By on May 28, 2012

We saw a junked first-year Plymouth Horizon last week, but Chrysler’s Simca-based econobox wasn’t the only Euro-Detroito subcompact to make its North American debut in 1978. The first-gen Ford Fiesta, which had been a tremendous sales success in Europe, showed up in American Ford showrooms… where it was met by puzzled stares from car shoppers who couldn’t quite get their heads around the tiny size of the latest car to bear the blue oval.


Still, the Fiesta was very cheap ($300 less than even the bare-bones Horizon), it held four passengers, and its excellent fuel economy gave drivers a measure of freedom from the whims of sheikh and ayatollahs.
66 horsepower in a car scaling in at 1,780 pounds made the Fiesta quicker than the ’78 MGB (2,338 pounds, 62.5 horsepower). Actually, that’s not a fair comparison; just about every car in 1978 was quicker than the black-bumper MGB.
The “Sport” option package added $556 to the Fiesta’s price tag. I can’t figure out what you got for that money beyond the “S” decals and tape stripes; it appears that all the US Fiestas got the same engine in ’78.
Even back in the day, you didn’t see many Fiestas on American streets. Before this one, I hadn’t even seen one in the junkyard for a few years.
If you’re interested in the history of the Fiesta, I recommend this Ford-backed (yet still fascinating) book.

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53 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1978 Ford Fiesta Sport...”


  • avatar
    LeeK

    My future wife got one as a hand-me down from her father when she graduated from college and made her way out in the world. While somewhat fun and peppy to drive, it was horrible in the reliability department. Three clutches, bad water pump, and a brake system that completely rusted out (calipers, pads, rotors) that had to be totally replaced made this car a regular visitor to my local service station. When the third clutch started to show signs of failure, my crusty, hungover mechanic looked at me and said, “If I were you, I would seriously think about selling this car.” It was easily the worst car I’ve ever been associated with. Thirty years later, my wife will look at a me and shout out, ” Fiesta? No!” at opportune moments of remembrance.

    And this comes from a guy who has owned five VWs over the years.

    • 0 avatar
      Wheeljack

      The water pump was always a weak point on these cars. The engine was originally designed for RWD and thus was a bit long to fit transversely in the Fiesta engine compartment. The compromise was a shortened water pump that really did not have adequate bearings to survive any length of time.

      I actually has the water pump shaft shear on mine while driving to a friend’s house. Fortunately the pulley lodged itself in the front suspension so I didn’t have to source another one, and the water pump was super easy to replace so it could’ve been worse I suppose.

  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    I had a red ’78 Sport I bought used around 1986. Fun little car that could crack 40 mpg with the right jets in the carb. In addition to the stripe, the “sport” package got you: 155SR-12 tires (replacing standard 145-12 tires), rear sway bar (there was no sway bar on a standard car), Sport seats with adjustable recline and adjustable headrests (standard seats were high-back and not adjustable for recline), deluxe door trim panels with larger armrests/different door pull/map pockets (standard car had very plain panels and very small armrests), you also got a nice 4-spoke steering wheel to replace the plain 2-spoke unit.

    There were a few other minor things like a silver accent applique on the dashboard and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting. Overall, they sold around 227,000 of these cars during the 3 years it was available here…not bad.

    While my car was pretty beat when I got it, once I got it all sorted it was a well designed and fairly robust little car. There were some known problem areas, both minor and major, but nothing that couldn’t be corrected relatively cheaply by the DIY-er. I really have fond memories of this car and loved how well it handled and felt when being hustled. Over the years, I ended up upgrading mine with a lot of European engine and suspension upgrades and it never failed to put a grin on my face.

