Party Animal – 1976 Ford Fiesta

Image: Ford Social
The dynamic of this photo set-up deserves an article in its own right. Image: Ford Social

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.

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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.

Image: classiccarcatalogue
Image: classiccarcatalogue

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.

Fiesta Ghia interior. Image: classicshonestjohn
Fiesta Ghia interior. Image: classicshonestjohn

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.

Image: avengersintime
Image: avengersintime

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?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “Party Animal – 1976 Ford Fiesta”

  1. Looking at Tjaarda’s Wolf sketch you can see what the Fiesta might have been. But, as usual with Ford back then, their usual cynical contempt for their customers meant that they cut all the corners. Hence the pathetic folded metal bumpers your mention, rather than the good looking, integrated items in the proposal. The original Fiesta screamed ‘I’m Cheap!’ in a way that the Renault 5 did not, and neither really did the 127. Needless to say, justifying Ford’s cynicism, we still bought the Fiesta. Why exactly? I guess because it was unpretentious (ie not French) and ‘properly made’ in Britain (ie not Italian). Nevertheless, today’s Fiesta, fine though it is on many levels, does actually make me wish it was less elaborate.

  2. Interestingly, I read over on Curbside Classics the other day something that was news to me – that Ford was messing around with the idea of a small ‘world car’ as early as 1963:

    Doubtless a stretch to say the Fester’s lineage stretches back this far, but a noteworthy point all the same.

  3. My parent’s first car was a second hand mark 1 Fiesta Ghia on a W plate. Brown and with a brown hounds-tooth interior, I remember it being small but light and airy inside, aided by a large glasshouse and a low-set dashboard. Being of limited income, the Fiesta offered a winning combination of low running costs compared to the continental opposition, allied to superior build to Austin products – or so my parents hoped. A lack of interior wear or exterior rust masked a propensity for the car not to start on the key, a tendency not cured by a new battery or starter motor. Eventually my mother had enough of the car’s recalcitrant attitude in the mornings and swapped it for a brand new mark 1 Nissan Micra Collete in Indesit White. That car started unfailingly and offered unflinching service for years, even after she reversed into a concrete bollard with such vigour that the hatch would no longer meet with the latch on the stoved in rear valance, and had to be held down with bungee cord.

  4. The aspect of the 1976 Fiesta I dislike the most is the sagging windowline. On Tjaarda’s drawing it makes sense as it seems to carry around the a-pillar and into the windscreen. On the production car the curved base of the sideglass is not so related. Also, it’s less pronounced. Had Ford left the window line straight it’d have be a much clearer design.

    1. It’s funny you should mention that. I think the resolution of the transition from windscreen to sideglass on the 2002 Fiesta is rather less than excellent – there is a noticeable step that bothers me.

  5. Stradale: there are two ways to handle the side-glass to windscreen transition. One is to try and make the shapes/graphics flow around the a-pillar or two, to have the dominant flow from windscreen to bonnet. The 2002 car, like many newer super minis goes with a windscreen to bonnet flow.
    Hence the step.

  6. In 1980, Ford launched the Mark III Escort, which was bitterly criticised for its poor damping and overall ride quality. Rightly so, it was awful. Yet, given the Fiesta’s problems in the same area, this really was unforgivable. Ford not only failed to learn from experience, they simply didn’t seem to care – the public would buy their cars anyway. Being a (conscientious) Ford chassis engineer during the pre-Parry-Jones era must have been soul destroying.

    1. I posted a photo of the 1980 Escort here a short while back. It´s a nasty-looking car and I have been in one. They are nasty inside as well and yet they are viewed fondly. There´s a reason there are so few left though and why I was moved to use up valuable space on my ´phone´s memory bank (now freed up again).

    2. I don’t necessarily share your view on the car’s appearance, in fact I rather liked it – especially prefacelift. Our family had four of them as company cars – each arrived to us new. All of them rode somewhere on a spectrum from shocking to crashingly bad. This, combined with the lack of rear legroom (and the meanly upholstered rear bench) made for a purgutorial experience in the rear.

      Car magazine rather memorably drove an early example on Ford’s Merkenich test track and declared it superior to the fabled Alfasud. They changed their minds rather embarrassingly once they drove one on real roads…

    3. Funny how magazines make such statements when swept up in the hoopla of a launch. I notice that some publications are rowing back on their gushing reviews of the Focus RS now that it is out in the wild, their correspondents having not noticed that the suspension might be troublingly firm on anything other than a Spanish circuit.

    1. Car design is not really well documented, least of all the creative phase. It’d be fascinating to have a clay model scanned everyday from buck to final iteration and chart the changes. If the data was good enough one could colour code the changes from green to red depending on the amount of clay added or removed. That still wouldn’t reveal why the changes were made.

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