Frank Kelly might be Northern Ireland’s most exuberant rally ace. With the kind of intuitive car control that only the greats possess, Kelly is able to chuck his Ford Escort into ludicrous angles just centimeters between his bumpers and immovable stone walls. Taught by his father, who raced stock cars on dirt and knew a thing about oversteer, Kelly took up stock car racing as soon as he could peer over the steering wheel. From ten onwards, the talented tyke was proving himself a natural, but it wasn’t until he turned twenty-eight when he first threaded a rally car between Irish trees.
Kelly, now fifty-two, has a lengthy rally rap sheet, and those two decades of going sideways successfully show in this video, titled Fast, Sideways and Mental. The two-part video shows Kelly hopping, sliding, flying, terrifying his co-driver, threading the needle, running inches from imposing trees, and channeling the romantic rally hero, Ari Vatanen. Not only is this demonstration of superhuman car control awe-inspiring, but, with the view count, it has likely introduced a few American fans to the beauty that is the MkII Escort.
Ford’s iconic rally car never made a splash stateside, but in Europe it’s a cult hero with an enviable pedigree; winning the RAC Championship in 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1981. Kelly’s Group 4 example is extensively modified with a 2.5-liter Millington motor driving nearly 300 horsepower through a Samsonas six-speed sequential and onto a Atlas Casing Elite LSD. DMS adjustable shocks dot all four corners, as do AP Racing brakes—four-piston units at the front axle and two-pistons at the rear. It stops, accelerates, and thanks to a curb weight of just 2,100 pounds, changes direction with the urgency of a formula car.
Rarely does Kelly get the car stopped neatly; he tends to lock tires and sashay his Escort into the middle of the corner, and then, without much finesse, he mats the loud pedal and kicks the tail wide. It’s an amazingly aggressive style that would put most drivers in a ditch, but he’s got the coordination, gusto, and quick hands to make it all work.
What this car represents are the demands of a bygone era. The MkII Escort was the last major two wheel-drive rally icon before the Audi Quattro stole the spotlight and changed the direction of the sport forever. However, four wheel-drive traction and subdued turbo engines don’t appeal to everyone, and fans of ludicrous slides and raucous motors will shell out small fortunes to get one of these featherweight Fords in their hands—and their hands will need to be quick to extract all of the performance available. As Mr. Kelly shows in great style, a double dose of exuberance, a level of courage bordering on suicidal, and comfort while countersteering are traits that are not only necessary, but rewarded when driving an analog car like this.