By that headline, I’m not saying that the Fiesta Mk1 was an abject failure in the US, but it was something of a marginal player, and Ford decided to not replace it after only three years, and it was effectively replaced by the larger US-built Escort. And of course Ford’s recent adventure in bringing back the Fiesta was just about equally successful, if not less so. I think it’s safe to say we’ll never see another Fiesta over here.
Both of them had their charms, but the Mark 1’s arrival here was a rather exceptionally bright spot. It was a brisk, nimble and very compact little car, in the Civic and VW Polo’s category, meaning one notch smaller than the Rabbit. But the real surprise was that Ford didn’t “Americanize” it, as they would soon do with wretched results in the Escort. With its 1.6 L four and very light weight (1835 lbs curb weight), it was very light on its feet, bot in a straight line as well as through the corners.
While they didn’t “Americanize” the Fiesta in the manner of the Mercury Lynx or Cadillac Catera, they did make one huge change over the cars available in Europe. Since there was nothing that could be done about big bumpers, sealed beam headlights, or clean exhaust emissions; the US car had an engine about 50% larger than the 957 cc and 1,117 cc engines initially available in European markets. Eventually Europe received a 1.3 liter model, but it wasn’t until the XR2 arrived in 1981 that a European could buy a Fiesta with the same engine that was standard in the US. The American market 1.6 liter made up for all the safety and emissions related debits to performance relative to mass market European offerings, although at a cost in fuel consumption.
Some imports similarly increased displacement to maintain performance for the US market, like FIAT. Others did not, which is why a 1967 MGB feels like a racing car compared to a 1977 MGB. Much of the reason that the Fiesta is remembered fondly in the US is down to the decision to give it an engine that didn’t need any excuses.
They federalized the Fiesta. I think the question is, why not ‘federalize/California-ize’ the European Escort?
Other than the name, the North American Escort that launched in 1981 shared very, very little, with it’s European counterpart.
It was a US-design. Other than the “American-made” claim, and possibly interior room and noise, and the support of the home-town car magazines, it was markedly inferior to Japanese cars and 6-year old Rabbits.
Back then (and even today), small cars were not Detroit’s thing.
Trust me, the home-town car magazines did not support the American Escort. The very 1st time I heard about inferior American small cars was from Motor Trend. They tested an Escort RS from Europe, and their 1st question was “what went wrong with ours?”
Ford was going through regional fiefdom, much as GM went through too. Each side thought they “knew their market”, or could do better. Ford did come around with the 1st gen Focus and the Fusion/ Mondeo. Then lost there way with the 2nd gen Focus (we never really got that one). Then Alan Mulloly fixed it for a while.
I should have read your comment closer. the Fiesta was a European influenced American design. I think it was intended for the European market but was brought here a a stop gap until the Escort came.
Despite it’s OHC and IRS, It was markedly inferior to my ’68 Ford Cortina GT!
What a nice design job by Tom Tjaarda.
The most beautiful Fiesta IMHO, followed by the Mk3
This was a brilliant car, as far as economy cars available in the US was concerned. It was about 90% of the size of the Rabbit, with about 90% of the room, as Car & Driver noted. They were pretty brisk cars.
These were NOT available with automatic. Had they been, I think they would have sold many more copies.
To get the tachometer, one had to get the “S”, which was close to $4,000
Also, these cost more than the Pinto. Relative to its diminutive size, this was not the most inexpensive car. B-210s, Chevettes, Pintos, even Corollas and Civics had lower “base” prices. I think a base Ford Fairmont cost about the same.
Consumers would have to look beyond the small external size to see the roominess and versatility and MPG and fun-to-drive. Also, the fact this car was sold by Ford dealers and salesman, who probably were still in “bigger is better” mode, and would probably try to move a customer from a Fiesta to a Fairmont with Auto and A/C, probably didn’t help.
But as far as looks, and on paper (I wasn’t old enough for a driver’s license), to me, this was my 2nd favorite small car–after the 1977 Rabbit. But it was 1978, and VW had just chopped 100cc off the Rabbit engine, so the Fiesta S became my favorite small car–on paper.
10 years later in the Air Force, I became acquainted with an attorney who was so enamored of these cars, he had two and was looking for more….
