Definition Point

We profile Ford’s 1998 sector-defining Focus.


While something of a singularity, the advent of a defining car can only truly be acknowledged once a decent period of time has elapsed. The Ford Motor Company has created a number of cars which have in their way, helped define their respective eras, largely due to ubiquity and popular appeal. Nevertheless, the number of truly outstanding European Ford car designs are fewer in number.

The 1998 Focus is the most recent of them, recalibrating not only what a C-segment car could look like, but how it could perform. An epoch-making car which sent rivals scurrying back to their CAD screens, it changed the way family hatchbacks were perceived – and for a time at least – designed.

The Focus’ immediate predecessor in its myriad iterations was unreservedly a commodity product. At best, class-competitive but at worst, cynically ill-conceived and poorly wrought, perhaps none more so than the 1990 Escort Mark V, a car so far short of basic competence that it is said to have precipitated something of a palace coup within Ford’s Köln-Merkenich and Dunton engineering centres in the aftermath of its disastrous press reception.

Ford’s accountants and conservative product planners were responsible for Escort’s V’s dreary expedience; one only partly leavened by its heavily revised VI successor, a car which took the Escort experience from abysmal to broadly competent. But by the mid-90s, a new regime in Michigan, headed by Jac Nasser, allowed Ford’s European engineering teams a much freer hand, and a far more generous development budget.

The Focus’ engineering team, was lead by Richard-Parry Jones, but included such figures as Ulrich Eichhorn, Franz-Josef Laermann and Tony Pixton. This group of engineers set about producing a chassis layout that not only conformed to cost and build parameters, but was honed with keener drivers in mind.

The key to the Focus’ newfound dynamic ability lay partially in the careful honing of bushings and mountings, but more fundamentally in the purpose-built ‘Control Blade’ fully independent rear suspension, a novelty for a sector for which varying forms of twist beam had been the norm.

The Focus’ sophisticated rear end lent it a sensitivity, accuracy and sophistication which placed it at the forefront of the sector. And conforming to the time-honoured Leonard Setright adage of ‘what’s good for handling is also good for ride‘, the Focus rode with a suppleness which belied its relatively humble market position. Coupled with precise, accurate steering, it was to prove a revelation.

The Focus was also well-packaged, its long wheelbase ensuring a spacious cabin and commodious boot. But it was its appearance which truly showcased Ford’s determination to reset the dial. Perhaps the most radical production shape from Köln-Merkinich since the Sierra, the Focus’ bodystyle, believed to have been the work of Boris Jacob (later, chief designer, Advanced Concepts at Opel), working under the supervision of John Doughty and Claude Lobo, was unlike anything on offer.

Said to have been a continuation of Ford’s contemporary ‘new edge‘ styling theme, the Focus, with its distinctive silhouette punctuated by sharply defined graphic elements, combined rationalism with show car flourishes. And while the market was transfixed by the cool discipline and finely detailed quietude of the ‘Ulm with a view‘ Golf IV, Ford now offered a markedly different approach, both visually and dynamically.

With a strong, modern range of engines, a practical, commodious (and strikingly designed) cabin, coupled with the kind of dependability for which the Blue Oval was known, the Focus looked set to dominate what was a fairly narrow sector – its fiercest rivals being that of VW and Peugeot.

But while the press lauded Ford’s daring, customers were less easily swayed, more of them opting for the calmer conservatism of Wolfsburg, or the newly fashioned, capable and far more versatile Mégane Scenic. So while first generation Focus sold strongly, it didn’t quite prove the market-leader Ford had hoped, leading them to dial back the radicalism somewhat for its 2004 successor.

Nevertheless, the Focus forced all of Ford’s European rivals to raise their game, so much so, that for a few years at least, independent suspension became a far more common fitment to C-segment offerings, as indeed was the notion of superior dynamics.

With the Focus (and much of its immediate pre and post-millennium product) Ford really did give its customers more, democratising excellence to the benefit of the end-user (who perhaps didn’t necessarily appreciate the gesture), if not to Dearborn’s bottom line.

Look at the way the A-pillar blends with the cant rail and terminates at the rear lamps. (c) bestsellingcars

Twenty years on, and four (and a facelift) iterations later, the Focus has lost its individuality and in its current generation marks a repudiation of most of the founding model’s guiding principles. Rigorous control of cost and the necessity to scrape any discernible margin now being more pressing concerns than offering the customer more than its rivals. High ideals don’t pay the bills, and as Ford contemplates the prospect of an even more fundamental retreat, we could be witnessing the Focus’ end-days.

The dilution of the nameplate’s substance could be said to stand as a metaphor for a broader loss of focus, but that’s probably a little simplistic, given that the European C-segment resembles a very different animal some two decades after the first generation model’s debut. But by the same token, something a good deal similar could be said about Ford.

With thanks to SL.

