Back to the future

with Ford Fiesta

Ford Fiesta, 1976, front, launch image
Ford Fiesta, 1976, side
Ford Fiesta, 1976, cutaway
Ford Fiesta, 1974, clay model
Ford Fiesta, advert 1977

FORD rightly made a big song and dance about the launch of their new Fiesta model with over 2,000 dealers and 500-plus motoring media from across Europe sat in one of the giant empty production halls at their Niehl factory in Cologne for a 90-minute rolling roadshow.

It was a far cry from the somewhat comparative low key launch of the first Fiesta back in 1976 at which I was present with perhaps around only a handful of motoring writers who were also experiencing the latest extravaganza launch display with flashing pyrotechnics, loud music and all the glitz of a Las Vegas cabaret performance.

That first Fiesta revelation 40 years ago had more of a softly-softly approach because Ford executives were a little cautious of what the media and of course the car-buying public would think of this new small, three-door car which was really their first new innovation entry into this sector after the dinky Ford Anglia having always previously produced much bigger cars like the Consul and Zodiac.

The media event was held in the backdrop of a Monte Carlo hotel where we all gathered in the ballroom to watch this dinky newcomer emerged from behind the curtain with a well mannered piece of music as executives watched nervously for signs of reaction from the motoring hacks.

In reality they need not have worried because the immediate response from the assembled media was really positive because here was a new, small car that was something totally different from what anyone had seen previously.

In the UK we had seen the famous Mini emerge in the Sixties as the small, affordable family car but here was one of the giants of the world's motor industry going ‘off piste' as it were to create a completely new era of family motoring.

This first Fiesta was it has to be said frugally kitted out, certainly compared to even today's entry-level models, with no carpets or floor mats, wind-up windows, a cheap (and as it proved easy to break) small, one interior handle either side to open both doors, front seats that were frugal in their make-up and quite uncomfortable with hardly any lumbar support and an extremely basic old push-button Long Eave or Medium Wave radio that at the time was made in Brazil.

For the driver the dashboard was fairly basic with a speedometer and little else and simple slide-lever heater controls with a straight forward ‘stick' as a gear lever but with no rear window wiper blade.

There were just two petrol engines on offer - not a diesel to be seen in those days - with either a 954cc or a 1.1-litre with neither exactly offering any kind of performance - both were taken from an ageing four cylinder Kent engine has used for some years.

‘Functional and practical' was what I wrote amongst about my initial impressions and like many colleagues at the time felt that if it was priced right then it would soon appeal to quite a wide choice of buyers.

Ford, as they have over the years, always managed to be spot on when it comes to pricing and also marketing a new model and that first Fiesta, when it arrived in the UK in 1977 cost £1,856, which today would be equivalent to £13,545.

So it was not quite as cheap as some of those early day Czech-made Skodas and Yugsolavian-made Yugo but the Fiesta was British, made at Dagenham from day one of its production and became an immediate hit with buyers.

Driving this first model later on launch day around the windy coast roads of the Cote d'Azure and writing at the time I said it was ‘'a surprisingly nimble little car with a decent ride and easy to use four-speed manual gearbox but the seats weren't particularly comfortable!''

I went on: "The smaller engine proved a bit gutless when the going got tough up and down hilly coastal road and needed a great deal of gear changing but the 1.1-litre was naturally a bit better with its slightly more power."

That first Fiesta, only a three-door available in those early days and aimed at replacing the old Ford Anglia, was certainly a breakthrough in this sector and once on sale in the UK became an instant hut and remains so today.

Interestingly and showing how technology has moved on a pace over the 40 years since its launch the Fiesta engines today are so much cleaner meaning that the equivalent of one new Fiesta's emissions was churned out by 80 of those original launch models.

Over the years of course the continuous development of the Fiesta model with many new variants including out-and-out sports models, like the still loveable XR2i, plus a wider than ever range of engines has meant the model's success has gone from strength to strength.

In the UK alone well over 4.3 million Fiestas have been sold and it remains the best selling new car in the European market place.

Aside from all the razzmatazz of the spectacular launch of the latest Fiesta is clearly the best ever produced from the viewpoint of its styling, engineering and mechanics plus its vastly improved interior and choices of different variants and trim levels.

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