In mid-1972, a new product planning and research team headed by Hal Sperlich, with Alex Trotman in charge of planning and Don DeLaRossa overseeing styling, began developing mockups of various FWD and RWD B-segment cars. Inevitably, a major focus of the project, which received the official codename “Bobcat” in October, was cost analysis. The goal was to undercut the price of the Escort by at least $100, something that promised to be a tall order.
Since the hugely successful launch of the Mustang, Ford had put great stock in market research, so the Bobcat project went through several rounds of consumer marketing clinics. The results convinced the development team that the potential market was even bigger than they’d thought — their sales projections rose to more than 450,000 units a year, two-thirds of which were expected to be to first-time Ford customers — and that front-wheel drive, though expensive, was the only way to go. A RWD alternative called Cheetah (based on a cut-down RWD Escort) fared poorly with clinic participants.
Meanwhile, Ford was pondering the production question. Henry Ford II had already committed to building a new transmission factory in France and Ford executives had made overtures to General Francisco Franco’s ministry of industry and economic planning about opening production in Spain. The latter was a challenge; under Franco, Spain was a staunchly protectionist market. The dominant automotive players in Spain at the time were Renault and SEAT (Sociedad Española de Automoviles de Turismo), then controlled by FIAT, which were among the few companies able to meet Spain’s stringent 95% local content requirement.
In 1972, Ford convinced the Franco government to relax some of those requirements and allow Ford to build a new factory complex in Almusafes, near Valencia, which would eventually have capacity for 280,000 cars and 400,000 engines a year. Ford established a Spanish subsidiary in the fall of 1973, about three months after opening its new transmission plant in Bordeaux. Groundbreaking for the Almusafes facility followed in early 1974.
The Bobcat did not yet have a clear styling direction; the mockups the development team had been using for cost analysis and consumer clinics were intended to define the basic package rather than establish any particular look or design theme. Iacocca, always keen to have multiple options, ordered a three-way contest between Ford’s design studios in Dunton (then led by Jack Telnack) and Merkenich (headed by Uwe Bahnsen) and the designers at Ghia, in which Ford had recently acquired a majority stake. The whole process was overseen by Ford of Europe design VP Joe Oros, the one-time George Walker associate whom Ford fans will recall was responsible for (among other things) the rocket exhaust taillights that were a signature feature of most U.S. Fords until the mid-sixties.
The winning design, approved in the fall of 1973, appears to have been based primarily on a design study by Ghia chief stylist Tom Tjaarda (in profile, the resemblance is hard to miss), although the finished product amalgamated elements of all three studios’ work. The design would not be finalized until late 1975 and would receive various additional tweaks, some driven by wind tunnel testing — still not common practice at Ford in those days.
According to Iacocca, even at this stage, there was still considerable reticence about actually producing the Bobcat. The project had some compelling points, chief among them the prospect of building cars in Spain, but the Bobcat represented the largest single product investment Ford had ever made. Finance remained dead-set against it and Sperlich believed the same was true of Philip Caldwell, who became president of Ford of Europe in 1972. Caldwell’s successor, Bill Bourke, had a more favorable attitude, in part because of the OPEC oil embargo that began in late 1973, but the doubters and dissenters were not yet silenced.
Despite those reservations, the board of directors gave formal approval for the project in December 1973. The start of pilot production was set for mid-1976.
THE BOBCAT BECOMES THE FIESTA
Over the previous decade and a half, the Ford Motor Company had displayed a knack for identifying or creating new niches, but this time, Ford was leaping somewhat late into an increasingly crowded market. With so much at stake, the company was in no mood to take chances.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Bobcat emerged as a very conventional small FWD car. The only really unusual mechanical feature Ford considered, a novel type of torsion bar front suspension, was discarded in mid-1974 as too risky for production. The Bobcat was hardly a copy of any of its principal targets — which initially included the Fiat 127 and later the new Volkswagen Polo and Audi 50 — but there was nothing about it that would have seemed out of place on the spec sheets of its competitors.
Nonetheless, the Bobcat scored well in marketing clinics against those rivals. Ford officials were similarly pleased with the prototypes, early drivable examples of which were completed in the fall of 1974. There were various minor changes throughout 1974 and 1975, many stemming from the ongoing struggle to find the right balance between cost and content.
One of the ongoing questions about the Bobcat was what to call the production car. Ford could conceivably have called it Bobcat, but the company was already using that name for Mercury’s version of the compact Pinto, which would have presented problems if the new car was to be sold in the U.S. market. After considering and rejecting a lengthy list of possible names, including Bravo, Amigo, Metro, and Sierra, Henry Ford II chose Fiesta and convinced General Motors chairman Tom Murphy to release the name, which GM owned, but hadn’t actually used in some years.
There had been ongoing rumors in the press about the Bobcat project since at least 1973, but it was not until December 1975 that Ford formally announced the new model, now officially known as the Ford Fiesta.
MK1 FIESTA SPECIFICATIONS
In dimensions and specifications, the Mk1 Fiesta was positioned squarely in the middle of the contemporary B-segment. The Fiesta’s 90-inch (2,286mm) wheelbase was shorter than those of the Renault 5, Peugeot 104, or Volkswagen Polo, but longer than the Fiat 127’s; the Fiesta’s overall length, 140.4 inches (3,565 mm) without bumper guards, made it a bit longer than the Renault or the Polo. (All, of course, were substantially smaller than C-segment cars like the Escort, Chrysler Horizon, or Volkswagen Golf.) There was only one body style, a three-door hatchback, although a van version with no rear quarter windows was added later.
