People's car loses its grip

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The Independent Online
It is a post-war motoring phenomenon to rank alongside the VW Beetle, the Mini and the Fiat Uno. It is driven by princesses, travelling salesmen and boy racers alike. It is in its 30th year and its fifth incarnation. In short, it is one of that rare breed - a people's car. Until yesterday, the Ford Escort was also part of the lifeblood of Merseyside.

When the sixth generation Escort appears on British roads in 1998 or 1999 it will have been built not on Merseyside but in Spain or Germany. Ford says the reason is economics - it cannot justify the cost of producing the car in three different locations. But the death of Escort production in Britain is at least as much due to changing markets, consumer tastes and indifferent response to the latest version of the car.

Since the Escort was launched in 1968, world-wide sales have reached nearly 18 million - of which 3.8 million have been sold in Britain. Even Diana, Princess of Wales, once owned one.

The first Escort produced in Britain went from 0 to 60mph in a stately 22.3 seconds and did a top speed of 79mph. The latest 1.8 fuel-injection 2-door cabriolet reaches 60mph in 10 seconds and has a top speed of 120mph.

But sales have been slipping as motorists began demanding something different - a 4x4, or a people carrier, or a small, concept car - and company fleets no longer insisted on buying British. Ford did not help sentiment with its latest redesign of the Escort.

In the late 1980s, the Escort commanded a tenth of the British car market. Last year 129,000 Escorts were sold in Britain - a market share of just 6 per cent. This was partly the result of Ford quitting the rental market, but it was also due to car-buyers opting for something a little more exotic and usually imported.

Garel Rhys, professor of motor industry economics at Cardiff University Business School says: "The problem for Ford is that nowadays consumers want a broader choice - off-road and multi-purpose vehicles for instance - which means it is much harder to keep up large sales volumes of individual models.

"There is a variety on the forecourts now the like of which we have not seen since the 1920s."