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.
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 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.
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 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.