Driven to Write looks in depth at the Fiesta’s gestation.
Lest it should pass un-noticed, January 2017 is the fortieth anniversary of the Ford Fiesta’s launch in the UK. Production at Ford Germany’s Saarlouis factory began in July 1976, with the core Almusafes plant coming on stream in October 1976, so the lucky continentals were introduced to the car a few months earlier.
To mark the occasion, I found myself re-reading Edouard Seidler’s “Let’s call it Fiesta”, the story of the Fiesta Mk.I, along with some other publications from around the time. The “auto-biography” was launched at the same time as the car, so there is no hindsight – Ford were entering unknown territory; a new market sector, their first transverse-engined car, and a huge new production facility in a country in which they had no previous presence.
Edouard Seidler was a giant of European journalism, a safe choice of author, and the big name needed to ensure that the book’s market extended beyond hard-core car enthusiasts.
It is very much the book Ford wanted to have written. Ford’s people are portrayed as capable, resourceful, and hard-working, but also strong on human character. The decision-making and change control processes are shown to be effective and robust in the face of evolving priorities and missed targets.
I would characterise it as a book about management, rather than design and engineering. There is a mildly irritating tendency towards melodrama; less than convincing fly-on-the-wall reportage of moments of high intrigue. Appropriately to this month’s theme, Seidler states that the development process of a new car is: “an infinite succession of compromises, a process of evolving priorities”
This is a general remark, rather than being specific to the Fiesta. However the compromises which informed the development of the Fiesta are intriguing, as a huge, technically conservative American multinational adapts to European thinking, while pragmatically applying its own systems and processes.
Even with the passage of four decades, I’d commend the book to anyone interested in the management aspect, but there are also some curious “might have beens”, and “nearly happeneds”. Later on, I’ll look at some of the engineering compromises, from the days when Fiesta was “Project Bobcat”, but as amuse-bouches, here are some detours on the long road to Fiesta.
The world car that wasn’t
This three-box proposal came from Dearborn, at a point where large scale sales were contemplated not only in North America, but also in Brazil and Argentina. That ‘toothy’ grille has a Japanese look to it, possibly intentionally, as Far Eastern small car imports were making huge inroads into the United States at the time of the Bobcat development.
And no, Giorgetto, they haven’t…
Elsewhere, there’s an unexplained European four door saloon proposal:
It’s a neat little thing, which is never mentioned in the text. There never seems to be an intention to make a five-door Fiesta Mk.I, despite Spain being keen on such things – SEAT made four-door 600s, 850s, and 127s. Could Ford have been contemplating a rival to FASA-Renault’s four-door-and-boot 5-based 7?
There was very nearly a two door Fiesta
In the 1970s, the hatch was far from being a “holy writ” to small car design. A two-box with boot Fiesta was in the plan from its early stages, when it was expected that the hatchback would only be taken up by 40% of customers. In August 1974, a decision was taken to sell the two door cars only in Spain and Italy, and to standardise the fold down rear seat back across both bodystyles. At the end of October 1974, two door Bobcats were excised from the planned production schedule at Saarlouis. A few months later the two door was dropped completely from the production plan.
Here’s how it might have looked, with added Bill Bourke – President of Ford Europe at the time of the Bobcat project, he was promoted to Head of North American Operations before it went on sale.
We might regret the loss of a lighter, more rigid, potential rally weapon, but Ford clearly saw the way market sentiment was going, and took the decision to rationalise production to a single bodystyle.
Note also the Renault 5-style bumper ‘shields’. The mean-spirited would say that an interesting feature was lost through timidity and parsimony during the design development process. We should be more understanding. The technology was new, and largely untested in its colour matched form. A Renault 5/15/17 -like button and recess door release arrangement also appears, production cars had a more conventional recessed flap handle.
I’d put this down not to compromise, but a strong will for their new supermini to look and feel like a true Ford, rather than a synthesis of the European competitors with which it shared its dimensions and elements of engineering principles.
CAR March 1974 was confident in its prediction about the Fiesta’s engine; “it is a completely new water-cooled, in-line four with single overhead cam and Heron head. It will come in two sizes – a little over 900cc and 1090cc for the top of the range model.” As we now know, the “scoop report” could scarcely have been more wrong, but it is easy to understand the reasons for their conjecture.
