Great rallycross cars – the original Xtrac Escort

A brief history of one of the most important rallycross cars

by Rallycross World |

Martin Schanche’s ‘Xtrac Escort’ is a truly groundbreaking car, its creation set Xtrac on the road to becoming a giant of motor sport engineering and its performance ripped up the form book and set new benchmarks. Schanche had worked with British engineer Mike Endean to produce a gearbox that would live with the power in his Zakspeed-engined MkII Escort, so when it became clear that the only way to beat the four-wheel drive cars that were becoming dominant rallycross was to join them, and do the job better, Schanche again turned to Endean. The trusted Zakspeed engine was mated to the new transmission and housed in a new MkIII escort chassis from British specialists Gartrac. The new car made its debut at Brands Hatch for the 1983 British Rallycross Grand Prix. It was not an easy start for Schanche who was at loggerheads with organisers and his rivals. The event was eventually won by Olle Arnesson with his Audi Quattro. 

Schanche was open that the car was faster than the driver and the Norwegian returned to Brands Hatch in January and February of 1984 to race in national events and gain time behind the wheel of his new car.

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Schanche learned about rhe new car in Briitish winter events. ©
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Two events at Brands Hatch started the Norwegian’s 1984 season. ©

The FIA European Rallycross Championship was the objective for which the car was created and when the nine-round series started in Austria in April Schanche was immediately competitive but ultimately it was local star Andy Bentza who won the event while Schanche placed fifth. As the year developed Schanche collected six event wins and claimed the tile by a 31-point margin over Seppo Niittymaki.

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Schanche won six times to take the 1984 European title. ©

The year ended with a win in the British Rallycross Grand Prix. There was also time for a summer trip to Pikes Peak hillclimb in the US where, having set the pace in practice, Schanche’s chance of the win was ruined by a puncture.

A year on from the car’s debut Schanche won the 1984 GP. ©
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Grand Prix win at Brands Hatch completed a successful 1984. ©

Arguably 1985 and 1986 should have seen a continuation of Schanche’s 1984 dominance of the European Rallycross Championship but in each year he finished as runner-up, beaten to the crown by Matti Alamaki in ’85 and Arnesson in ’86.

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1985 resulted in second place in the European Championship. ©
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Victory at Lydden was one of three 1985 wins. ©

In ’85 Schanche won three of the nine events and ’86 he managed four victories but only started eight of the nine rounds, mechanic Jokke Hannula driving the car in Germany (and placing eighth) while Schanche opted instead to race his Group C2 car in Japan.

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Second place in Europe again in 1986. ©

While this is not a definitive list of every event the car contested or every driver who drove it, one extra activity that should be noted is that Schanche loaned the car to his friend John Welch in May 1986. His own car out of action, Welch used Schanche’s car to win a British Championship race at Croft in the year that he claimed his second British title.

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John Welch borrowed the original Xtrac to win at Croft in 1986. ©

As Schanche moved into a Ford RS200 for 1987 the Xtrac was sold to Englishman John Smith. In his first year with the car Smith scored championship points three times, 11th place in Austria his best finish.

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1987, John Smith (right) leads the similar car of Welch in Spain. ©

Smith had his best season in the car in 1988 when he placed 13th in the European Championship, scored points in seven of the 11 events and had a best finish of sixth place in Great Britain.

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Smith had his best year in the Xtrac in 1988. ©

In 1989 Smith posted two points finishes, seventh in Austria his best performance and was classified 19th in the championship. At the end of the year Smith brought his career to a close and sold the car to compatriot Barry Squibb.

1989 was Smith’s final season, here he fights Alamaki in Austria. ©

The only year in which the car was not a points scorer in the European Rallycross Championship was 1990 in which new owner Squibb focused his efforts on learning the car and contesting British Championship events.

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A British-based season in 1990 for Barry Squibb, here at Nutts Corer. ©

 In 1991 Squibb placed ninth in the British round of the European Championship and was classified 34th in the 11-event series. That taste of points then led to a serious campaign in 1992.

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Squibb raced the Xtrac to ninth at Lydden in 1991.

In the last year in which the car was eligible for the FIA European Rallycross Championship, Squibb adapted quickly to european racing in ’92. Posting eight points-scoring finishes in the 11-round series, Squibb was classified seventh at the end of the season and achieved a best placing of fourth in the final round in Germany. So the car’s finish in its last European Championship event was better than it had been in its first.

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Squibb raced in europe in 1992 and placed seventh in the series. ©

The change in regulations for 1993 meant that the Xtrac Escort was no longer eligible for the European Championship. The car had completed eight years of top level competition and come through the Group B era still looking like a reasonably competitive proposition. As Squibb sought to move to a new car for the Group A-based 1993 regulations, the original Xtrac Escort was sold to Endean who restored it to its original 1984 specification and who still owns, and occasionally uses, the car to this day. Its most recent appearance at a rallycross event was as part of a display of classic machinery and Retro Rallycross cars during the 2019 British round of the FIA World Rallycross Championship at Silverstone.

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Owned by co-creator Mike Endean the Xtrac Escort at Silverstone in 2019. ©
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