Are performance cars really getting better? From a technical standpoint, we’d have to say yes. They’re faster, smarter, more capable and safer than they ever have been. But a great deal of them are arguably too fast, too clever and too capable to enjoy away from an empty FIA Grade 1 circuit.
These days, making a performance car is a battle against emissions regulations while also trying to come up with ever more absurd power figures and 0-62mph times. There are exceptions, of course. For instance, the tremendous Alpine A110 and the new 992 Porsche 911 GT3 which remains stubbornly naturally-aspirated even if that means it’s barely more powerful than the latest Carrera GTS. But options are limited. So instead, you could look to the past.
The restomod industry is booming in 2021, with newly reimagined versions of old cars appearing all the time. The car you see on this page, though, is no restomod, as evidenced by the ‘70’ plate hanging off the bumper. Yep, it was registered new in 2020.
It might look like a second-generation Ford Escort, but officially, it isn’t, hence the ‘Mk2’ badge sitting on the grille where there’d normally be the Blue Oval. As far as the DVLA is concerned this is an ‘MST Mk2‘, although, in every way that counts, this is essentially a brand new Mk2 Escort.
It owes its existence to the still very strong Mk1 and Mk2 Escort rally scene, which has helped a company called Motorsport Tools carve out a successful business keeping these old, power sliding machines going. In its extensive catalogue is every single part you might want to replace on an old Escort, right down to the bodyshells which are fabricated about 40 miles down the road.
This left the team with a question they’ve pondered for the last few years: if we sell all the parts, why not put all of them together to make a complete car? The answer is now here in the form of newly established offshoot MST, and, of course, the beautifully boxy red Mk2 that sits in front of me.
It looks resplendent with its Group 4 spec arch extensions and gold 13-inch wheels. The Mk2 is a car that wears everything on its sleeves - you get a sense of how it’ll drive just from eying it up, as though you can hear the individual throttle bodies growling before the 2.5-litre engine has even fired up.
Said ITB-equipped unit is a naturally-aspirated Ford Duratec lump producing somewhere in the region of 200bhp. It drives the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox taken from an NC Mazda MX-5 (the Miata was using Ford engines at that time, remember) and a limited-slip differential. Want more go? There are other engine options, including the Cosworth YB-based Millington Diamond, good for high RPM thrills and an output in excess of 300bhp.
The old leaf spring rear suspension setup is ditched in favour of an independent multi-link setup, a common conversion for Escort rally cars. Adjustable Bilstein coilovers live at each corner, and under those tiny wheels are strong AP Racing brakes.
Inside, there’s a spartan cabin with a roll cage and bucket seats, but for those wanting more creature comforts, it’s possible to leave everything in. Given the more barebones nature of this one, the view out the window is bathed in red thanks to the reflection of the naked shell.
This MST Mk2 is effectively a proof of concept - a prototype to put through the UK’s Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) process and registered for road use. The fit and finish, MST director Carwyn Ellis tells me, isn’t quite representative of the customer cars arriving later on. So, it takes quite a slam to get the driver’s door closed, there’s a faint buzz from the gear stick at higher revs, and I can see a few cable connectors that’d be tidied away for the production version.
All the important stuff - the engine, suspension and brakes - is spot on, though, and good lord does that come together to make something truly special. Heading out on a tour of Wales’ Llŷn Peninsula, the bit at the top that juts out into the Irish Sea, the Mk2 quickly wins me over.
The Mk2’s boxy shape and thin pillars make for an amazing wrap-around view of the stunning scenery to be found in North West Wales, with the hills occasionally rolling away to reveal the choppy sea. The accompanying soundtrack is one of a muscular inline-four barking all the way up to its circa-7000rpm redline. This may be a brand new Ford crate engine, but the noise it belts out is one rooted in the past.
With a kerb weight hovering around a tonne, 200bhp naturally makes for a quick car, if not one that feels breathtakingly fast. That’s just fine by me - what’s offered here is solid, exciting real-world performance that allows for a good period of wide-open throttle before silly speeds are reached. In any case, if you want to be scared shitless, there’s always the Millington engine to consider.
Every gear change with the Miata ‘box is an absolute joy, with a brilliantly short and accurate throw. MST says the shift from first to second will improve - the lever had to be moved further back in the car to put it at a more natural position and the linkage still needs work. It doesn’t give me any reason to grumble, though.
The tight pedal box makes heel and toe downshifts fantastically easy, as does the firm, short-travel clutch. And rev-matching is especially important here - neglecting to do so noticeably upsets the rear end.
This being Wales, what was shaping up to be a jolly nice day on the roads around MST’s very rural headquarters has turned into a rainy, soggy mess. With a complete absence of driver aids and some Kumho Ecsta V700 semi-slick tyres cladding those dinky 13s I’ve been expecting the Mk2 to want to light up the rear boots at every opportunity, but no.
Traction even in these conditions is surprisingly good, a testament to the chassis setup and the well-judged power output. A typically linear naturally-aspirated power delivery free from the mid-range boostiness we’ve become accustomed to in modern turbocharged cars certainly helps. Of course, the back will come around if you want it to, doing so in a predictable, manageable way when provoked.
Right now, if anything, it’s the front end that is experiencing a lack of adhesion. With the rain getting more intense, understeering is rearing its ugly head, but given the firm connection the driver has to the machine here, you know exactly what those front tyres are up to and manage your inputs accordingly.
As we’ve said before, slow steering with a big ol’ dead spot in the middle is one of the main elements that date a car. In the Mk2, though, there’s a much faster steering rack than the original part (a reasonably brisk 2.4 turns lock-to-lock vs a sluggish 3.5) with power assistance. Despite the latter, the steering is quite weighty at lower speeds, becoming lighter as the speeds rise.
Another old car foible, shonky brakes, is certainly absent too. There’s no servo assistance, so the pedal does need a firm stab, but so long as you’re willing to put in the legwork, the Mk2’s braking system happily scrubs off speed rapidly.
The competition bias of the Bilstein coilovers is clear whenever you hit an imperfection on the road or are confronted by a speed bump, but it slackens off more than enough when you’re going quicker. The ride is nicely judged, giving more than enough comfort while effectively combatting another old car ‘charm’, excessive body roll.
That’s not to say the Mk2 feels just like a modern sports car - far from it. What it does is deftly balance between the character-laden experience of driving something old and the kind of dynamic capabilities made possible by up-to-date componentry. And in doing so, it becomes far more involving and interesting to drive than any conventional ‘new’ car.
Of course, restomods do that too, which is why they’re popular enough for a new one to seemingly crop up every other week. But if something like the MST Mk2 can provide that experience without making potentially irreversible changes to an original car from a dwindling population, isn’t that a better way to go about it?
We can’t make an argument for the Mk2 over a restomod on the grounds of saving loads of money, though - buying one of these is still an expensive business. The starting price is £75,000, whether you go for the Mk2 or the Mk1, the prototype for which MST is currently putting the finishing touches too. You might baulk at that, but most customers are spending quite a bit more - whether it’s for the suspension, wheels, engines or trim options, there are myriad customisation options.
In any case, given the way that old Escort prices are going, particularly for the Mk1, MST’s not-an-Escort seems like good value. Plus, if you go new car shopping elsewhere with that kind of cash, you’re going to struggle to get something as grin-inducingly fun. This might look like a car from decades ago, but I reckon it might just be the future.