The engine was to be built in a new plant in Spain, on all-new tooling. The Heron “bowl-in piston” head was a feature of the existing Kent and Essex engines. The new car’s competition might have given some clues to the level of sophistication Ford would be aiming for. The Fiat 127 and Renault 5 used 1950’s pushrod designs which did a far better job than might have be expected.
The Peugeot 104’s all-new, all-aluminium ohc engine was way beyond the level of sophistication Ford were able or willing to achieve in a mass-produced engine in the mid-‘70s. Indeed its intricacy suggests something which could have originated in the watches and micromechanics valley stretching from Switzerland into Besançon, not so far from Sochaux.
A more realistic benchmark would be VW’s EA111 engine, in production since early 1974. This was an iron-blocked near-square in-line four with an alloy crossflow head and a belt driven overhead camshaft.
The engine which arrived with the first generation Fiesta may have surprised many. With its iron head and block, pushrod valve operation, and three main bearing crankshaft it appears to belong more in the mid-fifties than the enlightened 1970s.
The Seidler book consistently infers that it is an adapted version of the Kent ohv unit first seen in the 1959 Anglia. It’s true that the Kent served as the template for the engine officially known as ‘L-series’ (The ‘Valencia’ toponym was officially adopted after years of informal use), but it was altered in so many ways that it is a different engine with virtually no interchangeability of parts with the older engine.
The shock is that the adaption process seemed so regressive. Pushrod operated valves and an iron cylinder head might be expected, but three main bearings instead of five seems merely tight-fisted. The justification given was that as the block was shortened – bore centres were drawn closer in line with a reduction of the bore dimension from 81mm to 74mm – the block was stiffer and the two intermediate main bearings were unnecessary. It took ten years for mean old Ford to relent and give the newly introduced 1.3 litre Valencia five main bearings.
The 1976 abridged Kent engine was 30.5mm shorter and 7kg lighter than the 81mm bore original edition. The weight reduction seems unimpressive considering the level of re-working, but with a target capacity of 400,000 engines per year, must have saved a considerable quantity of iron.
There’s a myth that the Fiesta’s engine is a revived version of the 1959 Anglia unit. It’s not, but the confusion may arise from the 1976-on Kent being commonly referred to as the “Crossflow”, and the Fiesta engine as the “OHV”, although it also has a crossflow head; the Anglia’s was reverse-flow.
Ford made a perfectly rational choice in developing a cheap, simple engine for their B-sector car. The R5 and 127 were not held back by their ageing engines, and when more power was called for, the full-size Kent, and eventually CVH were there to do the job.
There are other explanations for Ford’s conservatism in the engine matter. The 1959 Kent had been something of a bullseye; short stroke small capacity engines with eight port heads and string bottom ends were a rare commodity, and delighted racing engine builders and fleet managers alike.
Dagenham built on its success with five main bearing 1300 and 1500 cc versions, followed in 1967 by a major rework, with a crossflow head layout, bowl-in piston combustion chambers and across the board adoption of the five main bearing bottom end.
The Kent was a triumphant achievement for a company which only abandoned side valves for its smallest engines in 1959, but Ford’s other European engines of the period were less of an ornament to their reputation. The 1965 Essex V4 was unrefined, inefficient, and prone to head gasket failure – and there were two to fail. Its 1969 in-line replacement, the Pinto OHC unit showed more promise, but the all-iron engine’s clever valve-gear design quickly developed a bad reputation for premature wear. This was later mitigated by positive lubrication and nitriding of wear-prone components.
Linking the Fiesta’s engine with Ford’s most trusted European power unit looks like a sound managerial decision, but there wasn’t much Kent left in the Valencia, or L-Series, to give it its Sunday name.
The biggest Valencia departure was the abandonment of the Heron head in favour of a wedge shaped in-head combustion chamber with inclined valves, following Renault and Fiat practice at the time. In the Ford context this is surprising. The bowl-in piston combustion chamber is particularly effective in very oversquare engines, as it overcomes the problem of quench surfaces, areas of the combustion chamber which remain cool enough to retain “wet” fuel which makes its way to the exhaust unburnt.
The 957cc and 1117cc Valencias were still well oversquare, but the volte-face suggests that Ford were already embracing the new emissions-led thinking which put effective combustion chamber design ahead of maximisation of valve areas.
What we have is an engine of strictly limited ambitions. There was no need for room to expand since the Kent, and later the CVH, could fulfil the 1300cc and upwards jobs. The early global ambitions for the Bobcat project most probably played some part in the conservative specification of its engine. Pushrods and all-iron construction are well suited to labour-intensive low-precision manufacturing.
