Ford’s first trans­verse-en­gined front-driver changed ev­ery­thing in 1976.

Classic Ford - - MK1 FIESTA - Words Gra­ham Rob­son

Deep in the Bri­tish coun­try­side, in a Rob­son fam­ily garage a very nice, well-loved early Fi­esta XR2 lives like the fam­ily pet that it is. And why not? When the Fi­esta was new, and I was run­ning the Faberge Fi­esta Cham­pi­onship, my wife ran a yel­low 1300S of her own, one of my sons used a sim­i­lar car when he was liv­ing in Lon­don, and I some­how man­aged to drive all the early types, in­clud­ing Roger Clark’s 1979 Monte Carlo rally car.

But was all that re­ally four decades ago? Can it re­ally be that Ford’s lit­tle front-wheel-drive su­per­mini was launched in 1976, af­ter its bosses had spent years re­peat­ing the mantra that ‘mini cars mean mini prof­its’? Well yes, it could — and not only that, but it her­alded Ford’s grad­ual but in­ex­orable change over to the trans­verse-en­gine, front-wheel-drive lay­out that has be­come the world stan­dard for al­most ev­ery mass pro­duc­tion model in ex­is­tence.

The Fi­esta wasn’t Ford’s first front-wheeldrive car — that hon­our went to the FordGer­many Taunus 12M of 1962, which was the Cortina-sized ma­chine that the Cortina thor­oughly trounced in all the show­rooms — but it was the first to have a trans­verse en­gine, the first small Ford to have a hatch­back, and the first to sig­nal Ford-of-Europe’s strat­egy for the fol­low­ing decades.

Long ge­n­e­sis

Al­though launched with great panache in the sum­mer of 1976, the new Fi­esta — or Bob­cat as it had been coded within the com­pany — had been a long time com­ing. Be­fore that there had been the en­tire Ford-of-Europe struc­ture to build up, the ex­pense and ef­fort of get­ting the new Granadas, and the next-gen­eral Corti­nas ready for sale — and then the co­nun­drum of where to make it.

In the end, the Span­ish au­thor­i­ties made a big play for the busi­ness, a new fac­tory was speed­ily built at Al­mus­safes (near Va­len­cia), and the deed was done. Even be­fore that fac­tory started churn­ing out thou­sands of Fi­es­tas ev­ery week, Ford had also ar­ranged to set up par­al­lel as­sem­bly lines in the UK, and in Ger­many too.

Be­cause Bri­tish Leyland had al­ready launched Mini, 1100 and Al­le­gro types, VW had the Golf, and Re­nault the 5, Ford had no need to rein­vent an en­tire lay­out, but chose to do it neatly, ro­bustly and — this be­ing most im­por­tant — prof­itably too. Be­cause so lit­tle could be car­ried over from ex­ist­ing Ford mod­els, the in­vest­ment needed was colos­sal — about £500 mil­lion in 1976 val­ues (for present-day lev­els think at least £3 Bil­lion), though Ford’s hard-headed plan­ners looked on the Fi­esta as one of the cor­ner­stones on which they could build, and build, in the fu­ture.

At the start, there­fore, in the Fi­esta there was only go­ing to be one body style — a three-door hatch­back — a sim­ple dead-axle rear sus­pen­sion, and an en­gine which Ford trum­peted as a new Va­len­cia type, but was a much re-en­gi­neered ver­sion of the Kent, al­beit small (957cc and 1117cc). The front-wheel-drive transaxle — just four for­ward speeds at first, but a five-speeder would then be de­vel­oped for the next-gen­er­a­tion Es­cort — was built in an ex­ten­sion to the com­pany’s main trans­mis­sion plant at Bordeaux in France. MacPherson strut front sus­pen­sion, and front-wheel disc brakes, were nice fea­tures, and on some mod­els, too, one could have, or op­tion­ally or­der, al­loy wheels.

