Long before the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, the term ‘hybrid’ in the automotive world used to refer to cars with major components coming from different places, and often a body or chassis from one country and an engine from another.
The Ford before us isn’t the product of just two countries, however, but three continents.
Ford of Europe was founded in 1967, but it took a few years for the model ranges of Ford of Britain and Germany to truly combine and, until 1971, you could still buy a Taunus in the UK that was largely unrelated to contemporary Ford Cortinas.
While Brits have long thought the RS line began with the Escort RS 1600 of 1970 and Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO) of Aveley, the Taunus was really the first car to wear the now legendary Rallye Sport badge, making its debut on the Taunus P6 15M RS in 1967.
A fairly cynical attempt at boosting sales at a time when Opel was outselling Ford in Germany, the strategy nonetheless worked, and the company was convinced of its potential.
Just over a year later, three of the latest RS model, the P7b 20M RS, were entered into the London-Sydney Marathon rally.
Two completed the event, the highest of them placing seventh in a competition where just reaching the finish line was considered a success.
It was a political win for Ford of Germany, because the Taunus placed higher than any of the British Fords.
The 20M RS was entered in the East African Safari Rally just weeks later, with one of the cars fresh from the London-Sydney taking top honours.
Before the Escort wrote the initials ‘RS’ into legend in the 1970s, the 20M RS had earned the sub-brand its first major rally win and proved itself a capable car in the heat and dust of Africa.
This fact wasn’t missed by Ford of South Africa, which was eager to build on the good publicity and sell its own P7b Taunus.
A deal to make right-hand-drive cars from completely knocked down (CKD) kits in Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha) in the Eastern Cape Province led to production starting in 1969, with an entire range of coupés, saloons and estates sold as an upmarket alternative to the British Cortina, also being built in South Africa.
However, Ford of South Africa was already building the ‘Essex’ V6, so its Taunus models wouldn’t be fitted with the new German ‘Cologne’ unit, instead being assembled with a dash of Dagenham.
But to truly offer buyers their own piece of rally-winning pedigree, Ford of South Africa needed an RS model, and that’s where Roy Townsend’s car comes in.
While identically named to the 20M RS sold in Germany, the South African version not only had a different – and much larger – engine (a 3-litre Essex to the German cars’ 2.3- or 2.6-litre Cologne), but local sensibilities allowed significantly louder styling.
A purely ornamental bonnet scoop was added, while the side stripes changed from straight, sober lines into more flamboyant designs.
Strangely enough, then, the ultimate version Ford of Germany’s most iconic model was built in South Africa, was right-hand drive and was powered by a British engine.
Once a huge cloud of insects – drawn to the staggeringly bright Piri-Piri orange paint of Townsend’s 20M RS on a summer’s day – has been negotiated, the Taunus reveals a wide and very American interior.
Indeed, the P7b was a rushed facelift of the P7, which was criticised for being too Americanised by contemporary reviewers, another turn in mid-century Europe’s love/hate relationship with Stateside culture.
Despite Ford’s efforts, that influence is hard to hide inside with the flat, thin plank of a dashboard, while faux-chrome adorns every surface it can.
You can stretch out in the Taunus much like a true American Ford, too: the cabin is extremely capacious, offering far greater elbow room than most of its European contemporaries.
The muscle-car imitation doesn’t stop there, with a clock, ammeter and oil-pressure gauge angled towards the driver in place of a centre console, wrapped in vinyl to give a moulded effect.
Then the ‘OEL’ label on the oil-pressure gauge reasserts the car’s German roots.
While Townsend has restored this car, most of the interior remains original, including the perforated-vinyl upholstery that is unique to these South African cars and trims Mk1 Capri-style seats.
“They’re very comfy, which is the complete opposite of the seats in the German Taunus,” says Townsend, “which make you feel as if you’re sitting on the crossmember.”
In the classic Ford tradition, there’s nothing sophisticated about the suspension of the 20M RS: MacPherson struts up front and a leaf-sprung live rear axle, which easily transmits fine bumps on poor surfaces into the car.
It’s quite soft, despite firmer springs than the standard 20M, which gives a comfortable ride overall, but also significant body roll to match.
Where the Taunus RS remained resolutely European, however, was its gearbox: a manual ‘four on the floor’ as Americans would have it.
But not here, because Townsend’s car has been retrofitted with a more modern five-speed Ford Type 9 unit. In fact, that’s how it found him, the previous owner having become stuck midway through the fitting of the new transmission.
A lifelong Ford fan, Townsend is unusual among Blue Oval devotees in seeking out obscurity, and has owned a string of right-hand-drive Taunus models and a Cortina XR6 – in the process becoming secretary of the Ford Taunus Club of Great Britain.
Townsend believes there to be just two examples of the South African Taunus 20M RS in all of Europe – and he owns both.
Accurate production numbers for the model don’t exist, but Townsend’s estimate is 250 from 1969-’72.
This car, Townsend’s second and favourite of the two, is one he’d had his eye on for six years, and it came up for sale – in Florida – in July 2020.