The Almusafes plant was as advanced as the best in Europe, but in the context of Ford’s ambitions to conquer Spain the simplicity of the engine it produced made eminent sense. Ford had to establish a dealer network from a base of zero. A powertrain as intricate as the Peugeot XA, would have been disadvantaged in a country familiar only with the worthy pushrod engines made by SEAT, Renault, Simca, and BMC.
Capacities were set as a tax-friendly 957cc, and a longer stroke 1.2 litre, which would have given a useful advantage in the sector. Within weeks of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973, Ford management took a decision to reduce the capacity of the larger Valencia to 1117cc. At launch in September 1976, the 957cc units were offered in 40 and 45bhp tunes, while the 1117cc version gave 53bhp, well up to the standards of its rivals. Those lusting after real Kent power had to wait until October 1977 for the 66bhp 1300, available only in the S and Ghia.
So was the Valencia a bad engine? Not at all. It was designed in the image of the heroic little four cylinder engines which mobilised much of Europe, and at least on that continent, it outlived the disappointing CVH by ten years, eventually bowing out in 2002, to be replaced by the rather good Rocam, an 8 valve OHC unit with capacities from 1.0 to 1.6 litres, built in Brazil and South Africa.
In between, the Valencia demonstrated an ability to answer every question it was asked, much in the manner of the Austin A series and Renault Cleon. It was never going to be the most refined, powerful or efficient in its class, but it was dependable and easy to fix in the rare event of failure.
Of all the Valencias, my favourite is the humble 957. It has a mere 45bhp at 6000rpm. That last number is telling. The little Valencia has shares with the VW flat fours the ability to be driven flat-out for as long as conditions will allow without feeling as if it will explode at any time. It’s a short-stroke thing. The piston speed is lower than an equivalent undersquare engine, and the changes in piston direction happen less violently.
We should regret that the predominance of long-stroke engines, and the petty strictures of the law have made such simple pleasures a thing of the past.
It arrived some time after the revolutions in small car design which raged through Europe in the fifties and sixties, and continued to bear fruit into the early seventies. It was thus a rationalised ‘best practice’ car, standing on the narrow but solid shoulders of at least four influential and successful rivals which arrived early enough in the 1970s to influence and inform Ford’s designers.
The design process was driven from America, with strict cost and time constraints; There was no place for experimentation, nor technological flights of fancy. In its engineering, it was a follower, not a leader. Well, possibly, but a few sentences in the Seidler book suggest that the Fiesta’s designers had ambitions to make a unique and distinctive contribution to automotive technology.
Seidler refers to: “A revolutionary new front suspension using double torsion bars of a completely novel design: U-shaped bars which would act as springs, anti-roll bars, and radius arms all in one piece.” Regrettably, I have been unable to find any drawings or photographs of this remarkable chimera.
There is also mention that the design was so compact that it would have allowed the spare wheel to be stored under the bonnet. That one baffled me at first. Surely the biggest obstruction would be the engine? Looking at this illustration it really does look as if elimination of the strut towers would have freed enough space for the wheel to sit horizontally, offset to the gearbox side, in the space partly occupied by the windscreen water tank.
It is also stated that the torsion bar suspension would have saved 4kg in weight and up to $5 in cost. It seems that this system was firmly in the plan until June 1974, when Hoesch AG, a major and trusted supplier, advised Ford that they could not make the required components within the tolerances proposed. It could be achieved, but the risks were considerable. Ford took due heed, and retreated to the comfort zone of MacPherson struts.
The surprise is that Ford ever considered anything else. Earle S MacPherson was one of their own, although he had established the principles of the component which immortalises his name before leaving GM for Ford in 1947. Furthermore, Honda, Peugeot, and Fiat had combined MacPherson struts with front wheel drive many years before the Fiesta arrived. The simple front strut set-up used in the production Fiesta Mk. I was effective and cost efficient, managing without an anti-roll bar even in the big engined versions.
There’s another surprising suspension story in the Bobcat saga. The rear suspension design was only finalised in April 1975, little more than a year from the start of production. Again simplicity ruled, with a cranked solid beam located by a pair of pressed steel trailing arms and a transverse Panhard Rod. Separate vertical springs and slightly splayed shock absorbers bear on the axle just inboard of the trailing arms.