Price comparisons are hard, as some imports had levels of standard equipment that would cost thousands of dollars to match on a car from Detroit, and some cars from Detroit were heavily discounted while some Japanese imports carried huge dealer mark-ups. I believe that in 1978 the Honda Accord was Road & Track’s ‘best car under $4,000’ while the Fairmont was their pick for the next price class up. I think the base price of a Fairmont was close to five thousand dollars, and magazine test cars often had over two thousand in options. The ugly truth was that you couldn’t touch an Accord for the price of a low level Fairmont, which made me wonder how much value the Honda was actually delivering in the days of racketeering distributors selling allotments.
You are correct in that equipment varied. The Japanese small cars had often had convenience features not standard, such as rear window defogger, or not available, such as remote trunk and gas filler opening.
I was the ever eager 13 year old poring over C/D, R&T, Consumer Reports. The Accord launched in 1976 for $3995. It had the above niceties and a tach and was nicely trimmed, inside and out, with materials that were on par with a mid-level GM/Ford intermediate car, like a Cutlass, and nice cloth/faux velour seats, and power brakes. All standard. Due to demand, dealers charged more.
The Fairmont launched in 1978 for $3663. At that price, you got skinny bias ply tires with dog dish hub caps, base-Pinto caliber vinyl seats, no chrome trim. and not even full door covers.
Trimming the exterior a little, with some chrome and full wheel covers was about $150. A nicer interior was another $100. That was the Detroit way—advertise a low price for a car most don’t want. Though beyond that, the handling suspension$40 and 1875/75 tires $60-100? and power brakes, and defogger $80-100 and you had a credible car…MSRP about $41-4200.
I think the Fiesta was priced about the same, $3663 give or take $150. And it didn’t have the Japanese niceties.
I recall the C/D quarter mile was 18.1 seconds. Here is an instance where, from the Quarter mile times, and the 0-90 (C/D 0-90 for a 100hp 1.8 liter, 5-speed 85 Golf GTI was 33 seconds, if I recall, and it had more power than any US Rabbit ever), it looks like R&T and C/D were virtually the same.
That makes the cabureted, FOUR-speed only, Fiesta even more impressive as a “Pocket Rocket”
Often, C/D was a little quicker. Always, Consumer Reports was slower. I strived to match Consumer Reports times, and figured C/D’s tactics must be pretty hard.
I remember an article in C/D about that one time. They admitted they just thrashed them, slide off the clutch pedal starts at redline, no lift shifts, all the stuff you wouldn’t want to do to your car. But they also seemed prideful of getting the best times.
I remember liking these cars at the time, and the design has held up well over the decades.
I believe one reason Ford didn’t Americanize the Fiesta is because it was always understood that it would be a “stopgap” offering until the North American version of the new Escort was ready. That is also most likely why it was never offered with an automatic transmission in North America.
I commuted with a guy who had one. Drove it a couple of times. It had good pep and you sat up high in the car. A lot nicer than my 66 Beetle with sagging seats. Although I had the VW for a few more years then he did the Ford.
I did too…back in 1980-1983 I lived in an apartment complex and commuted to work with 2 other engineers (originally they were single, but soon married). We all had 2 door cars (irony compared with today, carpooling with 2 doors), she had a ’79 Datsun 310, I had my ’74 Datsun 710 (and then replaced it with a ’78 VW Scirocco)…and he had a ’78 Fiesta S. All were manuals (mine was a 4 speed, didn’t have 5 speeds till ’79 I think).
I moved after that, so I don’t know how long he kept the Fiesta (nor she the 310). It was a competent car, and I know he liked it, but it was a car for its time, back then I can understand people paying more to get good gas mileage, as we’d gone through another shortage in 1979, so it was fresh in peoples minds. I even sold my ’74 Datsun myself, after an abysmal test drive, where some of the trim fell of the car (it was my college car, up in Vermont, and it was pretty rusty despite having Tuffcoat/Dynol when new). So even if the Fiesta priced out about the same as a mid-size Ford, I could see people prefering them for the gas savings. The flip side though is I doubt the tank was very large so despite the mileage, your cruising range might not have been that great (that’s what really saved you, assuming you could afford the outrageous $1 / gallon we were paying back then (I was making less than $1.65/hr when I worked for Hertz the year before, so put it in perspective). Interestingly I never drove one of these for Hertz, probably because none of them were sold with Automatics…in the US I’ve only rented one car (’83 Toyota Starlet) with manual transmission, so that’s probably the reason…though Hertz focused on Fords back then, there were some they didn’t seem to have at my location, including the Maverick for some reason (maybe because it was old even then, and they didn’t want to buy a fast depreciating vehicle new?).
