THE FIESTA COMES TO AMERICA
The Mk1 Fiesta also came to America, although like a reluctant party guest, it arrived late and left early.
Had it not been for the new federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements included in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) in late 1975, it’s not at all clear that there would have been a U.S. Fiesta at all. While American buyers’ interest in smaller, more fuel-efficient cars perked up considerably in the wake of the 1973 OPEC embargo, even European D-segment sedans like the Cortina were considered dinky by American standards. Ford already had the Pinto and the Maverick for the domestic small car market and both were doing well.
However, the CAFE standards added a new complication, requiring manufacturers to achieve a minimum fleet-wide average fuel economy — starting at 18 mpg (13.1 L/100 km) for 1978 and 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km) for 1979 — or pay substantial penalties. In practical terms, that meant that if an automaker was to sell a significant number of big, thirsty cars, they had to be offset by more frugal ones.
Faced with that requirement, federalizing the Fiesta suddenly made more sense. The new law set limits on how many imported cars could be counted toward each automaker’s domestic averages, but each Fiesta sold in the U.S. would still go a long way toward offsetting Ford’s bigger, more profitable LTDs and Thunderbirds.
The benefit would have been even greater if Ford could have built Fiestas in the U.S. or Canada, but considering how much the company had already on the Bobcat project, neither Henry Ford II nor the Finance staff was especially eager to take on the additional expense of retooling Ford’s North American plants. Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich also recognized that the European Fiesta was really too small for American tastes.
Sperlich and Iacocca’s proposed solution was to create a bigger spin-off of the Fiesta’s FWD platform for the U.S. market, using powertrains supplied by Honda. Honda was interested, but the plan went over poorly with Henry Ford II, who, according to Iacocca, balked at the idea of a Japanese engine in a Ford car. The deal fell apart and Sperlich was terminated in November 1976.
In hindsight, it appears that Henry’s objections had more to do with his deteriorating relationship with Iacocca than with the merits of the idea. Ford eventually authorized a U.S. version of the front-wheel-drive Mk3 Escort, which, while not exactly the enlarged Fiesta that Iacocca and Sperlich had proposed, nonetheless leveraged the work Ford had done on the Fiesta and shared some of the same components. In 1979, after Iacocca’s departure, Ford acquired an equity stake in the Japanese automaker Toyo Kogyo (Mazda), which would provide transmissions and later share engines and even platforms with some Ford vehicles.
THE FEDERAL FIESTA
In the interim, Ford developed a U.S. version of the Mk1 Fiesta, built at the Saarlouis plant in West Germany with U.S.-sourced glass, electrical systems, and other minor components. U.S.-bound cars also acquired the federally mandated 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers, which brought the Fiesta’s overall length to 147.1 inches (3,736 mm).
Rather than try to adapt the Fiesta’s European engines for U.S. emissions standards, which probably would have sapped much of the three-bearing engines’ already limited power, Ford opted to install a catalyzed version of the bigger 1,598 cc (98 cu. in.) Kent four. With a compression ratio of 8.5:1, the 1.6-liter engine produced 66 hp (49 kW) SAE and 82 lb-ft (111 N-m) of torque in U.S.-legal form.
Fitting the somewhat larger and heavier five-bearing engine into the Fiesta engine bay entailed some front-end changes, the most notable being the adoption of equal-length halfshafts (via a countershaft from the differential with its own universal joint). The larger engine was accompanied by a taller top gear (0.88 rather than the European cars’ 0.96) and a taller 3.58 axle ratio, allowing more relaxed cruising and pushing the engine’s boomy resonance period well above legal U.S. highway speeds.
Even with taller gearing and more mass — curb weight of the U.S. Fiesta S was listed as 1,835 lb (832 kg), about 185 lb (84 kg) more than a European 1100S — the federalized Fiesta was a good deal quicker than its European counterparts, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 11 seconds and a top speed of around 100 mph (160 km/h). The bigger engine brought little penalty in fuel economy, although engine noise was still high.
The U.S. Fiesta went on sale in August 1977, arriving to generally positive reviews and healthy buyer interest. However, importing federalized cars from Germany imposed some practical limits on U.S. sales. One was plant capacity; with such strong demand for the Fiesta in Europe, Ford decided to cap Saarlouis production of the federalized car so that it would not cut into European sales. Another issue was that German production left the Fiesta vulnerable to fluctuations in the relative values of the dollar and the Deutschmark, making it hard to keep prices low. At launch, a U.S.-market base Fiesta listed for only $3,680, but base price spiked by almost 15% for 1979, pitting the Fiesta against some bigger, roomier C-segment cars like the FWD Plymouth Horizon and the RWD Chevrolet Chevette.