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

15 thoughts on “Definition Point”

  1. To these eyes the exterior of the mk1 Focus looks fresh, timeless. I know Richard rates it, but I found the design of the mk2 a massive disappointment. It’s just dull by comparison. The original was always going to be a tough act to follow. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that they were actually designed at the same time i.e. the mk2 was an alternative proposal for the design of the mk1. I’ve no idea if that’s true.

    In my mind the 1998 mk7 Fiesta is the spiritual successor to the original Focus; another great-looking brilliant overall package.

    1. I completely agree about the Mk7 Fiesta, although the impact and step-change was less marked than was the case of the original Focus vs the last of the line Escort.

    2. Laurant – I was assuming it was the version previous to the current one, and indeed the one on which the current version is based.

  2. Still stands as a superb car, a landmark and outrageously good to drive. Even the facelift was exquisitely executed. I fondly recall driving a series of these as hire cars – it was so good that I’d always insist where possible on the company in question providing a Focus.

  3. As well as the sophisticated suspension, the Ford Focus also had a much more rigid chassis and a four square stance – taller, wider and boxier. It certainly had a big influence on the Golf V, which was a radically different shape from Golf IV.

    The styling of the Focus was certainly divisive when launched. I actually think this is a rare case of a car being improved by the mid-life facelift – it ironed out some of the wilfully odd elements while leaving the basic themes intact.

  4. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was one of those who didn’t “get” the Mk1 Focus when it launched, thinking it rather overstyled, particularly in comparison to the ultra rational Mk4 Golf. I liked it’s overall form, but thought some of the details were rather contrived, in particular the grooves in the wings that were not circular and concentric with the wheelarches. Interestingly,this detail didn’t make it onto either the Mk2 Focus or the Mk3 Mondeo, both of which reverted to a more conventional solution.

    With hindsight , I can now appreciate what a brilliant piece of design the Mk1 Focus was. I agree with Jacomo that the facelift even improved it. The trouble with such “one of a kind” designs is that they are very difficult to follow up. The Mk2 Focus was a decent if very conservative attempt. Unfortunately, Ford decided it ended more “character” and spoilt it with a poor facelift. Since then, it’s been all downhill for the Focus in design terms.

    1. Generally not a fan of large wheelarches, these also were the element I found hardest to accept. Today I can see them as a vital part of the design, without enthusiasm though.
      In general I agree that it’s a great design and a milestone, but I also see the problems associated with it. You mentioned its ‘one of a kind’ character. My impression is that it’s not only difficult to follow up, but also quite hard to adapt – the estate isn’t as brilliant as the hatchback, and the notchback saloon is awful. It seems that its conservative layout is at odds with the modern design, and very obviously, the signature rear lights are lost.

      Regarding the Mk2, many see it as too conservative in comparison. This might be true, but for me it’s still a very good design – clear and rational, but without being too rectilinear or devoid of flow. Fully agreed on the dreadful facelift.

  5. Laurent, I think the mark of the Fiesta changes according to where you are in the world. In the UK the 2008 car is regarded as the mk7, the Aston Martin facelift is unofficially sometimes referred to as the mk7.5 and the current model the mk8.

    1. Also in my original comment I mistakenly referred to the 1998 Fiesta when I of course meant 2008! I wish we could edit comments.

  6. I’ve never liked the styling of the Focus 1st generation. To me it always looked dumpy and ungainly, not very fond of all these intersecting lines.

  7. I had one of these. I always appreciated how smart ergonomically the car was designed. I think the Ford Focus MK1 was the start of people in the US actually realizing that small cars (particularly American small cars) could actually be comfortable livable things and you didn’t necessarily need to step up to a midsize or full sized car. The driving position is high and the seats are comfortable. The back seat fits real sized people, and the ride and handling were excellent for its day.

    Compared to the 1997-2000 Escort the US got, the Focus was a REVELATION.

    Too bad that Ford didn’t think we were worthy for the 2005+ C1 based cars. Instead we got the MK1 focus face lifted twice. The first facelift removed some of the design charm, but the good qualities, ride and handling and other things stayed. The 2nd more thorough facelift not only made the car ugly, but removed the good steering from the MK1 car. It also was clearly a worse car, and come 2008 when the “great recession” started, Ford looked really dumb selling us a now 10+ year old design when all of it’s Asian and European customers were offering variants of popular models the rest of the world got.

    The MK1 Mazda 3 and Volvo S40 (MK2) were the only variants of the C1 chassis we ever got in the USA. Shame; the Mazda 3 was well-regarded, well-reviewed car. A Ford Version would have been awesome in the USA.

  8. I always thought of the Mk1 focus as being a Tipo Mk2 or Maestro Mk3. Unconventionally styled, long wheelbase spacious and surprisingly good to drive. My wife had a Mk 1 she replaced with a Mk2 which was a massive disappointment- less perceived quality, less refinement and less performance.

    1. The Mk2 seemed to be wider and less agile – akin to wearing a fat suit. What was true was that it was a tight bit of design. There isn´t one false line on it. The Mk1 however was new and excellent in its orginality. The grooves on the bodysides are elongated so as to make the car look longer than it is. It was good tailoring.

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