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The story behind Tolman Engineering’s painstaking Ford XR3 restoration

Words: Elliott Hughes | Photography: Tolman

“My brief was to build the best example in the world. When somebody says that, you have to do everything you can,” Tolman Engineering founder Chris Tolman says matter-of-factly. That brief resulted in what is one the most left-of-field and painstaking restorations to emerge in 2024: a 1981 Ford Escort XR3. 

The XR3 was the first performance version of the Mk3 Escort, and it has largely been overshadowed by the faster variants of the rear-wheel drive Mk1s and Mk2s such as the Mexico and RS2000, as well as the fuel-injected XR3i that quickly replaced it. At the time of writing, a mere 168 examples of the XR3 are registered in the UK. 

So, after seeing images on the internet of this intriguing project, Magneto felt compelled to indulge in some 1980s nostalgia, and see the car first-hand at Tolman Engineering’s headquarters in Rugby, Warwickshire. Chris founded his eponymous company in 2007 after a stint as an engineer in Mitsubishi’s WRC team. Since then, Tolman quickly built a reputation as a leader in race-car preparation, before moving into the restomod and restoration scene with its wildly successful Peugeot 205 GTi Tolman Edition.

The bright red Escort looks like it rolled off the Blue Oval’s production line only yesterday

The bright red Escort looks like it rolled off the Blue Oval’s production line only yesterday

Housed in a nondescript industrial unit, the bright red Escort looks like it rolled off the Blue Oval’s production line only yesterday. Springtime sunshine reveals factory-fresh paintwork and plastics, and even period-correct dealership stickers. It is, in a word, flawless. 

However, ‘flawless’ isn’t quite the word that came to mind when it originally arrived in a plethora of boxes in late 2022. “The analogy would be that someone had given you the pieces of a puzzle – but they’ve thrown away the lid, so you have no idea what you’re supposed to be making,” Chris reticently recalls. “Some of those pieces were missing, as well…”

The car’s disassembled state was the result of an ill-fated restoration project embarked on by the previous owner. “They had totally stripped the car and then left it for two years, which meant it had far more rust than it probably deserved,” says Chris.

This meant a painstaking audit job was needed, before the ambitious restoration project could begin in earnest. “At first we knew what we had, but we didn’t know what we didn’t have, if you see what I mean,” he explains.

Once Chris and his team had worked that out, the arduous process of sourcing parts could finally begin. “We had already restored quite a few Mk2 and Mk3 Escorts so, luckily, we had already started putting together a bill of material for it. The rest we learned by hard work and research,” he says.

Even with this foundation of knowledge, sourcing the correct parts proved to be extremely challenging. “XR3s have certain things that other cars don’t, so you end up looking for these components that are as rare as rocking-horse teeth. I almost had someone setting up eBay alerts full-time, and we also had to join all the XR3 forums and owners’ clubs, because people don’t want to sell anything outside of them. Also, I’m not sure how long Ford built the four-speed XR3 for, but I think we’re talking months, rather than years – the company very quickly moved to the five-speed.”

Tolman’s perseverance with eBay and online forums paid dividends when trying to source the wonderfully ‘80s ‘laser strobe’ seat fabrics. “We were a long way down the road for making our own material for the seats, because you simply can’t buy it. Luckily, someone on one of the forums had some that had been in their loft for 30 years and they were never going to use it, so we bought it from them.”

The team weren’t so fortunate with the driveshafts, however. This was another area where the XR3’s scarcity and lack of demand meant that there was a huge lack of parts availability. “We got a pair of what we thought were the correct driveshafts, but one of them still wasn’t right, so we had to have one made. We often do that on race-car builds, but you never expect to have to do it on a standard road car.”

Although seemingly innocuous, the sunroof posed another major technical challenge. “Ford’s early tilt-and-slide sunroof design is great, but the drains block and they quickly rust out – and this one was no exception.” The dreaded tinworm infestation meant a new sunroof was required, but again, a replacement item proved impossible to find. The only option was to make one.”

“We had to 3D scan another car, and make our own tooling so that we could manufacture the replacement parts,” Chris explains. “We also sourced a plain roof, and cut out the hole for the sunroof with all the correct returns in the correct space. It was quite the undertaking, but now that we’ve done it and have the IP and tools, we can do it again.”

It’s this fastidious approach to the restoration that shines through in even the most minute details. Peel back the boot carpet and you’ll find what appears to be a Motorcraft battery, despite the fact the company went out of business a long time ago. “We sourced exactly the right sort of battery, with the square bolt-on terminals, and then went to the trouble of having Motorcraft stickers made up for it,” Chris reveals. 

It’s the same story with the instrument cluster and heater controls, whose vibrant colours are the result of being completely disassembled and refinished to look, if anything, even better than they did originally. “We saw that they were faded, so we took them apart and repainted them exactly the right colour – a lot of people wouldn’t have noticed, or have been bothered,” he smiles. 

Such perfectionism is nothing new on motor cars competing at high-profile events such as the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, but to see it applied to an everyman classic is wonderfully refreshing. That said, you can’t help but wonder who would commission such a thing?

“The owner is a proper collector,” Chris reveals. “We sourced a Mk3 XR3i for him, so he already has one of those. He also has a Mk4 XR3i, a Series 1 and Series 2 RS Turbo – and we’re building him an XR3i Tolman Edition restomod.”

Happily, you’ll be able to see the fruits of Tolman’s labours for yourself at “various concours and car events” across the UK later this year, although Chris couldn’t say precisely where. We will certainly be keeping our eyes peeled. 

More on Tolman here.

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