1979 Ford Fiesta
1979 Ford Fiesta. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

After a quarter century of unprecedented expansion and prosperity, the North American industry found itself in a new game with profoundly changed rules in the 1970s. The government had entered the boardroom, and the business would never be the same.

First, there were new safety requirements spawned by Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe At Any Speed. These were accompanied by increasing environmental concerns, which resulted in tightening automobile emission controls.

Then there was the impact of the 1973 Yom Kippur war oil embargo, and the resulting U.S. fuel economy legislation setting Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. On the agreement that manufacturers would also meet them in Canada, there was no official Canadian version of CAFE. And if all this wasn’t enough, there was the increasing penetration of imported cars, particularly Japanese, into the North American market.

Ford reacted to the threat with its 1971 subcompact Pinto, GM with its Chevrolet Vega and American Motors with its Gremlin. Chrysler chose to import its “import fighter.”

In spite of the new American small cars, the foreigners kept coming, particularly the new wave of fuel- and space-efficient front-wheel drive models like the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Rabbit. Ford decided to respond in kind.

Since the late 1960s, Henry Ford II and his senior executives had been considering a small “world car,” a kind of modern Model T. It took the 1973 oil crisis to give them the real impetus to go ahead, and the final decision to build a “baby Ford” came in December, 1973.

Ford of Europe, formed by the joining of Ford’s German and English subsidiaries in 1967, was given the job of creating the new small car under the code name Bobcat. It would be an international development with components from many European countries, including France, Ireland, England and Germany.

This ambitious undertaking would result in an all-new vehicle, construction of a “green field” plant in Spain, and an expenditure of more than $1 billion. It would be Ford’s biggest investment ever for their smallest car ever.

Noting the popularity of such current small cars as the Renault 5 and Volkswagen Polo and Golf (Rabbit in North America), the Ford international design team decided to follow that recipe. The result was a two-door, front-wheel drive, unit-construction hatchback with distinctly Volkswagen influences.

Rather than developing a new engine, Ford decided on a modified version of its English “Kent” overhead-valve, in-line four used in such cars as Capris, Cortinas and Pintos. If not very exciting, it was at least sturdy, having been well proved in Formula Ford racing.

Mounted transversely, it drove the front wheels through a four-speed manual transaxle, with equal length halfshafts to counteract torque steer. Radial tires and power front disc brakes were fitted, and suspension was by MacPherson struts in front and a beam axle with trailing arms and coil springs at the rear.

The new little Ford was called the Fiesta, chosen from several by Henry Ford himself (no more Edsels for Henry). Since the name previously belonged to Oldsmobile, Henry called GM chairman Tom Murphy personally and got his permission to use it.

Fiesta production began in mid-1976, and it would be built in three countries: England, Germany and Spain. After a record-breaking first year in Europe where it sold better than any other new car ever produced there, the Fiesta made its way to North America in the Fall of 1977 as a ’78 model. It came in four trim levels: Standard, Decor, Sport and Ghia.

Although 208 mm (8.2 in.) shorter than the Rabbit, and with 112 mm (4.4 in.) less wheelbase, the Fiesta offered surprisingly good interior space for four adults in an overall package only 3,736 mm (147.1 in.) long.

With its old but strong, and somewhat loud, 66 horsepower Kent four pushing a sprightly 816 kg (1,800 lb), the Fiesta was surprisingly spirited. Car and Driver magazine (7/78) reported zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration of 10.4 seconds and a quarter-mile sprint of 18 seconds, the fastest in a comparison test of seven economy cars. They recorded a top speed of 156 km/h (97 mph), and noted that its ride quality wasn’t up to the standards of the other small cars.

While it was popular in North American, the Fiesta was only a stopgap car for Ford over here. To the disappointment of many of its fans, it was imported for just three model years – 1978, ’79 and ’80 – until Ford could get its new domestic front-wheel drive Escort to market.

The Fiesta continued to be built in Europe and enjoy great popularity there after it was withdrawn from the North American market. The new Escort was bigger, but to many eyes, it lacked the spirit and character of the little Fiesta. Although only sold here for three years, this sturdy little hatchback left good memories for many people. It was quick, economical, and fun to drive.

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