The anti-roll bar is only specified on the ‘S’ versions, and the 1300 Ghia. There’s a bit of Alfasud homage in the design, with the aft-mounted anti-roll bar hinting at the little Alfa’s longitudinal Watt’s Linkage, but without its full mechanical rigour.
What was proposed before is never described in detail, but it is implied that it was an independent system, softly sprung in deference to American preferences. As the centre of the Bobcat project migrated inexorably to Europe, the suspension compromise settled upon reflected that continent’s tastes and expectations.
Curiously, the Fiesta’s simple suspension was significantly different from the more complex independent arrangements of its older Fiat, Honda, Renault and Peugeot supermini rivals. It could, however, be considered a couple of evolutionary steps away from the Audi 50 / Polo’s torsion beam, which would conquer the world within a decade.
From its inception in 1969, Ford’s small car project had always had inter-continental ambitions. An early project structure saw engines manufactured in Brazil being used in cars made first in Europe, with a production base in Brazil following on, which would not only serve the home market, but would also export to the USA. US and Asia-Pacific production sites would follow.
Other visions included a simplified low-powered variant adapted for production in developing countries, a third world car maximum speed of 55-60mph, a 0-50 time of 25-30 seconds, capable of being sold at 50-60% of the price of the cheapest Ford Escort.
We now know that Project Bobcat was re-focused into the European market, with three manufacturing bases. South America would have to wait, but the USA got its Bobcat, a car which had more significance than the 263,398 sales over three and a half years would suggest.
Seidler largely sidelines the matter, but even before the geopolitical unpleasantness of October 1973, there were two Bobcats. The European one closely followed the dimensions of the Renault 5 and Fiat 127. The American version changed its codenominal genus to become the ‘Wolf’, an “expanded Bobcat” firmly aimed at the US market, and targeted at a 1979 model year launch.
This was the pet project of Ford President Lee Iacocca and Vice-President Hal Sperlich, and was to set them against Henry Ford II and Philip Caldwell, who were firmly of the “mini-cars, mini-profits” mindset, and had only grudgingly signed off the $1 billion budget for European Bobcat project.
Iacocca and Sperlich persevered nonetheless. Rather than being a lowest common denominator ‘import beater’, the car they envisioned had a rakish coupé-like character, and applied the original Mustang principles that an inexpensive product should still be desirable to the consumer. They seemed indefatigable in their determination to make their idea happen.
In Iacocca’s words “Sperlich and I were too hot on this project to give it up. There just had to be some way to build the Wolf and make a profit”. The sticking point was not the car itself, but the $50o million cost of building and tooling a plant to build suitable four cylinder engines and front wheel drive transaxles.
[As with the hatch, the ‘more metal’ approach championed by Iacocca and Sperlich is evident.]
On his own initiative, Iacocca commenced negotiations with Honda, and following a visit to Tokyo in spring 1976, was able to present his CEO with a deal to supply 300,000 CVCC engines packaged with transmissions for $711 each. Henry Ford II’s response was straight and to the point: “No car with my name on the hood will ever have a Jap engine”.
With hindsight we can only see this as an opportunity lost. Edouard Seidler is deferential in his portrayal of ‘Hank Deuce’ – one senses a rule of lèse-majesté is in place. Iacocca, in his autobiography does not spare the blows, describing him as dictatorial, capricious, and insecure. Most pertinent is his observation of his CEO’s fear of failure: “It seemed to me that the grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor Company, had spent his whole life worrying that he would screw things up”.
Thus ended a project which Iacocca and Sperlich passionately believed could have replicated the success of the Mustang, and establish Ford USA as leaders, rather than diffident followers, in the engineering revolution which was taking hold among the domestic carmakers.
And so to the Federal Fiesta which make it to production.
Accounting for less than one-seventh of Mk.I production, the 1.6 litre German-built, Kent-powered car made few visual concessions to the US market beyond the obligatory 5mph bumpers and round headlights. The weight penalty was a modest 85kg, and the catalyst equipped engine managed a quite reasonable 66bhp. Gearing was higher than the European cars, in order to boost fuel economy figures, but the 1.6 had enough of a torque advantage over the European 1.3 to make it the fastest Fiesta available during its production life – the Mk.1 XR2 was a latecomer in September 1981, nine months after the last US specification Fiesta came off the line at Saarlouis.
The 1600cc Kent engine was familiar in the USA, both in imported Cortinas and in 1971-73 Pintos. By 1972 it was producing a miserable 54 bhp, and in 1974 both the Kent and the German-supplied 2 litre OHC engine were replaced in the Pinto by the Ohio-built ‘Lima’ OHC four in 2.3 litre form. The following year, the 2.8 litre Cologne V6 was offered in the Pinto, managing a feeble 99bhp.