    All the clever little details and serviceability features on this car made me want to “move up” to somthing with similar spirit when money permitted, and I replaced it with another German made Ford product in 1995: A 1988 Merkur Scorpio. I lost that first Scorpio to an accident in 1997 and replaced it with another ’88 Scorpio that I still have to this day and have been driving regularly. While the Scorpio weighs roughly double the Fiesta and is orders of magnitude more sophisticated, it still has that basic “goodness” that I found endearing in that little red car.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      This is what makes TTAC B&B awesome – replies like this. Thanks for the additional information.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      You forgot the most important part of the Sport package: a tachometer. Back in the day, it was rare for the base version of any new car to have one as standard equipment. Hell, it wasn’t until the third generation Camaro/Firebird before the base versions got one as standard equipment.

      At roughly 10% of the price of the whole car, what you got in the Sport package wasn’t really worth it on a new Fiesta.

      • 0 avatar
        Wheeljack

        Yup, you’re right about the tach – I forgot about it since anymore practically everything comes with one. The whole instrument cluster was different from the base car – it had a large tach, a similarly sized speedo, and a smaller fuel/temp gauge in between them. The base car just had a speedo and a combo fuel/temp gauge.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Didn’t the S also come with a matte black passenger side mirror? Our Ghia had a stainless one one, our Decor did not (I bought a matching stainless one from the Ford dealer and installed it myself.

  • avatar
    993cc

    If I remember correctly, the “sport” trim got you stabilizer bars and, maybe, wider (12 Inch diameter!) tires.

    This may have been the last car from a major manufacturer to be offered in the US without the option of an automatic transmission in any version.

    A friend at college had one which I drove quite a bit. Definitely a better drive than the 74-79 Civic, and really good unassisted brakes. But they disappeared quickly from the roads after they were discontinued, so there must have been durability/reliability problems, or maybe Ford stopped supplying parts for them.

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      “This may have been the last car from a major manufacturer to be offered in the US without the option of an automatic transmission in any version. ”

      How short memories are. Can’t you still get a brand-new never registered showroom queen Dodge Viper? They never had an automatic option.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        Late 80′s-early 90′s VW Fox imported to the states from I think Brazil. Only 2dr or 4dr sedan or 2dr wagon “shooting brake” Priced under the Golf. North-south engine mounting like a smaller version of the Quantum/Dasher/4000. No auto, it only came with a stick shift I think later versions had 5spds,and the a/c was dealer installed. There was even a Wolfsburg edition. Reliability though is quite sorrid. Hence you don’t see many around anymore. One of these is worth a Junkyard Find piece. I have a neighbor with a wagon version in nice shape. Older fellow just keeps it going.

      • 0 avatar
        993cc

        @ cdotson: I never knew about the viper being Manual only. I wouldn’t have expected that given the V10 truck engine, target customers, and all.

        @ T-bird: I had forgotten that the Fox was manual only. Odd, since it was on my short list of cars to buy in 1992. Dodged that bullet, I guess.

        Thanks to you both.

    • 0 avatar
      nikita

      No automatic, no factory a/c and not even a hole in the dash for a radio. This car was quickly imported “as is” due to the high cost of gas and Ford having nothing to offer in the US market after the Pinto. Legend has it that a joint venture with Honda on a Civic variant was vetoed by Henry Ford II, not leaving any time to “Americanize” the Fiesta.

      • 0 avatar

        Dearborn engineers were involved with the design of the Fiesta from the very beginning. Europe was the focus, but the plan was always to sell it in the United States as well.

      • 0 avatar
        nikita

        The car was way to “European” to have much Dearborn influence, except maybe the low bidder cheapness of some of the parts. Are you sure it wasnt the Escort?

      • 0 avatar
        tonyola

        @nikita:

        Murilee is right. It was Henry Ford II himself who backed and greenlighted the Fiesta project and the US design and engineering studios had a considerable amount of input on the car.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Murilee is right. The Fiesta was designed as a “world” car. Henry Ford approved the project in 1972, with design studios in the US, Germany and England working collaboratively on its development.