Totally unrelated, but my current car was bought 20 years ago exactly …my only new car, and I have but 1 car (at a time, though small overlap as I’ve sold every replaced car myself). 2000 Golf (so I’m not too far removed from the Fiesta) with 5 speed manual. Happy “purchase” day (not sure when it was actually “born”). Only 134k miles (drove it to both coasts (more than once for one of them) when it was younger, but now hardly put 5000 miles/yr on her).
Really need to get an “adult” car eventually, but I’m in denial, don’t want to give up my manual for an automatic yet, though I know that’s the prudent thing to do, no one else can drive my car.
A high-school buddy had one of these ’78s, sometime around 1981. Total stripper. His father, a lawyer, had bought it brand new during the Second Oil Crisis, because he did not like the fuel costs on his M-B 450SEL.
I rode in it a few times. Although I’m sure it was sprightly when occupied by a sole driver, like most subcompacts of the day, it was sorely under-powered when occupied by 4 ~180lb. high school boys. My friend had to whip that stick around like a rented mule to get anything out of that car when loaded.
It’s hard to believe this was made by the same company, at the same time, as the Thunderbird, LTD, Mustang II, or Mark V. Or the Pinto, which this car wiped the floor with. But tiny cars without automatic transmissions or rear doors or stand-up hood ornaments were a hard sell in 1978 in America, and still are. Really, the original Honda Civic may have been the only bite-size car to be a real success in this country. I liked this car when it was new, but I would have done whatever was necessary to spring for a Rabbit instead, which just looked and felt more like a real car that wouldn’t make me look like a cheapskate for driving one.
Drove 8 Fiestas in one day in 1979 … loading them on to Anchor Motor Freight carhauler, the only time I secured a non-GM backhaul out of Baltimore. Still remember how agile they felt zipping around the terminal. Was so impressed contemplated buying one, but was saving up for grad school, driving a 1974 Fiat 124 sedan bought for $1000.
The mom of a friend of mine bought one of these right around the time we received our driver license’s. It was a fun car to drive in those early years of plying the streets. Spunky and easy to drive. For years I’ve thought of the Fiesta as one of a trio from Ford here in the US. The other two being the Festiva, and the Aspire.
I recall these coming out, and I liked them, but the Escort hit right around my 18th birthday, and that car really appealed to me, so much so that I got one in 1981. They really pushed the Escort as a “world car” when it was anything but one. I kinda like the Starsky and Hutch vibe of the paint job on this car. It really begs the question of “what if” this car would have been featured instead of a Torino? Seems that clever marketing may have made a significant change in how this car sold. As it is, perhaps the plan was to have it flop, so as to keep the feedback loop set on “the US market has no desire for a small car” that was playing constantly in the Detroit area. They had practice with the Capri, which languished against the Mustang, rather than being a nice viable option. Oddly, they do just that now, offering so many slightly different CUVs at the same time, with the Indian market EcoSport for sale along with the Escape. When it suits them, they are willing to slice the market into a million slices, but when they don’t, they have no qualms in killing a viable product.
I would have made the Fiesta a Mercury and kept the Pinto a Ford. A more sophisticated product and higher price would be expected for the more premium brand. As stated, the lack of an automatic and a 4 door model probably limited time sales.
I think the small size also hurt it. It was the shortest (or 2nd shortest after Honda Civic) car in the US.
Honda was known for small Civics.
At your Ford dealer, it was a tiny car. Many (not all, but many) Ford/domestic buyers probably dismissed it as a deathtrap.
Ironically, the fuel tank is in a safer location, under the rear seat (note fuel filler behind driver door), vs most cars behind the rear axle.
Well, they sure ‘seemed’ like a deathtrap. Sheetmetal, while solid, was very thin (that’s the reason for the light weight). And the interior trim panels were all thin plastic of some mismatched shade of dark brown. Even the window glass wasn’t up to US regs; I worked at a Ford dealership and distinctly recall one with broken glass that, unlike laminated glass that held its integrity, the Mk1 Fiesta’s glass shattered into a million pieces.
