Late is better than never, and having sat on its corporate hands for years, Ford finally launched their supermini contender in 1976. So what took them so long? The answer lies both in Uncle Henry’s corporate culture and deep-rooted fear of failure. But having toyed both with front wheel drive and subcompacts at various times, the beancounters were having none of it. In Ford’s defence however, while their European rivals had already taken the front drive plunge, it was one they too had agonised over – mostly owing to cost, technical complication and fears of buyer resistance. Also fresh in Ford’s mind was the cost analysis they carried out on a BMC Mini, concluding it was impossible to produce such a complex car at profit.
Arguments bounced around Dearborn and Ford’s European outposts, with product planners arguing hard for a go-ahead. Finally in 1972, project ‘Bobcat’ was initiated. Without economies of scale however, it would be an expensive programme, particularly due to its front-drive/transaxle layout. Ironically then, given that it was an entry-level model, Bobcat would be Ford’s largest ever investment for a single car line.
Styling for the new model was finalised in 1973, following an internal competition. The main styling theme was an amalgam of carrozzeria Ghia’s ‘Wolf’ proposal, styled by Tom Tjaarda combined with elements of rival designs from both Dunton and Cologne studios. The result was a neat, crisp shape, with minimal overhangs and solid proportions. Market-researched to within an inch of its life, Bobcat’s styling, like its mechanical specification offered few surprises.
Launched in 1976, the Fiesta entered a growing and vibrant market. With key rivals already well established, it was up against strong opposition, but had the benefit of being new, smartly styled and offered with a wide range of trim and engine choices. Combine its showroom appeal with the reassurance of the Ford name and success was assured. By early 1977, it had third place in the UK sales charts and was performing strongly across Europe, where its light controls made it an excellent city car. On the open road, Fiesta offered a big car feel with a spacious, well laid out interior, boasting nimble handling and secure roadholding. The Ford was a rounded product then but while it gave the established names a hard time, it was far from perfect.
Firstly, there was the ride quality. According to Car’s Mel Nichols, the Ford’s ride was inferior to every rival apart from BL’s ancient Mini, telling readers; “for us this rather feeble suspension relegates the Fiesta to the lower ranks of baby cars, for it is as unnecessary as it is unappealing.” The sporting ‘S’ model came in for even worse criticism, Nichols decrying it as being “so sharp and rigid as to render it completely unacceptable for everyday use.” Additionally, Fiesta’s driveline refinement left something be desired, the clutch being prone to a very sharp take-up. The ‘bunny-hop’ phenomenon quickly became a trademark of the neophyte Festie’ owner and made for a less than relaxed driving experience.
These failings were real and Ford didn’t initially seem terribly interested in remedying them. Furthermore, the original model’s bumpers were pathetically insufficient for urban conditions – especially in European cities where parking by ‘touch’ was the norm.
Nevertheless, none of these deficiencies nor indeed its reported lack of character prevented the Fiesta becoming a best seller, vindicating Ford’s decision to take on the the B-sector big hitters. Demand quickly exceeded supply and by 1981 over two million were sold. That same year the Fiesta received a minor facelift; the main visual difference being larger wrap-around bumpers, while suspension revisions also saw softer springs fitted. Yet despite its failings, the Fiesta was viewed as the more sporting alternative to the more compliant French opposition and while Fiat’s 127 offered a better honed chassis, it was on balance a more dated package.
All this changed with the advent of the Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205 in 1983. Suddenly Ford’s European rivals had moved the benchmark and the Fiesta looked like yesterday’s car. Ford’s reskin of the same year kept it in the game, but its newer rivals offered more space, better engines, far better dynamics, to say nothing of comfort. Yet the might of Ford’s marketing machine kept Festie’ in play, although now well past its best. It finally bowed out in 1989 to an all-new bigger car, aimed squarely at the Euro-mainstream.
It’s only when you look at the original promotional photos that you realise not just how long ago it was, but also just how petite the 1976 car looks now.
The B-segment is clearly not what it was forty years ago, in fact, it’s not even what it was when the outgoing car was being dreamt up. At the time, Ford’s marketers created a fictional target Fiesta customer called Antonella. Young, fashionable, and outgoing, she lived at home with her parents. A decade on and one assumes, Antonella has grown up, moved out and has more pressing concerns, like paying her mortgage and worrying about job security on her zero-hours contract at the local call centre. Friends mutter quietly that she’s lost her joie de vivre.
Now bigger in most key dimensions than a first generation Focus, the newly announced Fiesta is 1200 mm longer, 526 mm wider and has a 203 mm longer wheelbase than its 1976 ancestor. While it’s likely to be a crushingly competent car, it does beg the question: Is the party over?