Wide range

Pro­duc­tion at Da­gen­ham, and Bri­tish-mar­ket sales, be­gan in Fe­bru­ary 1977, when a six-car range started at £1856 for the poverty-spec 957cc model, all the way to £2757 for the more ex­ten­sively-equipped 1117cc-en­gined Ghia. Maybe that sounds like peanuts to you, to­day, but for com­par­i­son, in the same week there were no fewer than 24 dif­fer­ent Mk2 Es­corts on the mar­ket, at prices rang­ing from £1799 to £3519.

All in all, it was an en­dear­ing lit­tle car, if a bit sparsely equipped, and even though it was

per­fectly po­si­tioned in the mar­ket place, there was ir­ri­ta­tion that more deriva­tives were not avail­able at first. This fail­ing, how­ever, was elim­i­nated in Septem­ber 1977 when the 66 bhp/1298cc Kent en­gine was added to the range, to pro­duce 1300S and 1300 Ghia types. The per­for­mance of all of them was no great shakes (but what would you ex­pect from a range which started at the 40 bhp/957cc bargain-base­ment level), for even the 1300S only had a top speed of 94 mph, while the lit­tle 957cc shop­ping-trol­ley ver­sion strug­gled to each 80 mph.

That wasn’t the point, how­ever — the 40 mpg statis­tic of some ver­sions was much more im­por­tant to the av­er­age buyer, and at 11 feet, 10 inches long, weigh­ing only 750 kg, and up­wards, it was prac­ti­cal and good fun to drive. No won­der that Ford-of-UK con­sol­i­dated its place at the top of all the sales charts.

Those who wanted more style, more pres­ence, and more per­for­mance had to wait a lit­tle longer, for apart from the var­i­ous Spe­cial Edi­tions which came along, from 1978 the US-mar­ket ver­sions were sold with a 1.6-litre/ Kent en­gine as stan­dard (and cir­cu­lar head­lamps), but it was not un­til 1981 that SVE worked its magic on that car by evolv­ing the orig­i­nal XR2. Even so, it would not be un­til 1983 that the first ma­jor style changes were made, and the Fi­esta phe­nom­e­non re-in­vented it­self all over again.

But — and this is an im­por­tant ‘but’ — haven’t Fi­es­tas grown in the 40 years which fol­lowed this orig­i­nal launch? Not only have there been six dis­tinctly-dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions, sell­ing world-wide in the 10s of mil­lions (and a sev­enth gen­er­a­tion is on the way) — but the lat­est cars have up to 197 bhp, and some of the world’s best en­gines.

Let’s ar­range to re­visit the Fi­esta in an­other 40 years, and see how it could pos­si­bly be de­scribed in a mere two-page spread!


Pho­tos Ford Pho­to­graphic

With mo­tor­sport in mind, and us­ing the USA-mar­ket ver­sion as the ba­sis, the Fi­esta be­came a 1.6-litre Group 2 rally car for 1979. Roger Clark tack­led the Monte Carlo in DHJ 500T, and sev­eral Bri­tish events there­after, with this neat ma­chine.

Al­though it was years be­fore any restyling took place, Ford launched sev­eral spe­cial edi­tions along the way. Ex­cept for the Cos­mos Blue/Strato Sil­ver paint, the 1978 King­fisher looked al­most ex­actly like the first 1976 types.

The orig­i­nal Fi­esta of 1976 was a sim­ple front-wheeldrive car, as Terry Collins’s all-re­veal­ing cut­away of this left-hand-drive ma­chine makes clear.

Neat styling, with not a line out of place, or a penny wasted — this was the orig­i­nal Fi­esta S of 1976. Rect­an­gu­lar head­lamps were stan­dard on all the early ver­sions.

The orig­i­nal 1.6-litre Kent-en­gined Fi­esta XR2 of 1981/1982 was en­gi­neered by Ford’s SVE depart­ment, and was the first of the Fi­esta hot hatches.

Guess what? It was sum­mer time when the Fi­esta was launched — 1976 was fa­mous for its high tem­per­a­tures, so who cared that the 957cc Fi­esta only had 40 bhp ?

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