We headed to the hills of north Wales with the MST Mk1, a brand-new reinterpretation of a rally legend. Could it be the ultimate driver’s car for modern Britain?
So, what exactly are we looking at here? On the surface, it looks like a Mk1 Ford Escort – classically rallyish with its tiny gold Minilite wheels and swollen arches. But look closer, at the nods to modernity that belie this car’s age.
Is it a resto-mod, then? Well, not quite – you’ll find no original Escort chassis numbers on this car, and the ‘71’ on the registration plate contradicts the 1970s looks. A continuation car, then? Not really – its spec is pretty far removed from even the most sporting Mk1 Escort, and it has no official affiliation with Ford.
However, to call this car a replica would be doing it a disservice. No, this is the MST Cars Mk1, a brand-new, from-scratch tribute to the car that has helped define British rallying for more than half a century.
MST Cars is an offshoot of Motorsport Tools, a company that has long specialised in the Mk1 and Mk2 Escorts. These classic Fords, which were produced from 1967 to 1980, are evergreen stalwarts of the British rally scene thanks to their once-abundant numbers and lightweight, rear-drive platform. MST Cars is the brainchild of Motorsport Tools’ sales director, Carwyn Ellis. After years of building up a huge stock of competition-spec components for Escorts, MST Cars was the next logical step for Carwyn and his team: a run of ground-up cars, retaining those classic looks but with all-modern components.
Both firms operate out of the same picturesque site, perched on a hillside near the seaside town of Pwllheli in North Wales. Instead of looking out onto the back of an industrial unit, the view from MST’s base extends across a swathe of countryside and coast, taking in rolling fields, rugged islands, and the heaving Irish Sea. It’s a refreshingly rural, remote spot for an automotive brand and sits close to the historic heartland of British rallying – an inspirational place in which to create these cars.
There are two models on offer – the Mk1 and Mk2 – corresponding to the two original generations of rear-drive Escort. Each model is then split into four distinct stages of build, ranging from the road-biased Touring model to the full ‘Ultimate Spec’ rally car, whose options list includes phrases like ‘FIA-approved’ and ‘WRC-spec’.
There’s plenty of scope for mixing and matching these options, though. MST’s demonstrator sits somewhere in the middle, using the second-tier ‘Fast Road and Track’ build as its base. While the standard engine is a 2.5-litre Ford Duratec unit, this car has a 2.0-litre motor based on the Ford-derived Cosworth BDG producing around 250bhp. There are one-piece bucket seats, which you have to scramble over a roll cage to drop into, but there are also lashings of leather and Alcantara and a small infotainment screen, which manages not to look too incongruous despite being a digital cog in a very analogue machine.
Even stationary, the Mk1 has a raw, unforgiving aura about it. All the interior touchpoints are decidedly motorsport biased. The seats – MST’s own design – are narrow and firmly squeeze the waist of anyone not gifted with the slight frame of a racing driver. The steering wheel is a small, Alcantara-trimmed unit, and the gear knob a simple thin-stemmed, teardrop-topped design. Everything that directly impacts the driving experience has been considered here.
Considering the Escort was billed as a family car when new, it feels almost unbelievably small in 2022. The rear seats are long gone (although they never existed in MST form anyway). Driver and passenger rub shoulders, but the tiny proportions make it easy to thread along the lanes that duck between drystone walls in this part of Wales. Visibility between the slender A-pillars will embarrass most modern cars.
To drive the MST Mk1 is to understand the value of balance and delicacy over sheer force. In the context of modern performance cars, 250bhp sounds like nothing, but in something this small, loud, and light, it’s more than sufficient. It’s easy to imagine that even the basic 200bhp engine would be enough to still have plenty of fun, while the optional 300bhp Millington Diamond engine sounds like it would be almost overwhelming for road use.
That Cosworth-based four-cylinder roars away, breathing through individual throttle bodies that produce an intoxicating rasp as the revs climb. Combined with the constant pings of gravel bouncing off the chassis, the soundtrack is raw, cacophonous, and shot through with motorsport DNA.
Though lightly assisted, the Mk1’s steering remains uncorrupted and talkative, and along with the modest kerb weight, contributes to an agility and fluidity through bends that allow you to wring the car out along windy roads. The presence of a pleasingly old-fashioned five-speed manual gearbox that snicks up and down through the gate is further evidence of driver involvement being a priority, although six-speeds are available in manual and sequential form.
The overwhelming impression is of a car that just feels right. In a world where performance cars keep getting more capable – even as the opportunities to legally use that capability continually diminish – something like the Mk1 makes perfect sense. The roughly £110k price tag of this car puts it almost level with a Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS (or it would if anyone was paying list price for the Porsche).
Those are two very different approaches to analogue thrills. While the MST does without most modern comforts, and isn’t in the same league as the Porsche on raw numbers, it still feels like a high-quality product worthy of the asking price. We’d wager too that on a British B-road, its more usable bandwidth would make it just as thrilling as the German car. It feels like the perfect antidote for those tired of increasingly meaningless power and performance figures, but most importantly, it maintains those charming throwback looks without feeling like a relic. It is, in the most literal sense of the term, a modern classic.
It’s a car we found so utterly beguiling that we’re making it a priority to have it and the MST team in the Yard during our 2023 calendar – stay tuned.