The relevance of this information will become clear when post-Yom Kippur war legislation is taken into account.
On December 22 1975 the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) was enacted by Congress. From it evolved the unprecedented Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for automobiles. The average fuel economy for model years, 1978, 1979, and 1980 were set at 18, 19, and 20 miles per gallon, respectively.
For Project Bobcat, the legislation ended any uncertainty whether the small car would be sold in the United States. Something more efficient than the 2.3 litre base model Pinto was essential, and it had to be sold in worthwhile numbers. There was a further complexity in that the CAFE regulations allowed the inclusion of imported cars in the corporate “fleet”, but only up to a limit. For Ford the number was around 75,000 per annum, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, matched almost exactly the number of Fiestas imported from Germany from 1977-81. In the final year, the rules changed to exclude imports from the CAFE ‘fleets’ of domestic manufacturers.
Unfavourable exchange rates determined that the German-built superminis were at best marginally profitable. The tempting $3680 launch price rose rapidly, and the little Fiesta appeared costly by comparison with larger Japanese and domestic rivals. Rather than changing US buying habits the federalised Fiesta merely served its purpose as a fiscal counterweight. In the years it had been on sale, nearly 800,000 Pintos had been sold, almost exactly three times as many as the Fiesta. Both were replaced in the USA and Canada in late 1980 by an “expanded Fiesta”, the Escort / Lynx, a true world car.
In Europe, Project Bobcat delivered a well-considered and successful small car which brought Ford to new markets, and set Ford firmly on the road to embracing the new front wheel drive orthodoxy. In Ford’s homeland the venture was so divisive that it played a large part in the management schism which ripped Ford’s top tier of management apart, and ultimately set a new direction for the entire North American automobile industry.
Hal Sperlich and Lee Iaccoca’s entreaties to embrace front wheel drive, major on fuel economy, and, later on, produce a space-efficient ‘people mover’ vehicle were ignored by Henry Ford II. In 1977, Sperlich left Ford and joined Chrysler as a vice president and its chief product planner. On July 13 1978, Henry Ford II sacked Lee Iacocca, who followed Sperlich to Highland Park, and was appointed Chairman of Chrysler Corporation in 1979. In the same year Henry Ford II stood down as Chief Executive Officer of Ford Motor Corporation his place being taken by Philip Caldwell.
In sales numbers, the Fiesta’s presence in the USA was almost inconsequential. However the period of the Fiesta’s tenure as the baby of Ford USA’s fleet was tumultuous for the Dearborn management, and marked the start of an era of unprecedented change not only for Ford, but for the nation’s entire automobile industry.
Once work on the Almusafes plant was underway, Ford negotiated with the Spanish tax authorities to import some cars for use by their staff and management. Presumably the notion of using Chrysler 180’s or Seat 132’s would be too much to countenance. The sticking point was a rigidly enforced annual limit of 250 imported cars for the entire country.
Such was Ford’s economic leverage – they were investing $700 million and creating 9000 jobs – that they were given dispensation to import 25 Taunuses and Granadas, but were not excused the mandatory 126% car import tax. Later a deal was struck on temporary importation for a further 150 cars, which despite carrying German registrations, were taxed at 25% of their value per annum for a four year period and then repatriated. It’s a reminder that “Autarky means Autarky”; Spain truly was a closed market, and largely remained so until its accession to the European Community in 1986.
Let’s not forget that at the outset of the Bobcat Project, Ford were negotiating with a totalitarian Fascist dictatorship. By the Generalissimo’s good grace in departing this world in November 1975, the Spanish Fiesta arrived the following year as the product of an optimistic, energetic, proud, and above all, democratic constitutional monarchy.
Move on forty years, and free trade and protectionism are the talk of the planet.
Spain is the Europe’s second largest car manufacturer, by a sizeable margin, and eighth in the world. It also has a formidable component industry. I have an uneasy suspicion that the success had its foundation when Franco’s government “put Spain first” and legislated into being a protected car industry, autonomous in almost everything but the designs and engineering of its products. A fast growing economy underpinned the industry’s prosperity and growth.
For pre-European Community Spain, selective industrial autarky worked in its time, but free trade has served them better. “A bit political”, I know, but do we really want to return to the days of closed markets?