Can New Fiesta Recapture the Magic of the Original?

By Andy Bannister

08.21.2008

As Ford gears up to launch its biggest and most ambitious Fiesta ever, let’s pause a while to remember the 1976 original which spawned this global phenomenon.

A dainty little three-door which still manages to look good today, the Fiesta Mark 1 was a revolutionary car for the Blue Oval in Europe. It even briefly made it across the pond to North America.

Numerous Fiesta generations have come and gone since then, and the nameplate has sold over 10 million units in total, but nowadays it is just another hatchback in a huge pack of competitors. In contrast, the original Fiesta, while not the first car of its type, was undoubtedly one of the most influential.

The idea of the small hatchback – generally called a supermini – was pioneered in Europe in the early 1970s, with the first models to taste wide commercial success being the Fiat 127 and Renault 5. Both of these were stylish little cars which burst onto a market previously dominated by rear-engined competitors and boxy economy offerings with homespun looks.

Ford Europe had no competitor in this segment of the market at the time, with its smallest offering being the very conservative rear-wheel-drive Escort. The bean counters at Ford of Britain had previously examined the wildly successful Austin Mini – famously taking it together piece by piece.

They concluded Ford should have nothing to do with small cars after finding out that, for the selling price, British Motor Corporation couldn’t be making a profit on the Mini.

By the mid 1970s though, fuel prices had soared and Fiat and Renault were cleaning up in Europe among fashion conscious and economically-minded motorists alike.

Volkswagen was next in on the act with its 900cc Polo (originally launched, bizarrely, as the Audi 50). Japan’s Honda Civic was also doing well and it was clear other makers were also gearing up to enter the fray.

Years ahead of General Motors, Ford finally agreed it needed a small car to compete in this emerging market, and the Fiesta project – codenamed Bobcat – was born, originally for a smaller car to undercut the Escort in price by $100 (a fair sum in the 1970s).

The plans got bolder as they went along, not least the decision by Ford of Europe to expand into Spain, then an emergent market – having been effectively closed off for years to imports under the dictatorship of General Franco. The new small, high-tech and cheap-to-buy Ford was the ideal car to make inroads into Spain and other southern markets like Italy and Greece where small was beautiful.

The car’s name perfectly suited the Spanish link, and its use was a coup for Ford, as General Motors owned the rights but happily surrendered them to its great rival. If not, it might have been called Amigo, Bravo or even Forito.

Despite some hideous early cut-down Escort prototypes which looked terrible, the final sketches for the Fiesta were translated into a remarkably good-looking and simple three door, originally with just 957cc and 1100cc engines, with a 1300cc unit joining the line-up later.

Launched in 1976 and made in England and Germany as well as Spain, the car was a huge hit across Europe, with a range of models including a sporty S and plush Ghia which offered consumers a small car with a well equipped interior. The car had a useful full-length hatchback and could easily carry four adults with relatively sprightly performance

By the start of 1979 a million Fiestas had been built and buyers who wouldn’t have considered the company’s Escort and Cortina were beating a path to Ford showrooms.

The car’s diminutive size was perfect in Europe but it was considered decidedly odd in when it arrived in the USA in 1978 for a short run which came to an end in 1980. Ford’s smallest US offering, the Pinto, looked huge by comparison and seemed to offer much better value for money that the German-built Fiesta, which had a 1600cc engine and round headlamps for its US outing.

This engine (in much hotter form) next appeared in Europe, together with round headlamps, in a sporty Fiesta called the XR2, beloved of city “yuppies” and boy-racers alike. With extra lights, matt black trim, spoilers and bright colours it was a huge another huge marketing success, underlining that the Fiesta was more than just a cheap little runabout.

If anything, the original Fiesta was just so good that Ford couldn’t bear to change it very much, and that was its ultimate downfall. In the UK, beleaguered British Leyland scored a rare success with its Fiesta competitor , the 1980 Austin Metro, which was even smaller and more space-efficient and could also be had as a five-door as well as in a sports version with an MG badge. Soon after launch it was outselling Ford’s finest.

In 1983 GM finally woke up and introduced its first supermini, the Vauxhall Nova/Opel Corsa, a full seven years after the Fiesta debuted. By this time, competitors like the new Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205 were also snapping hard at the Ford’s heels.

The Mark 1 gained a drastic facelift in 1983, with a much heavier new nose (in the more fashionable aerodynamic style of the era) and an upgraded interior. In this form it sold for another six years until being replaced by an all-new model for 1989.

Looking at an original Fiesta alongside the soon-to-be-introduced new global version it’s clear that they are poles apart, not least in size (and I’m just talking about the hatchback, leaving aside the even longer saloon version).

In Europe the new car has a loyal fan base and will undoubtedly do well and should be a more interesting choice than Fiestas of late. It’s unlikely, though, that it will dominate its class like its ancestor did for a time.

In North America, the original Fiesta’s fleeting existence means the model has no such heritage so it will be a clean sheet for Ford.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Andy Bannister

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3 Comments

  1. When I was in high school lo those many years ago I wanted a 1980 Fiesta. Knew exactly which one, too: Valencia orange with black stripes down the hood and along the rocker panels. I would get the black seats with the orange racing stripes down the middle. OK, I was a high schooler… taste comes with age. Probably a good thing I didnt have the money for it.

    Now, I’d get a 3-door hatch (please, Ford, don’t force-feed a sedan on us) in a dark purple (darker than the raspberry color Ford painted the Verve concept in), if possible. No stripes this time.

    At least for me the “Fiesta” name still has fond memories associated with it.

  2. I timed (hopefully) my Fusion lease to expire right when the Fiesta becomes available. I’ll take the sedan with a 1.4L Ecoboost turbo please…

  3. I love the new Fiesta. I think it looks fantastic and it’s just the thing for the current gasoline prices. I will be at the local Ford agency here in Denver the first week the cars hit the pavement and I hope it’s everything I think it’s going to be, because if it is, I’l be owning one.

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