By on April 29, 2022

We embark on the important and global tale of a subcompact hatchback today. Your author referenced it last week in Part I of our Kia large cars series, and now it’s time for the promised comprehensive Rare Rides coverage! Manufactured in various places around the world, our subject vehicle lived a long life and had no fewer than 10 identities over its impressive 17-year span. We’re going to party, karamu, Festiva, forever.

The Festiva’s tale started in the Seventies, as Ford increased its ownership stake in friendly and wholesome Japanese automaker, Mazda. The two companies’ relationship started in the latter part of that decade. Mazda had been in a rough spot financially since the Sixties, and Ford purchased its ownership on the cheap. Ford’s first investment was a paltry seven percent stake in the Hiroshima firm.

The relationship deepened in 1979 when Ford poured in some more cash and raised their stake in Mazda to 24.5 percent. The timing happened to align for both companies with regard to an all-new subcompact offering, as Ford’s product was outdated and Mazda had some free design capacity.

As far as Ford was concerned, subcompact offerings were split into the Pinto for the North American market, and the Fiesta for Europe and other places. The Pinto had a terrible reputation and was near the end of its life after being on sale since 1971.

The West German and UK-made Fiesta was a bit newer, but wouldn’t last much longer in its first-gen Seventies guise. On sale since 1976, German examples were available in North America between 1978 and 1980. The first Fiesta was generally well-received, particularly in North America because the Pinto alternative was crap.

The Fiesta continued in production through 1983 in its initial version, before it was replaced by the Fiesta Mark II. But that Fiesta, like the first, was more for European consumption and wouldn’t work as a world car as well as something purpose-designed. Hold that thought.

Over at Mazda, there was only one subcompact car in the company’s history, and it was only such on a technicality. Called the Carol 600, the coupe and sedan were marginally larger versions of the Kei R360 coupe, which was also sold as the Carol. Its 600 name was due to its 586-cc engine, and it graduated from Kei to subcompact because it had larger bumpers. Inside, the space was the same as the smaller car.

The “larger” Carol 600 was of a higher tax bracket and proved unpopular because it offered no advantages over the Kei version other than a larger engine. The 600 was on sale for two model years before it was pulled from production, with about 8,800 examples sold. Mazda didn’t make another subcompact until 1986. Back to Ford.

Given the Pinto was done and the Fiesta was not intended for North American consumption, Ford would go without a subcompact offering for a few years. In 1981 the compact Escort became the replacement for the subcompact Pinto, which had straddled the size classes with how large it was. The replacement for the Fiesta in North America would be a true subcompact.

In Europe, the Fiesta Mark II would continue as the smallest car on offer in the supermini class, while the European Escort was in its third generation and was considered a small family car (compact). The newly created subcompact would not be sold in Europe but would be sold eventually by Ford Australia to that market.

Product need analyzed, Ford approached Mazda with its considerable early Eighties ownership stake and directed the Hiroshima folks to develop a new subcompact car. The name Ford picked was Festiva, surely in hopes the reputation and success of the extant and similarly named Fiesta would rub off on its new import. The resultant Mazda-developed ride was a practical, square, three-door hatchback shape.

Though it wore a Ford badge, it was immediately clear the Festiva was a Japanese design. Its overall theme was “practical box.” An unadorned fascia presented two square composite headlamps, which were flush with the grille and used amber corner markers. The grille between was body-colored and featured a very simple singular bar with a Ford emblem in the center. The bumper was finished in a grey rubber (or body-colored on higher trims) and had almost no decoration other than two turn indicator lamps.

The hood had minimal decoration and only a modest power bulge that tapered off before the leading edge at the grille. The upper half of the Festiva’s hood had a single raised detail, in the form of a centrally-placed black plastic windshield sprayer nozzle.

Fenders featured a single character line that ran straight to the end of the short body. It was interrupted by a very obvious fuel door on the driver’s side, and a black door handle that was pulled from the Ranger. Side rub strips continued from front to rear wheel well and featured a contrasting tape stripe within them. They were black on lower-end models, but body-colored if a more zesty trim.

At the rear, the tall greenhouse met with a simple rear hatch for maximum practicality and visibility. Pillars all around were thin, a nod to the rather lax crash safety standards of the Eighties. There was little adornment at the rear, just a simple set of badges, a rear wiper, and a bumper with a cutout for the tiny tailpipe.

As one might expect on such a class of car, the Festiva’s interior was built to a price and utilized a less is more design theme. In front of the driver was a two-spoke Mazda steering wheel, and beyond a very simple set of gauges. Speedometer, temperature, and fuel were the only gauges offered. No tachometer was present, even with a manual transmission. Elsewhere, the cabin had very simple HVAC sliders, a very simple stereo, and no center console. Between the flat bucket seats was the shifter and parking brake, and nothing else.

The Festiva’s seats were rather unadorned, though some examples used more upmarket ribbed velour as their seating material. Door panels were equally simple, covered with a minimum amount of padding, and finished largely in vinyl. Seat belts were everyone’s least favorite type: Automatic and attached to the door for the shoulder, with a manual lap belt. In general, comfort and convenience features were kept at a minimum, in order to ensure the lowest pricing possible.

There’s not a lot left to say about the exterior and interior styling of the super simplistic Festiva. We’ll wrap up there, and learn about the Festiva’s engineering and mechanicals in Part II. We’ll also cover its important world debut.

[Images: Ford, YouTube]

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23 Comments on “Rare Rides Icons: The Ford Festiva, a Subcompact and Worldwide Kia by Mazda (Part I)...”

