Unlikely Heroes – Ford Fiesta Classic Diesel

Some cars are born to be entertaining. Supercars, sports cars and hot hatchbacks are designed to be fun to drive, it’s built into their genetic makeup and the reason they exist. For other cars it sometimes comes together quite nicely and they end up being much better than expected, more than the sum of their constituent parts.

Then there are those cars that seemingly have few positive attributes and yet they end up giving you some of the most memorable drives of your life. In my case one such car was the 1996 Ford Fiesta Classic.

1996 Ford Fiesta Classic Diesel

1996 Ford Fiesta Classic Diesel

On paper this was far from being a desirable motor. It was a ‘special’ edition of the outgoing Mk3 Fiesta, sold alongside the new Mk4 model that had just arrived in Ford dealers. The Mk3 was hardly a sophisticated car, essentially a revamp of the Mk2 which in turn could trace a lot of its construction back to the ’70s original Mk1. Lacking in refinement and build quality it was long-in-the-tooth when it went on sale in the late 80s, never mind in the mid ’90s.

The 1.8-litre diesel nestled under the Classic’s bonnet was as basic as could be, designed at roughly the same time as Stevenson was testing his new Rocket and long before the age of mainstream turbocharging. It offered a paltry 60bhp and with that came a 0-60mph time of over 15 seconds. Fast is not the word. Neither is slow. Glacial perhaps?

The Classic’s specification list fits onto the back of a fag packet and could generously be described as ‘poor’. The Classic was sold alongside the then-new Mk4 Fiesta in an effort to placate customers who didn’t like the droopy looks of the new model. To avoid the Classic from looking like too much of a bargain Ford stripped it of all luxuries.

Highlights included velour seats, a five-speed gearbox, heated rear window and a single airbag. There was no rear wash-wipe, electric windows or power steering. It didn’t even have a radio to hide the drone of the engine.

1996 Ford Fiesta Classic Diesel Interior

Spartan interior of the Ford Fiesta Classic. Diesel version didn’t get the rev counter.

‘Our’ Fiesta Classic was acquired by Mrs A. in 2000. This ’96 P-plate example was her first car, acquired for a bargain price from a friend who had barely used it, arriving on our driveway with less than 5,000 miles on the clock. It was in good nick, ran well and didn’t need any work doing to it. Except for fitting a CD/radio – that was considered essential to the car’s road-worthiness.

As soon as you set off in the Fiesta you became aware of the basic nature of the driving experience. The unassisted steering was heavy and with too many turns between locks the Fiesta was not a pleasant car to manoeuvre in tight spots. There would be a lot of shuffling of the wheel, heaving it from lock to lock accompanied by the occasional curse. Fortunately visibility was superb and the Fiesta was very easy to position, but every parallel park felt like a mini-workout for the arms.

Squeeze the accelerator and the Fiesta would gain speed but to describe it as ‘acceleration’ should have landed Ford in trouble with Trading Standards. The speedometer would make its way around the dial at its own pace and the only effect of squeezing the throttle harder was to make the horrendous noise from the engine increase in intensity. Actually, that’s not true, it also increased the amount of smog being emitted from the exhaust pipe to such an extent that drivers behind would occasionally flash their lights in disgust.

Although the Fiesta was slow and noisy it had a remarkable impact on my driving style. Any speed that had built up was precious and it was important to keep it. The brakes became an enemy to progress and were only to be used in emergencies.

Cornering became a test of grip, of which there was a surprising amount. The front tyres were pinned to the ground by the weight of the engine above them while the back end was surprisingly light thanks to the wafer-thin body that sat on the Fiesta’s chassis. That meant the Fiesta was more agile than it had any right to be, turning into bends more keenly than expected and with a generous dose of body roll. If it wasn’t for the slow steering rack the Fiesta could almost have been described as having sharp responses. Almost.

Part of the Fiesta’s repertoire of tricks included lift-off oversteer, as I discovered with some alarm on a slippery roundabout one morning. A quick dap of opposite lock stopped me from parking backwards into a garage forecourt. From that point on wet roundabouts turned into a playground, trying to tempt the Fiesta’s rear into a graceful slide. Usually it wouldn’t budge but if the roads were greasy enough it could be tempted to break loose. Childish, not at all sensible, but very amusing.

Roundabouts also became a challenge as they normally require you to slow down. That got me into the habit of forward planning, searching for gaps in the traffic and attempting to match speed so that I could hit the roundabout without stopping. I apologise to any drivers alarmed by the small blue shape that may have flashed by them suddenly as they started to pull away. That was me, trying to avoid using the brakes. Sorry.

The Fiesta was also a great car for teaching the importance of forward planning for overtaking. You really had to know the road you were on and good forward visibility was essential. Once the decision had been made to pull out you knew you were going to be on the wrong side of the road for much longer than was healthy. With a good run up the Fiesta could catch the vehicle in front and pass it quickly enough but the chances of pulling off an opportunistic overtake were tiny.

The whole point of a diesel engine is economy and the Fiesta did quite well on that score.  It returned a steady 47-49 mpg, no matter whether it was thrashed or mollycoddled. That would be considered terrible for a diesel supermini by modern standards but considering the age of the engine design it wasn’t too bad and it meant the Fiesta was cheap to run. Servicing was a pain as it required a return to the garage every 6,000 miles, but at least that meant it had something in common with a Mitsubishi Evo.

On the plus side the Fiesta never went seriously wrong. It wore out its front ball-joints and flattened a battery, the key wore smooth and wouldn’t operate the boot or passenger door locks properly, but apart from that it carried on motoring with barely a murmur of complaint.

The most vivid memory we have of the Fiesta was the 1,000 mile trip we took to Jersey. Quite an adventure for the little car, it felt right at home on Jersey’s tight and twisty roads and its lack of performance was never an issue on the island’s narrow lanes. A lovely place to visit and a really enjoyable road trip. On the return journey, heading towards the ferry we saw the sun set through the Fiesta’s windscreen and several hours later we saw it rise again, just before we got back home.

Ford Fiesta Classic in Jersey

The Fiesta even made it as far as Jersey on a 1,000 mile road trip

So I salute you, Ford Fiesta Classic. You never had the ingredients to be a truly great driver’s car but you taught me new things and amused me so much more than I expected.

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Author: Chris Auty

Voted the Breakthrough Blogger of 2013 by SEAT and the Guild of Motoring Writers , Chris has lived and breathed cars since he was old enough to say 'faster'. With a penchant for hot hatches and an allergy to public transport, he would much prefer to drive a bad car than never drive at all. Fortunately his family has learned to put up with this obsession and the internet has provided a channel for his ramblings.

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