Since we’re approaching its 60th anniversary, this is a good time to take a look at one of the most successful British engines ever produced. The Ford Kent made its first appearance in 1959, was still in production (though by now substantially modified) as late as 2002 and appeared in an enormous number of models created not just by Ford but also by many smaller manufacturers. And that’s just the road cars. The Kent was – and still is – used widely in motorsport, and was an important part of one of the world’s most significant race series.
The Kent had a hard act to follow. Its predecessor, known as the Sidevalve, had been going strong since the early 1930s in cars such as the Ford Prefect shown above.
Its nickname derives from the fact that its inlet and exhaust valves were beside the cylinders rather than above them. A very common layout in those days, it wasn’t particularly efficient, but on the plus side it was simple and reliable.
The pre-Crossflow Kent
The first version of the Kent engine is now known as the pre-Crossflow, for reasons which will become clear shortly. Much more advanced than the Sidevalve, its valves were above the cylinders and it was acceptably powerful for a 997cc unit of the late 1950s.
It made its debut in the Ford Anglia, which went on sale in September 1959. For many customers, the arrival of a new engine would have been less interesting than the Anglia’s radical reverse-angle rear window, a styling feature which Ford quickly abandoned.
The Consul Classic
The Anglia’s unusual rear window arrangement also appeared on one of the least-remembered Fords of the 1960s, the Consul Classic.
Like the related Capri (whose window was at a more conventional angle), this car had a 1340cc pre-Crossflow, soon enlarged to 1498cc. Neither model sold well. Introduced in 1961, they were gone by the end of 1964.
The Consul Classic was quickly replaced by the less futuristic Corsair. Most Corsairs used a British V4 engine (as opposed to the similar one developed by Ford in Germany) but the early models were fitted with the pre-Crossflow.
Lotus Twin Cam
The pre-Crossflow was the basis for the Twin Cam engine developed by Lotus. It differed widely from the Ford unit in that it had a completely different cylinder head and two camshafts at the top of the engine rather than one at the side. Most modern cars have this arrangement, but it was very unusual in the early 1960s.
The Twin Cam first appeared in the Elan, launched in 1962, and was also used in both generations of the Ford Lotus Cortina and a hot version of the 1968-75 Ford Escort.
Ford gave the Kent a significant upgrade in 1967. The basic layout was the same as before, but instead of the exhaust being sent out of the engine on the same side as the fuel/air mixture went in, it came out on the other side. This led to the revised engine being nicknamed Crossflow.
It was available in 1.1-, 1.3 and 1.6-litre sizes, and first appeared in smaller-engined versions of the Capri (pictured) and the Cortina.
Formula Ford was created in 1967 as an entry-level single-seater racing category. Slick tyres and aerodynamic aids were banned, and although anyone could build a chassis the engine had to be the Ford Kent.
The first race, held at Brands Hatch, was won by Ray Allen. In the following years, Formula Ford became the most important ‘junior’ class in the sport. More modern engines were later introduced, but future F1 World Champions James Hunt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jody Scheckter, Ayrton Senna (pictured), Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen all raced in the class during the Kent era.
One year after the Crossflow was introduced, Ford launched what is now regarded as the first-generation Escort (though the name had been used earlier for a cheap estate car).
Nearly every Escort of this and the next generation used the Crossflow engine in various sizes and states of tune, the exceptions being versions with RS in their names.
Cosworth FV series
British company Cosworth based many of its early competition engines on Ford designs. One of the most significant was the FV (Four Valve) series which, like the Lotus Twin Cam, had a new cylinder head on a Kent block, but was much more powerful.
The cylinder head developed for the FV engines was later modified further for Cosworth’s DFV (Double Four Valve). This was hands down the most successful engine in F1 history, with 155 wins between 1967 and 1983. It had absolutely no parts in common with the Kent, but the Kent does play a small part in the DFV story.
Cosworth BD series
Cosworth also used the Kent engine as the basis for its BD (Belt Drive) series, in which the camshafts were turned using belts rather than gears as in the FVs.
The original BDA was a 1.6-litre engine, but sizes for the whole series ranged from 1.1 to two litres. They were enormously successful in both racing and rallying, and the BDA was also used in the first-generation Escort road car between 1970 and 1974.
Kent-engined sports cars
Manufacturers other than Ford were keen to use the readily available Kent engine, often in sports cars. Lotus did so with the Seven (as did Caterham when it took over the rights to that model), and it also appeared under the bonnet of several Morgans and TVRs.
All of the cars mentioned so far were rear-wheel drive. When front-wheel drive began to dominate the industry, and engines had to be fitted sideways rather than along the centre line, the Kent required modification if it was going to be used any longer.
Named Valencia after the Spanish factory where it was built, this new Kent made its first appearance in the first-generation Ford Fiesta, and was later used in the first of the front-wheel drive Escorts.
Early hot Fiestas
To begin with, Fiestas had engines of either 957 or 1117cc. The first high-performance version was the 1.3-litre Supersport, followed by the 1.6-litre XR2 which rapidly became one of the UK’s most popular hot hatchbacks.
By the late 1980s, European exhaust emissions legislation had set targets which were difficult for an engine created three decades earlier to achieve.
Rather than go to the trouble and expense of designing a completely new one, though, Ford made more improvements to the Kent. The HCS engine, as it was now known, made its debut in both the third-generation Fiesta and less powerful versions of the Escort and its Orion saloon equivalent in 1989.
The fourth Fiesta (the one that looked like a fish until a mid-life facelift) was available with several engines, most of them quite modern.
However, you could also buy a 1.3-litre version with an engine known as Endura E. This was the final development of the Kent, introduced in 1995. It was also used in the Ka (pictured) before finally being put into retirement in 2002, 43 years after this remarkable engine made its debut in the Anglia.