Mk1 Orion – The New Wave

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The Mk1 Orion might not be the most likely of Fords to modify but Nathan Rea has proved it’s all about the detail and this car has plenty of that…


It’s come out just how I pictured it,” owner Nathan Rea tells us whilst staring at his creation with a satisfied smile upon his face. “I had a vision of what I wanted when I got the car and it wasn’t coming back out until it was done.

From looking at the tastefully simple bodywork, subtle Cosworth bonnet vents and contrasting gold split rims it’s fair to say he’s accomplished what he set out to do with the car which was to turn an ordinary Orion into something special.

Nathan is part of what we would consider the new school of Ford enthusiasts, who ironically concentrate on older cars that are often dismissed by others. But it’s exactly that aspect that Nathan likes about these kinds of cars, including his beloved Mk1 Orion.

“This just screams 1980s to me and lot of people don’t actually realise what it is nowadays. I love that, and this one is the only one like it, too. But then I love doing things differently and I can never leave a car alone.”

It’s no secret that Nathan is a Mk3 Escort fan by nature and that’s where his passion lies. He’s had a keen interest in these particular 1980’s Fords ever since he started driving and he tells us it’s all down to one person.

“I blame my ex-boss, Rumbol, as he had a Mk3 Escort years ago and got me into them and it’s gone on from there. I’ve liked them ever since and I had an RS1600i as my first Mk3 and my first RS. That was 8 years ago,” he recalls.

It’s certainly escalated over the years as currently Nathan owns a Mk3 Estate daily driver, a track prepped Series 1 RS Turbo, an original XR3, another Series 1 RS Turbo that’s being restored back to standard, two rear-wheel drive Mk3s and a Mk3 van. As he owns just about every other type of Mk3 Escort variant you can see how the Orion fits in, although technically it’s known as a Mk1 Orion rather than Mk3 Escort.

Regardless, Nathan had wanted an early Orion to add to the fleet for some time and a few years ago he got his wish with another example that was quite different to the one you see here.

I had an blue 1600 auto that I fitted a Zetec engine to. But it was rusty in the usual places, plus it needed a gearbox as I drove it back from a show with no oil.

As it was still being used regularly, the decision was made to find a replacement Orion in better condition, and it just so happened he came across the perfect car at a show. It was a clean example in black, and with no rust, it was the ideal replacement. However, it wasn’t until a few months later that Nathan actually managed to acquire the car and for a third of the original asking price!

The plan was always to swap over the Zetec engine, do a few a little bits and then put it to use as a daily driver as it seemed like the practical option for his kids. But as Nathan already mentioned, he simply couldn’t leave things alone and now with a mint, blank canvas in front of him he set his mind on a vision of how he wanted the car to look and so decided to carry out a few simple modifications to achieve it.

It started with some well-chosen exterior changes, but it had to be subtle and it had to be tasteful. First up was the de-badged grille, smoked headlights and indicators together with the RS1600i splitter to give a simple, yet aggressive front end look. The Mk5 Cortina tinted rear lights were added to match and then Nathan had the pain-staking search for a good condition Mk2 rear bumper as Orion parts are becoming particularly tricky to find.

The bonnet vents were the next key piece of the puzzle and were donated from a Sapphire Cosworth bonnet. The apertures were then skilfully cut and welded into the original Orion bonnet.

At first I just wanted the car to look a bit smoother but it soon escalated as I was fussy. There aren’t many bonnet vents that suit the Orion but I had a spare Saph bonnet and wanted a neat look that was really subtle.

By now it was gearing up to be a full project car so the chrome trim, washer jets and locks were also removed before the whole lot was treated to a respray in Audi Phantom Schwartz black.

The finishing touch came in the shape of those gorgeous, period Compomotive wheels. The extremely rare two-piece split rims are very similar to what the Datapost Mk3 Escort Touring Cars once ran in the 1980s, which meant they ticked all the right boxes for Nathan. A good friend of his actually owned another set but as he wouldn’t sell them he did the next best thing and sourced another set.

“A mate had them on his car and on a drunken night I convinced him to sell me them. I knew he wouldn’t, but he did find me another set and picked them up for me and delivered them to my house! I wanted them for my other project at first so I had them refurbished with gold centres and they look perfect on this car.”

To keep within the car’s simple and subtle style the interior was also given a make over. Keen to maintain the car’s practicality Nathan managed to squeeze in the full leather interior from a Sierra Cosworth, including the wider rear seats. The headlining and carpet were also given a colour change to match.

Finally, to suit the car’s new cool and collected looks inside and out, attention was turned to the running gear. Having already fitted a Zetec engine before, Nathan wanted more this time round but the turbo route didn’t appeal to him as it wasn’t in keeping with the rest of the car. So the tried and tested 2.0-litre Zetec was instead given another appropriate twist.

“A mate sold me his complete carb set up. It came with a Dunnell ignition system, too and it made 149bhp and 123lb ft. It goes well once it was set up but it will be coming out soon as the next phase is now underway.”

Nathan’s keeping tight lipped about his new plans for the car but rest assured it’s something pretty special and suitably in keeping.

For now though, Nathan is understandably very happy with what he’s created, although the idea of making it his daily driver went out the window somewhat!

My cars always escalate and I never get them done usually so I love the fact it’s come out the way it has. I love the whole car, it all just works to me. The wheels, the interior the lights, I’m happy with it all, it’s spot on and I’m glad to have it.

We would certainly agree, it’s easily one of the nicest of the new wave of modified Fords we’ve seen and it’s beautifully executed with detailed touches. We look forward to keeping on eye on its progress in the near future and taking a look at Nathan’s other cars in closer detail some time soon…


Tech Spec: 

Engine: 2.0 Zetec, lightened flywheel, twin Weber 45’s carbs, twin linkage, Baileys oil breather, four-branch exhaust manifold, straight through 2.5-inch system, Facet red top fuel pump, Filter King pressure regulator, slim-line fan, Dunnell management

Transmission: Series 1 Escort RS Turbo gearbox, AP Racing clutch, Vibratechnics gearbox mounts, Mk5 Escort clutch quadrant conversion

Suspension: GAZ coilovers, fully polybushed throughout, Series 1 Escort RS Turbo anti-roll bar

Brakes: Front: Sierra Cosworth 4×4 callipers with drilled and grooved discs. Rear: Sierra Cosworth 2WD Sierra calliper conversion, Green Stuff pads all round, braided lines

Wheels and tyres: 6.5 and 7×15-inch Compomotive MH600 two-piece split rims painted gold with 195/45/15 Toyo Proxes tyres

Interior: Full Sapphire Cosworth leather interior, black carpet, black dash and centre console, heated front windscreen, RS four-spoke steering wheel

Exterior: Resprayed in Audi Phantom Schwartz black De-locked all round, Ghia chrome trim, washer jets and side repeaters removed and smoothed, Sierra Cosworth 4×4 bonnet vents welded in place, smoothed grille, RS1600i front splitter, Mk5 Cortina smoked rear lights, Mk2 Orion Ghia number plate surround, Mk2 Orion rear bumper

Thanks: Wayne at WPE for getting the carbs on point, Smart Clean detailing, Steptoe for the rims, Rumbol for the Mk3 Escort/Mk1 Orion bug, Sideways Jim for the minty-mint rear bumper, Addo Wayne for the kick up the arse when needed, Beck and the kids for understanding daddy needs his time down the garage!