        U.S. models were Base, Decor, Sport, and Ghia. All U.S. models featured the more powerful 1.6L 4-banger using the Valencia block with the older Crossflow cylinder head, fitted with a catalytic converter and air pump to satisfy strict Californian emission regulations, energy-absorbing bumpers to US standards, side-marker lamps, round sealed-beam headlamps, improved crash dynamics and fuel system integrity as well as optional air conditioning (a/c was not available in Europe). The US version was built in Cologne, Germany.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m basing all this on the book “Let’s Call It Fiesta,” which was produced before the US launch of the car with at least some Ford backing. Pretty interesting read, especially with all the tiptoeing around the fact that Ford was making a major business deal with Hitler buddy Francisco Franco to build cars in Spain. I recommend it.

      • 0 avatar
        ranwhenparked

        @Murilee Martin

        Yeah, America, and American companies, have had some questionable alliances over the years. But, to be fair, the elderly and semi-senile Franco of the late 1960s and 70s wasn’t quite the iron fisted tyrant he was in his younger years, old age mellowed him out a bit. Besides, by the time the Fiesta was actually launched in ’76, Franco was dead, the King was back in, and Spain was on the path to democracy, so the potentially negative PR for Ford became a non-issue.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        IIRC Ford spent Bout 40 million bucks to reengineer about 150 components to make the car compliant wit EPA and FMVSS emission and safety regs respectively.

        Upgrades to pass usa emissions was a big thing as lead free fuel was still a comparative rarity in western Europe even a decade after the fiesta launched in USA.

        A/C though on the option checklist was not a factory-installed option, rather it (a system by Eaton, IIRC) was added at te port of import before te cigars were shipped to the dealers. If the installer was not careful, the a/c pulley would rub on the main harness and cut the insulation causing a disabling short circuit!

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        IIRC Ford NAAO was the styling studio that won the styling competition . Engineering was by FOE. Homologation for N.A. was done by NAAO OPEO (Overseas Product Engineering Office in Dearborn). Lou Veraldi (later known as the Father of the Taurus) was program manager. Bob Lutz (later of Merkur XR-4ti was Pres of FOE.

        We had two of these cars:
        1. Ghia with three available options

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    The Odo image shows +83000 miles…is it possible that this vehicle only lasted such a short life prior to being scrapped? Unfortunately it is only a 5 digit Odo. I find it hard to believe that it would have made it to 183000, but I could be wrong.

    • 0 avatar

      The body rust indicates that it sat outdoors for many years. Typical Colorado/Great Plains weathering, from repeated hail/snow/blistering sun seasons. Probably broke something expensive in the 1980s and sat in a field since then.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        I bought my ice blue 79 Decor model with 69k on it in 1984. Drove it through university (daily commute of 70 miles round trip, in michigan) sold it – still running fine- in 1989, with 169,000 miles on it, for more than I paid for it!

        Aside from the water pump, brakes, rr window defogger switch all being a little under designed, the rest of the car was great!

  • avatar
    benders

    My dad traded his ’76 Mustang for an orange Fiesta (not sure of the year). It lasted about 10 years until it was replaced by an ’89 Tercel.

  • avatar

    I quite like the styling of these. Very trim and functional. They seemed to disappear from our streets very, very fast. Not sure if it was reliability issues or lack of parts supply as Ford seemed to do back then with its “failed” experiments. My Grandfather had one of these back in England but it was a 1.0 “Popular” in refrigerator white.

    • 0 avatar
      Wheeljack

      I always thought the styling was a bit of a cross between Rabbit and Scirocco, what with the slightly upswept beltline. I also think some of the details on this car were better looking than either of the VW cars – the tailamps were quite nice and the “aerofoil” grille was an especially nice touch that actually had some functional benefit according to the book “Let’s call it Fiesta” that chronicles the development of this car.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      By law, an OEM is obligated to supply service and repair parts for about 10 years; Ford has no special exemption from this rule.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        For what it is worth, I was hearing that dealers weren’t stocking parts for these in the early ’80s and that Ford had done it before to buyers of the German Mercury Capri and English Ford Cortina. Nissan doesn’t even stock parts for many vehicles 8 years after they’re discontinued now, or at least they weren’t in 2006. I was told this by one of their regional parts distributors. They also weren’t tracking running changes in any way, shape or form, nor were they always able to supply pre-change parts that weren’t compatible with their replacements.

