Theme: Compromise – The Fiesta Mk.1 – Blood on the Boardroom Floor

So you thought there was only one Fiesta Mk.1? In fact there nearly were two, and the one we never saw almost tore Ford apart.


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 the European Bobcat project.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[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 made 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.

Lots of emission equipment spoils the view of a Federalised Kent 1.6 Source:

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.

Why America needed CAFE, and Ford USA needed Bobcat: An early prototype spoils the view of a c.1973 Lincoln Continental Town Car. Source: Edita

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 the company 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.

A low-spec US Fiesta. Despite the 5mph bumpers, it is very much a little European in a big car country. Source:

17 thoughts on “Theme: Compromise – The Fiesta Mk.1 – Blood on the Boardroom Floor”

  1. Very interesting. Many in Ford were clearly bridling at the conservative stewardship of Henry Ford II, Lee Iaccoca included. Ford’s philosophy was that every product had to be costed and the business case rock solid. Iaccoca was an instinctual gambler with a good feel for the market. With the benefit of hindsight, one can surmise that both were correct. A better interpersonal relationship between the two, with a larger degree of parity in decision making might have served them both and Ford as a company a lot better than it did.

    A case in point is the Sierra. It is no coincidence that this radical car came into being only after Henry Ford II was deposed. But the car was a massive gamble that barely paid off; only the might of the Ford marketing machine and the hasty roll out of the Sapphire steadied the ship. A new Cortina would not have been such a risk.

  2. The more I look at that DLO droop the more unimpressive it gets. The car is fundamentally a rectangular/angular form and the curve flowing from the sideglass to the windscreen is a vain attempt to make it look round.

  3. There’s a whiff of Harris Mann to those ‘Wolf’ proposals. The final production car looks less interesting, but more accomplished.

  4. How much larger was the Wolf proposal compared to the Mk1 Fiesta and while a deal to use Honda CVCC engines was considered, was the Wolf proposal to be limited to just the 1.6 Ford Kent (as used in the US spec mk1 Ford Fiesta) or 1.6-2.0 Ford Pinto engines?

    For some reason am envisioning the Wolf proposal sitting between the Mk1 Fiesta and Mk2 Escort in terms of dimensions, just like the Ford Pinto sits between the Mk2 Escort and Mk3 Cortina.

    1. What we know about the Wolf suggests a direct, but lighter and more efficient Pinto replacement.

      The actual Pinto replacement was the 81MY Escort / Lynx, which must have been well underway when ‘Hank Deuce’ stood down as CEO. That fact seems to bear out Iacocca’s description of Ford’s behavior as being “like a spoilt brat” – scream the house down and create chaos because somebody tells you that you must do something, then do it anyway once the tantrum has subsided.

      The US Escort fits the “Blown Bobcat” or “Expanded Fiesta” idea dimensionally. It’s a pity that every bit of its European twin’s visual flair was expunged for the American car. It even got a “Jap engine”, a 2 litre Mazda diesel as an alternative to the Dearborn-built CVH.

    2. Robertas Parazitas

      Agree with the US Escort losing its virtual flair, at the same time it is a pity the European Escort never received an engine above 1.6-litres like the US version (turbo or not) when compared to its rivals along with a coupe like the related Ford EXP (albeit with better styling and more performance possibly equipped with 4WD similar to allegedly mk3/mk4 Escort 4X4 prototypes).

      So the Wolf was roughly comparable to the mk2 Escort in terms of dimensions if slightly less, would it be fair to say that the Wolf would have clashed with the Mk3 Escort had it been produced short of being re-purposed?

    1. Oh come on Laurent. I have great admiration for Renault’s groundbreaking FWD cars, and I’ve even owned a Renault or two in my time. But Romance? I think he was just enamoured with alliteration. Is there a companion volume The Parsimony of Peugeot?

  5. These pictures remind me that a spot of decent ground clearance, worthy today of a full-blown CUV at 6.5 inches/160 mm, was standard equipment on cars up till at least 1980. Lookit those sill bottoms level with the middle of the (admittedly titchy) wheels on the Fiesta prototypes. Oh yes. Magnificent.

    I had a chat with a woman in a local supermarket parking lot recently after she hopped out of a pristine Mk 1 Golf. It stood out like a bubble box on tiptoes compared to the hunched-down modern cars around it. Her husband’s passion, an import from Germany. The modern Golf around here also weighs 50% more (from 2000 to 3000 lbs and more for the R).

    My pal’s ’95 Mk 111 Golf was the first car he’d bought that would drag its front fascia when driven into the typical driveway from the highly-crowned streets we have. Annoyed him no end as it wasn’t something you tend to find out on a test drive. So reasonable snow performance and ability to navigate known common situations without grounding had all been abandoned in just 15 years. Compromise for better fuel economy? A compromise too far? Complete disregard that neither the common infrastructure or weather hadn’t changed in that short time span? Styling?

    All this is off topic, I know. But a little Google image searching on older cars and a gaze at Mr Herriot’s favourite Lancia Trevi will show that people weren’t shy of ground clearance in the 1970s. No wonder yer average punter wants a CUV these days – they’re just getting back to a normal ride height. While the new Civic and Camry are both an inch lower than previous models and ride about as high as an MGB on saggy springs. Why?

    As the Honda CVCC 1600 Accord engine was only about 68 bhp, and Ford managed 66 from the Fiesta version of the US federalized 1600 crossflow without about 250 m of rubber vacuum tubing snaking everywhere and subject to rot, perhaps not a big loss there when Henry turned the boys down. Still, I remember at the time thinking Ford needed to learn a bit about aluminum alloy.

  6. Looking at that picture of the Bobcat prototype and the Lincoln, it is impressive that bearing in mind the 5.7 metre length of the Continental, the cabin sizes are not that different. The Lincoln’s looks about 15% longer.

  7. Bob,

    We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Escort Mk3 was too small, although good packaging and proportions hid this awkward reality well. The 1980 Escort on both sides of the Atlantic had a 2393mm (94.3″) wheelbase, only 107mm longer than the Fiesta’s. The Kadett D’s wheelbase was 2514mm (99″). Th Golf Mk.2 figure was 2470mm. Every C sector car which followed in the ’80s vindicated Opel’s thinking on dimensions, and even the 1989 Fiesta had a 56mm longer wheelbase than its bigger brother, then in its final year of production.

    I too can’t understand why Ford never used a bigger CVH in the Escort Mk.3/4. The Sierra got the 1.8, a longer stroke version of the 80mm bore 1.6, although the change went almost unnoticed. Opel, VAG and Peugeot all had 1.8s and 1.9s. An XR3i 1.8 would have fitted nicely between the 1.6 and RS Turbo, but it never happened. Had ford tired of being working-class heroes?

    1. A properly tuned 1.8 CVH would likely put out similar power to the 1.6 CVH RS Turbo meaning the latter would have to be ideally limited to the Fiesta (and limited-run Escorts), while a turbocharged 1.8 CVH along with 2-litre CVH and 2-litre CVH Turbo engines based on the unit used in the US Escort would likely put out over 140 hp to under 170 hp (and need to be equipped with 4WD).

  8. The ’81 Escort was small as it was supposed to be a rebodied Fiesta. Thankfully Maximum Bob Lutz squeezed more out of the mandate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: