Why the Ford Racing Puma is worth getting your claws into

When new, the £22,750 Ford Racing Puma was deemed prohibitively expensive, but can this effervescent coupé represent clever money today? We drive one to find out

Words Joe Breeze Photography Adam Shorrock

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t the turn of the new millennium, the Ford Racing Puma's price tag released it into waters angrily patrolled by Evos and Imprezas. With a headline-worthy power figure and history-steeped sub-branding both curiously missing from its repertoire, few grasped the value of the proposition. Even with only 500 to sell, Ford struggled to move them and famously had to offload them to senior management as company cars.

But there was a reason the bigwigs were willing to take them on – the Racing Puma was a dynamic revelation commended by everyone who experienced one. Now, at 18 years old, the FRP has truly come of age – values hit their lowest point some time ago and they're now stridently on their way back up past £10k, with concours examples closing in on £20k. But we believe it has the credentials to go even further, meaning a smart buy now could see you effectively running one for free.

There's a reason you instinctively reach for one of two cola brands shortly after overpowering the suction of the petrol station fridge door, and it's probably the very same reason that neither of those brands needs formally identifying. That near-involuntary hand movement is the result of years of subtle indoctrination via billions in ad spend and the human brain's unnerving ability to succumb to external influence even when it knows better.

But branding can hinder too (anyone remember Pasta Hut?) and in that respect the Ford Racing Puma didn't have the best start to life. Revealed at the 1999 Geneva Show as the Puma ST160, it sparked internal debate over what to call the production version – the main contenders were ST, RS or even 'Puma Extreme'. Ultimately, Ford's marketing busybodies blocked the former two and common sense the latter, so it was eventually decided that the pugnacious Puma would simply take on the name of its creator, the Boreham-based Ford Racing division.


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Largely made up of Ford Rallye engineers – whose most recent hit was the Escort RS Cosworth – Ford Racing was to become the Blue Oval's answer to Renaultsport or BMW M-division. Except by the time a weapons-grade Focus arrived two years later the Ford Racing umbrella had blown away in the wind and Boreham was in the wrecking ball's shadow, so the lairiest MkI Focus was rightfully furnished with the time-honoured two-letter moniker, RS.

Today, a subtle decal in the glass of the Racing Puma's B-pillar is the only exterior reminder of this millennial scattiness. More significant are the flared arches, with 17in MiM wheels filling them like a tensed bicep in a slim-fit polo shirt. It’s like looking at a standard Puma beefed up and beautified by a beer-goggle and fish-eye-lens double-combo. Then there are bumper tweaks and a carbonfibre effect splitter for some added Coulthard. Hadouken!

Inside, Ford made a humorous attempt to distance the FRP from its humble Fiesta MkIV interior mouldings with smatterings of blue Alcantara, applied to the Sparco seats and half the steering wheel. This transparent endeavour is quickly forgiven when you remember how unashamedly Aston Martin was feeding at the Ford parts trough in the late 1990s; hand-me-down Ford interior gubbins are a little more acceptable in a Ford, after all. In any case, the Sparcos are snug and there are no needlessly raked-back pillars that scythe big chunks out of your peripheral vision. Shame the unadjustable steering column compromises the seating position for some.

Firing the engine brings instant recompense; the zingy metallic rasp is a result of the standard Puma's Yamaha-built 1.7-litre four being given revised camshafts, a new inlet manifold, an ECU remap and a Janspeed exhaust. Richard Parry-Jones, patriarch of the original Puma, remembers his first encounter with it well: 'Yamaha invited me to the Hamamatsu circuit to sample "something special", which turned out to be the new engine. Hamamatsu is an oval circuit so it wasn't a place you'd ideally test such a car, but even then its potential was obvious. The responsiveness was delicious.'

RPJ's recollection is even truer in today's world of blanket turbocharging. The 30bhp boost over the standard Puma was deemed stingy by the press when new, but no-one complained about the method of extraction – heady revs and slick shifts through a short-ratio 'box. There's no redline on the tacho, just a 7000rpm indicator and a beckoning invitation to the actual 7250rpm limiter.


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Inside, Ford made a humorous attempt to distance the FRP from its humble Fiesta MkIV interior mouldings with smatterings of blue Alcantara, applied to the Sparco seats and half the steering wheel. This transparent endeavour is quickly forgiven when you remember how unashamedly Aston Martin was feeding at the Ford parts trough in the late 1990s; hand-me-down Ford interior gubbins are a little more acceptable in a Ford, after all. In any case, the Sparcos are snug and there are no needlessly raked-back pillars that scythe big chunks out of your peripheral vision. Shame the unadjustable steering column compromises the seating position for some.

Firing the engine brings instant recompense; the zingy metallic rasp is a result of the standard Puma's Yamaha-built 1.7-litre four being given revised camshafts, a new inlet manifold, an ECU remap and a Janspeed exhaust. Richard Parry-Jones, patriarch of the original Puma, remembers his first encounter with it well: 'Yamaha invited me to the Hamamatsu circuit to sample "something special", which turned out to be the new engine. Hamamatsu is an oval circuit so it wasn't a place you'd ideally test such a car, but even then its potential was obvious. The responsiveness was delicious.'

RPJ's recollection is even truer in today's world of blanket turbocharging. The 30bhp boost over the standard Puma was deemed stingy by the press when new, but no-one complained about the method of extraction – heady revs and slick shifts through a short-ratio 'box. There's no redline on the tacho, just a 7000rpm indicator and a beckoning invitation to the actual 7250rpm limiter.


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That's our kind of indoctrination and one that soon finds me rinsing it through every gear, which is infinitely more enjoyable than today's standard practice of riding a turbocharged wave. Heel-toe into second for a 90-degree corner while hard on the uprated brakes, revel in the new manifold's staccato effervescence as it descends past 4000rpm, then tip the FRP in. The steering froths with haptics, and the wider track provides remarkable surefootedness. There's little roll, and no pause while you wait for the Ford to settle into its compression, just an obedient beeline for the apex and an eagerness that begs you to power down early; this being one of the 72 optional LSD-equipped examples it's even keener.

Slippy diff or not, the FRP relegates the concept of basic physics from fact to a mere widely held belief. Ford might not have known how to brand an enthusiast car, but by God did they know how to make one handle; the body is as unwavered by directional forces as a Rolls-Royce Phantom's wheel emblem. It's probably for the best only 280-odd remain of the 482 customer cars built, lest one be sampled by a flat-earther and accepted conventions start coming under some real scrutiny.

'I remember one evening following Parry-Jones home,' says FRP project leader Peter Beattie. 'He was driving one of the development cars, so a support car always had to go along in case it broke down in the middle of nowhere. It was too dangerous for us to try to keep up with him. When we eventually arrived at his house, he told us there were two things we should never change: first were the pops on the over-run that sounded like rally car anti-lag, and second was that we should never put a rear wing on it – we didn't want it looking like an "Essex boy" car.'


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Almost two decades on, it's clear that was the right call. The delicate flip-tail inherited from the standard car is in perfect proportion to those blistered arches but this was no superficial styling exercise. 'The project grew from a Puma rally car for the WRC's planned 2.0-litre formula,' says Beattie,' which eventually became the Junior WRC. At that point any plans for a road car were just the result of homologation requirements. We defined our ideal dimensions, then created new bumpers and arches over the wider track. The styling guys at Dunton took over from there, but the proportions are genuinely form following motorsport function.'

As such, the FRP shouldn't be viewed as a tarted-up road car but a tarmac-rally scamp that's reluctantly undergone domestication. It strains at the wheel alarmingly during camber changes, motorway cruising takes place at a noisy 4000rpm and its ride is worthy of an osteopaths' class-action lawsuit.

Then there was the fact it cost 52% more than a standard Puma. The most obvious (and most expensive) part of the added-value package were the flared arches, which required aluminium for the front wings and steel at the rear. Says Parry-Jones, 'In hindsight I'd have liked to have looked at a more cost-effective solution – for example, for the Focus RS MkII we found a way of restriking the dies rather than completely retooling for the wide arches. But truthfully the Racing Puma project was never going be a big-profit money-spinner – with these "image" projects you just hope they cover their own costs, and you get the reputation for free.'

In that sense it was a success, and for the loyal fans of this cult coupé its foibles are all just a by-product of the unique, undiluted Racing Puma experience. Most will still choose Coke or Pepsi, but for the curious few there's a can of energy drink with an unfamiliar name and some dubious health warnings at the back of the fridge. Down in one, we say.


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The Modern Classics view

As a performance car matures into a modern classic, attributes such as rarity, reputation and pedigree become ever more important. The first one is an easy win for the FRP – it's five times more exclusive than the Focus RS MkI. Secondly, its dynamic reputation is stellar bar complaints about the power output being overly humble, but that's a myth that needs putting to bed. Parry-Jones is adamant that adding more would've ruined the handling purity that sets the FRP apart from its peers. It also means that you can drive one absolutely hellbent along a B-road without risking your licence or freedom. Modern equivalents are over-endowed but their performance is frustratingly unusable in the real world, and ten-tenthing the Puma everywhere you go is nothing short of an intravenous automotive endorphin. Adding more power would be to ruin the rare beauty of the driving experience - it'd be blasphemy on the level of Duchess Meghan getting a Love Islander's trout pout.

Perhaps most important of all is the FRP's pedigree. Bred in Boreham, it shares a birthplace with every pre-2000 fast British Ford – from Escort Twin-Cam to RS200 and RS Cosworth – and distills their essence into one last hurrah before the site was closed down. In a time when a poverty-spec variant of the once-plentiful Escort MkI costs £10k-£30k, it's astounding that you could instead buy a solid example of this historically significant rarity and still pocket some serious change. And if you do ever tire of the FRP's no-prisoners thrillset, chances are it'll be worth more than you paid for it provided you keep an eye out for the common issues that can cripple them.

Prices have been climbing steadily for some time now so now's the time to pick your poison: rough ones start at around £6k, with drivers at £9k, good ones at £14k and restored or concours examples approaching £20k. Not too bad for a car deemed expensive at £23k new. Now seems like the time to capitalise on the FRP's latent desirability before opportunity passes.

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Enjoying the read? Why not buy a full issue of Modern Classics magazine! Just £4.60!

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