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Fiesta Time

Recently, Ford's first generation Fiesta, introduced in 1976, came up in conversation. Not only do I admit to owning one, I'll even admit to wishing I still had the car, a 1980 Sport model. However, an inattentive driver on a Detroit freeway–imagine that!–shortened the car by more than 1/12 its total length. The car was repaired, but the damage done.

Recently, Ford's first generation Fiesta, introduced in 1976, came up in conversation. Not only do I admit to owning one, I'll even admit to wishing I still had the car, a 1980 Sport model. However, an inattentive driver on a Detroit freeway–imagine that!–shortened the car by more than 1/12 its total length. The car was repaired, but the damage done.

Here was a car that had "econobox" written all over it. Just 144-in. long on an 88-in. wheelbase, the Fiesta was powered by a 1.6-liter in-line four mated to a four-speed manual transmission. A beam axle held up the rear wheels, and the small but symmetric cargo hold–aided in the task by a folding rear seatback–had a split plywood floor. One hatch covered the spare wheel well, the other a small storage area. The rear seat sat above the fuel tank, which was accessed via a filler door located low on the body side, just behind the driver's door. There was no inside release for it or the rear hatch, and the hood folded forward toward the front bumper, though it had an inside release.

The latter was a good thing considering the fact that, as David E. Davis wrote in Car and Driver, the Fiesta was a car so simple, "it could be disassembled in the driveway by a hyperactive five year-old." He wasn't far off. The aluminum beam bumpers were held in place by two large, recessed bolts, and were interchangeable front-to-rear. The front brake pads were visible through the slots in the 12-in. wheels, which made it easy to determine when new ones were needed, and the carbureted pushrod motor–which produced a claimed 88 hp–was bog-simple. Despite having just four forward speeds, the Fiesta could go from 0 to 60 mph in 10 seconds, and regularly return 28 mpg.

So, I wondered, why did I remember this car so fondly? It rusted. The front hubs couldn't stand up to extreme use (at races it wasn't unusual to watch the front wheels detach and sprint ahead of the rest of the car), and the brakes often faded when used hard. Technologically, the Fiesta held its own, but it was anything but "advanced." Inside, the door tops were painted metal–except in the Ghia model, which had opening front vent windows to go with the padding–passengers sat upright, and the instrument panel was simply shaped and made from hard plastic. Over time, I fitted braided stainless steel brake lines, a front anti-dive kit, front and rear spoilers, and 13-in. wheels to mine. I loved the Recaro-designed seats in my Sport model, but that didn't mean I didn't have a soft spot for even the most unadorned model.

It didn't take much effort to see that the car was not only timelessly handsome, it was imbued with a wonderfully mischievous personality. No matter how short the drive or slow the speed, you got something back from this car, and felt it tugging at you to drive a little harder, brake a little later, turn a little more smoothly, and enjoy the time you had together. Very few cars can do this. The first-generation Fiesta was one that could.

I still miss that car, and even my brothers remember their Fiestas with fondness. You could forgive it anything because it was so much fun to drive, and had personality to spare. Today, however, most cars are so fluid as to be boring. So refined as to be devoid of personality. So competent as to be without soul.

Maybe the buying public has convinced itself this is what it wants, but it's most certainly not what it or the industry needs. They need cars like the Fiesta. Cars that shake them out of their slumber and tempt them to drive. The question is: Does anyone remember how to make cars like that any more? 

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