It has been sixty years since Ford launched the first Consul Cortina, writes Iain Robertson, a model that set into motion a run of market leading registration successes that grew a new fleet sector but also heralded a roller-coaster of automotive emotion that was at times as destructive as it was fruitful for its European product line-up.
Ford placed a spring in its step with the enticing Mark One Cortina. It was light, zesty and youthfully modern, introduced into a conservative British car market dominated by BMC heavyweights designed at least a decade earlier and for which time was running out fast. Cortina was a perfect platform and the traditional company car sector was ready for what would become regarded as fleet cost consciousness. My father was drawn to the ‘ban-the-bomb’ taillights and the crisp three-box styling that lent itself so ideally to modification by Lotus. I can still recall being driven at over 120mph on a deserted A23 near Cuckfield, West Sussex, my father revelling in the throatiness of twin Weber carburettors and petrol costs measured in shillings and pence per gallon. That car set a standard by which the rest of the new car scene would be judged for another twenty years.
Cortina was an indomitable force through five model generations until replaced by the Mr Blobby Sierra, which even dented the confidence of the thoroughly indolent fleet sector. Sierra was never right and it took the Clarkson sanctioned, front-driven Mondeo of a whole decade later to attempt a market clawback, against the might of the Citroen BX, Peugeot 405 and the relative foxiness of the Vauxhall Cavalier and Hillman Hunter. BMC/BLMC was already on the ropes, despite innovations like the Maxi that served to underscore that governments should never run commercial enterprises. Ford needed to do BOGOF deals.
In the meantime, the rebodied Anglia 105E made its debut as the Escort, the Granada assumed a chauffeur driven role and the Fiesta, while hardly a trendsetter commenced on a maturation process that would culminate in its status as the best small car in Europe without exception. Yet, it was Ford’s acquisition trail that commenced in the mid-1980s and would all but end in tears by the turn of the New Millennium that led it into owning Mazda, Volvo, Aston Martin and Jaguar/Land-Rover. It learnt all about platform engineering from Volkswagen but was seldom as good a student as it ought to have been, while its delving into the luxury classes earned its directors millions but cost the company a fortune. However, Ford of Europe was game for almost any challenge and invested in new technology half-heartedly, its key world decisions still being controlled by cubic inch centricity in Detroit.
Although it was presumed that shutting down Transit van operations in Southampton, Focus production in Dagenham and centering Fiesta in Valencia and Mondeo in Belgium would be immensely damaging, by some quirk, Ford of Britain survived in name alone. Fleet buyers still nominated Ford as their key supplier. Mind you, Ford was not alone in destroying its British enterprise, as Peugeot closed the Ryton, Coventry, three-shift success story that surrounded the 205/206 lines and earned substantial export duties for the UK government. Again, what should have reared the hackles on automotive journalists’ necks amounted to little more than a damp public relations squib and Ford started to divest itself of its panoply of mis-managed brands…mostly at a financial loss.
Despite Vauxhall keeping the Insignia fires burning moderately, PSA had difficulty selling anything but small cars, MG-Rover was all but defunct and both Nissan and Toyota were given grace and funding by government to keep employment figures up (self-funding Honda was left out on a Swindon limb), the Granada/Scorpio died, Mondeo sales shrank and, by some miracle, Focus and Fiesta topped the registration charts. Jag and Landy went into Indian ownership, with Volvo heading further east. The Teutonic Threesome (Audi, BMW and Merc) grew like Topsy and some well-meaning Ford director determined that the firm’s future lay in SUVs and trucks.
Fortunately, the Focus has transitioned from average to excellent and back to average again, while Fiesta, again by some quirk, has survived all cuts to rise to the top of the tree in all respects. It absorbed a tiny repackaging exercise around five years ago but has lost none of the dynamic balance for which it has been renowned for much of the past thirty years, since Richard Parry-Jones reworked its suspension, ride and handling to turn it into the finest small car bar none sold in Europe. It is little wonder that Fiesta remains the best-seller in Ford’s charts, or that it has fostered several successful newcomers over the same period.
The latest version is little more than a titivation exercise, installing LEDs in the rear taillamp blocks and the larger Puma-style touchscreen at the top of the cabin centre-stack. The rotary heating and ventilation controls remain models of operational perfection and, while the telematics are not exactly industry leading, at least they work with a modicum of efficiency. The cabin features good space, even if its overall quality is not to the fresh standards being set by Skoda in the Fabia, Peugeot in the 208, Renault in the Clio, or even Vauxhall in the latest Corsa. While I believe that the new Fabia is going to become the unchallenged class leader, its dynamics, while good, are not as sound as the Fiesta’s. While Corsa is winning with its electrified models, when Ford finally gets its act into gear, Corsa will not steal the market advantage.
Conclusion: Be under no illusion, whether you are an enthusiast, or not, the Ford Fiesta is still the class of the field overall. It may be losing out slightly on the technological front but it benefits from a core honesty that has been lost by its rivals. If Ford has one major issue with the Fiesta, it lies in its severe overpricing and, for the 1.0-litre, 150bhp Vignale version, somewhat more than a few quid change from £30k ought to be an expectation. Work on the basis that Ford dealers WILL discount and you could become the winner.