 1980 through 2003, while Europe enjoyed its own distinct versions from 1968 until 2004. A trip through nearly 40 years of the euro Escort provides a perfect cross-section of rally-ready, not-for-the-U.S. specials, including the legendary rear-wheel-drive Escort RS2000 that dominated mixed-surface stages in the 1970s.
Of the later front-wheel-drive Escorts, the RS Cosworth is by far the most potent variant. Developed primarily for the competitive FIA Group A class—a roster that includes such greats as the Lancia Delta Integrale, Subaru Impreza 22B STi, Lancer Evolution, and BMW E30 M3—the RS Cosworth was the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive weapon Ford hoped would claim the WRC championship title. It never did take the overall championship, but the Escort did win ten rallies between 1993 and 1998 before it was replaced by the new Focus in 1999. In that relatively short time, a host of legendary drivers like Carlos Sainz, François Delecour, and Tommi Mäkinen wheeled the Escort to its multiple victories.
Though it wears an Escort badge on the rear decklid, very little is shared with its namesake save a handful of the exterior body panels. The chassis, engine, and drivetrain are copy-pasted from the larger Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, a high-performance homologation derivative of the staid Sierra family sedan that went on to outright dominate the touring car scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Transposing the Escort design onto a Sierra platform was tricky work, so Ford outsourced the work to German contract auto manufacturer Karmann to handle production.
The result of all this nip/tuck is an aggressive design that's aged as elegantly as Pierce Brosnan. With fat, flared fenders and a wide track on a relatively small frame, it looks like someone pumped the euro-chic Escort full of myostatin inhibitors and let it loose in the gym for a few months. Of course, that delightfully purposeful rear spoiler makes this instantly recognizable, though Muensterman admits he added the trademark whale tail; his car was one of the few that arrived wing-less.
It's got the guts to match the muscles, too. All Escort Cossies (as they're affectionately called) pack Cosworth's YB-series 2.0-liter four-cylinder, though the first 2,500 examples wear a bigger homologation-spec Garrett T3/T04B turbocharger and air/water intercooler to appease FIA regulations. Later cars—including this one—breathe through a smaller Garrett T25 turbo with significantly less lag and near-identical performance. Muensterman's driven both, and he prefers the later small turbo variants, citing better day-to-day performance than the harsh, explosive nature of the first 2,500.
The longitudinally-mounted Cosworth YBP is as stout a four-cylinder as there ever was, despite the block tracing its lineage back to the Ford Pinto engine originally introduced in 1970. That doesn't mean this is old-world stuff; at least by 1990s standards, it's a thoroughly modern design with forced induction, DOHC, and four valves per cylinder. A well-balanced 224 hp and 224 lb-ft of torque is on tap, routed through a Sierra-sourced five-speed manual transmission and a full-time all-wheel-drive system split 34:66 front to rear.
For the uninitiated, this can be a very intimidating car, both visually and conceptually. FIA homologation carries weight, particularly when it's from an era renowned for big, unpredictable turbos and explosive acceleration in high-strung short-wheelbase cars. Happily, the Cossie bucks expectations and is about as quick and hard-to-drive as a brand-new Subaru WRX. That 224 hp has a relatively hefty 2,800 pounds to pull around, so 0-60 takes somewhere in the mid-five-second range, topping out at respectable 144 mph.
Despite the downsized turbocharger, there's still some initial lag from a dig, though it dissipates quickly and gives way to strong mid-range pull that lessens as you reach the 6,500 rpm redline. Compared to the antiseptic, direct-injected, and highly muffled four-cylinders found in modern hot hatches, the YBP is buzzy and alive, sounding off with a rorty grumble and turbo hiss that's so evocative of other pumped-up four-pots from this era.
Muensterman modified his example with sympathetic bolt-ons that complement rather than overwhelm the car's character, including Mongoose exhaust, Bilstein shocks and springs, short shift kit, and those excellent 18-inch Compomotive wheels. Power-wise, it's essentially bone-stock, but that's not for a lack of capability. Tuning shops have pushed the output of this itty-bitty 2.0-liter over the 1,000 hp mark for years; too much, he says. "I wouldn't want this with over 400 hp," he admits. "I tell the guys who do want that kind of power to stick with WRXs and Evos. A similar experience, but much cheaper."
With these mild mods, every input is just the right amount of analogue. Steering is a bit overboosted, but turn-in is still sharp and very tactile. Shifting is direct and reasonably short, while the clutch pedal is well-sprung and forgiving, as is the suspension. Most of my time behind the wheel was on arrow-straight harbor roads, but the few bumps and gentle curves I crossed were dispatched with the same old-school non-adaptive, un-adjustable mechanical ride as other older sport compacts. Inside, it's a wonderland of mid-1990s smooth-edged plastic, offset by epic period-correct Recaro seats and a weighted metal shift knob. It's a hopped-up, hunkered-down compact car that's completely analogous to the contemporary WRX/Evo, albeit with an extra dusting of motorsports "cool."
It certainly attracts more attention than an old Subaru. Parked near a public beach, passersby fixated on the bulky little coupe in part due to the clean, aggressive lines but mostly thanks to the luscious Gold Pearl paint that makes this a one-of-one car. According to Muensterman, Karmann built this specific Escort for either the 1995 or 1996 Frankfurt auto show, displaying it proudly on its floor stand. Aside from unique paint, the aforementioned shift knob, seat material pattern, and portions of the steering wheel material are all bespoke to this car.
Itching to sell your new STI and hop in a Cossie? Make sure you do your due diligence regarding importation and registration laws, especially in California. Most Escort RS Cosworths populating the pages of Bring a Trailer are brought in under the 25-year import law, bit if you're lucky and patient, you might be able to score one of a handful of Escorts imported by Sun International (now Sun Speed) in the late 1990s. The team at Sun managed to federalize some Cossies to DOT, EPA, and even CARB standards, so those might be the easiest ones to register—provided you can find one. If you can't, former Sun employee Muensterman says Sun Speed would be more than happy to import another car for you, provided you have the coin.