THE FIESTA AT 40
Ford’s first transverse-engined front-driver changed everything in 1976.
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.
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.
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!
“THOSE WHO WANTED MORE STYLE HAD TO WAIT FOR THE VARIOUS SPECIAL EDITIONS WHICH CAME ALONG FROM 1978”
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 ?