A Rally Replica Ford Escort In Japan

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Unlike the famous soft drink with grandiose claims of authenticity, this particular Mk2 Ford Escort is not the real thing.

It is, however, an extremely good replica of sorts. And it should be, as the car was created by the same company that built the original Rothmans-livered Escort RS1800 rally machines back in the day.


Rather than go into the illustrious history of David Sutton Motorsport – now David Sutton (Cars) Ltd – and the man behind Ari Vatanen’s 1981 World Rally Championship-winning Escort (you can watch a good video here) let’s talk replica vs. real.


It’s easy to get caught up in the nostalgia that surround legendary cars like those driven by Vatanen, and that tends to lead to deep holes of desire that can quickly burn holes through one’s pockets. If my pockets were deeper, I would gladly set fire to them for a pukka WRC car. An ex-Prodrive Group A Impreza would do nicely.

While I can dream, Hosomi-san – owner of this Mk2 – has some depth to his pockets. Luckily, he’s also a man of great taste. On top of the Escort, his garage includes one of two Rennsport Porsches in Japan, another 911 and a rally-spec Audi TT.


I asked why he bought the Escort, and Hosomi-san’s reply was a little surprising: “Why not?” he shrugged with a smile. Why not indeed.


If owning a motorsport icon is the path you wish to go down, then you basically have two choices. You either remortgage your house and purchase an original works or privateer car, or you only sell a kidney and build or buy a replica. There is of course a third option, but let’s leave the DIY route for another time.

The first path takes the most courage. Works rally cars from Audi, Lancia, Subaru and Ford can reach into the millions of dollars if they have the sticky residue of championship-winning champagne soaked into their seats. But no one in their right mind is actually going to be doing any serious driving in what is essentially a museum piece, so there’s not much fun to be had there. There are exceptions to the rule, notably Junya in his Impreza WRC, but that car was essentially a shell when he picked it up, so it’s a little different.


Even if you were to start driving your priceless works car to the library on Sundays, there’s no guarantee you would be driving it back home. And if you do get stuck at a petrol station with a split radiator hose, you couldn’t exactly pop into the next garage and pick up a replacement part.


The second option is perhaps the most sane of the two ambitions. A replica will cost a fraction of the price of an original, and essentially be a new car. That means smoother operation and less chance of it breaking down. Plus, you can sneak in some mod cons, like heating and cooling, and perhaps even a teeny-tiny bit more sound insulation. I know, that’s not particularly correct, but the novelty of driving a stripped-out race car every week would soon wear very thin, like your vertebrae disks.


The other benefit of a replica over the real thing is that you have the choice to use whatever parts you like, which means upgrades in strength and reliability as well as new technologies and materials. Some purists may want to stay as true to the original as possible but I say, if it looks the part and you use better products under the skin which improve drivability and performance, all the better.


The interior in Hosomi-san’s Escort features a few more modern conveniences over the original Rothmans Escorts, but there are period touches, like the analogue Halda Twinmaster rally meter alongside more contemporary equivalents.


So where in this broad spectrum of real vs. replica race cars does Hosomi-san’s Escort sit? Well, at the time it was built some 10 years ago, somewhere in the middle I’d say. One luxury that’s been afforded is power steering, because Japanese lanes can be even narrower than the medieval streets of Great Britain.


Originally built for an Australian customer, who sold it to Hosomi-san, the Escort features a 2.0L Pinto SOHC 8-valve engine with forged Mahle pistons, race bearings, big valves and a ported and polished cylinder head. Twin side-draft Weber carburettors and a custom exhaust allow the engine to breathe freely, and all up it’s apparently good for over 200hp at 9,000rpm.


That’s not DOHC 16-valve BDG power, like you’d find in Vatanen’s Rothmans RS1800, but Hosomi-san’s Escort is definitely not short on performance. Backing it up is a 4-speed close-ratio gearbox and BorgWarner 4.1 LSD in the rear.


Hosomi-san told me that his Ford doesn’t get driven much, except a couple of times a year for Alpine Classic Car Rally (ACCR) events, which I’m itching to cover. The main event passes through some of the most picturesque parts of Japan, with stopovers at local ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).


If it were mine, I would probably sneak a few more creature comforts in and around the Escort. Sound deadening and more comfortable suspension would be on the list. But then, if this is meant to be a replica – and one that’s designed to perform in actual rally competition – does making it easier to live with defeat the purpose? Maybe it would be better to just sticker-up a modified Mk2 Escort road car in a Rothmans livery and tape a few extra switches to the dash.


I did get a ride-along with Hoshino-san in his rally car, and although I’ve never been in a real-deal, period David Sutton Mk2 Escort, I feel like this was the next best thing. I resisted the urge to call out stage notes, but I doubt Hoshino-san would have heard me since we weren’t wearing the Stilo intercom headsets.


The gearbox whine echoed through the interior of the car, the engine growled a few octaves below, and every bump in the road seemed to jostle and rattle the seam-welded body like a tin can rolling down a gravel road. It’s an experience I will never forget.


Shoot complete, we headed back to Hoshino-san’s cozy garage to chat about rally over a cup of green tea. I thought there was probably more reason to him buying this particular Mk2 Escort, but we were both tired from the drive so I decided against coaxing an answer from him.


In all honesty, I think I knew the answer anyway. Enthusiasts build and buy replica race and rally cars like this because the originals are placed on very high pedestals. They’re too special to sit in one person’s garage, not to mention the extreme costs that ownership involves. Quality replicas allows a few more lucky owners to experience a legend. How perfectly they decide to do so is up to each individual.

Toby Thyer
Instagram _tobinsta_

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