DSC_0466_editedDusting down his race-suit and driving gloves, Iain Robertson has become mildly discombobulated by a recent and apparent power surge around the motor industry, when frugality and eco-friendliness ought to be the norm. 

As a handsome young buck (yes, it is believable) in the late-1970s, when loon-pants, long hair (I also had my own hair and teeth back then) and stacked heels were all the rage, I was a fairly conservative chap. Jeans were worn by scaffolders. Okay, my light beige suit had an orange pin-stripe and there were six cuff buttons on each sleeve of my favourite dark brown shirt, yet I was a follower of motorsport, which demanded a somewhat different level of sartorial elegance.

At that time, when Rolls-Royce would only describe its 6.75-litre V8 engine’s power output as ‘adequate’, many policemen were on bicycles and to commandeer a 34bhp Ford Anglia 105E panda car demanded a driving qualification and a promotion, I was eminently contented with the 109bhp of my Escort RS2000. However, at weekends, with hair sprayed carefully into place, with lashings of Cossack, the road car was parked and the rally car reversed from its garage.

The consummate high performance tool (no, not me, the car), it required cold-start sparkplugs just to fire-up its 2.1-litre, belt-driven twin-cam, G-type engine. You did not want to do that too often. Each engine rebuild could cost upwards of £4,000. Starting it and driving it were reserved for the forest, airfield, or single-venue event ground. This was a thoroughbred machine.

Sitting on Bilstein suspension and Minilite magnesium alloy wheels, with as much excess baggage shed from its already lightweight Gomm body-shell, this Ford Escort (anyone, who thought they were anything at all, drove one) was built for the purpose of winning events. If it did not, it almost did not matter. I was a hero. So was the car, probably more so. Its engine drove through a dog-leg first gear of a five-speed German ZF gearbox, to an Atlas, limited-slip differential rear axle, onto which was fitted a five-link kit to control the intriguing rear slipper leaf springs.

After all, an average of 248bhp was being processed by driver and driven through the system in such a way that it would despatch 0-60mph, on a loose surface, in less than four seconds, while its top speed was limited by overall gearing to around 115mph. Yet, these were the speeds it could hit on a runway, a long forestry straight, or at a racing circuit. Every time I drove it, I would receive a little frisson of excitement, as I exercised every instruction I had ever received from Roger Albert Clark, many times professional rally winner, that, “to drive an Escort properly, one needed to be looking ahead…through the side windows!”.

248bhp! It was a statement of intent. Despite the around-2.0-litres engine capacity, it was more than the ‘adequate’ of a Silver Shadow. Yet, 35 years later, I recently hopped out of a four-wheel-drive VW Golf that boasted 48bhp more. It was every bit as accelerative as my old Escort and clarioned a top speed nudging 170mph. Incidentally, it also weighed around 40% more than the Ford but was armed with all manner of safety gubbins expected of a modern day motorcar.

The Seat Leon Cupra that I have been driving for the past few days is another case in point. It allows its driver to access 276bhp, through its front wheels, 28 more than my old Escort, which drove its rear wheels and was at the pinnacle of its racing development in the late-1970s. I can recall spending an entire week in the company of Saab ‘works’ driver, Stig (yes, the original and unexpurgated version) Blomqvist, at the romantically named test track of the sometime Swedish carmaker, in Uusikaupunki, Finland.

The Saab chassis engineer that accompanied us explained emphatically that the 245bhp of the Saab 99 Turbo was the absolute limit of power for a front-driven car. To contemplate any more would be feckless. Components would break and the car would be undriveable. As I learned from Stig, the Saab 99 Turbo rally car had gained a reputation for technical fragility. The car’s body was strong and the company’s long history of rallying underscored that there was probably no finer exponent of the art than Saab but the driveshafts were working on their limits, as were the brakes and front suspension components. The company needed the empathetic mastery of Blomqvist to ensure that the car could reach the end of rally stages in one piece.

However, there is a plethora of front driven hatchbacks all vying for pole position in the power stakes these days. No sooner had Seat performed the customary record-breaking lap of the Nurburgring racing circuit, in Germany’s Eifel Mountains region, than its Gallic rival, Renault, outgunned it with a near-300bhp version of the Renaultsport Megane. It is not my favourite model, because most French cars demand too many compromises from drivers and my two metres of height is but one of the limiting factors, albeit on the access front.

Yet, while I could never have lived on a daily basis with my ever so highly-strung and well-pedigreed Ford Escort rally car, I have been intrigued by the behaviour of the other near-300bhp machines that I have driven recently. Of course, it could be suggested, quite justifiably, that a purpose-built competition machine has no right being compared with a road car. However, in technological terms alone, just keeping its 248bhp in tune was an immense, regularly changing task.

Its Mike Hall-designed, Cosworth BDG (alloy blocked) engine was very much the class of the field for over 20 years and it still wins classic races and rallies worldwide. Despite its relative reliability, it still needed regular tuning to maintain performance expectations, often during events, and comprehensive rebuilds prove necessary after around six competitive outings. Yet, the Seat Leon Cupra sits in my driveway and can be started from cold and driven quickly almost from the outset (allowing a small time allowance for a sympathetic warming-up period, more for longevity than anything else).

Driving through a six-speed, twin-clutch, automated manual transmission (would that it had been around 35 years ago), with steering-wheel mounted flippers, the Cupra blasts from 0-60mph almost as speedily as my Escort did but with heaps more dependability, a significantly higher top speed and not far off 38mpg (the Escort was less than 10mpg!). There is no ‘fluffing’ from the carburetion. There is no low-rev recalcitrance. I can fit comfortably behind the steering wheel and the ride quality is not spine-jarringly hard, like my Escort was. Thanks to space behind the driver, there is even a decent boot and three friends can come along for the thrill ride, which is what the Seat delivers without missing a beat.

I have already suggested that professional footballers (the usual recipients of supercar keys) should ditch their Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches and Lamborghinis, investing instead in a drop-in-the-ocean, £30k price tag of a 4WD Golf R. The Seat Leon Cupra might not normally be in their league, although, with the extras on the test example hiking its invoice price to £31,540, it is, but it can do everything and heaps more than the two-seater alternatives.

While I miss the frantic nature of my old Escort, I never cease to be amazed at the way a modern hot hatch can exceed its capabilities in myriad ways. One of them might even entice me back into motorsport. All I need to do is shed a few pounds…okay, the equivalent of a small teenager…fit into a race suit and meet a few safety and health standards. Keep watching this space!

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).