Currently reading: History of Ford RS in pictures
Ford has confirmed it won't launch a new Focus RS. We console ourselves by looking at the history of the RS brand
7 mins read
7 July 2020

Ford confirmed this week that the Focus RS is no more, blaming “emissions standards, increased CO2 taxation and the high cost of developing an electrified RS for a relatively low volume of vehicles” for the axe.

The last Focus RS, launched in 2016, achieved five stars from Autocar’s road testers, demonstrating the very best of its hot-hatch class. 

But where did it all begin? First came the famous tie-up with Lotus in 1963 that produced the Mk1 Lotus Cortina. Then, in the 1980s, Ford created the XR brand, which helped to sell countless Fiestas, Escorts and Sierras.

When that name became tarnished by too many jokes about ‘Essex men’ and boy racers, after a short pause to reflect, Ford came up with its replacement, the ST badge, which has adorned brilliant cars such as the Fiesta ST and Focus ST.

However, one Ford motif has been the most enduring of all - until now: the legendary RS, or Rallye Sport, brand, and 26 models have been gifted those iconic initials in the UK over the years.

It was usually, but not exclusively, reserved for the most highly developed models, which were often destined for competition on race track or special stage.

Rallye Sport's genesis and early years

Throughout the 1960s, Ford had a string of successes with models like the Cortina Lotus (its official name), its lesser sibling the GT, plus the Mk1 Escort Twin Cam.

To maintain this success, the company decided that future performance models would come from a dedicated unit based in Aveley, Essex. In 1970 it established Ford Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO). The special division's brief was simple: design, develop and manufacture high-performance derivatives of standard production cars, for use on the road, track, or both.

It didn’t take long for the team to settle in. With the paint barely dry on their new office, they released the Escort RS1600 in January 1970.

The 1.6-litre BDA engine it used was effectively a Formula 2 unit, and featured belt-driven twin-overhead cams, plus 16-valves to deliver its 120bhp. RS1600s were sold through a newly established Rallye Sport dealer network.

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In the same year a development of the RS1600, now fitted with a pushrod head and a larger 1.8-litre block, won the gruelling 16,000-mile London to Mexico World Cup Rally. To celebrate its triumph, Ford created the Escort Mexico, which itself went on to much rallying success. 


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Within four years, Escort RS models, including the RS2000, as well as the mighty V6-powered RS2600 and RS3100 Capris, had racked up wins including three RAC rallies and three European Touring Car titles.

The mid-1970s

By 1975, the Mk2 Escort had arrived and with it came a new RS1800, still using a version of the original BDA engine. It went on to become Ford’s most successful rally car, and won the drivers’ and constructors’ World Rally Championship in 1979.

A new Pinto-engined single-overhead-cam RS2000 appeared a year later. This was given a distinctive aerodynamic ‘droop snoot’ nose and quad-headlamps. Along with a small rear spoiler, this was said to reduce overall drag by 16%. RS dealers also offered an X-Pack version with 146bhp and wheel arch extensions. Its various competition successes helped make the RS2000 the best-selling RS model of all time. 

The 1980s

For the 1980s, it was all change when the Mk3 Escort arrived. Fans of the breed made disgruntled noises about the move to front-wheel drive, but Ford soon followed up with the RS1600i - ‘i’ stood for injection.

The 1.6-litre CVH engine also had twin-ignition coils and a high-lift cam, which helped Group A racing versions rev to well beyond 6500rpm and produce over 160bhp. Only 5000 were originally planned, but demand was such that Ford had made nearly 9000 when production finished in 1984.

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Along with fuel-injection, the RS1600i was the first Escort to feature a five-speed gearbox. Road-going versions were plush for the day too, with Recaro seats, electric windows, central locking and tinted glass available.

There was more to come, though, with the launch of the Escort RS Turbo in 1984. The turbo released 132bhp from the road-going version, and to help control the power it was equipped with a viscous-coupling limited-slip differential.

Both the RS1600i and Turbo became successful touring car racers, but for rallying it was clear that to compete in with the ballistic Group B cars something more extreme was needed.

The solution was to go bespoke and create the most expensive Rallye Sport model to date. The RS200 was a two-seat, mid-engined, four-wheel-drive special, complete with a part-carbonfibre chassis. To satisfy homologation requirements 200 road cars had to be built, each fitted with a 250bhp Cosworth-developed, four-cylinder, turbocharged engine. For rallying this was cranked up to an astonishing 650bhp.

