'There is something wonderfully evocative about dark warehouses filled with treasures from a bygone era. The past breathes mustily from under dusty sheets and time seems to tick by more slowly. The Ford heritage collection – for the moment – is one such place.
Situated in its own small warehouse deep in the bowels of the massive Dagenham plant sit about 60 examples of the history of the company over the past 100 years, looked after by a small, dedicated band of experts.
Fleet News visited the collection, under the watchful eye of 'curator' and Ford stalwart Ron Staughton, to try out some of the cars that would have graced Britain's fleets in the seventies and early eighties: the Escort, Cortina and Sierra.
In three months' time the collection will be moved to a more prominent location in the plant. For a car lover, there are some real gems here: Model Ts, Anglias, Populars, Prefects, one of the earliest Transits, Cortinas, Escorts, RS200s, GT40s and rally winning cars.
Tom Malcolm, manager, heritage programmes, is keen to get as many running and out on view as possible, and many will be at events throughout the year for Ford's centenary celebrations.
Ford Cortina MK4/5
Everybody over a certain age has some memory that involves the Cortina. It was ubiquitous from the tail end of the 1960s, through the seventies and into the early days of the eighties.
Ford still has the very last Cortina ever, the 1.6 Crusader in Ghia trim. It was the 4,279,079th to be built and has only done 682 miles since it rolled off the line in 1982. Sitting next to the Sierra, it is noticeable how many advances in production techniques there were between old and new.
The Cortina was not built to cheat the wind like the Sierra. In fact, it positively welcomed drag. The panel gaps on the Cortina are gaping, and metal runners around the windows and pillars are sharp and prominent. Large flat wing mirrors and flat frontal surfaces all add to aerodynamic inefficiency. However the Cortina is still, after all these years a handsome, lantern-jawed car, and beautifully proportioned.
What is instantly noticeable about older cars is ergonomics, and the Cortina, relative to something like a Mondeo, is awkward to get into – there isn't much space between the steering wheel and the seat, and once there, there is no seating adjustment.
The 93bhp 1.6-litre engine we drove came with a four- speed box, with a top speed of 91mph and made the 60mph dash in around 14 seconds. Fuel economy was 30mpg.
The brakes, one of the most obvious leaps in modern cars, need a big old-fashioned push in the Cortina before anything happens, and at slow speeds and parking the unpowered steering is incredibly heavy.
But get the Cortina rolling and the steering is a delight. You forget on modern cars just how much of the steering mechanism is masked by hydraulics, suspension settings and electrical assistance.
And something else I didn't realise I missed until driving the Cortina became apparent: the bonnet. You sit up high, with the long graceful bonnet spread out in front. When was the last time you saw the bodywork of a car from the driver's seat?
The Sierra shocked the industry when it was launched with its space-age swoops and curves, and as a kid it certainly shocked me. In an industry used to the confident, bold creases of the Cortina, the Sierra was a radical change of approach.
Inside, the theme continued. The dashboard is angled at the driver and there are some touches that come as a shock after the utilitarian lines of the Cortina. Looking at one of the first Sierras now, you are struck by how light and flimsy some of the plastics are – the indicator stalk looks unlikely to survive a fly landing on it. This V6 2.3-litre version only survived for a couple of years (from 1982-84), and in Ghia form cost £8,061 when new.
Ford did not hold back on electrical wizardry with this model, with an LED display on the radio, heated seats and central locking to name a few. The automatic gearbox clonks into place inelegantly and the steering, one of the first to come with power assistance, is heavy by today's standards.
On the move, the three-speed auto suppresses any performance from the V6, but get the Sierra going and its strength comes to the fore. The self levelling ride is lovely, with the V6 whispering in the background and pillowy seats just like the armchair my Gran had.
A rep using this for a long distance drive would have a very restful journey. Just don't expect to go too fast, and don't go round corners too quickly. You'll fall off the seats.
Ford Escort MK1
The Mark One Escort is older than Fleet News but they were still running with companies when the newspaper was born. The Mark One was the replacement for the Ford Anglia and planning had begun for it in 1964. By the time it was launched in 1968, Ford of Europe had been born to sell it.
This racy 1300 XL model cost only £1,180 when new and was top-of-the-range with pleated vinyl seats, wood fascia, extra instruments such as a rev counter and fancy 13 inch alloy wheels. The lime green metallic paint of this model denotes it was a late special edition.
The Escort also had rear leaf springs, McPherson struts at the front and was rear wheel drive, which meant it was a fun little car to have in the seventies.
And it is still going strong. The lighter weight means that its steering is much less cumbersome than the later Cortina, although its 1.3-litre overhead cam four cylinder engine, with Weber twin choke carburettors, produces only 60bhp and has a top speed of 85mph. Nippy for the time, it is distinctly sluggish now, with 0-60mph taking more than 13 seconds and it rolls heavily through roundabouts.
The disk brakes at the front and drums at the back do a relatively ineffectual job of stopping the car as well. But this is a lovely car. It sounds great, buzzes along, and with its rusty brown interior and lime green paint is dripping in the gaucheness of the seventies.