Another in a series of lasts: The 1997 Ford Puma. We won’t see its like again.
The 1990s saw Ford’s European outpost embark upon a period of reflection; a polar realignment from the provision of lowest common denominator perambulatory devices to a respected and critically lauded manufacturer of class-leaders. This process began in earnest with the 1995 debut of the BE91-series Fiesta. While retaining the body structure and basic mechanicals of the critically unloved preceding model, a series of chassis and engine refinements in addition to a major external and internal restyle saw the Fiesta go straight to the top of the B-segment as the keen driver’s choice.
While BE91 was in gestation, Ford’s Small / Medium Vehicle Design chief, Claude Lobo is said to have approached CEO, Jac Nasser with the proposal of adding a sporty coupé to the range; both as image builder, but also to better promote the newly finessed Fiesta chassis. With approval from Dearborn, the Merkenich design team went to work and within days, over 50 styling proposals darkened Lobo’s desk. These were whittled down to six, the successful design believed to have been the work of exterior stylist, Chris Svensson, also responsible for the 1996 Ka.
There is, (as is often the case with well-regarded car designs) some dispute over attribution regarding the Puma’s styling, with current Jaguar design director, Ian Callum also claiming (at least partial) credit. Although to back up his assertion it is believed that owing to a lack of resources at Merkenich, the original clay model was created under Callum’s supervision at TWR in the UK, where the Scotsman was then based.
Following wind tunnel tests, Svensson’s original tail styling was found to be aerodynamically inefficient and not wishing to employ an unsightly spoiler, the rear of the car was subtly redesigned with a flatter deck incorporating an integral air dam with a subtle kamm effect, which not only improved airflow aft of the vehicle, but also lent it a more purposeful appearance.
Structurally, the floorpan, while broadly similar to that of BE91, differed in detail, adding a strengthening crossbar between the B-posts. Mechanically too, it was Fiesta all the way, with the habitual MacPhersons up front, and a torsion beam rear axle incorporating longitudinal arms. However, to cope with the additional performance, roll bars were stiffened, springs made firmer, while front and rear track width was broadened. Ride height was also reduced by 10 mm.
Engines had long been a Ford weakness, but the advent of the critically acclaimed 1.25 and 1.4 litre Zetec power units changed that. Based on the bottom end architecture of this engine family, the range topping DOHC 1.7-liter Zetec-SE engine was the Puma’s unique selling point. Engineered with assistance from Yamaha, with continuously adjustable inlet camshaft timing, it developed 125 hp at 6,300 rpm and 157 Nm of torque at 4,500 rpm. Much was made of the engine’s flexibility, with more than 95% of maximum torque available within the 2,500 to 5,500 rpm range and at least 85% from 1,500 to the red-line of 6,750 rpm. Mated to a close-ratio gearbox, Ford claimed 0-100 km / h in 9.1 seconds, with a top speed of 203 km / h.
Ford had previously employed the Bobcat name for the original 1976 Fiesta programme but it is likely to have sounded a little transatlantic to European ears. ‘Lynx’ was its old World equivalent. However, it’s possible they may have been unable to licence the name. Hence Puma, a bigger cat and one which incidentally didn’t sport a docked tail. Not that it mattered really, when the model debuted at the 1997 Geneva motor show, critics were loud in approbabtion.
Conceptually similar to the sort of compact coupé-class the Japanese marques had made their own by then, the Puma’s athletic proportions, bold graphics and visual joie de vivre put the cat amongst the grey pigeons. Aiding its cause was the ingenious Ogilvy and Mather ‘A Driver’s Dream’ TV spot, which cleverly morphed footage of the 1968 Steve McQueen vehicle, ‘Bullitt’ with the new car, lending it massive coverage and a posthumous, (if tacit) ‘King of Cool’ stamp of approval.
It had been intended to produce a similarly arresting interior for the production car, but the BE91 dashboard and facia were retained, accented with metallic finishes and employing a milled aluminium gearlever knob. By comparison to its more alluring exterior, it proved something of a let-down. The press certainly thought so, Autoweek deriding it as ‘boring’. While they found the seats comfortable, they were less impressed with the driving position and with space for taller drivers, which was considered inadequate. The aluminium gearlever also came in for criticism, especially during cold mornings.
Niggles aside though, the little Puma quickly gained a reputation as a quick, compact and highly entertaining road companion – the enthusiast’s choice over GM’s equally pretty, but less honed Tigra. Initially available in 1.4 and 1.7 litre form, changes were few throughout the car’s life. In 2000, the smaller unit was replaced with a lustier 1.6 litre version, but apart from minor matters of equipment and specification – (not to mention a number of low-volume special editions), the Puma remained broadly unaltered throughout its short production run.
Built alongside its Fiesta sibling at Köln-Niehl, (by Ford standards), the Puma’s body required a good deal more hand-finishing, owing to its more specialist nature. But with production of the BE91 ceasing in 2002 owing to its impending replacement, there was no justification for a low-volume, high labour content derivative of a more popular (and profitable) hatchback – nor indeed an alternate production site available.
Puma production ceased in December 2001, after only four years and around 134,000 examples built. It wasn’t replaced – (unless one considers 2003’s StreetKa a credible successor). It remains unclear whether Ford made much money on the model programme, given its expensive mechanical specification and relatively modest price point, although it must be said that the StreetKa shared a good deal of mechanical componentry.
With the Puma’s demise then, the last truly compact, affordable, driver-focused European mainstream 2+2 coupé entered the history books. With Ford now entering another period of deep reflection – this time to the viability of their entire European operation, their hard-won quality engineering ethos seems something of a lost cause. Bobcat by another name it may have been then, but despite its short lifespan the Puma deserves its epitaph.
Data source: Pumadrivers.nl