Before the RS200 had hit its stride in competition, however, Group B cars were banned from rallying on safety grounds.

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A version of the RS200’s engine also found a home in the Sierra, and one the most famous of all Rallye Sport’s creations was born: the Sierra RS Cosworth. Capable of 150mph, at its press launch two motoring journalists who were testing one on an autobahn talked of keeping up with a Boeing jet which was on its approach to a runway that ran alongside the road.

In 1987, to improve the ‘Cossie’s’ Group A racing potential, Ford asked Tickford to create 500 modified homologation-specials. The car became known as the Cosworth RS500. Upgrades included twin-injectors, a larger Garrett turbocharger fed by a bigger intercooler and an improved aero-package. In race trim it could pump out 500bhp and was so dominant the regulations had to be changed to disadvantage it.     

The Sierra Cosworth became the Sapphire Cosworth saloon in 1988. Two years later four-wheel drive was added.

A shortened version of its chassis was used to underpin the Escort’s rally revival, with the sweet-handling Mk5 Escort RS Cosworth taking wins which included the 1994 Monte Carlo Rally.

The 1990s to the present day

In the early 1990s the Escort RS2000 and Fiesta RS1800 brought back the famous names of the past but, along with the short-lived Fiesta RS Turbo, didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Ford took big steps to improve its product range at the end of the millennium, and the superb Mk1 Focus was the result. It gained unique bodywork, carbonfibre additions inside the cabin, a limited-slip differential and a tasty turbocharged engine, with 4501 built over its lifetime. Five-years after the last RS model, the 2002 Focus RS was a car fit for the badge. 

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That’s a trend that continued: the mk2 301bhp Focus RS of 2009 was awarded five stars in the Autocar road test. “The way the RS puts its grunt down is truly incredible, but beyond that it’s also a lovely car to hussle along a good road. The steering is just delicious in the way it telegraphs so clearly what’s happening beneath the fat Continental front tyres. Yet it’s what happens at the other end of the car that provides you with the biggest confidence booster. The way in which the car neither under nor oversteers, but just hangs on is, well, breathtaking,” we commented.

It was a product of its time, priced higher than the first Focus RS and close enough to the standard car that both could go down the same production line in order to better appease Ford's accountants. Its 2.5-litre engine was developed from Volvo beginnings, another cost-saving measure, but it was a fantastic performer all the same. We ran one for twelve months, and managed to get through three sets of front tyres in 15,000 miles. 

The RS Mk3, then, had a lot to live up to - and it did. Ford managed to democratise specialness and uniqueness with the Focus RS by producing a car that you might buy for weekend use, as you perhaps would a high-end sports or supercar, yet one that only cost £30,000. It made the switch to torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, gained a launch control feature and even a drift mode, while its 2.3-litre turbocharged engine was an evolution of the one found in the Ecoboost Mustang.  

"To find something that corners with the same ability, breathtaking confidence and mind-bending mechanical trickery, you have to look at a car like the Nissan GT-R," we said at the time. It too achieved full marks in the Autocar road test, and earned a place amongst supercars in our 2016 Best Driver's Car feature. A run-out Heritage Edition model would wrap up production and bring the RS story full circle, arriving in the same Tief Orange colours that graced the original Escort RS.

For now, the story ends here, as Ford has decided a new Focus RS wouldn't make financial sense - or allow it to hit strict CO2 targets - but electrification could see the RS badge live on at some point in the future.


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Join the debate


7 February 2015
...I've always considered to be the perfect chav chariot. I'm sure they are damn fine cars but I'd honestly rather walk than be seen in one. Think I may have to change my irrational stance towards fast Fords when the Mustang is released on our shores. That looks ace.

7 February 2015
Beastie_Boy wrote:

...I've always considered to be the perfect chav chariot. I'm sure they are damn fine cars but I'd honestly rather walk than be seen in one. Think I may have to change my irrational stance towards fast Fords when the Mustang is released on our shores. That looks ace.