    • 0 avatar
      993cc

      I like the styling too. In fact, I’d say putting one of these next to a 2012 Fiesta pretty well illustrates everything that’s wrong with styling today.

      Although to be fair, the basic shape of most new cars is probably determined by engineering/ safety requirements. Who new that when form finally did follow function it would look so awful.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    I’ve always liked these cars. Never owned one, but DID (and still do) like it’s looks, they were sporty looking, cleanly designed little hatchbacks.

    I remember seeing these as a kid in Jr High back in 1978-1980 time period when they were briefly sold here in the states. I knew someone who went to the same high school who had an orange one, he was older and I think helped run Young Life for our school that I was a part while in HS in the early 80′s.

    My late Uncle Joe had a white one that I got to ride in. This would be the summer of ’82 when I was down visiting my Dad’s side of the family in N. Georgia for the summer. I remember riding in the back at least once, if not up front as well as he drove and the back seat wasn’t bad at all for an average sized High Schooler (I’m 5’10″ roughly).

    One thing that I found interesting was how they did the taillights on these. There were 2 bulbs, the top one was your taillight, the bottom one did double duty as your turn and brake light IIRC.

    These certainly didn’t last long here in Puget Sound though on very rare occasions, I’ll see one but not in the last few years though.

    However, I STILL see the occasional Pinto though. There has been a faded light green runabout, I think a ’76 with the factory mags still running around and in Tacoma, someone’s got a nicely kept white 79-80 Runabout as it has a variation of the Fairmont grill and square headlights, now THAT was a treat to see and it was stock too.

  • avatar
    skotastic

    This particular example should be saved!

    Great car, great colour, body looks nice and dry – ditch the interior for a proper vintage rally or track car.

    Murilee – don’t you know someone who could use it in anger?

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    These used to be very popular at my local sports car club racing track (Waterford Hills in Clarkston, Michigan). As they aged, we started seeing a lot of rollovers. The front hubs apparently failed, and you can guess what happened next. I don’t remember the last time I saw a Fiesta (or even a Festiva, its replacement) at Waterford.

  • avatar

    We have a couple of first-gen Fiestas that race in the Midwest Region LeMons races. They’re very quick once upgraded with some simple suspension modifications. I’d say that one of them might win its class, but the drivers are 11/10ths types who tend to get lots of black flags.

    Come to think of it, one of the drivers must be 6′ 6″ tall, and he fits in the Fiesta just fine, even with the requirement that drivers’ helmets be no closer than 2″ to the top of the roll cage. Surprisingly roomy cars for their tiny external dimensions.

    • 0 avatar
      majo8

      I met the team that was racing the Fiestas at the Gingerman race last summer — nice guys and I was impressed with the way the Fiestas performed on the track. The cars handled the corners well, and IIRC they both finished in the upper half of the field. Watching this race has inspired me to field a team at the Autobahn Lemons this fall.

  • avatar
    nikita

    My first new car purchase was one of these in 1980. Civics were dealer marked up and the Rabbit was much more expensive as well. Styling was so much like a Rabbit that most people thought is was.

    I liked how the car drove, but it had its flaws, malaise era Ford after all, tiny tires and brakes, as well as struts that wore out quickly, overheated easily, interior hardware that broke off in your hand.

    After upgrading struts (Koni), brakes (Repco MetalMaster), wheels and tires (13″ Yokohama on Panasport rims) it was a nice car that still overheated in traffic and on the Grapevine (I-5 north of LA). I had to turn the heat on in summer to climb that grade. The water pump never failed and the all cast iron engine never suffered any ill effects.