  • avatar

    Always had an irrational hankering for a tuned Festiva From Hell.

    These were good little commuter cars, by the way – lots of good late-’80s Mazda stuff in them.

  • avatar

    “There was little adornment at the rear, just a simple set of badges, a rear wiper, and a bumper with a cutout for the tiny tailpipe.”

    No rear wiper unless you paid for the upgrade to the fancy LX trim. Base models also lacked a passenger-side mirror.

    My memory is fuzzy, but I think that at least in some years, the LX got you 5 gears instead of four.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, I had one, a bright red 89 LX with 5-speed and air conditioning. Absolutely wonderful little car, had a very enjoyable time with it. Only complaint were the stock Yokohama tires which I swore were made of Bakelite, and were absolutely dangerous in the wet, as they’d break free without any form of warning.

      This car began my involvement with 17th century reenactment and the organization of a Scots Covenanter regiment. Being the captain and owner of most of the hardware, it also meant carrying 16′ pikes (pike = humongously long spear) on a 10′ (or so) car, which was done by making roof racks out o 2×2 lumber and strapping the pikes to them. For safety and control, I’d keep the butt end even with the rear bumper and having the steel spearheads out in front of the car.

      It was wonderfully effective for moving slow driving seniors out of the left lane.

  • avatar

    The base model 323 at the time didn’t even have armrests on the doors!

  • avatar

    Ford Motor Company is unquestionably the most technologically-advanced company on the planet. They routinely develop technologies which will not be rolled out for decades. Reference the second-to-last picture for an example (dual USB ports on a late 70’s/early 80’s model).

    We all know that the brightest minds become automotive engineers (or go to journalism school), but check out what kind of progress lesser minds in the defense industry have been up to:

    Bonus: Pretty sure that video is narrated by Brains of the original Thunderbirds.

  • avatar

    These were everywhere when I started driving in 1992. The assistant manager at the movie theatre I worked at had a bright blue one that I rode in several times and remember it felt insanely light and unsubstantial compared to the cars I was used to. When I was in college, a guy I knew that worked at the University I was attending had a 116 mile daily commute and bought every cheap Festiva he could find. Kept two running and had the others sitting in his back yard for parts. I always admired that combination of good planning and frugalness.

  • avatar

    Think the Fiat 500 as the latest incorporation of the Festiva.

    Plenty of them around, heavily depreciated. Currently falling off the radar scope at an accelerated rate. Invest in a set of tools, onboard diagnostics reader, repair manual, and subscribe to a Fiat 500 forum and you’ve got yourself a cheap set of wheels.


  • avatar

    There are a couple of weird Festiva guys who hang out on one of the Miata forums. They are considered welcome there.

    The reason for this is that early 1.6 and 1.8 Miata engines fit into these things and can also take the same aftermarket turbo hardware that get put into the hairdresser cars. 250+ hp Festivas can hurt some serious feelings on the street and track.

  • avatar

    I had that same radio in my new 1989 Mercury Tracer.

  • avatar

    Had one for a rental car at a Ford dealer. It was the biggest piece of crap ever. It rode and drove like crap. It only had 7,300 miles on the odometer but it seemed like was hundred years old. Took the dealer 2 months to fix our escort. Thankfully it was my wife’s car and she hated it too. When I went to the LA Auto show some years ago I saw the Ecosport. Just sitting in it reminded me of that Festiva.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      When I was renting a car from Hertz a few weeks ago with my Gold member manager special the person at the lot said how about the Ecosport? I said nope and went with a Kia Soul which was ok.

      I knew someone who purchased a Festiva in the early 90’s. They liked it as a commuter car and for easy parking in NYC.

  • avatar

    Ours was known as the (company) dog car. The security dogs chased a squirrel into the engine compartment, pulled off the grill and bent the edges of the hood up, about 4 or 5 inches across front and up both sides a ways. They were two German Shepherds and had all night to do it, but still, damn, impressive and hilarious.

  • avatar

    This was my uncle Gary’s car for many years. He bought it when he was still in the Coast Guard overseas and brought it back with him when he retired. Blue with tan interior five-speed no passenger mirror no AC. He absolutely love that car, said it was easy getting around narrow Italian streets. I still remember now crazy light that car seemed when he would take me to the park to launch model rockets. Such a cheerful unassuming little car, perfect reflection of my uncle. I really wish we kept that car after he passed away instead of just selling it in the estate sale.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Makes me want to build a SHOgun

  • avatar

    The Festiva was a good solid car with decent power. My first wife had an ’88 Festiva L when we met. Blue metallic with a tan interior, it had the four-speed, only one mirror, factory AM/FM/cassette, and dealer-installed a/c (kit made by FrigiKing, I think?) that used a Sanden SD-508 compressor and the factory ducts.

    No problem breaking the front wheels loose with the 1.3l (carbureted – only the ’88 model used a carb). Besides scheduled maintenance, I never had to do much to it, either. One timing belt, front brakes, and an ignition switch, and a replacement SD-508.

  • avatar

    My dad got one of these little buggers in 1992 in the requisite turquoise after my mom made him get rid of his Skyhawk. I know it was a manual because my dad was spiteful about having to get rid of the Buick; mom couldn’t drive it. We always had a bit of fun pushing it around while dad had the clutch in. I was too young to remember much more about it. Dad liked that it was a miser getting around 50 mpg.

    Later it was traded for an Aspire, which I understand was the second generation, also a manual.

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