I suppose your are about mid 30's and a total snob never mind chav. You missed your ":growing up" years when Ford was No1 selling and whilst not brilliant were reliable tough and had the biggest boot to make them the repmobile of choice. Added to that of course was what this story is all about - REAL cars and you need to be driven in one - if you have the chav and balls by a decent wheelman - after which you are and will be allowed to change your mind!
My only complaint with Ford - why they distanced themselves from Lotus - I raced Lotus Cortina on track for a year before moving to rallying (and went the way of Toyota because they had better deals for the privateer) - but I have the fondest memories of the LC and tussles with Jags and A 90's and even the odd Mustang

7 February 2015
Having owned numerous air-cooled VWs (which I used to drag at (Santa Pod), Fiat X-19, classic 500, Uno turbo, slammed 2CV, Porsche 914, slammed VW Caddy Minitruck and currently a £800 MX5 (for hill climbs, not hairdressing), I'm as far away from being a car snob as you can can get. I simply don't like Fords. I remember the XR Fords from way back as being very average, particularly when compared to the equivalent VWs and Peugeots in their day. I even enjoyed embarrassing one or two of their owners with a modified '66 bug I had during the odd traffic light duel. A friend of mine has a matt black Focus RS (500, I think) and it does nothing for me. He has a Jaguar F-Type as well and that does nothing for me either. Both great cars I suspect, but I wouldn't want either of them purely down to personal taste. I'd own a Golf R and a Cayman instead. He thinks my taste in cars is terrible but we get along just fine. The forum is here to provoke opinion, not provoke personal attack. Try to get a grip next time someone's opinion differs from your own.

7 February 2015
I thought the cars used on the London-Mexico marathon used the Kent pushrod engine as both the Twin Cam and BDA were considered too fragile for that event ?


7 February 2015
You are quite correct Ruperts, they did use the Kent engine for the very reason you stated hence the Escort Mexico also had the Kent engine.......Autocar are dreadful at historical inaccuracies...that's what happens when you use kids to put research together!
In my humble opinion, Ford should drop the investment in the new Vignale one is going to be fooled by some extra fake wood and plusher leather, and the Brand name is not capable of moving upmarket. the big 3 are too firmly ensconced and punters too dazzled by designer names to aspire to a Ford ( no matter how good the base car may be), and using the name of a defunct Italian design house that no one can pronounce correctly isn't a route to success. No,I feel they should go back to their routes...Motorsport, attack Le Mans with the new GT, and give Malcolm Wilson back responsibility for a 'works' Rally team....create a larger RS range as a halo effect to the Ford Brand. Possibly even link up with Lotus or Cosworth again.
Yes I know the numbers are small, but not as small as a Vignale range is likely to be!
Just my opinion for what it's worth Ford.

8 February 2015

I'll bag the compliment referring to me as a kid, but this researcher, like the Mk2 RS2000, has sadly clocked-up 39 years!

Thanks for the input, which is gratefully received, although I didn't claim the Mexico winner had a BDA-spec engine.

However, I did say in the copy 'In the same year a development of the RS1600, now fitted with a pushrod head and a larger 1.8-litre block, won the gruelling 16,000-mile London to Mexico World Cup Rally'.

Unfortunately, due to space and readability issues, I couldn’t mention every detail change, but what was written is correct.

A 'development' of the RS1600 (meaning the whole car, including the chassis and suspension, not singularly the motor), was used to create the Mexico winner.

To be absolutely correct, the BDA engine used a Kent block but with the multi-valve Cosworth cylinder head. So in effect, it was a modified Kent engine anyway.

7 February 2015
Wasnt a personal attack chum - just my opinion and as you dont like the Jag either I am not surprised. Your friend has something there. Golf R is something else and I am glad you like it - but as I owned one of the very first GTi's off the line - always considered the modern ones to look more like American McDonald filled trousers. Cayman hmm Rather have the big Cayanne peronally

7 February 2015
My Mk1 Golf GTI's (owned both, convertible and tin top) are probably the favourite cars I ever owned. Never had an early one (different dash & tail lights if I remember).

As for us not being able to amend typos on this forum, I think that's the least of autocars worries.

7 February 2015
Seems Autocar removed the edit tranch in order to allow folk to post - strange way to deal with that issue

7 February 2015
The RS 2600 used the Cologne engine, there was a limited edition 3.1 Capri sold in the UK with an Essex V6, as far as my ageing grey cells recall ?


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