  • avatar
    Dr.Fine

    A co-worker had a new one in ’79. It felt very peppy and he said it got better gas mileage than his motorcycle. But I have never been hotter riding in a car. I didn’t have air either, but my Corvair had much better air flow and didn’t have engine heat radiating through the firewall.

  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    Couple of fun little facts from the book about the development of this car called “Let’s Call it Fiesta”:

    - Ford was originally going to purchase a transaxle from Fiat, but after the Ford engineers took a sample unit apart and evaluated it, they basically said to management “We don’t have any experience in transverse FWD transmissions, but we know we can do better than this”.

    - Henry Ford II evaluated the car very close to the end of development and the team had come in under budget and met all their objectives. After driving the car and being a little critical of some of the “rough edges”, Henry gave them an extra $50 per car (a huge amount of money then and now on a per-unit basis) to add some sound deadening and other things to improve the overall refinement of the car.

    - The grille was quite remarkable in that it actually created an effect above 40 mph that helped to push air up and over the front of the car which measurably improved fuel economy and lowered aerodynamic drag.

    • 0 avatar

      Wow, great extra info. Thanks.

      Count me as another guy who likes the looks of these. They made it to Brazil in the early 90s and that car was a great drive with the 1.3 engine that felt more like a 1.6. Drove one in a very enjoyable road trip once. I liked it a lot.

  • avatar
    snakebit

    First things first. Somebody buy this car and get it back on the road.

    My first experience was 1978 in Boston, when I was car-less and rented cars to go away on weekends. A dealer across the street from my office rented new Fiestas, and I was smitten after the first weekend in one. It was a Decor model with the optional and rare-design sunroof with replaceable glass and separate steel panels. I did this two different weekends.

    Bought a 1974 Civic sedan with Hondamatic for $400, plus two doors and a wood steering wheel off of a Civic 5-Speed from a junkyard for an additional $250, drove that to Oregon when I transferred to Portland in 1982, uneventful and beautiful ride there, sold the Civic to a friend, and bought a used red 1978 Fiesta Sport and kept that for two years, driving 100 round trip miles to work.

    Sold it, and replaced it with a silver 1980 Fiesta Ghia, kept that until summer 1985 when the 1985 Honda CRX Si that I ordered back in fall 1984 finally came in.

    Drove the CRX back to Boston when I tranferred back, sold it without losing a dime to a guy whose previous CRX was stolen. I then bought the first of three more Fiestas, a red Decor, a white Decor, and a dark blue Ghia model. Kept the Ghia and sold the other two to friends.

    Any problems with them? The dark blue Ghia was tough on front calipers, they would freeze up. And that’s it, period. No cooling problems(no bad water pumps).

    If I had the room at home, I’d buy another Fiesta Sport or Ghia, even the Decor. I’d stay away from the base model,no reclining seats and no cargo cover, but mechanically identical. If I could find one, I also buy a ’76-79 Civic CVCC 5-Speed, sort of the Japanese equivalent of the Fiesta, not as comfortable but just super motors and trans.

    Over the years, I’ve gravitated to the German-built Fords brought over here. I’ve had a ’70, ’72, and ’77 Capri(II V6), that string of Fiestas, and an ’85 and ’88 Merkur XR4Ti -both used cars.

    One of the best things Ford did was import these great cars to the States.

    I still have that book on the Fiesta mentioned above, the original shop manuals, and all of the brochures.

  • avatar

    It’s not well known, and you have to use a deck spacer, but with some work the Lotus Twin Cam head will fit on the Fiesta engine, which is based on the English Ford “Kent” block.

  • avatar
    luvmyv8

    I seriously want one of these! That being said though, I haven’t seen one of these in literally years, not even in the boneyard. I live in southern California and seen some pretty rare stuff, but not one of these.

