The Blue Oval’s Supermini: Ford Fiesta Mk1

“Mini cars,” Henry Ford II famously once said, equal “Mini profits.”

That was on May 13, 1971 and said in reaction to the early sales success of the Pinto. It came at the end of a short dialogue with reporters after Ford’s annual shareholder’s meeting in which HFII expressed considerable concern over competing with new Japanese imports in the USA.

Although the Pinto would do very well during the 1970s, the real way forward was already being debated and it was other events in 1971 that swung the pendulum in favor of building Ford’s first front-drive subcompact, the Mk1 Fiesta. Those events were the success of the Fiat 127 and Renault R5, two small cars in a new class that Ford of Europe had no immediate answer for.

Ford of Europe itself was in a state of change. The previously distinct Ford of England and Ford of Germany arrangement was merging into a larger entity that built related products in Cologne and Dagenham.

The Fiesta would be Ford of Europe’s most important car of the 1970s and one which ushered in modern front-drive arrangements on both sides of the Atlantic for the blue oval. Originally, it was not envisioned as a U.S. model, but circumstances collided to make a unique version for the USA, though not without a fair amount of corporate Sturm und Drang on the way.

Mediterranean Small Cars

In a way, it’s not surprising that at least two of the cars that influenced the decision to build the Fiesta came from Italy. Italy had high fuel costs, small streets, and a consumer base that favored cheap, light cars. Fiat knew exactly what Italians wanted and had high import tariffs defending its home turf.

Ford’s only competition for Italian small cars were the base models of Anglias and Escorts, slow and skinflinty, and expensive compared to faster, more exciting Fiats. Conditions were not exactly the same in Spain and France, but there too Ford’s smaller cars were at a disadvantage.

As early as 1968-69, Ford wanted to improve in Southern European markets in a way that could not be achieved through the cost-conscious but conventional “Cortina” model pioneered by costing out the components of the Mk1 Cortina in 1961-62. A similar model had followed with the Escort in 1968.

As Innocenti did well with the Mini and Fiat graduated to front-drive with the Autobianchi A112 and Fiat 128 in 1969, it became clear that the only way to build a truly competitive very small car was to go front-drive.

Ford execs were wary of this because the Cortina program had examined the cost of BMC’s mini and found it to be far too expensive to build profitably. The same was true of Ford’s “project Cardinal,” the front-drive Taunus of the early 1960s that had also influenced the Cortina.

These internal forces, mostly in the area of finance, balked at the idea of building an even smaller car than the Escort – which they felt would cannibalize its sales. But Ford of England’s Ralph Peters undertook a market study for such a car. After a year and a half of study, he posited that the company could probably move 250-300,000 such cars a year, probably in places where Ford was weak – like Italy and Spain.

Spain was far more restrictive than Italy, even, and under General Franco’s restrictive regime only Renault and SEAT (then a subsidiary of Fiat) were major players due to punishing local content rules.

The Mini, the A112, the Simca 1100 – all pointed to a front-drive, small-car future, but still, the dominant forces in the company didn’t want to build such a car. But two key people were convinced – Hal Sperlich and his boss, Lee Iacocca.

The BMC ADO16 cars, the 128 and Simca were slightly larger cars that the Escort could compete against, mostly. The A112 was a niche model. The Mini was still expensive to make. But once the big-selling Fiat 127 arrived, it became clear that Ford would have to respond somehow. The 127 was followed quickly by the R5, Peugeot 104, and (worryingly) the Honda Civic – the only one of these new cars offered in the U.S. from the start.

Fiat’s new “supermini” bowed one month before HFII’s famous shareholder meeting quote. In the spring of 1972, Iacocca and Sperlich got the go-ahead on developing the car.

Bobcat to Fiesta

What became the Fiesta was initially labeled “project Bobcat,” though it was not related to the Mercury-ized version of Ford’s domestic Pinto. It included several early proposals including the “Cheetah” – a cut-down Escort. But it was clear pretty quickly that the car had to be small, front-drive, and a hatchback.

