Escort 2.0 engine knock

My girlfriend's car is a 98 escort with about 90k miles. When the engine is started cold, there is a very distinctive "knocking" noise that sounds like
worn main bearings. I thought it was due to the engine being worn, but the problem is also present in her sister's escort, which has 60k miles. What is the source of this noise? Is there anything that can be done to correct it, short of new bearings and machine shop work?
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