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Happy Birthday: Ford Ka

Published 17 October 2016
  
  

Launched in the autumn of 1996, the Ka was the first car to usher in Ford’s ‘New Edge’ styling philosophy, which would be translated yet further with the launch of the Focus in 1998. The Ka’s exterior appearance was the work of the then 30-year old Chris Svensson, who had designed a similar looking city car as his graduation project from the Royal College of Art. Today, the Sunderland-born designer heads up the exterior styling team at Ford’s US headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, such is the respect that Ford’s senior management had for his execution.

At launch, the Ka polarised opinions. It’s hard to imagine the impact it made today because the car is (or certainly was) such a ubiquitous sight on our roads, but the Ka’s striking triangularity wasn’t something that had been seen on a small car before. In profile, it looked a bit like a teapot, while the chunky black plastic bumpers contained a special stabilising dye to prevent them from fading in the sun. Later models had body coloured bumpers to match the trends of the time, but were made from a different material, and several owners (and used car dealers) found out the hard way that the treatment agent in the plastic meant no paint would adhere to them…

Inside, the cabin was basic, but equally funky, while one of the Ka’s standout features was its removable glovebox, which sat in a tray in the car’s dash and could be removed to double up as the owner’s lunchbox. A neat idea that really needs to be repeated, especially on cars designed for urban commuting.

Indeed, city commuting was what the Ka did best. Although it was strikingly modern to look at, under the bonnet it used the old Ford ‘Valencia’ engine, which could trace its roots back to the 1959 Anglia and was hardly high tech. It was willing enough and blissfully simple to maintain, but lacked the performance and refinement of most modern units. Nevertheless, it kept the Ka cheap to build and own, and certainly had no impact on sales.

Ford Ka

It was an entertaining thing to drive, too. The platform was derived from that of the Mk 4 Fiesta, which had won universal praise for being a big step forward from the Mk 3, despite being based on essentially the same bodyshell. In many ways, it was reminiscent of the original Mini – small, noisy, but set up in such a way that you could chuck it into the bends without really slowing down, which made for an entertaining drive, especially when nipping in and out of traffic.

As a piece of design, then, the Ka was brilliant. It was reliable, too. But, unfortunately, it seems that very few will survive to become classics thanks to an unenviable reputation for rot. Whereas most manufacturers were finally getting to grips with corrosion resistance in the 1990s, especially the French, Swedish and, believe it or not, the Italians, Ford was very much at the mercy of its accountants. It’s almost as if the Ka body was built to last as long as the six-year anti-corrosion warranty before disappearing in a shower of brick red dust.

What’s more, those huge bumpers do it no favours, as the Ka slowly dissolves away behind them. By the time a handful of rust bubbles start to appear around the rear quarter panel, chances are the lower section of the bodywork will already have disappeared, and by that point, it’s game over. You may get a couple of years’ worth of MoT bodges to keep one on the road, but until the Ka has really attained classic status, there’s no incentive to reshell one. Time will tell if it develops the cult following of other small cars that mobilised generations, though we can but hope.

Ford Ka Kylie Minogue

The Ford Ka had it's fair share of celebrity endorsements, including one from pop princess Kylie Minogue.

Meanwhile, rampant corrosion isn’t doing much for the Ka’s attrition rate. At the height of the model’s popularity in 2006, there were almost 400,000 of them registered on UK roads. Today, there are less than 75,000, and that’s an alarming half the number there were in 2012.

With the number of surviving Kas in freefall, now’s the time to seek out a good one, ideally a low mileage example that has been garaged from new. And if you do find one, fill it full of rustproofing wax and put it away somewhere, because one day, it’ll be a very rare car indeed. If the Ka deserves one thing to mark its 20th birthday, it’s for at least a handful of good ones to be preserved, as icons of brilliant design and a celebration of 1990s Britain.

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