How much to pay
•Project £150-300 • Good £500-1000 • Concours £1100-2000
Running costs ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★★
Fast to captivate on the riotous success Ford enjoyed with the Fiesta, the third-generation Escort of 1980 waved off the previous rear-wheel drive format to embrace a front-wheel drive layout. Codenamed ‘Erika’ throughout development, besides improved handling capabilities and the ability to wear estate, hatchback and saloon bodies; Ford could now square up with the Volkswagen Golf and firmly halt VW’s market dominance.
Uwe Bahnsen’s chiseled styling may have taken those still besotted with 1970s aesthetics some time to accept, but with new ‘CVH’ engines and improved build quality, the Escort Mk3 cut all ties with its predecessor by incorporating a tailgate for maximum usability. This left a gap in the market for those hell-bent on driving a saloon. Enter stage: the Ford Orion.
Launched in September 1983, slated to plug the gap left by the Cortina, conservative Ford buyers lapped the Orion’s benefits up – offering more legroom and a larger boot when compared to the then-new and highly controversial Sierra.
Initially offered in only GL and Ghia trim levels, excluding the lower specifications reserved purely for the Escort, engines borrowed from the Escort Mk3 included both carburettor and fuel-injected variants of the 1600cc, alongside an entry level 1300cc. A lower specification ‘L’ model was introduced for 1984 as was the option of a 1.6 diesel engine – although only on L and GL models. A luxury model boasting an exclusive production run arrived for autumn 1988.
A facelift boosted sales further in 1986, as did the factory range modification to run on unleaded fuel. Improved security and the introduction of AntiLock Brakes (ABS) dominated the headlines, but behind the scenes the running gear and CVH engine range had undergone a substantial overhaul.
The final incarnation was sworn in for 1990 with the installation of the Zetec 16v powerplant improving the dynamic qualities despite criticism of the 1.3 and 1.4-litre units. The name badge was deleted in September 1993.
Despite being a staple of British and European everyday travel for the best part of two decades, the Orion is now surprisingly rare. Not to say they are exceedingly valuable – most were assigned to the scrapyard after suffering crash damage or enough corrosion to see off any form of repair.
Popular for being cloned, clocked and stolen in their thousands, finding a solid example today takes considerable time and patience. However, with easy DIY servicing and a slowly emerging cult stance thanks to that blue oval up front, as a slice of retro transport at least, the Orion in any trim or form will paste a sly grin across your face. There are very few cherished examples out there, but should you discover a healthy example, here’s what to look for to ensure you get a good one.
Your AutoClassics Ford Orion buying guide
The 1.6-litre variants, whether fuel-injected or employing carburettors, of the CVH engine will easily turn over 100,000 miles before any form of rebuild is required, but check for oil being burned on the over-run. This can be caused by worn valve guides.
Head gaskets are a known weak spot, so check for signs of white emulsion on the filler cap. Replacement CVH engines can usually be sourced, but be prepared to pay for them.
The original owner’s guide recommended changing the cambelt every 36,000 miles, or every three years – but with so many having been purchased for little money and run without mechanical sympathy, it is unlikely that service schedules have been adhered to. There’s every chance the belt is ready to let go, usually taking the engine out with it, so ensure to give this a look over.
Check where the fluids reside within the reservoirs and how far up the dipstick oil residue can be found. If any of the engines have been run dry you’ll likely have a world of trouble awaiting you under the bonnet.
Distributors and ignition seem to have a shelf-life of only 50,000 miles or so, therefore factor these items in as consumables.
Check the car isn’t misfiring, running on two cylinders or refusing to start as coils on larger engines have a tendency to go on strike.
Diesel units are hardy engines, but signs of wear and careless ownership can be found in the reek omitted from the exhaust. Excessive plumes of blue smoke indicates faulty injectors, whereas an overpowering whiff of diesel when running points to frayed or perished fuel lines.
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Earliest and entry level Orions utilised Ford’s BC4 4-speed transmission, with later models installed with a BC5 5-speed upgrade. Automatic transmission was available from launch by form of an ATX 3-speed. Expect 100,000 miles from all gearbox variants between rebuilds.
The gearchange was never anything but notchy from new, but if it’s particularly baulky the synchromesh could be on its way out. Change linkages and bushes can perish quickly if abused, but replacement is usually straight-forward and fairly inexpensive.
The most common source of headache comes from the clutch, which is often ill-treated. The cable stretches, but they don’t generally snap unless the previous owner has properly hammered the transmission. The clutch itself will probably be worn, as owners of the Orion when the model bounced along the bottom of the value chain won’t have spent money on a replacement. If the car isn’t mistreated the clutch system should give 50,000 miles of service.
