Curbside Classic: 1978 Ford Fiesta – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

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In the depths of the gloomy American automotive winter of the late seventies, the Fiesta’s brief appearance brought a ray of sunshine into our deprived existence. She was like that cute, skinny little German exchange student, who appeared one day at high school and dazzled us with her algebra, physics, gymnastics and fencing abilities. The big jocks didn’t know what to make of her, and their girlfriends cast disdainful glances her way, but those of us who favored taut agility over big hips and padded vinyl tops fell hard for her. And when she suddenly disappeared just as mysteriously as she’d arrived, she left behind the kind of memories that last a lifetime.

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Just a few years ago, Ford had the same problem it did in 1978. Its compact car had been in production almost a decade. The market was shifting to ever-smaller cars. CAFE standards were tightening. The Asian brands were cleaning up in the segment. What to do? Well, its Fiesta was going gangbusters in Europe, so bring it here, and quick. Sound familiar? Well, history has an annoying habit of repeating itself, especially in the car biz.

So if history does repeat, what does the 1978 Fiesta tell us about the current Fiesta? The former Fiesta was a ball to drive; in fact, it was flat-out the most bang-for-the-buck fun on four wheels available in the U.S. at the time. And for that we can thank VW’s bone-headedness.

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The Rabbit/Golf MK1 had arrived three years earlier fitting exactly the same description: light, zippy and toss-able. The early Rabbit delivered an unparalleled package of Euro-spec delight. But in 1978, VW opened its first U.S. factory (here’s history again repeating itself) and hired ex-GM exec James McLernon to run it…into the ground. He knew exactly what Americans wanted in a Volkswagen: a “Malibu-ized” Rabbit with a softer suspension, “American-ized” interior and an engine reduced in size from the zippy 1.6 liters of 1977 to a substantially weaker 1.45. And then, he crowned his efforts with a set of full wheel covers looking like they’d come straight from the GM parts bin. Nein Danke!

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Willkommen Fiesta! Coming straight from the Cologne factory in undiluted and unadulterated form, it actually was even better than what the Europeans got, having a bigger engine than was offered there, (until 1981’s XR2 came along, anyway). While Europeans had a choice of 900 cc, 1.1- and 1.3-liter engines, all U.S. versions came with a 1.6-liter; regardless of their displacement, all of them were revised versions of the old Kent OHV engine–perhaps not quite as smooth as the VW EA827 OHC unit, but a lusty little mill, and very easy to tune for even more power. But even in stock form it got the job done, and quite zippily at that, especially since the Fiesta was a whole size smaller than the Rabbit/Golf and weighed only some 1,700 pounds.

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image: hemmingsblog

The Fiesta’s roots go back to a stillborn Ford world-car concept from 1963. The idea sprang back to life at the beginning of the seventies in response to such popular new Euro hatchbacks as the Fiat 127 and Renault R5. At the time, the European Escort was not only still RWD but destined to get bigger, so Ford put out the call for a contemporary FWD design. It was answered by Tom Tjaarda of Ghia.

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After “Project Bobcat” was approved in ’73, Ford set up assembly lines, capable of building up to 500,000 units per year, in Spain, England and Germany. And ever since, the Fiesta has been a mainstay of Ford’s European ops. While it had never been planned for the U.S. market, the energy crisis, VW’s Rabbit and the madly successful new Civic forced Ford’s hand. A few quick modifications to meet U.S. crash, safety and emissions standards got it here; however, the Fiesta ended up as just a three-year stopgap until the all-new FWD Escort arrived in 1981.

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Unfortunately, Ford followed VW’s Rabbit footsteps, drastically dumbing down its new FWD, global-platform 1981 Escort for the U.S. (in truth, Ford way outdid VW in that respect: CC here).  So did the Fiesta end up being an automotive-enthusiast mayfly: Here today, gone tomorrow. I don’t know the numbers, but I suspect that Ford didn’t import nearly as many as they might have, probably because they were losing money on each one due to the then-weak dollar (think Saturn Astra). That’s also why the new Fiesta is hecho en Mexico.

The Fiesta was one of the few rays of sunshine for driving enthusiasts during the Great Brougham Epoch–and especially so in bright yellow, like this one. It’s just like the one my twenty-year old sister-in-law bought used, sight unseen, and without knowing how to drive a stick. I got the honors of bringing it home from Pasadena and then teaching her how to drive it. Fun times.

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She was a pretty quick learner, despite the unambivalent clutch. And the Fiesta was pretty quick too. Zero-to-sixty came in about eleven-or-so seconds, which was enough to worry some of the strangled V8s then coming out of Detroit. With 66 perky ponies on tap, street light drags were harmless fun–but tight traffic and edgy canyons were Fiesta time. It was one eager little puppy. No wonder some Fiestas are still hard at work auto-crossing.

The owner of this Fiesta has a bright green “S” model that he uses for that purpose. The Fiesta’s Kent engine is eminently tuneable, the English equivalent of the Chevy small block. And Euro Ford’s long-running rep for good handling was already established. Attention to detail pays off.

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I think the owner told me he also has (or had) a third one. They’re probably the last roadworthy Fiestas in Eugene. How about in your town? Parts are getting iffy, he told me; he’s having to reach out to Europe for things like a throttle cable. That’s how it is when it gets near the end of the line for certain imported cars that were once so plentiful. There comes a time where it just gets too hard, at least for a daily driver like this example.

PS: My apologies to our overseas readers for such a U.S.-centric post about a seminal small car that has played such an important role for so long overseas. But I’m sure you’ll be filling us in on the Fiesta’s role elsewhere.

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