As the 2016 Ford Focus RS prepares to take centre stage at the Geneva motor show, we take look at the history of the RS brand
The Capri RS3100 used a Essex V6 engine
by John Howell, 7 February 2015
The 2016 Ford Focus RS looks set to continue Ford's record of producing extremely successful performance versions of its road cars.
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 currently adorns fantastic cars such as the Fiesta ST and Focus ST.
However, one Ford motif is the most enduring of them all. It’s usually, but not exclusively, reserved for the most highly developed models, which are often destined for competition on race track or special stage.
It is the legendary RS, or Rallye Sport, brand, and 21 models have been gifted those iconic initials in the UK over the years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Five-years after the last RS model, the 2002 Focus RS was a car fit for the badge. To date, both versions of the Focus RS have enjoyed success in the marketplace as well as in competition.
If Ford’s current form for class-leading driver’s cars is anything to go by, odds are that the new Focus RS - which is only one of 12 new models set to be launched under the firm's new Ford Performance banner - will be a positive addition to four decades worth of great Rallye Sport models. We can’t wait to try it.
On December 11, Ford introduced us to its new Ford Performance division and promised to deliver 12 new performance models by the end of the decade. Just 54 days later, we’re already staring at the automaker’s fourth such model: the 2016 Ford Focus RS. Following the Detroit Auto Show debuts of the Ford GT Concept, Shelby GT350R and F-150 Raptor, the new Focus RS becomes just the 30th Ford car to adorn the coveted “RS” label since it was created in 1970.
That first “Rallye Sport” car was the revered 1970 Escort RS1600, and it sparked a series of successful, specially tuned homologation rally racers that had two things in common: they were all small, fast cars and none of them were offered in the U.S. We’ll get the new RS, but before it hits our streets, lets a quick look back at its history.
Why it matters
The Focus RS has only been around for 13 years, but it builds on a legacy of Ford RS performance cars that have dominated World Rally Championship Racing since 1970.
Ford Escort RS Cosworth Rally Car
Over its history, the RS name has been worn by cars such as the Sierra RS Cosworth, Capri RS Cosworth and the Group B RS200, but it was finally returned back to its Escort roots starting in 1993 with the Escort RS Cosworth rally car. The heart of this beast was a Cosworth-tuned, turbocharged engine that sent its power to all four wheels, which proved to be a great combination as this car racked up a total of 53 podium finishes, including 10 wins, during its six seasons.
Ford Escort RS Cosworth
The road-going version of the Escort RS Cosworth was available from 1992 to 1996, with production limited to around 7,000 units. It was instantly recognizable by its louvered hood and massive whale-tail rear spoiler, but it was the 225-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and the rear-biased all-wheel-drive system that made this car a monster as a production car. This RS had a top speed of 137 mph to go along with a 0-60 time of 5.8 seconds, which put it on par with other cars of the era such as the Acura NSX, E36 BMW M3 and the Toyota Supra Turbo.
Ford Focus RS WRC - Winner In 2006 and 2007
In 1999, Ford switched to the Focus for its WRC efforts, with the Focus RS WRC. It picked up right where the Escort had left off. Weight was down and power was up compared to the Escort, and it dominated on the rally circuits, posting 151 podiums and 44 wins over its 12 seasons of competition, as well as two WRC manufacturer titles in 2006 and 2007, before being replaced by the Fiesta RS WRC in the 2011 season.
Ford Focus RS - MK1 (2002-2003)
There was a six-year gap between the Escort RS Cosworth and the Focus RS Mk1, and there were plenty of changes in store for RS fans — and not all good. For starters, unlike the race car, the street-legal Focus RS was only available with front-wheel drive. Power was also down to 212 horsepower, 0-60 time had increased to 6.4 seconds and the only transmission offered was a five-speed automatic. Still, the 2002 and 2003 RS was very exciting to drive, proving that handling can trump horsepower when done right. The Ford Focus RS Mk1 had improved steering, suspension and brakes, as well as a wider track for better handling.
Ford Focus RS - MK2 (2009)
Again, six years separated the Focus RS Mk1 from its successor, but the 2009 RS Mk2 was a meaner car in both style and performance. The Mk2 had a Volvo -sourced, 2.5-liter, turbocharged five-cylinder engine that was tuned to 301 horsepower, allowing the car to sprint from 0-62 mph in just 5.9 seconds on its way to a top speed of 163 mph. Better yet, the unique six-speed manual gearbox was designed specifically to reach 62 mph in second gear. One thing that didn’t change was the continued reliance on front-wheel drive, but a beefed-up helical limited-slip differential helped.
Focus RS 500 - 2010
A year after the Focus RS Mk2 was released, Ford brought out the mighty Focus RS500. Ford started off by giving the RS500 improved engine output of 345 horsepower, which resulted in a 0-60 time 5.6 seconds. As if all Ford RS cars aren’t special enough, Ford upped the ante by limiting production of the RS500 to just 500 units, with all of them coming in matte black paint.
Ford Focus RS - Mk3 (2016)
Later this year, the 2016 Ford Focus RS will continue the legacy of Ford’s high-performance RS division with a return to all-wheel drive. It will sport a 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine (borrowed from the 2015 Ford Mustang, ) with more than 315 horsepower. Looking at the images and spec sheet of the RS Mk3, it’s almost as if Ford has encapsulated the entire history of RS into this single car, with performance numbers and aggressive styling that will be sure to impress buyers from around the world. Not only will the 2016 RS be the first RS sold in the U.S., it will also be the first without a WRC counterpart. Now, how to decide between RS and the 2015 Mustang?