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27 October 2022

How the Ford Fiesta defined the British economy

Ford has discontinued what was for many years Britain’s most popular car.

By Emma Haslett

The Ford Fiesta, a common sight on British roads since the late 1970s, will soon be no more: Ford confirmed yesterday that it will end production of the car which made it the UK’s bestselling marque for 44 consecutive years.

No car is more quintessentially British than the Fiesta. The haughty curves of the Jaguar and the aristocratic frontage of the Rolls-Royce were designed to sell a vision of Britishness to the world, but the Fiesta – built specifically for the UK market – was a car that reflected Britain as it really was: small, cheap, but still capable of a certain growl.

It was also a car for its time, having been designed in response to the 1973 oil crisis and the years of high fuel prices that followed. The market had been primed in the decade before its launch by the Beeching Report, which closed 5,000 miles of railway and more than half the country’s train stations, and the development of the new motorway system. When the first Fiesta rolled off the production line at Dagenham in 1977 it cost from £1,856, or about 44 per cent of median income.

It was phenomenally successful. Boosted in the 1980s by a government programme of Roads for Prosperity, the Fiesta was the bedrock of what Margaret Thatcher called the UK’s great car economy. With sales of 4.8 million vehicles, it has been the UK’s best-selling car for 15 of the 46 years it has been in production, including 12 consecutive years between 2009 and 2020.

The Fiesta’s reputation for ruthless efficiency has stayed with it: in 2017 it was a diesel Fiesta that won the UK’s MPG Marathon, achieving an average of 122 miles per gallon (MPG) over 350 miles, the highest ever MPG achieved for a diesel car. But while the oil crisis of 2022 has many parallels with that of the 1970s, the economy that supported it has changed.

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Today, the cheapest Fiesta (from £18,655) costs just under 60 per cent of median income, and the younger cohort among which it was so popular are – after a decade of stagnation in real wages and devastating inflation in house prices – considerably worse off than the generations for whom the Fiesta was the default first car.

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At the same time, driving itself has become become an anachronism, as young people began to regard cars not as symbols of freedom or power but of the climate disaster that is materialising around them.

[See also: Why are interest rates rising before a recession?]

The Young People’s Travel survey, published in 2018, indicated that a trend that began in the early 1990s has, to use a dreadful pun, accelerated. The number of young people with driving licences peaked between 1992 and 1994, when just under half of 17-20 year-olds held a driving licence. By 2010-2014, less than a third of the same age group had a license. In the UK’s biggest cities, car ownership is plummeting: according to analysis of DVLA data, 2.3 million people now live in areas where there is only one car for every five adults, up from 1.1 million at the start of the last decade.

There were signs the Fiesta was going to become an early casualty of this trend before the pandemic. Ford saw that, and cut production at the German factory where it was made in response. But it was Covid that dealt the final blow: in 2020, just 49,000 new Fiestas were registered, compared with more than 133,000 five years earlier. In September the following year, it fell out of the top 10 cars for sales in the UK altogether, and hasn’t returned since.

In a well-connected digital economy that has learned to work from anywhere (more than a third of UK employees continue to work from home), driving to work is widely seen as a waste of time and money. This is, again, especially true of the younger workers who were once Fiesta buyers.

At the same time, the older generations who do buy cars have been tempted by a decade of cheap debt into an ongoing arms race of bigger, more expensive vehicles, to the point where sports utility vehicles (SUVs) now have the carbon footprint of a major economy. In Ford’s statement on the Fiesta, the company said it was “accelerating our efforts to go all-in on electrification”, which amounts to a commitment to “go all-in” on more expensive models.

The end of the Fiesta – whose name, essentially, means “a nice party” – is perhaps the end of the idea that driving can be fun. Its replacement – a leaner, meaner, mini-SUV called the Puma – is a car for a more sober culture. 

Should we mourn the Fiesta, then? As a product that was quintessentially British, perhaps it means losing a part of our national identity. But with the effects of the great car economy becoming ever more painfully obvious, the rear view mirror of nostalgia is the best place for it.

[See also: The UK is in the grip of a credibility crisis]

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