Tolman Engineering brings a Ford Escort XR3 back to life


In the 1980s, there were a number of hot hatchbacks in Europe that were credible alternatives to the original hot hatch – the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Among them was the Ford Escort XR3, the sporty version of the third generation of the popular model that was produced between 1968 and 2002.

Hot hatches of the 1980s.

Malaysians, unfortunately, never saw the XR3 although the Escort had been a common sight on the roads in earlier years. When the third generation was launched in 1980, Ford had decided that for its large markets in the Far East, it would ‘go Japanese’ by adapting some Mazda models to sell as Fords.

The strategy was in response to the wave of Japanese cars engulfing the markets with models that were priced more attractively than Fords sourced from Europe. So Ford decided that if it could not beat them, then it should join them and formed a partnership with Mazda which provided some models to adapt and then also built them at its factory in Hiroshima as well. This enabled Ford to have lower manufacturing cost compared to its European models, allowing for more competitive pricing.

 

Ford Escort [1979]
The last generation of the Escort sold in Malaysia was the second generation up to the late 1970s. After that, Ford stopped selling European Fords in its major Asian markets and instead adapted some Mazda models to be able to have more competitive pricing. The Laser Sport  1.5S with twin carburettors (below) was its hot hatch of the 1980s that was sold in Malaysia, instead of the XR3.

Ford Laser 1.5S [1981]

So, instead of Escorts and Cortinas, Malaysians got the Laser (adapted from the Mazda 323) and the Telstar (from the Mazda 626). There was a ‘hot’ version of the Laser with twin carburettors which pleased those who wanted Fast Fords, and it later became the TX3.

The Escort was no longer on sale although some units were imported by an independent dealer known as SSM. The company even brought in some specially converted versions of the XR3i that had turbocharged engines as well as the futuristic Sierra XR4i.

Tolman Ford XR3 restomod [2024]

Whilst its handling may not initially have matched its German rival, its 1600 cc CVH engine of the XR3 did enable a quicker acceleration time and the cosmetic enhancements transformed the look and appeal of the standard Mark 3 Escort. It was also priced attractively (in Europe) and became one of the better selling hot hatches in its time.

Rare model
Despite over 11,000 XR3s being sold in the first year of production alone, less than 200 carburettor cars are known to be still on the roads in the UK. Crashed, stolen, converted into RS Turbo clones or condemned by rust, they are therefore rare models.

Tolman Ford XR3 restomod [2024]

As values of early XR3s have yet to match later fast Fords, correctly restored XR3s are few and far between, leading one customer to request Tolman Engineering to restore a 1981 XR3 the be ‘one of the best in the world’.

Tolman (not to be mistaken for the Toleman F1 team) was founded by Christopher Tolman in 2007 and specialises has expertise in design, engineering and assembly, especially for restoration work. For this project, the company took over a restoration project from another party and an initial examination show that it would be a challenging job. Many parts were missing and it was not clear what exactly had been done.

Tolman Ford XR3 restomod [2024]

Tolman Ford XR3 restomod [2024]

Continuation of unfinished project
After carrying out an audit of the bodyshell and two pallets of over 1,000 parts including bags of unlabelled bolts it received, Tolman opted to create an carmaker-style bill of materials to identify parts, track and control the restoration.

Thus began the 18-month project by undertaking its own metalwork repairs on the bare metal shell that was ultimately finished in its original Sunburst Red. Tolman paid significant attention to improving the shut lines, achieving levels of uniformity not possible when the cars were rolling off the Halewood production line in their thousands.

Tolman Ford XR3 restomod [2024]

Finding parts
Sourcing hard-to-find parts led Tolman to set up alerts on every key selling platform. With the continuous evolution of the car’s specification (a common theme of Fords of that time), some components, even from the same year of production, were not interchangeable. One piece of luck came when just days away from commissioning a new batch of the Laser pattern trim, a roll of New Old Stock (NOS) seat trim turned up on eBay.

For other parts such as the driveshafts, one NOS example came from Germany and having failed to find another, the company decided to design it in-house and had it made locally.

Tolman Ford XR3 restomod [2024]

For originality, all the original glass was cut and polished, retaining the windows etched with the registration number and recreating the period ‘Identicar’ decals. Four variants of the sticker were created as there was a debate whether to recreate it in ‘as new’ vivid white as new or with some patina.

Tolman also adopted new processes such as additive manufacturing for creating hidden clips, invisible ‘smart’ repairs for sun damaged plastics such as the dashboards, and reengineering other components in higher grade materials.

Tolman Ford XR3 restomod [2024]

Attention to detail
Other work included stripping down the instrument cluster and airbrushing the cluster needles to bring back the vivid orange lost to fading and reverse engineering the double-printed (to display the blue and red colours both day and night) heater control decals, which are typically too complex for restorers to recreate.

Tolman Ford XR3 restomod [2024]

XR3 parts to be offered online
Such details dramatically lift and freshen the interior and to assist other Escort restorers, Tolman will sell these in its new web shop soon. Just like its Tolman Edition restomod series, 185 60 14-inch Michelin Youngtimer tyres were specified for the iconic ‘Clover Leaf’ wheel design that was a memorable feature of the car.

Tolman Ford XR3 restomod [2024]

Underlining Tolman’s attention to detail beyond the car, it also sourced period correct accessories including a NOS 1980s, not reproduction, Feu Vert air freshener, a packet of Embassy cigarettes and race programmes which were present in the XR3 era.

“We truly enjoy finding ways to improve modern classics through our Tolman Edition programme,” said founder Chris Tolman. “We have to be more innovative, drawing on different networks and ways to find the harder to find parts and reproducing or restoring the ones you simply can’t buy. But it’s really satisfying to restore a car to factory specification, hunting down the near-impossible-to find parts and ensuring it looks like we remember them.”

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