What glass? The windshield? No way; laminated safety glass was absolutely used there. Side windows? tempered glass that shattered into a million pieces is the norm, for all cars. Perfectly safe. Safer actually, as it can be broken in case of being trapped inside.
It was no more a “deathtrap” than any small car of the times. Probably safer than a number of them.
I don’t think an Automatic would have helped sales that much, the take rate on autos in this size class was very low at the time. Buyers in this segment at the time were looking for MPG, responsive and fun to drive, or both. The automatics of the time in this class sucked a lot of MPG and fun out of the proposition.
Great idea, and a strategy that theoretically should work, but in practice, Ford could not make it happen. Remember that the Mercury folks got the Capri from Ford Europe to sell while the Ford folks had the Mustang. That should have made for some good friendly competition, with the 2 models competing based on completely different experiences, ones that supposedly separated the Mercury products from the more pedestrian Ford products. Move that down the chain, with the Mercury Fiesta competing against the Ford Pinto, and guess who Ford would focus money on?
I always liked these first generation Fiestas, finding them to be extremely attractive, with clean lines, excellent visibility and great space utilization. The contrast with the bloated and ugly domestic FoMoCo offerings of the times could not have been any greater. While currency exchange rates caused the Fiesta to be priced rather high versus the Pinto, the premium was worth it.
My brother bought a five-year old Fiesta as his first car on my recommendation. It handled extremely well, was easy to park on the streets of Chicago, and was fun to drive in city traffic, with excellent acceleration. The car was in good shape, with no rust, and proved to be pretty reliable. Once he had been working for a couple years, though, my brother tired of the punishing ride and the lack of air conditioning and traded the Fiesta on an early second-gen VW Rabbit, which was a massive upgrade in every way. That Fiesta did serve him well and, if I recall correctly, the dealer gave him a generous trade-in allowance for the Fiesta.
I test drove a used “S” when I was shopping for my second car in the latter part of the ’80’s. I recall it being an absolute blast to drive around the hills near Pasadena. I think the reason I passed on it was due to it being pretty beat already, and couldn’t find another that was better for a similar budget. They seemed to be fairly rare even then, less than a decade old, but I haven’t seen another in ages (over here).
I’ve written about my own ‘78 Fiesta before, so I won’t repeat myself. But we’re these such a sales failure in the US? I recall seeing them everywhere soon after launch, and influenced three or four friends to buy them based on my experiences. True, they faded fast, but dropping fuel prices and the lack of an automatic to expand the accessible market were probably factors. As for performance, yes they were quick but based on my experience as a Showroom Stock C racer, on the track the acceleration difference between a 1500 Rabbit and the Fiesta was slight, and the 1600 “twin stick” Colts, Fiat X1/9 and the six cylinder Gremlin (232? 258?) typically outpulled us out of turns, though even the Fiat wasn’t much faster through the turns. The Fiesta definitely rewarded a smooth driving style and trail braking to mitigate severe understeer.
A friend owned a blue one and I had a chance to drive it. Fun, peppy and agile. It was what the “World Car” Escort wasn’t. What a letdown //that// was!
My former wife’s first new car was a ’78 Fiesta, lipstick red. I don’t recall which series it was.
When she bought it, she couldn’t drive a car with a manual transmission. Her mother brought it home; she took it out to a country road with a hill and practiced until she got the hang of it.
It became mine to drive later on. I liked it.
The Starsky-and-Hutch graphics on the car Paul shot suit it SO MUCH better than the Torino. This really should’ve been the new “striped tomato” in the show, not the LTD II they never got.
I owned a ’78 when it was about ten years old. Brisk and nimble for sure, maybe even twitchy. But it had the same problem as Renault: no parts and service. When the generator failed, it took six months to get a replacement.
I owned a 78 Fiesta Sport with the flip-up sunroof. Loved it. Fun to drive. Deceiving interior space. Great visibility. Reclining seats!!!! And 4x better fuel economy the the car it replaced.
Before buying it, I shopped an Accord. The Accord was a little larger with more little features (remote fuel door release) and fuzzier seat cloth. But the Honda dealer piled on nearly $1000 of “rust and dust” pork, making the Accord 30% more expensive than than my well-equipped Fiesta.
