Let’s have a … Fiesta!

Back in 1977 Ford tried their hand at a world car.  They were aiming squarely at the market that Volkswagon’s Rabbit and in a lot of ways they had developed a winner. 

In the early seventies the American automobile industry tried to adapt quickly to the need for smaller, more fuel efficient cars and failed miserably.  Their engineers just were not experienced in working on that scale.  They created the Vega with its aluminum block and cast iron head.  It was a disaster.  The rear end belonged on a truck.  Some car companies tried to convert their gasoline burning car engines into diesel.  They worked for a while, but it became clear that the blocks were not up to the demands of burning diesel fuel.

In the late seventies Ford leveraged European resources to produce quite a fuel efficient car that was not just a scaled down American sedan.  It was a two door hatch back that looked similar to the VW Rabbit, but had many important differences.  It was truly a world car.  The engine was from England, the transmission from France, the interior from Sweden, the body was made in Germany, and so on.  It was a light weight too, less than 2000 pounds. 

In 1978 I pick up a copy, the Sport edition.  It came with 12″ diameter wheels and some racy seat upholstery and a strip along the side that ended in an “S” at the rear.

The doors were a bit tinny sounding when they closed but the engine was a real winner.  It was the Kent straight four cylinder engine with a cross flow head.  It was the same basic block that Lotus used in their famous cars.  It had a strong bottom end that could support a lot more power than it came with.

I had fun buzzing around eastern Connecticut, where I lived and worked at the time, in the Fiesta.  Its twelve inch tires working very hard to keep me out of the rough.  While it was a great deal of fun I knew that I would not be leaving this car alone.

The first stop was the suspension.  I not only added larger anti-roll bars to the front and the rear I came across some lowering springs that dropped the ride height by two full inches.  Between those two modifications this little rocket was cornering like a snake.  It was time for some better rubber.  That was a tough one.  The stock Fiesta wheel did not give you many options and remember, there was no Internet to do your research on.  Finally I found an outfit called BAT.

This was an American company founded by an Englishman, Peter Thompson, who started in Formula Ford.  His company grew out of his ability to find and import many cool parts that were only available in England to the United States.  Since Formula Ford used the Kent engine that came transverse mounted in the Fiesta it was natural that Peter started focusing on that car, too. 

BAT, Inc. offered many unique parts among them, alloy rims that allowed me to go up two tire sizes.  He also had some parts that were special to Europe, such as tail ights with amber turn signals.  I picked up a set and accomplished the required rewiring and re-socketing.  Then I also picked up the English grill.  In the US Ford used a grill with FORD in block letters, while Europe had the traditional blue oval in the middle.  Of course I had to have that.

The car was a screamer, but primarily because of its low weight.  The engine had a lot of potential that had not been called upon.  I had to do something about that.  But first I took out the stock front seats and installed a set of Corbeau seats that provided far more lateral support. 

It was about that time that I was transferred to Massachusetts.  I was working just outside of Boston, which was great because now I was close to Marblehead, the racing center of Massachusetts.  Marblehead was the place to go if you were a sailing fanatic or a race car fanatic.   That made it the perfect town for me.  Years ago I had gone there to get machine work done on the VW engines I would build and had gotten to know many of the race shops around there.

There was a shop that specialized in their version of the Lotus Seven and it used, you guessed it, the Kent four cylinder engine.  Naturally I stopped by and worked out with them to re-build my engine and have it ballanced, blue printed, and have the head flowed.  But there was one more thing I asked them to do.

BAT had offered an option that was only available at English dealerships as a dealer installed option.  It was a turbo charger kit.  Factory turbo cars were rare at that time.  It was something that you would hear about only on something exotic like a Porsche.  To think that I could have a turbo on my Fiesta was exciting.

so I talked with the guys who were rebuilding my engine and made sure that the rebild would be a low compression engine so that I could really take advantage of the boost.  It took them a couple of months, but then I got the call that my engine was done and my car was  ready to be picked up. 

I still had not installed the turbo.  That I was planning to do myself later and then I found out that I was being transferred to North Carolina.

I packed everything I owned and headed south.  The good news was that the Fiesta Owners Club of America was situated in Raleigh.  So I got in touch with the president of the club and he and I scheduled time to install the turbo kit.

For the time it was pretty sophisticated.  It had a blow through turbo so I could keep the stock carburetor and just re-jet it.  I also purchased an oil cooler since I knew that the turbo would be demanding good oil as cool as it could be gotten.  The kit added several sensors to the car and had a small computer to keep track of timing and fuel.  I controlled boost levels with the waste gate and if the computer sensed over boost, low oil pressure, over heating, etc. it would prevent me from grenading the engine.

We had fun putting the kit on the car and were excited to get it going.  The first time I tried to get on the boost the car would die.  it turned out to be a simple fix.  When pressure goes up so does electrical resistance.  I had to gap the plugs a lot closer so that as boost came up the spark would still travel the gap.  Then look out!

This car was a rocket!  I could hardly get out of first gear to snatch second.  I was so glad that I had the engine rebuilt with revs in mind or I would have thrown a rod for sure.  This one modification made a fun car and absolute screamer. 

I held on to it until the summer of 1984.  With all the fun I had it had one weak spot.  Its brakes were designed for 12″ wheels and they were woefully inadequate for the kind of power I had in it now.  The turbo technology was also not as advanced as it is today.  It should have had an inter-cooler and it should have had a bypass valve to take the pressurized air and recirculate it when you closed the throttle.  I went through my first turbo in less than two years.

I sold it to a friend back in Massachusetts.  He was happy to get it and I was happy to move on, but I had a lot of fun with that little rocket.

This entry was posted in Automobiles, Cars, Modifying Cars, Sports Cars, Suspensions. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Let’s have a … Fiesta!

  1. mark says:

    Your clearly an automotive pioneer of sorts. These days, there is so much aftermarket that everything is pretty much bolt on. Some combinations work better than others, and that’s where your experience shines in selecting the right parts.

    If you wanted to push the edge today, to be different, the way you did with the Fiesta in the 70’s, what would you tackle? Electric / Hybrid performance? Turbo Diesel in cars? What would you find to be a real, push the envelope challenge?

  2. jimsgarage says:

    I would love to try an all wheel drive car driven with four separate electric motors. Maybe with a small diesel engine to supply electricity. It would be a real challenge to figure out how to measure and controll the traction at all four corners but the torque you can get out of electric motors would be fun to deal with. The diesel engine is just an off the cuff thought since I know my driving style would demand a lot of electrical energy.

    If I could get it to all work (hooray for computers) this might make a fantastic rally car. Very different, that’s for sure.

    Factory Five makes some very affordable kit cars and it would be fun to take their coupe and convert it to an AWD racer with a turbo gasoline engine. Not sure if I would try for a 2 liter four or a V8.

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