35 years of the Ford Fiesta

This isn’t one of the ‘big’ anniversaries of 2011 – most people are focussed on the Jaguar E-Type – but the Ford Fiesta is arguably much more important.

Fiesta L

Yes, it really has been 35 years since the Fiesta was launched

Launched in 1976, the little Fiesta was the  first front-wheel drive Ford to be produced across Europe (Germany had experimented with the front-wheel drive Taunus as early as 1962) and the Blue Oval’s first supermini. It was rare for Ford to move so quickly to jump into a market – conservatism generally ruled the roost, as would be proved by the Ford Sierra remaining rear-wheel drive into the 1990s. In 1976, the supermini market was still really finding its feet. The Fiat 127 and Renault 5 were early pioneers, but British Leyland did not have anything in this class, and nor did Vauxhall/Opel.

The Fiesta used a transverse engine mounted transversely, with the gearbox on the end of the engine and unequal-length driveshafts powering the front wheels. This was the classic layout used to such good effect by Dante Giacosa first with the little-known Autobianchi Primula, then the Fiat 128 and 127 saloon and hatchbacks. The engines were modified versions of the Kent engine first seen in the Anglia 105E and even the 957cc version gave perky performance and respectable-if-busy motorway ability. A ‘dead’ rear beam axle used coil springs to offer good handling and ride while the obligatory hatchback made this a practical little car indeed. The world was fast learning that a small car needn’t be as cramped nor actually quite as small as a Mini…

UK sales did not actually commence until January 1977 but the Fiesta was arguably Ford’s first ‘world car.’ Built in Spain and Germany as well as Great Britain, the Fiesta would even find itself sold in America for a time. This helped it reach the magic million as soon as 1979.

The Ghia was surprisingly plush for a small car, with tinted glass, alloy wheels and velour seats, but enthusiasts were enamoured by the XR2 of 1981. With a 1.6-litre engine and 100mph+ performance, it was an excellent hot hatch. Mk1 production came to an end in 1983 with the mildly facelifted Mk2 taking over for the next five years.

Engine bay

'Valencia' engine mounted transversely

Trying to please everyone – don’t bother!

Consumerism can be a right pain in the backside. I hold it directly responsible not just for making undesirable fat cats very wealthy, but also ruining just about everything.

Consider cars. Even just a few decades ago, you could identify quite a few cars just by listening to then. A Citroen 2CV sounds very different to a Ford Escort or a Renault 5. The differences were often much larger. In Eighties, you could still buy cars with rear-mounted engines (ok, mainly just Skoda) while the family saloon battle was between the blobby, rear-wheel drive Ford Sierra and the boxy, front-wheel drive Vauxhall Cavalier. Two intense rivals yet so very, very different.

Other family cars were equally different. The Datsun/Nissan Stanza would try and kill you if you made the mistake of trying to drive it quickly in the wet. Peugeot’s 405 brought style, ride and handling mixed with a delicious blend of cheap plastics inside.

Road test feature

Blimey. Information overload! Tests aren't like this anymore

Journalism was so different as well. Car adverts would contain actual information, and motoring magazines had features that were almost Encyclopedic. Here’s an example borrowed from Autocar. There’s all the information you could reasonably want, as well as (on other pages) honest appraisal by a team of testers.

When you wanted to make an informed decision about which car to buy, this information was very useful.

Yet, it turned out that you could sell more magazines if you just featured high performance cars and used words like ‘lairy’ and ‘tail-happy,’ even when describing a Volkswagen Golf Cabriolet – not exactly a sports car.

Journalism became more like a chat with your mates and less about providing useful information. The problem is you see, while us car enthusiasts and those who like to know what they buy appreciated these earlier efforts, you can sell a lot more magazines to the wider public if you cut out the techno-babble and just talk sheer emotion. Emotion is, after all, the biggest driver for most people when it comes to buying a car. They don’t care if the rear seat is cramped, or if the over-the-shoulder vision is appalling – they only care about how the car makes them feel. You could build technically the best car in the world, but even if you market it at £10,000, people won’t buy it if it gives the wrong impression, and nor will today’s magazines want to write about it unless it provides ‘lairy’ handling on a race  track.

I despair of a world where information is treated less importantly than marketing babble. As someone on the Autoshite forum said recently – if you compare the Mini against the MINI, one is a triumph of engineering while the other is a triumph of marketing. Sadly, we know which one the capitalists prefer…

Variations on a theme

When is an Austin 1100 not an Austin 1100? When it’s an Austin Victoria!

When is an Austin 1100 not an Austin 1100?

If you think it looks a lot like a Triumph, then that’s no surprise, as Michelotti himself was responsible for the styling. In fact, the history of this car is a little unusual as it was built by Authi in Spain, but was based on a South African variant of the 1100. The Victoria was launched in 1972, when UK production was starting to run down. The most interesting aspect of the re-design is the addition of a boot to make the 1100 a proper saloon.

The Victoria sadly wasn’t a success, which is a shame as it’s rather an attractive little thing, with all the hoon-ability of the original but a larger dose of practicality. In fact, it was rather more attractive than the South African Apache, which had a rather unhappy snout.

From the rear, the design is even more clearly the work of Michelotti, being almost a scaled down version of the Triumph 2000 Mk2. Triumph can’t have been impressed and perhaps that’s why we weren’t treated to the Victoria in the UK.

Clearly Michelotti's work - very Triumph-like!