The issue of building it to cost was a major factor – it had to be at least $100 per car cheaper to make than the Escort. To meet that goal, Ford used various different production locations to minimize the cost of parts and assembly, and re-used components where it could.

The biggest development for production happened when Henry Ford II brought an attractive Christmas gift to the Franco regime. In December, 1972, Ford proposed that in exchange for loosening some of the local content rules, Ford would build a sprawling new factory at Almussafes, in Valencia.

In time, “Ford Valencia” would become Ford’s largest car factory outside of the United States.

Ford Valencia Assembly, Circa 1976
Valencia in 1976, from Ford’s 1976 Annual Report.

The Franco regime was so enthusiastic about it that groundbreaking began only a few months later. Despite that enthusiasm, Ford was still required to export the vast majority of the cars it would build in Spain, and to keep its market penetration within certain limits in Spain itself. Nevertheless, it provided jobs for Spain and low-cost labor for Ford.

The factory was set up by Ford of Germany production man Hanns Brand, who had recently set up another key location for the Fiesta – Saarlouis in Germany.

By the time the factory opened in October of 1976, circumstances had changed. Franco died in November of 1975 after restoring the Spanish Monarchy. That set up a transition to democratic rule which occurred over the next few years. The plant was inaugurated by King Juan Carlos I. This change heralded a transition to much freer markets, which Ford was now well-situated to take advantage of – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Under the hood, the Fiesta used a reworked three-main-bearing version of the old “Kent” four, now called (unsurprisingly) “Valencia.” Not too long after the car debuted, the older Kent crossflow was also added, though the two engines used many different parts. All would have a four-speed manual.

Up front it used familiar MacPherson struts, with a beam axle out back with a panhard rod. It was designed to cost – though happily it would prove a very capable handler.

To keep costs down, it would come only as a 3-door hatch.

The exterior of the car was developed in a competition between studios. At first, when Ford was testing consumer clinics, it used rather generic looks for it, at least one of which, penned under Don DeLaRossa’s direction, looked rather like the later Seat 1200 Sport (itself a version of the 1970 NSU Nergal concept car).

Ford Valencia in 1976 (photo: Ford)

When real planning got underway, the styling was done in the typical Iacocca-influenced Ford fashion – three studios competed against eachother. One was Dunton in the U.K., led by future Ford style boss Jack Telnack. The second was Ford of Germany’s studio led by Uwe Bahnsen. The third was Ghia, and it was here were the winning proposal came from – penned by Tom Tjaarda of Pantera and Fiat 124 Spider fame.

Ford had owned Ghia since 1970 and the former Carrozzeria from then on became a full-on member of the Ford family, donating its name to dressy models but also contributing many styling successes.

The Fiesta still faced internal opposition as late as the fall of 1973 – but when the OPEC embargo began, doubters were silenced.

The Fiesta Arrives

The Fiesta name was chosen from a long list that included Bravo, Amigo, and Sierra (which would be used later), but Henry Ford II was a particular fan of alliteration. He personally persuaded GM to release the name (used on some Oldsmobile products) for use on the new car.

It was not only built in Spain, but also in Germany and eventually at Dagenham. Aiming for the heart of the market, to which it arrived late, Ford spared no effort in marketing the car against the VW Polo, R5, and 127 – all of which had now been in the market for a few years when Fiesta production began in the spring of 1976.

1979 Ford Fiesta

The car was an immediate hit in Europe. It took only two years and three months for Ford to hit the 1 millionth Fiesta built. The European range was not remarkable in terms of speed or performance, but it was exactly what the market wanted.

Unexpectedly, thanks to changes in North America, some of the Fiesta’s remarkable volume was headed to the United States.

The North American Fiesta

The Fiesta may have been developed in part by execs in the United States, but it wasn’t meant to come stateside originally. Even its architects knew that it was too small for Americans.

