I’m not quite sure how you could consider a twin turbo V8 engined Escort Cosworth “the safe option”, but that’s exactly what this fast Ford is to Matt Smith. In a story that twists and turns, there have been superbikes, 500hp Cosworth engines, race circuits and mind-opening discoveries; but whichever way the path traveled, the end game has always been about going fast. Like sub 10-second quarter mile at the drag strip fast…
Reading the comments on some of the stories we publish I often pick up on little pockets of interest and envy. One in particular is the American admiration for the European-built fast Fords. The RS (Rallye Sport) heritage goes back to the early ’70s, but it’s the name Cosworth that really gets the fuel pumping. Maybe that’s why I find it amusing – and more than a little ironic – that us Europeans will lust over the readily available V8s of America, whilst many Americans yearn for our four-cylinder, turbocharged homologation specials. So Matt and his Escort must have the best of both worlds, right?
What he has now is a whole world away from what Ford intended the Escort Cosworth to be when it was released in 1992. But because Matt’s a petrol head – a pure, power driven pursuer of speed – standard was never going to be good enough. Especially with a history like his.
But what he’s managed to do is balance out a radical list of modifications with the original spirit of the Cosworth badge. Of course, Matt never imagined it would come this far, but his enthusiasm for what he started with never faltered. In fact, the full rebuild originally aimed for concours trophies before a sharp turn was taken and the target shifted to the deep end of a quarter mile drag strip.
So how does it all change? Well, speed has played a big part in the Smith family history, which was originally supplied by motorbikes. Matt was inspired by his older brother Martin, and then with their close group of friends they went through motocross and then superbikes on track, before eventually turning their collective interests to quick track cars and quick road bikes. But some near misses and some injured friends proved to be a wake up call for the brothers. As Matt wisely states, “No matter what you say, you’re going to go out and go faster, and you don’t realise how fast you’re going until you have to stop or you have a crash.”
Matt remembers an old friend, Jamie, having an Escort Cosworth when they were younger. The big-winged three-door is a really iconic figure in the European tuning scene (hence the envy from over the Atlantic) and it’s a model that left its mark on many of us. It’s one of those ‘one day’ cars. The original 220hp was just the beginning for many owners, and this particular car had been owned by another friend who hadn’t used it for a few years. When the opportunity for Matt to purchase presented itself in 2008, he grabbed it.
After a failed gearbox on the way back from Ford Fair, the next year a plan was made to build a quick, streetable Escort Cosworth – something there are plenty of out there. With a 500hp motor from renowned engine builder Harvey Gibbs ordered, the shell was stripped down for a full nut and bolt rebuild.
Then came the turning point, when good friend Phil Peck (who drag races a late-model Mustang) told the brothers that they should come to the strip one weekend. Matt recalls saying: “Why would we want to do that? It’s a straight line, boring, we were into circuit racing. But then I was walking down the pits and on the left of me I had the track and on the right of me I had the show and shine – it was then that I knew what I wanted to do.” The explosive burst of power on the line and the condensed sensations you have to deal with when so much is squeezed into a few seconds sealed the deal.
Now there’s two turbos, twice the number of cylinders and more than five times the original power of the Escort to entertain Matt. So did he make the right decision?
Things Are Getting Serious
That weekend at the track Matt got introduced to Jon Webster (he’s stood in the background here in the plain black sweatshirt). There are very few people with the kind of experience Jon has, and as Matt explained, he played a pivotal role in the project. “It’s about trust when you want somebody to do this kind of work. What’s vital for me is that we don’t have to revisit things – I don’t want to be building an engine every other week, or redoing things after every race.”
Talking to Jon also revealed the way to scratch the itch right first time: twin turbos and a V8. Coming home from the drag strip that weekend, Matt went straight online and found an Escort for sale that had already been converted to twin turbo and a V8. It was a sign – and promptly purchased. So with his existing Cosworth already stripped down to a shell in the garage, the engine setup from the new car was put in the back of a van and the pair delivered to Webster Race Engineering. The Harvey Gibbs engine and anything else not needed was sold on and the work began.
The plan from the start was to enter in to the Street Eliminator Championship. That meant the Escort needed to remain street legal, which suited Matt’s plans fine as he still wanted to enjoy it on the road. But a YB-based engine just wasn’t going to cut it. Yes, they’ll make big power, but with that reliability issues would also be there to deal with. The other thing that had to go was the beam rear end. It’s now replaced with a built Ford 9-inch back axle, but that required cutting into the freshly detailed shell to fit. “I went up to John’s and he took me to one side and said he had something for me, and there was my rear floorpan. I’d spent nights and nights working on it – getting it better than showroom – but there it was all cut out. To be fair though, I’ve never looked back and never regretted it.”
Along with the cage and suspension, the other major fabrication was at the front end, where there’s now a small block Chevrolet V8. And yes, I did say Chevrolet. There’s not a definitive power figure, but with a Garrett GT4094 turbo mounted on either side of the engine good for up to 750hp apiece, and taking into account the ETs and trap speeds it runs (more on that shortly), it surely must be somewhere between 1000-1200hp.
Again, Matt’s passion for the Escort shape that he’s known and loved for so many years shows through in the execution. The Morette twin headlamp conversion is popular in the Ford scene and comes from the Sierra rally cars which predate the Escort. When a bonnet-mounted lamp pod was fitted, the corner of the standard headlamp was obscured so these were developed, allowing the manufacturer to run a single round lamp on the outside. Legend has it that the inner opening was used as an additional air intake that opened at speed, until the authorities caught on. So it’s kind of apt that there’s a turbo eyeing you back through that hole now! The mesh grille lower down is from the legendary Sierra RS500, so more than a nod to heritage. Take a look at this video and you can see how it looked when the car first debuted and how things have developed since then.
The original engine that the project began with has been changed – this one having been built, ported and flow matched by Mark Moseley with tech support from Richard Coles at Coltec Racing Engines and parts sourced from Rob Loring at Ice Engineering. That might sound like a complicated list, but it’s all about the team work with these guys – both Matt and brother Martin telling me how it made the jump from the circuit to the strip so easy and enjoyable. They now all race under the name Team Extreme, with a very impressive line up of cars ranging from a Supra to an R32 Skyline and more.
Of course, with the bonnet open the game is up. As you can see it’s all been cleverly packaged too, and that exhaust manifold looks like it could survive a bomb blast. But it’s not showy under here – everything serves a purpose without being over the top.
The bonnet had to be modified to clear the engine, but it’s the only non-standard body panel on the whole car now. Additions like the carbon lower lip are aftermarket, but it stays true to the lines of the original Ford moulding.
The standard Cosworth vents may be hidden from each other by the scoop in the middle of the bonnet, but the factory fresh red paint job just adds to the illusion for me. Unlike many drag cars, the Escort is naked and free from any graphics or names too, which I really like.
Just how quick can you go and still be road legal though?…