Before the Fiesta was launched, Ford had never contested Europe’s ‘mini’ car market before
Read as we follow the story of Ford’s icon, from an expensive inception to Autocar’s universal praise
The final Fiesta leaves Ford’s factory in Cologne today, ending nearly half a century of production.
The Ford Fiesta’s origins can be traced back further than you may expect. Ford had never contested Europe’s ‘mini’ car market before, choosing in 1958 to follow the Anglia with another family car – the Cortina – in the correct belief that it would be a greater financial success. A belief solidified by a thorough teardown of Austin’s new Mini in 1959.
This spawned a mock-up that in 1970 gained reserved approval from management, after which the endeavour split into several strands in Ford’s global empire.
The best of these was that of design house Ghia in Italy, which showed the packaging advantages of front-wheel drive (FWD), and soon after, in September 1972, Dearborn gave the Europeans $1 billion for ‘Project Bobcat’ – even though boss Henry Ford II was apparently still of the ‘small cars make small profits’ mindset. (This, by the way, all proves that the Fiesta was not, as is sometimes said, a child of the 1973 oil crisis.)
Realising the vital importance of giving exactly what people wanted, Ford anonymously conducted one of the most expensive market research projects to date, flying randomly chosen drivers from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain to see several mock-ups.
This revealed that the Fiesta was the ideal size for all nations and FWD was strongly preferred. Further clinics in 1973 revealed that the car should be a hatchback, as these fast gained favour for their extra practicality over saloons.
Work done in San Francisco also suggested that Americans liked the car enough to warrant US sales, a corollary of which was production being extended (beyond Cologne, Saarlouis and a purpose-built new factory in Valencia) to Dagenham.
Predicting that energy anxiety, inflation and stagnant standards of living would send mini cars’ market share as high as 30%, Ford had sought to make the Fiesta as affordable as possible in terms of purchase, running and repair – but vitally a ‘proper car’ scaled down, not a spartan econobox.
It was seen as vital for weight to be below 700kg, so Lotus-level attention went into every panel, to the extent that the Fiesta used 40% fewer stampings than the Escort.
Transverse mounting of the engine would give the Fiesta Escort-equivalent space inside but made aerodynamic optimisation challenging. Yet some 250 tweaks from wind tunnel work yielded a rating of 0.42Cd – 0.6 less than the comparable Datsun Cherry.
Rather than spending loads on creating a small engine from scratch, Ford revised its proven Kent unit, the new squarer design producing 40bhp or 45bhp in 957cc form or 53bhp in 1117cc guise.
This was linked to a new four-speed manual gearbox, remarkable for its compactness. As in the seminal 127, the layout resulted in the two driveshafts being of unequal lengths.
Suspension was by a very simple MacPherson-strut layout up front, familiar but for new-style bearings that reduced the required amount of steering effort, and a dead axle at the rear to avoid extra weight and ensure consistent handling.
All this work was meant to give the Fiesta notably better refinement than rivals. Indeed, we said: “As a piece of Ford thoroughness, this is perhaps the most impressive car yet.”
Britain was to be the last market to get the Fiesta, but our German correspondent reported: “Even the basic Fiesta has no air of austerity. The impression of smallness is lost when you take the wheel. The [957cc] engine is very eager, and with two people aboard, the car is no sluggard, cruising safely and surprisingly quietly at 70mph. And the 1117cc unit makes it quite able to live with much more powerful cars, especially on winding roads.
“One of the typical Fiesta features is ease of handling. And all models ride very well, on both smooth and uneven surfaces.”
He concluded that “the Fiesta seems to be the ideal car for the young family or as a family car”. Some two million people agreed – or, if you include the subsequent six generations of Fiesta, more than 22 million. Few cars have left or will leave such a legacy.