Driven and celebrated: Back to beige for the Fiesta’s 40th
Forty years ago, Ford announced its ‘ beautiful baby’ and today a grown-up Fiesta is still top of its class. We go back in beige to 1980 and put a 1.1 to the test
When you think about how small front-wheel drive cars had proliferated in Europe since the 1960s, it’s almost astonishing that it took Ford until 1976 to properly enter the fray. We say ‘properly’ because although the Fiesta is commonly assumed to be Ford’s first Euro-foray into FWD, it actually wasn’t. Back in the 1960s in Germany, the Taunus (effectively the Teutonic Cortina) had a brief flirtation with powered front wheels from 1962 through to 1970. But despite quite healthy sales of over 1.3 million, the experiment wasn’t repeated and very few ended up over here. Today, it’s largely forgotten.
Ford had famously taken a long, hard look at the Mini when it first came out, but when it disassembled and costed one, it was probably both surprised and delighted to find that the British Motor Corporation (BMC) was losing £5 on each one. And so Ford stuck to its rear-wheel drive guns with the Cortina and Escort and reaped the rewards for doing so. While others were experimenting with complex drivetrains and more radical shapes, Ford’s tried-and-tested conventionality meant it scooped up all those customers who just wanted a good, nononsense, competitively-priced and easy-toown machine.
But by the 1970s, not even the mighty Uncle Henry could ignore the emerging trend of compact front-wheel drive hatchbacks. Leading the way was Volkswagen with its Golf and Polo, Peugeot with its 104, Renault with its R5 and Fiat with its 127, to name but a few. Ford had nothing to compete – all its offerings were rearwheel drive booted machines or estates. Save for the Capri. And that was hardly small.
It was the Fiat 127 that provided the real impetus for the Fiesta. Project Bobcat, as the plan was called, was the largest ever product investment thus far by a motor manufacturer at $55-million – but that didn’t stop Ford using Fiat 127s as development mules to test out its experimental drivetrains. Thrift has always been something of a company speciality after all. Although Ford had knocked up a small car concept in 1970 that bore quite a striking resemblance to the later Fiesta, it wasn’t until September 1972 that boss Henry Ford II gave his official go-ahead. Things got underway in earnest. Or rather in Europe and America, because Project Bobcat was always conceived as a world car – not just a song for Europe.
The Ford rule book wasn’t completely thrown out of the window for the Fiesta. Front suspension was by Ford’s long-standing MacPherson struts with a traditional beam axle doing service at the rear. Old stalwart the Kent engine, which dated right the way back to the Anglia 105E of 1959, was used for power, albeit in modified form. Because it had to be mounted transversely for front-wheel drive, the Kent was shortened by adopting three main crankshaft bearings instead of the usual five. Thus, at the sacrifice of some of its longevity, it could fit in the Fiesta’s small bay. The engine was christened ‘ Valencia’ after the new Spanish factory built for its manufacture.
And speaking of that engine bay, and all the other steel panelling around it, Ford invited body design submissions from its studios in Turin (Italy), Dunton (UK), Merkenich (Germany) and Dearborn (USA). It was Turin that won out, with Tom Tjaarda of Ghia (which Ford had taken over in 1970) sketching up the neat, trim and beautifully proportioned little body as part of the styling house’s Project Wolf studies. By 1973, distinctive features such as the dipping waistline and very noticeable swage line were already in place.
All that was left was the name… and Project Bobcat became Bravo. At least for a while, until Henry Ford II got to hear of it. He vetoed that in favour of Fiesta, partly because he wanted to celebrate the new connections with Spain and partly because he liked the alliteration.
In a surprisingly big-hearted gesture of
co-operation, General Motors, which owned the name and had used it on a 1950s Oldsmobile, let Ford have it for free.
After its unveiling at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 1976, sales in France and Germany began in September that year. Here in the UK, we had to hang on until January 1977 for righthand drive versions. However, when we finally got them, the Fiesta proved a huge success, surpassing even Ford’s lofty expectations. It was the ninth best-selling car in Britain in 1977, becoming the fifth best-seller the following year. Overall, the new supermini was Europe’s biggest-selling car, with half a million units in the first year alone from plants at Valencia, Cologne, Saarlouis in Belgium. Dagenham construction started later, eventually reaching a total of 307,600 there before the MkI was replaced by the MkII in 1983.
The Fiesta is now in its sixth generation, with sales of over 16 million behind it. It’s also a name that has persisted too – only the Transit brand has lasted longer. But none of its reinventions have quite captured the charm and impact of the original incarnation. Happy 40th, Fiesta.
’Project Bobcat was always conceived as a world car – not just a song for Europe’
The Tom Tjaarda-penned Fiesta was neatly styled and understated. Bumpers had black centre sections as standard, but look good all-chromed.