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Happy Birthday: Ford Fiesta

Published 18 July 2016

If life begins at 40, then the humble Ford Fiesta hasn’t really got going yet – and that’s despite seven generations and almost 17 million sales worldwide.

The Blue Oval’s original supermini turns 40 this summer, with the first deliveries taking place in the long, hot summer of 1976 – though it would be January 1977 before it became widely available in the UK due to demand outstripping supply in most of mainland Europe.

The Mk 1 Fiesta was also Ford of Europe’s first truly collaborative car. Codenamed ‘Bobcat’. Much of the engineering as carried out in Cologne, Germany, and Dunton, Essex, and it was the smallest car ever made by Ford. Engines were built in the UK and Spain, transmissions in France, with final assembly at both Dagenham in Essex and Valencia in Spain.

Development of the model began in 1972, after the Fiat 127 and Renault 5 were well received by the motoring media, and went on to become hugely popular, thus proving that small hatchbacks had their place. That initial caution of four decades ago was clearly misplaced, as today the B-segment, as it has become known, is the biggest and most hotly contested part of the European car market – with France, Germany, Spain and the UK all having B-segment best sellers.

Ford Fiesta Mk1

The Fiesta was also to be Ford’s first mainstream foray into front-wheel-drive. It had experimented with it in the Taunus 17M in Western Europe in the mid-1960s with limited success – but the Fiesta would be the car that set the precedent for all of the brand’s future compact car packaging, in Europe and beyond.

Over the years, it was sold variously in Europe, Asia, the USA, Japan, South America, India and Africa, making it one of Ford’s biggest worldwide nameplates.

Styled by Dutch-American Tom Tjaarda at Italian styling house, Ghia (yet more global flavour thrown into the mix), the Fiesta quickly found favour as one of the smartest and most modern small car designs. Indeed, in 1984 when the Mk 2 Fiesta appeared, the Mk 1 still looked pretty contemporary alongside the likes of the Austin Metro and Vauxhall Nova, both of which were much newer designs.

Back at the car’s launch, however, 1984 was still a long way off, and the Fiesta had plenty of fans to win over, most of whom were traditionally used to simple rear-drive three-box saloons. Was convincing them to buy a smaller car, with front-wheel-drive and a hatchback going to be easy?

Ford Fiesta Mk 1 (2)

The answer was a resounding yes. The Fiesta was an instant hit. Initially available in Europe with 957cc or 1,117cc versions of the Valencia engine, itself a development of that found in the Anglia, it came in Base (read, thoroughly miserable), Popular, Popular Plus, L, GL, Ghia and S trims, while a van was introduced later.

The first sporting Fiesta came along in late 1979, for the 1980 model year, and was badged ‘Supersport’, complete RS four-spoke alloys, mesh headrests and lairy seat fabrics. The Supersport was powered by the 1.3-litre Kent Crossflow engine, making it extremely easy to tune.

From then onwards, hot Fiestas would be a permanent fixture of the range. The first XR2 appeared in late 1981, and was powered by a 1.6-litre version of the Crossflow, making it an arguably better car than the Mk2 XR2, which came along in 1984 and was powered by the CVH engine, which was never regarded as Ford’s finest hour.

The Mk 2 XR2 was a huge success, though, as it looked fantastic on its pepperpot alloys, with wide arches, and was perfectly aligned with the Eighties love for hot hatches, even if it wasn’t the best of the bunch to drive.

Ford Fiesta XR2i

Indeed, no Mk 2 Fiesta was a thriller. The model was really little more than a facelift, with an identical bodyshell and new, rounder panels for the front and rear. New seats and a full-size dashboard gave it a much more modern feel inside, but the basic car was little different from that which went before. The powertrains in smaller engine variants were unchanged, though the 957cc unit was only offered in the Popular (which, although its name suggested otherwise, wasn’t…). Further up the range there was a 1.3 Kent engine, and new for the Mk2 were Ford’s CVH units in 1.4 (Ghia and semi-sporting S) and 1.6 (XR2) capacities. There was also a 1.6 diesel, for those who liked their motoring properly miserable.

In 1989 came the biggest change since Fiesta’s introduction, with the launch of the Mk 3. This answered one of the biggest criticisms of its predecessor by bringing in a five-door body shell; something the Peugeot 205, Rover Metro, Fiat Uno and Vauxhall Nova has offered for several years.

It also came with a much more modern look, with an aerodynamic nose and distinctive trapezoid profile that still looks quite contemporary today. The interior was vastly improved and made into a much more civilised place to be. Indeed, the Fiesta had grown up somewhat – albeit at the expense of driver appeal. The Mk 3 was never a great car to drive, but it was a massive showroom success.

It also worked far better as a hot hatch, with first the XR2, then the RS1800 and finally the RS Turbo starting off a new breed of Fiesta that’s largely reflected in the ST models of today.

Ford Fiesta RS1800

The basic Mk 3 bodyshell remained for both the Mk 4 and Mk 5 Fiestas that followed, although these were significantly sharpened up in the handling department, along with a fabulous 1,25-litr eengine co-developed with motorbike maker Yamaha, before the Mk 6 came along in 2001 to move the game on further.

Now in its seventh generation, the Fiesta is a civilised, desirable and comfortable car, with excellent handling and ride comfort. It may have taken a while to get there, but it still won millions of fans along the way.

There are very few people in Britain, if any, who haven’t driven or been driven in a Fiesta at some point in their lives. It’s part of the fabric of British society, and a genuine icon. And given that it still tops the UK’s sales charts after 40 years, it’s far from over the hill. Happy Birthday old chum…

04 Fiesta 40th Mk 1 Dagenham -001

Comments

Don1988    on 21 July 2016

In 1978 my friend was given a 1.0L Fiesta as a company car. it was great fun and only seemed to know one speed on the motorway - an indicated 100 mph which meant the speedo must have been well out.

I never thought about safety when I was the passenger. At the age of 21 wearing a front seat belt felt constrictive and of course there were no rear belts. Goodness knows what what have happened at top speed with four in the car if we'd hit anything.

It seemed to love being thrashed through the gears and driven as fast as possible. In fact it only broke down (we heard) after it was sold on. Perhaps the new owner was trying to drive it sedately.

It was the car that sticks most happily in my mind during the Summer of 1979 involving the trips to the coast with disco music (yep Earth Wind and Fire) blaring out of the separately fitted stereo. Happy days.

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