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We build our Car of the Year, the Ford Focus RS

As Ford built the first production ready Focus RS, it let TG help out. A brave call...

  • At 6am this morning, the workforce at Ford’s Saarlouis plant started the first of the day’s three eight-hour shifts. The counter that clocks the number of cars built each day was reset to zero, a bell rang and, across 510 work stations, work began.

    It was an unusual day for two reasons. One, they allowed a numpty to join in the work on the production line, and two, today’s the day the first ever customer-ready Focus RS rolls down the production line and out of the factory. Until today, all Focus RSs you’ve seen were either TT or PP models – Tool Tryout or Production Prototype. From today on, these are the cars you can buy.

    But not this one, because that’s mine. Not literally mine, but in 10 separate places the 165th car to roll through this vast yet calm hub of industriousness bears my mark. It’s the third Focus RS to come down the line today, and the very first right-hooker. And this evening, when it’s finished and has been checked (I’m not insulted about this) I’m going to drive it back to Blighty and introduce it to some proper B-roads.

    Photography: Rowan Horncastle

    This feature was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Top Gear Magazine.

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  • First, though, I learn that the way I pick up the ABS harness and its incorporated pipework is crucial. It involves a curious twist of my right elbow and wrist which only makes sense after I’ve clambered inside the empty engine bay and offered the component up to the bulkhead.

    As my arm untwists, the sensor lines up on the monocoque, and the metal piping arcs into sensible-looking positions around the engine bay, ready to be clipped into place. I’ve got about a minute to sort that out, then I need to be picking up the tubing for the washer hoses, a selection of fixings and the bumper mounts. The car never stops moving.

  • This is my first station, and the car is bare – a shell with no doors, no wheels, no drivetrain and just an early smattering of wiring and fixings. Even at this stage – in fact, particularly at this stage, it looks fantastic. The Nitrous Blue shell stands out so strongly that wherever I go in the factory, identifying ‘my’ car is simple.

    Similarly, I stand out a mile – the one with the perplexed expression and the uniform fresh out of its wrapper. They have to stop the line for 30 seconds so someone else can duck into the engine bay alongside me and fathom out what goes where and which brackets haven’t been pushed home. I’m told this isn’t the end of the world – there’s slack built in – but I can feel eyes on the back of my head.

    When I step out, slightly frazzled, the foreman for this section tells me his 22 stations, mainly concerned with initial wiring, electrics and cabling, require more training than any others in the factory. This makes me feel relieved, but over his shoulder I see the guys I was just working with now moving at frantic pace, making up my lost time.

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  • This is a working factory, and there are far more important things to do today than keeping Top Gear happy. I ask production manager Marko Schunk roughly how many cars he expects to build today. “There is no roughly. Today we will build 1,716 cars”, comes the reply.

    He goes on to tell me that incorporating a new model is never easy, but the RS has proved particularly challenging. Getting the one-piece seats in through the door apertures is tricky, the engine clearances, when the entire drivetrain is mated up to the body, are very tight and RSs roll through the factory wearing standard Focus bumpers.

  • This is because there are sensors that expect certain things to be in certain places. Ultimately, it was easier to modify the RS afterwards than try to add sections to the line. So an RS is built every 45 to 50 cars; that way, the line progresses properly and they don’t have 30 cars arriving for post-build mods at the same time.

    As car 165 continues its journey along the construction conveyor belt, I have a go at fitting a rear door, at clipping the interior in, I attach the headlights, the rear spoiler, the central brake light and use the badge mould to put the RS badge on.

  • Each action is designed to take around 45 seconds. I try to get to each station early, to watch 10 cars come through before they wave me forward to have a go at mine. Some are simple: aligning and putting the badge on was easy, the doors, hoisted into position on a gimbal arm, were trickier. The only one I could relate to was the wheel fixing.

  • There are two stages to this: the first guy puts the wheel on and adds four bolts; the second adds the fifth, uses a great Gatling gun thing to tighten them and slaps in the wheel centre. You don’t have to pick the wheels – as with the doors, the drivetrains and much else besides, the system knows which wheels go with which car, and they arrive automatically from above. The guys just put the wheels on, 1,144 times per shift.

    Yes, of course it’s monotonous, mind-numbing stuff, but there is genuine artistry in the repetition and technique, the smooth, practised, unthinking movements. You’d need some proper good hobbies outside of work to make this tolerable, though.

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  • The Modification Centre is different, more like a regular service centre. If you’ve ordered a tow bar on your C-Max, this is where it’s added. It’s also where all RSs have their front bumpers attached, plus extra rear suspension bracing, front anti-roll bar and side skirts. Equipped with a selection of torque wrenches, a marker pen and electric screwdriver, I have a go at all of that. All around me are ramps full of Nitrous Blue RSs all being diligently worked on. It’s quite a sight.

    Normally cars don’t leave the factory this quickly. But with all the mods made, water ingress testing done (every car goes through a spray tank) and the final check sheet analysed (everything I did to this car was overseen and double-checked), I’m allowed to fix some numberplates and drive it out. It starts first time, selects first gear, moves off without a judder or lurch. There are no unusual warning lights. Alles ist gut. 

  • Outside it’s cold, bleak and trying to snow. Now I think about it, it had been surprisingly warm in the factory; not that noisy, either. The construction process, bar my interruptions, has been uniformly smooth and orderly. Outside, things are much less controlled, and I’m fiercely protective of my new, zero-mile RS. Ford recommends a gentle running-in process, and I’m sticking to it like glue. Bit of a bummer when you’re in derestricted Germany, but there you have it.

    I’m hypersensitive to everything – is the ride too jerky? Are the wipers working properly? What about the nav? I run through the controls, but everything is… fine. After 170 miles, we stop for the night and get started the next morning at the perfect time to hit rush hour around Brussels. Wet, greasy, miserable and rammed with traffic and thick spray, it’s not pleasant, but there is light at the end of the tunnel…

    …quite literally. We emerge from the Eurotunnel carriage into bright British sunlight. The Focus has 480 miles on the clock, the sun’s out and the white cliffs are gleaming. It’s a little known fact that there’s a belter of a B-road just above Dover. I head there now – as far as I’m concerned, this is the final step in the Focus RS’s validation process.

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  • I have a play with the various modes – for road driving, Sport is pretty much all you need, a few pops from the exhaust, good grip, prodigious traction. Avoid Race, as the ride pogos too much, and Drift puts as much power to the back axle as it can. This is the first time I’ve driven an RS, and initially Drift is a bit full-on. I don’t think I’ve ever driven a car where the torque-vectoring capabilities are so visceral and obvious. I love the sharp steering, the thumping power delivery.

    Ford understands this stuff, that a hot hatch needs to be fun, needs to perform, have charisma as well as capability, and, boy, does the RS deliver. And nothing falls off, rattles or even lightly decomposes. The first Focus RS has arrived in the UK, and it feels completely at home.

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