If you’re about to buy a new Ford Escort – don’t. Or at least, wait to see what you think of its replacement. After almost 30 years of sterling service, the Ford Escort is being pensioned off, to make way for a new model which is being kept well under wraps.
Ford is expected to launch the new car in the UK late next year, after its world debut at the Paris Motor Show. So far there is every sign that it will be a huge crowd-puller, not only because of its bold design but also because of its significance for the whole of the Ford Motor Company.
For this new model will be Ford’s future bread and butter, its mainstream retail car or “C” segment vehicle, which appeals to everyone from families with young children, to boy racers or “empty-nesters”, and not just in Europe but globally.
Two years ago, when General Motors replaced the Cavalier with the Vectra, it spent 1.1bn on developing the car and a further 50m over two years on marketing it in the UK alone. The new Escort is even more important to Ford than the axing of the Cavalier for GM. It is not just a new car but a test of the success of everything Ford has done since 1995 when chairman Alex Trotman unveiled the Ford 2000 programme designed to introduce global efficiencies.
The objective of Ford 2000 is to create “world” vehicles at lower cost by introducing economies of scale. Launched at the beginning of 1995, the plan effectively wiped out a company culture based on traditionally separate geographical centres. Ford has now set up five vehicle centres for the world, four in the Detroit area and one at Cologne in Germany.
The latter designs and plans all the company’s small and medium-sized cars, and it is also where Ford has chosen to manufacture the Escort replacement (although it will also be manufactured at Ford’s Halewood plant for 18 months to two years).
The plan is designed to appeal to the growing demand for niche models at affordable prices – from a minimum number of sites, using common vehicle platforms and components to cut costs ruthlessly. The replacement Escort will be the first car to be developed from scratch through the Ford 2000 process.
In October, Ford announced profits for the first nine months of the year had increased by 64 per cent to 5.1bn. But in Europe it is only now turning around severe losses with expectations of returning to profit next year.
Against such a global strategy, there is no place for parochial vehicles such as the Escort or its outdated name, and last week Ford confirmed what many people already knew – the replacement model will be rebadged.
Sources say Ford has decided on the name Ikon, or Icon, probably spelt with a “k”, to make it more user-friendly for the US market and also to eliminate any confusion over pronunciation. But this is strongly denied by the company, which says no decision has been made.
Despite the heritage of the Escort name and its huge brand awareness, the name has been devalued. At best it sounds old-fashioned, at worst its connotations stretch to call-girl services. Figures from The Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders show that UK sales of the Escort for the first 11 months of this year are down from 124,237 to 109,397.
Some would even argue that the decision to bring the Escort to an end is a belated move, that should have been taken in the late Eighties when the car was being relaunched. One observer blames the 1990 Escort for the car’s demise, saying it was not a radical enough reengineering and that it lacked investment. “Escort 1990 did not live up to the Escort brand,” he says.
Despite Ford’s protestations, it has recently registered the name Ikon (and Icon) in the UK, along with other names including Java, Fusion, Jazz, Escape, Emerge, Jade, MAV, Bolero, Wayfarer, Fanfare, Dynos, Kestra, Actio, Axia, Edge and Sensio.
The list is a far cry from the names of the Fifties, when UK motorists drove cars with comfortable Anglo-Saxon names, such as Morris and Humber. In the Sixties, European names such as Cortina and Capri – taken from the famous ski resort in Italy and an Italian island respectively – emerged as social aspirations changed, and by the Eighties, world car names such as Mondeo were emerging.
But global branding undoubtedly has its pitfalls. One notorious example of this is the Ford Probe, whose failure in the UK (despite being a good vehicle) is widely blamed on the fact it sounded like a gynaecological instrument.
If Ford has to get the branding right with the Escort replacement, it also has to get the design right. Sources say the company has taken the brave step of taking its so-called “new edge” design philosophy – already in evidence in the Ford Ka and the Ford Puma coupe – and used it on the Escort replacement. For the first time Ford is choosing to go down this route with a mainstream, C-segment vehicle.
But one industry source says: “In 1983 the launch of the Ford Sierra flopped at first because its design was too radical compared with its predecessor the Cortina. It was even nicknamed the jelly mould. But after gaining general acceptance the car went on to last an incredibly long time and it still looked fresh.”
Significantly, Ford will continue to produce the Escort for an estimated 18 months to two years at its Halewood plant in Merseyside, where it will also manufacture a “people carrier”-style car, based on the replacement Escort.
One observer says: “It gives Ford a big marketing challenge in selling the replacement Escort. How will it position it against the older model?” He says the company and its advertising agency – presently Ogilvy & Mather – must create a more aspirational image for the new model, that is totally distinct from the current Escort. When the Ford Ka was launched, it was positioned as something quite different, fashionable and youthful, in contrast to the Fiesta which was marketed as much more mundane.
The boldness of the replacement Escort, together with the striking Ford Ka and the Ford Puma, is expected to continue the rejuvenation of Ford. The new model will not only be key to an improvement in Ford’s European performance, but to the career of European chief Jacques Nasser and also Ford 2000 itself.