Ford Fiesta A Quart Of Performance In A Pint-Sized Container (1978-1980)Right from the mid-'60s, Ford Motor Company has toyed with bringing versions of its European models to the United States. The Cortina, the Capri, the ill-fated Merkur Scorpio and XR4Ti models all spring to mind as cars whose brief visits to these shores were cut short, seemingly before their time. To that list you can add a car that might have been the best of the bunch. The Ford Fiesta was an international best-seller whose basic goodness and significant subsequent development made it an international sales success, and a car whose fifth generation continues in production today.
The BeginningAs early as 1969, Ford of Europe realized it needed a fuel-efficient small car. Previous attempts at designing this so-called B-class car were based upon existing models and thus were far too expensive to manufacture for a profit. A clean sheet approach was finally adopted for a new front-wheel-drive car that would compete with other small cars like the Fiat 127 and Renault 5. Right from the start, the Fiesta (code named "Bobcat" within Ford) was destined for worldwide sales, including providing Ford of Europe with an expanded presence in the North American market. The energy crisis of 1973 and the launch of the VW Golf (Rabbit) and Polo in 1975 fueled Ford's fire and the design for the Fiesta, done by Ghia in Torino under Tom Tjaarda, was well underway.
LaunchThe Ford Fiesta was introduced in Europe in 1976 with 950cc, 1.1-liter and 1.3-liter four-cylinder engines. Production took place in the Saarlouis, Germany, and Valencia, Spain, Ford plants. Production began in Dagenham, England in 1977. Sales began relatively slowly, with the Fiesta taking only 18.1% of Ford's Germany sales in 1977. By August 1979, the Fiesta was the best selling Ford in Germany, taking 29.1% of sales. In the period of 1978-1980, the Ford Fiesta was the best selling car of any make in Spain.
Coming To AmericaThe original intent was to launch the Fiesta in the States at the same time as Europe, but it actually came here in August of 1977. There were numerous changes to the basic Fiesta when it came to our shores. The most important improvement was the use of the 1.6-liter "Kent" four-cylinder engine. This engine was well-known from its use in the Ford Pinto and from Formula Ford competition and made around 60 hp at 5500 rpm. It was attached to a four-speed manual transmission (no automatic was offered) that powered the front wheels. The front suspension was MacPherson strut based, while the rear was held up with a simple beam axle. Front disc brakes and rear drums were adequate, unlike the wimpy 12-inch tires, which were difficult to upgrade to tires with higher performance capability. The U.S. version of the Fiesta had round headlights and bigger bumpers than its European counterparts. The 1977 price for a base Fiesta was $3,450, while the more fully equipped Fiesta Ghia went for $4,200. Ford sold 81,273 Fiestas in 1978. In 1979, sales were 77,733 and in 1980, the car's last year here, it sold 68,841.
What's It Like?In a word, fun. Fiestas feel light and nimble and the big and torquey 1.6-liter engine gives real performance to such a small car. Acceleration was excellent for the day, with zero-to-60-mph times around 10 seconds, pretty close to what a much more sophisticated VW Rabbit would do. Handling is benign in stock form (understeer), but adding a big rear anti-roll bar, stiffer shocks and upgrading to 13-inch wheels and tires (Ford Escort wheels fit) can make the Fiesta into an autocross terror. More than a few of the little cars have been modified for competition in Improved Touring where they compete in the ITC category.
Which One To BuyAny one. Take your choice. They're all the same. The Fiesta had no significant changes during its all-too-brief time in the United States. Ford brought 300,000 of these cars into this country, but a surprisingly small number are seen on the road today. The engines are robust and the transmissions are strong, and there isn't much to go wrong with the cars. So what's really important is to find one with a solid body, as structural rust is a real problem (as it is with so many European cars from the 1970s). The interiors are flimsy and cheap and it will be hard to find a car that looks decent, inside and out, but they are out there. Fiestas are not exactly collector cars, so prices are as cheap as free to around $3,000 for a low-mileage creampuff. Racecars occasionally come for sale, and often can be had for less than $2,000. Parts are available and at least one specialist, BAT Inc. in Sarasota, Fla. (www.batinc.net) can help with O.E. parts and upgrades and modifications. With the continuing popularity of the car in Europe (especially in Great Britain), there are plenty of performance parts available to make a Fiesta go faster, handle better and look sharper.
What Happened?The Fiesta left the U.S. market at the end of 1980. No clear reason was ever given, although the car would have been a tough competitor for Ford's own front-wheel-drive, U.S.-built Escort model. That's a pity, because the Fiesta may have been the most completely realized car that Ford ever built. It never promised more than what it was and it delivered far more than it ever promised. Although the Fiesta left the United States, it remained popular around the rest of the world. It was revised to become the Fiesta II in 1983, and went through periodic updates and versions until the fifth generation, which continues today. It has become one of Ford's all-time best sellers.
Why Would You Want One?With the price of gasoline ever increasing, buying a fun-to-drive, practical, two-door hatchback that can get 30 mpg would seem a no-brainer. Fiestas fit that bill admirably and the initial purchase price should be cheap enough to allow you to make some upgrades (tires, interior) and still have change back from two grand. To be sure, the Fiesta's engine is busy on the highway, wind noise is significant and creature comforts are limited, but think of how you'll smile as you drive past the gas lines.