While some rivals used torsion bar springs, the Mk1 Fiesta had coil springs all around. The front suspension was Ford’s customary “track control arm” (TCA) layout of MacPherson struts and lower control arms located by longitudinal compression links. Unlike the early Mk1 Escort, the Fiesta mounted its compression links ahead of the axle line rather than behind it, with no front anti-roll bar, and had a negative scrub radius to promote stability under braking. The rear suspension used a simple beam axle located by trailing links and a Panhard rod. The optional sport suspension added a rear anti-roll bar (though still no front bar) and stiffer springs and shocks.
To minimize costs and reduce unsprung weight, 12-inch wheels were initially standard on all Mk1 Fiestas, although wider wheels and fatter tires were optional. Brakes were front discs and rear drums with an optional vacuum servo.
At launch, all Mk1 Fiestas used a new version of the familiar Kent four. The Fiesta was still all-iron, but had a new cylinder head atop a shorter, stiffer, somewhat lighter block with smaller cylinder bores and a new crankshaft with three main bearings rather than five, trading a certain amount of smoothness for reduced internal friction. A longitudinal leading strut limited the engine’s motion on its mounts.
The three-bearing engine was offered in two sizes: 957 cc (58 cu. in.) or 1,117 cc (68 cu. in.). For production convenience, both shared the same 73.96mm (2.91-inch) bore, but the larger engine was stroked from 55.70 mm (2.19 inches) to 64.98 mm (2.56 inches). With a single-throat Ford “sonic idle” carburetor and an 8.3:1 compression ratio, the base “950 LC” engine made 40 PS (29 kW) DIN; the high-compression (9.0:1) “950 HC” version added an extra 5 PS (4 kW), but required premium fuel. The bigger “1100” engine, also with 9.0 compression, made 53 PS (39 kW) DIN.
The sole transmission was a four-speed manual gearbox driving a separate differential via helical spur gears. Cars with the three-bearing engine had unequal-length halfshafts, the shorter fitted with a harmonic damper; Rzeppa-type CV joints were fitted at each end. Overall gearing was short to make the most of the available power, with final drive ratios of 4.29 for the 950 HC, 4.06 for the 950 LC and 1100.
While Ford’s recent European models had been produced in both the U.K. and Germany, the Fiesta’s components and even its body panels were sourced from factories throughout Ford’s European empire, in theory allowing Ford to capitalize on the most favorable available labor conditions and also win political points with the governments of various nations. This was not a unique approach (FIAT did the same thing with the 127, whose drivetrains were built in Brazil), but it was new for Ford.
MK1 FIESTA LAUNCH
Mk1 Fiesta pilot production began in May 1976 with the press introduction in June. The new car went on sale in Europe in September, although RHD cars weren’t available until February 1977. The roll-out was marked by one of Ford’s customarily aggressive all-fronts marketing assaults, leaving even the most casual observer with no doubt that Ford had entered the B-segment in force.
Given all the hype, it was no great surprise that the press was somewhat underwhelmed by the product itself. Some reviewers groused that even with all the time and money invested in the Fiesta’s development — the cost, including the Almusafes facility, came out to around $1 billion — Ford had not notably advanced the state of the art. The Mk1 Fiesta was competitive but not class-leading in any single respect, falling somewhat short of the French in ride quality, the Germans in general solidity, and the Italians in joie de vivre.
On the other hand, the Fiesta also had no glaring flaws, something that could not be said of many of its contemporaries. Small cars of the time were often endearing in certain respects and inept or infuriating in others; there was certainly room in the market for a competent generalist that sacrificed outright brilliance for reasonable all-around capability.
This is not to say that the Mk1 Fiesta had no shortcomings. The driving position and outward visibility were good, but base models suffered cheap non-reclining seats and poor interior ventilation, particularly if you didn’t order the optional swing-out vent windows. The trunk had a low liftover height, but mounting the spare tire beneath the floor cut into usable cargo room unless you folded the rear seat flat. Road noise wasn’t bad for the class (particularly on pricier models, which had extra sound insulation), but the three-bearing engines became quite loud when pushed hard. Over time, rust also became a problem.
Even with less than 1,600 lb (725 kg) of curb weight, no early Fiesta was especially quick. With the basic low-compression 957 cc (58 cu. in.) engine, the 0-60 mph (0-100 km/h) sprint took almost 20 seconds and top speed was only about 80 mph (130 km/h). The 1,117 cc (68 cu. in.) engine boosted top speed to 87-88 mph (140-142 km/h), although independent testers found Ford’s claim of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 14 seconds to be optimistic by at least a second. Nonetheless, the Fiesta was fun to drive within its modest limits. With its sport suspension and wider wheels and tires, the Fiesta S was a bit more capable, but the stiffer springs and additional unsprung weight took a noticeable toll on ride quality, which in any case was not as compliant as that of the Renault 5 or Peugeot 104.
Predictably, the Fiesta’s prices put it in the thick of the competition, although the Ford had no commanding price advantage over key rivals. In Germany, a Fiesta 1000 with the low-compression 957 cc engine started at 8,440 DM, 115 DM (about $45) more than a Volkswagen Polo N, while in the U.K., the same Fiesta bowed at £1,856 with tax, £42 (about $75) less than a basic Fiat 127 Special. The 1100S and Ghia were substantially costlier, climbing to £2,657 (almost $4,700) for the latter — £126 (roughly $225) above the quicker, more powerful Renault 5 TS. Interestingly, the Fiesta’s prices overlapped the lower half of the Escort range; a well-equipped Fiesta S or Ghia could easily cost more than a low-line Escort, implying that the Fiesta did indeed cost more to manufacture.
While the Mk1 Fiesta was not a conceptual breakthrough, it was aptly timed and proved an immediate success. It took Ford only 14 months to sell 500,000 copies and just 13 months more to reach 1 million. Demand sometimes exceeded supply, particularly during the energy crisis that followed the 1979 Iranian revolution.