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

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - This Week - WORDS NICK LARKIN AND RICHARD GUNN PHOTOGRAPHY STU­ART COLLINS

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.

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