  • avatar

    When I got out of college I desperately wanted to get a pilot’s license but needed a better car than my flogged-out Saab 99, so I got a used ’80 Fiesta. I think the monthly nut on the thing was something like $70 and insurance was only about $300/yr so I had plenty of dough left over to pay for flight instruction. One real weak point on mine was a completely in-accurate fuel guage, which could have been easily offset by using the trip odo, if the thing had a trip odo. I think I ran out of gas 5 or 6 times while I drove the Fiesta, includng on the way to the airport to take my private pilot check ride – how ironic. So it was far from perfect but I remember it very fondly. David E Davis called the Fiesta the Mini Cooper S he never got around to buying; I’m glad that I bought mine.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    Some states won’t allow a salvage titled car ‘back on the road’. Some junkyards will have ‘runners’ for sale, but once in the picking area, it’s off the road.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    The Future Ms. Panhard had an ’80 Fiesta when we started dating in college. My roommate had a ’78 Rabbit. I frequently was pressed into service as “designated driver” in the Rabbit, and also spent a lot of time piloting the Fiesta.

    The cars were very similar, but the Fiesta had a bit more torque steer than the VW. The Ford’s non-adjustable-for rake seats made long trips uncomfortable, which lead me to believe that Ford didn’t think people of college age would use it for such things.

    If you want to “relive” that “Fiesta experience,” go to your local Fiat store and with your college girlfriend, especially if you’re married to her, and get inside one of the 500s. The seat positions, size of the windows, relation of the windows to where you sit, etc., is creates quite a flashback.

    • 0 avatar
      snakebit

      Mr. Panhard,
      If you mean your Fiesta seats didn’t have adjustable seat backs(reclining seats), that’s because you were driving a base model. Very nice seats with Recaro-like infinitely adjustable seat backs were standard on the top three models(Decor- Sport-Ghia). Too late now, but you and the then-future Ms. Panhard would have been much happier with the car if you had just moved up one trim level when you purchased the car.

  • avatar
    cfclark

    A petite Asian young lady I knew in high school had one of these as her daily driver–I think she had inherited it from her equally petite mother. She was cute, and it was sort of cute, and she and the car fit each other. I used to drive it once in a while, and found it entertaining to drive, though I wouldn’t have wanted to have one long-term. Since then (this was the mid-to-late ’80s) she has gone on to drive a number of tiny cars, including a Subaru Justy and now a Fit–I think she’s always been intimidated by larger vehicles (I could see her in a 500). Whenever I see a Fiesta, though, I still think of her zipping around in her cheerful yellow car. (Ah, misspent youth…)

  • avatar
    Jim Zellmer

    My parents helped me purchase one in high school, a blue 1979/1980 sport. I enjoyed it’s drivability and simplicity. One long road trip to El Paso required keeping the heat blowing and windows open to moderate the engine/water temperature. Other than that, it was a reliable fun car.

  • avatar

    Went to Cars and Coffee Minnesota over in Chanhassen on Saturday. What to my wondering eyes should appear, but a Cosworth-powered Fiesta with a cage and racing seats! Just a tremendous level of effort and execution with this car and it’s just got to be the only one like it. The thing must be a ball on the track. Didn’t get a chance to chat with the owner but – really, really neat. No photos – I’m new at the whole social networking deal. Next time for sure, though.

  • avatar
    ADM

    I had a ’78, bought new. What a great car. A mechanic buddy ripped out all the emission controls and re-jetted the carb. The shift speeds went up 20 mph in every gear and it ran like a raped ape, even by today’s standards. It went so fast, I broke the speedometer cable, way past the 85 mph on the dial. My new mechanic has an ’80 that I recently rode in, and is his daily driver, with a ’79 project parked behind his shop.

  • avatar
    zela33

    I had a GREAT, new, little Ford Fiesta, 1978 that was rear-ended and totaled in 1980. It was an ORANGE Sport model! I loved it! Where did you see the one in the junk-yard? If I could find a running example, I just might buy it.


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