Suspension and brakes
If the Orion has been at all modified, this could point to life as a hard-driven car, which can crack the steering rack’s ball joints. However, these can replaced without too much drama.
Suspension bushes both front and rear were built down to a price when the car was new, meaning by now they will be significantly worn. Dampers also perish young.
Wheel bearings grind down quickly, especially if aftermarket wheels have been incorrectly fitted. Check for cracks near the track-control arm, which develop if the front wheels are kerbed.
Disc brakes were fitted from the Mk2 (1986-1990) at the front and drums at the rear, whereas earlier cars used drum brakes all round. Discs will probably be ready for replacement, whereas fresh pads on both types will add huge benefit.
The only other likely brake malady is with the master cylinder, which leaks significantly over time. Check for signs of fluid escaping. Also check the inside tyre wall for telltale evidence of cracked or weeping pipes.
Is it made of metal? Chances are it’ll have over a decade’s worth of corrosion under the surface. Many were resprayed to hide corrosion on the sills and wheel arches, so don’t let a solid paint job fool you. Go around the sills with a magnet and see what metal remains – filler can be lurking underneath, making for little protection should the worst occur.
Wheel arches, particularly the rears, can practically dissolve, whereas the sills attract tin worm due to the location of the drainage channels which lead into them. If the drain holes are blocked, these can rot from the inside too. Also inspect the door bottoms and the corners of the boot for these can be rust traps – as is the windscreen surround and front valance.
Crash damage is sadly very common, so pay some attention to the front inner wings for signs of rippling, and the boot floor too. Look for overspray on the window rubbers and panel gaps. Ask yourself: how well do the panels line up?
Outer wings seem to collect water and the bulkhead suffers accordingly, rotting behind the heater and the battery tray.
Window rubber seals leak, leading to foul amounts of rust within the floorpan metal. Corrosion is common in the tailgate. Sunroof leaks are common too.
Boiled down – if it’s made of metal, check every inch for signs of terminal corrosion. If it’s made of rubber, check for seepage and cracking.
Interior trim lasts well, being constructed from sturdy plastics and hardwearing fabrics, but butchery was rife between cheap Fords back in the day; therefore check seats and railings are installed correctly and that all electronics work.
Replacement trim panels with original parts is far from easy, therefore inspect the likes of parcel shelves for holes cut in them for speakers. While tired seat trim is common, they can usually be revived.
Look for cracks in the plastic dashboard surround, and holes in the rooflining. The latter can be replaced easily – but the former can’t. Parts are simply too scarce. You must remember that these cars haven’t really graced the scrapyards in plentiful numbers since the turn of the new millennium.
Electric windows on posher models (including the switches) are prone to concern, whereas cabin electrics can fail altogether. The culprit is a pair of relays that control the power supply, which can be located just behind the dash. Replacements are seriously scarce, which means botched DIY jobs are common.
The ECU can fail spectacularly on fuel-injected cars. Controlling the fuel supply on injected cars, the engine can either run extremely lean and cough along the road, or over-fuel and let the engine run on despite the ignition being switched off. On diesels in particular, this can be incredibly dangerous.
We would recommend having the ECU removed and rebuilt, regardless of what the seller insists.
- September 1983: Launched as a stopgap, available in 1.3-litre and 1.6-litre CVH forms.
- 1986: First of two facelifts. Improved running gear. Luxury limited-edition 1600E is briefly sold during 1988.
- 1990: Last facelift given, following the styling lines of the Escort Mk5/6.
- September 1993: Orion name is deleted. Escort production ends in 2000.
Despite the connotation of rust and the desirability level of a Chinese burn, there were huge benefits to Orion ownership when new, most of which still stand today.
While they were far less popular in the eyes of those seeking bodykits and instant cult status, the Orion was in fact better than its XR3i brethren, not to mention the Sierra and Escort relatives. The 1.6-litre, at least, shared the XR3i’s engine and offered similar performance and handling minus the insurance tag destined to ransack your bank account.
It wasn’t quite as admired by criminals in comparison to the XR3i, Escort or Sierra, either – far less likely to be nicked or looted for the contents within. This is still the standing in modern times. While any ‘old-school’ Ford makes for a prime target with thieves, the Orion appears to be at the bottom of their agenda.
The diesel isn’t fast nor particularly refined, with last-of-the-line Orions being devoid of soul or character – but find a solid example of a Mk1 or Mk2 and you’ll have a prime piece of Ford history overlooked by most.
Just ensure the bodywork is strong and there is no crash damage – they were pretty popular as ‘Cut and Shuts’. Any suspicion whatsoever, walk away.