Remarkably, the first owner of the car had held on to it for 37 years, making Townsend the third keeper and, thanks to its life in kind climates on either side of the Atlantic, it came into his hands in solid condition with a tidy interior.
Ironically, for a retired sheet-metal worker, most of the rebuild proved to be mechanical.
Parts were collected from South Africa and Continental Europe for the job, and Townsend spent nearly every day working on the car for 15 months.
Now well tested since its rebuild, the Taunus’ 144bhp Essex offers healthy performance – it’s a large car, but the manual gearbox allows the V6 to be deployed efficiently.
The familiar Essex isn’t an engine that thrives on revs: it’s really at its best between 2500-5000rpm.
The extra cog of Townsend’s five-speed car helps keep the engine where it wants to be and adds a useful 400rpm drop at cruising speeds compared to the standard ’box.
A prod on the throttle provides plenty of torque from even low revs and, while it hardly pins you to the seat, it gives more than enough motive effort to be fun.
More importantly, a throaty gurgle is emitted by the V6 each time, making a decent evocation of a laconic American V8.
Looking down the square bonnet and over the scoop, engine burbling, the Taunus does fool the driver as a shrunken muscle car.
That’s also to say that the 20M RS doesn’t feel like a rally car for the road, which is not really surprising.
Mechanically, the differences between an RS and standard 20M are limited: firmer springs, a slightly hotter cam and a twin-choke carb.
It’s still a thoroughly civilised car, only its straight-line performance setting it apart from the normal Taunus models.
While the 20M RS and its predecessors, the 15M RS and 17M RS, were the first of their kind, it’s probably fair to say that they started the line in name only – future RS models would feature unique bodyshells, engines, transmissions and suspension set-ups.
The Taunus 20M RS doesn’t go that far. In modern Ford parlance, ‘XR’ or ‘ST’ would likely be more appropriate.
With such a convoluted lineage, the 20M RS could be accused of being a factory bitsa, but Ford of South Africa did create – perhaps accidentally – one of the finest attempts at a European pony car in the process.
With its slab-sided styling, wide interior and torquey engine, it arguably does it even better than the car Ford considered its official ‘Mustang for Europe’, the Capri.
For Europeans (and South Africans) who fancied a slice of the American life displayed on their TV sets, but couldn’t afford to fuel a Ford Galaxie nor wanted to attempt navigating such a land yacht through a compact city, the 20M RS was one of the best answers we’d been given.
The effect it has on passers-by and the feeling it gives to the driver is Ford at its peak: greater than the sum of its parts, the 20M RS delivers a special experience, without a special price-tag.
Images: Max Edleston
Ford Taunus: a mountain to climb
1939 The new G93A is given the name Taunus, after the Hesse mountain range just over the border from the Rhineland.
1952 The Taunus ‘Project 1’ is introduced with completely new, post-war three-box styling and pontoon wings.
1957 A larger Taunus, the P2, joins the line-up. With very American styling, including tailfins, it is nicknamed the ‘Baroque Taunus’ and is the first to be offered with four doors.
1959 The abandoned Cardinal project from Ford HQ in Dearborn replaces the P1 as the P4. An all-new design, it features a V4 engine and is the first front-wheel-drive production Ford.
1960 The rounded ‘bathtub’ Taunus P3 replaces the P2.
1964 The larger Taunus is updated again as the P5. The Cologne V6 is introduced, making its debut under the bonnet of the 20M.
1966 The P4 is rebodied and updated as the P6, but retains its chassis and engines, now in 1.2- to 1.7-litre sizes under the model names 12M and 15M.
1967 A Rallye Sport, or RS, P6 15M is introduced. It is such a success that when the P7 replaces the P5 later that year, it is also offered with an RS model, making the P7 17M RS. Meanwhile, the Taunus name is dropped across most markets.
1968 The P7b (above) quickly replaces the P7, with new bodywork. The 17M RS model is continued, and a V6-powered 20M RS is introduced.
1969 A 2.6-litre, 125bhp Cologne V6 is offered as an option in the 20M (including the RS), and as standard in the new highly equipped, luxury 26M.
1970 The Ford Cortina-based Taunus TC replaces the P7.
1971 P7b production stops in Germany in late 1971, to be replaced by the rationalised Consul/Granada the following year. South African Taunus production ends in the first month of 1972.
1982 The arrival of Ford of Europe’s new-age Sierra leads to the death of the Taunus nameplate in Europe. It remains, as the TC3 (MkV Cortina), in Argentina for another two years and in Turkey until 1994.
Ford Taunus 20M RS
- Sold/number built 1969-’72/c250
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, ohv 2994cc V6, with twin downdraught Weber carburettors
- Max power 144bhp @ 5200rpm
- Max torque 191lb ft @ 3200rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts rear live axle, leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear
- Length 15ft 6in (4721mm)
- Width 5ft 9in (1756mm)
- Height 4ft 9in (1464mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 10in (2705mm)
- Weight 2535lb (1150kg)
- 0-60mph 9.6 secs
- Top speed 112mph
- Mpg 15-20
- Price new R3442
- Price now £20-40,000* (est)
*Prices correct at date of original publication