I kept the Fiesta until 1992. By that time, small cars were considerably more refined (Mazda 323/Mercury Tracer). And Midwest salt was on the verge of sprouting. Nevertheless, I loved my Fiesta. It’s sales numbers were very impressive when you account for no automatic transmission and unfavorable exchange rates (punishing EU vehicles and favoring Japanese cars).
An odd feature of those flip-up Fiesta sunroofs was they actually gave you ‘two’: a tinted Lexan panel, and a solid, body-color metal one. I’m not sure what the logic was, but I guess you had a spare if you lost or broke one.
This was a surprisingly good car. BIL had one, I saw a lot of miles from the right seat. We both also had early American Escorts at the time. The Fiesta was more fun to drive, but the creature comforts weren’t as good. The beam axle in the rear broke one day at 40 mph in traffic. THAT was exciting!
I owned an ’80 sport. I really liked that car, nimble, easy to maintain. an engine compartment with almost nothing in it. If I found one in decent shape tomorrow, I’d buy it for my daily driver.
I was in college when these hit the market. College dorm conventional wisdom pointed to Mazdas, Toyotas, and Hondas at the time. The trials and tribulations of the Pinto were known by then and Ford products had a tarnished image.
Looking at the Fiesta in retrospect, I feel the current Fiat 500 falls into the same situation. Too small for American taste, questionable reliability, dealer apathy which is focused on selling trucks & SUV, cheap gas prices, etc.
History repeats itself.
I drove on these in Europe in the 90’s, it was already over a decade old and the odometer had rolled over who knows how many times.The only things wrong with it was the bumpers were rusting and the carburetor needed cleaning.
Of course it was a very simple car with no power anything, no AC.
At the time this came out, I was still loving my Alfa Berlina, but pretty much over trying to get at anything in or under the dashboard, and almost ready for something smaller and simpler. Then I read Car and Driver’s report on the Fiesta, in which they stated that (paraphrasing here) “the dashboard can be dismantled by a smart kid with a screwdriver in minutes”! I was all but fired up to go buy one! I didn’t, and I probably would eventually have regretted it if I had, but if I were to find a good survivor now I could be in big trouble at home!
The profile shot emphasizes how we used to accept cars with small tires. The tires of today’s cars, and especially of SUVs, seem massive in comparison. (And is this necessary?)
My first new car purchase was an ’80 Fiesta. Not a Ford guy, but VW started building Rabbits in PA and “Americanized” them a bit too much. Fiesta was German and priced less than the Rabbit. Civics were in short supply, so dealers were adding on hundreds above sticker, no thanks.
Car was not perfect, so my view of Ford was still not great. Main design defects were wicked torque steer on slippery surfaces, overheating in Los Angeles traffic, tiny tires and brakes that did not last and struts that were completely gone in 15,000 miles. I upgraded to the 13″ wheels shown in the pictures and Yokohama tires, Koni struts and Repco Metalmaster brakes. Wired in a radiator fan switch to override the thermostatic one.
Jonahtan E., those are oversize in the picture, stock was 155-12’s, too small even for back then.
The car was fun to drive, but lifestyle caused me to trade for a Toyota 4×4 pickup. Wife’s Beetle became the toss around car.
I bought a slightly used 1980 Fiesta Ghia just before I went off to college in May of 1984. I continued to drive this car for four years…clocking 238,000 miles on the odometer before selling it to a high school boy who drove it all over town for about two years. He ended up selling it to a young family who drove it for at least another year before I left town for a new job. I often wonder how long that this car continued to run thereafter. The car was absolutely bulletproof, I only replaced the front struts, CV joints, plugs, brake linings, and an alternator–all normal wear and tear items over the 238K miles driven. It still had the original clutch but the throw-out bearing was squalling when I sold it. I would love to find another Ghia to restore for my granddaughter to have at 16. What a great car.
I purchased a Ghia model from Avis. It was a major change from the TR-6 it replaced. Wonderful car with great visibility, handling and almost as fast as my friend’s Scirocco.
The A/C worked well and the seats were terrific. I consider it one of the first “hot hatches”.
Now the bad. The resonance at 3500 rpm was so bad, I had to sell the car. Driving is was horrible as the entire car buzzed at that point. The emission control kept the butterflies open for a second or two after you released the throttle. Downshifting was an adventure.
This car was love/hate. I sold it after four months and purchased a used 280Z.
The Fiesta was a very good car with a dreadful engine.