But on December 22nd, 1975, President Ford signed the bipartisan-passed Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. Passed in the wake of the OPEC crisis, the bill had broad support, and established the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard, to take effect in 1978. Ford would need a lineup-wide average of 18mpg to avoid penalties, and to do that, it’d need something smaller to sell than the Pinto.

The original idea was not to import the Fiesta directly – because of limits on how much “imports” could count toward CAFE averages. Sperlich’s first idea was to build the cars in North America instead, which would lower the costs and increase how much they counted towards the average.

If a North America-specific version were to be built, it could be slightly larger than the Euro Fiesta, which would still make it smaller than the Pinto, but more suited to American tastes. Sperlich also had the idea of teaming up with Honda to provide engines for the car.

There were two major strikes against this plan. One, it was expensive to tool up for a car already in production somewhere else; and two, HFII hated the Honda idea. Sperlich was dismissed in late 1976.

Instead, Ford would built the U.S. cars at Saarlouis and fit it with a larger engine that was better suited to American roads than the 957-cc or 1,117-cc Valencias. That engine was the 1.6L “crossflow” Kent, but no provision would be made for an Automatic.

Compared to the European Fiestas, the U.S. car was a hot rod. It made only 66hp in federalized form but it had much more speed than the 52-hp 1.1L Valencia, and more torque too. But in the USA it was an economy machine, pure and simple.

Dearborn had to scramble to get the car ready for the USA, and it did not appear until the summer of 1977. It also required some changes under the hood to fit the larger Kent – the car had been designed specifically not to re-use it.

The Life of the Party

The Fiesta was warmly welcomed in the USA. It was a good handler and earned praise from SCCA racers, and it was easy to tune. Some buyers were familiar with the Kent from the era when it was sold in the U.S.-market Cortinas; but most were economy buyers looking for an economy car.

There were two interesting U.S. versions over the standard car – the vaguely more luxurious “Ghia” (it would not be considered luxurious today) and the “Sport.” The latter had beefed up suspension components and, sometimes, optional tape stripes.

In 1979, Ford Exhibited a hot 1600-powered “Healey Fiesta” in the U.S. It was the last Healey-badged car, but never made it to production.

The Fiesta compared well with the three-door VW Rabbit or the Chevrolet Chevette, and ford moved more than 263,000 Fiestas in North America from the summer of ‘77 until the fall of 1980. It was regarded as a fairly high-quality car for an economy machine, though rust was often a problem later in life – many Mk1 Fiestas were felled by tinworm.

1977 Ford Fiesta

The car was, of course, too small for U.S. tastes just as Sperlich had predicted – but it was good stopgap and no doubt domestic Ford dealers were happy to have it in 1979-80 when fuel prices were high and big cars went wanting for buyers.

The success of the Fiesta project would inspire the Mk3 Escort, due in late 1980 – and here Dearborn would build the internationally-developed project in America. The U.S. Escort that emerged for 1981, however, was substantially changed (and not really for the better) from the Euro versions. With the arrival of this car, the Fiesta was dropped from the U.S. lineup – it wasn’t needed anymore.

In Europe, meanwhile, the engineering done to create the U.S. Fiesta was re-used in 1980 to offer a 1.3L “Kent” version of the car with a nice power bump. The 1.6 liter followed months later as the XR2, which became the most famous and desirable version of the original Euro Fiesta.

In 1983, after the car had been dropped from the USA, the Mk1 Fiesta was facelifted into the closely related Mk2. A series of quite good Fiestas generated huge amounts of profits for Ford thereafter, but none were imported to the USA until 2010, the result of yet another Fuel price spike.

The trio of Fiestas seen here were all seen in different spots and all are North American cars. The Orange Sport is rotting in Pennsylvania, the silver ’77 is from Idaho, and the beige car lives and breathes in Washington State.

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