A third issue, and the one that ultimately set the pace for U.S. Fiesta sales, was the CAFE limits. Ford had allotted enough plant capacity to build up to 100,000 federalized cars per year, but under the formula established by the EPCA (15 USC 2003), anything beyond the company’s “includable base import volume” — which for Ford was 75,200 units for MY1978 and probably a comparable number for MY1979 — would be treated as a separate import fleet for CAFE purposes. For the 1980 model year and beyond, Ford’s domestic fuel economy average could only include cars with at least 75% U.S. and/or Canadian content.
Ford could have alleviated most of these issues by setting up a North American production line for the Fiesta, but with development of the U.S.-market Escort already well underway, that wasn’t going to happen. The imported Fiesta remained in the Ford lineup only through the 1980 model year, bridging the gap until the Escort was ready, but disappeared before January 1981. Production of the U.S.-spec Mk1 Fiesta totaled 263,398 units.
The Fiesta wouldn’t return to the States for more than 25 years, although for a time, the cheaper Korean-built, Mazda-based Ford Festiva occupied a similar place in Ford’s U.S. lineup.
FIESTA 1300S AND HEALEY FIESTA
Shortly after the U.S. Fiesta went on sale, Ford also added the first European Mk1 Fiesta model with the five-bearing Kent engine: the Fiesta 1300S and 1300 Ghia, powered by the 1,298 cc (79 cu. in.) engine also found in the Capri, Cortina, and Escort 1300. With 9.2:1 compression and a two-throat Weber 32/32 DFT carburetor, the Fiesta 1300 was nearly as powerful as the bigger U.S. engine, with 66 PS (49 kW) DIN, but couldn’t match the larger engine’s torque. The 1300 also included a taller (3.84) axle ratio.
The extra power was appreciated, but the Fiesta 1300S was still not a hot hatch. It was capable of an advertised and realistic 98 mph (158 km/h), but independent testers once again failed to equal Ford’s claimed 10.7-second 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time, which meant the Fiesta was still no match for the 1,397 cc (85 cu. in.) Renault 5 Alpine/Gordini. The 1300S also wasn’t substantially quicker than a well-tuned 1100S like the contemporary Jansport 1100 or the limited-production Fiesta Special offered in the German market in 1979, which extracted 70 PS (52 kW) DIN from the 1,117 cc (68 cu. in.) engine.
Surprisingly, Ford did not rush to install the bigger 1,598 cc (98 cu. in.) engine in the European Fiesta, although that move would have given performance a shot in the arm and been a boon to racers campaigning the Fiesta in Group 1 competition. Since the advent of the U.S. Fiesta, teams had been able to use the bigger engine, but Group 1 rules limited them to the restrictive federalized cylinder head, a serious performance handicap. In 1979, the Ford works rally team ran two more extensively modified 1.6-liter Group 2 Fiestas making close to 100 hp/liter, but the cars were underdeveloped and the results disappointing.
In 1978, at the suggestion of a Detroit-area businessman named Gary Kohs, Ford commissioned England’s Donald Healey to develop a sporty Healey Fiesta concept car. This was based on the U.S. Fiesta, but used the freer-breathing cylinder head from the Escort 1600 Sport (and the old Escort Mexico and Cortina GT) and had various performance modifications, including 10.0:1 compression, a hotter camshaft, a Weber 32/36 DGV carburetor, and a low-restriction exhaust system. The engine’s estimated 105 hp (78 kW) SAE was matched with an upgraded chassis, fatter tires on 6Jx13 Minilite wheels, and a roll cage.
Only a single Healey Fiesta prototype was built, painted British Racing Green with gold wheels and pinstripes. Ford exhibited it at various auto shows in 1979 and allowed U.S. automotive writers to drive it, but it was never intended for production. Even if it had been, it probably wouldn’t have been offered in the States (since Ford had already decided to drop the U.S. Fiesta once the FWD Escort was ready) and in any case wouldn’t have been street legal there in the form exhibited; the prototype had no emissions equipment.