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REMEMBER it well. Sitting on ie start line of an Epynt rally stage, the seconds being counted away. "Five", select gear. "Four", the concentration builds up. "Three", build up the engine revs. "Two", the muscles tense to the torture to come. One", floor the throttle and drop the clutch.
The little Mini racing tyres srabble for grip as the marshal says "Go". The limited slip differential pawls engage and the car darts violently, almost uncontrollably, to the left. Quick, bring it back to the middle of the track. Grief! The steering's heavy. Don't lift off, that will only make it worse.
Four Amal carburetters growl as the revs shoot up to 8500. Change gear. That leaves only one hand to hold the monster fighting through the steering wheel. Drop the clutch home, 2nd gear. The limited slip bites hard, the car dives towards the rock on the right. Relief, we're flying off an Epypt jump. It's worse when you land though! Brake hard for the first corner, the car twitches as it crashes through to the suspension bump stops. Pull it through the corner on power. Don't lift off! Heaven only knows where the car will do. Six minutes of torture. Won't the stage ever end? My shoulders and arms feel pummelled. Phew! The finish.
"Marshal, what time did Frank Pierson in front do?" "Ten seconds quicker". "Can't be. I worked my guts out. We were flying on that stage."
That feeling of fighting a losing battle typifies my last few drives in "works" Minis. Kindly loaded by Tom Seal for the 1972 tour of Epynt, OBL 45F was definitely a fast Mini with its eight port head Amal carbureted engine, but somehow it just didn't record the right times. The effort of just controlling the car detracted from one's driving and the stage times showed it. This was shown most vividly when is did the same special stages three months later, but this time in a standard Mexico. We were much quicker than in the Mini.
The Mini had become uncompetitive. More power was required but the small tyres couldn't cope with the cornering and acceleration forces, so a limited slip differential was used. The pawl-type limited slip differential, together with suspension geometry designed for narrow wheels, made the car an absolute pig to drive. It was very definitely a vicious circle.
It was with these memories that I approached a test drive in a works 1600 Rally Fiesta with considerable scepticism. Would it fight like the old Minis or have suspension and transmission design improved considerably in the intervening years? The car was the one prepared for Roger Clark for use on the West Cork Rally. The testing was done on the airfield-type test track at Ford's Boreham location, on the public road and at the Military Vehicle's Engineering Establishment at Chobham.
It was inevitably going to be compared with my more familiar "works" Escort and there were differences as soon as I sat in the car. The steering wheel is much bigger (I always used to fit a standard-size steering wheel in the Mini to give more leverage to cope with the heavy steering forces), and although the steering column is located in the standard Fiesta position, it feels strangely like a commercial vehicle. The smaller windscreen also seemed to give less visibility. Eventually I concluded that sitting closer to the windscreen pillar than in an Escort, the pillar blocked a greater angle of vision.
Manoeuvring the car out of the workshop showed that the steering was surprisingly light, but the standard Fiesta gearshift was very wishy-washy and made gear selection quite difficult at times, especially the second-third change, but no doubt improvements can be made readily in this direction.
The drive down the test track access road immediately showed that this car was totally different to the old rally Minis. There was no kickback through the steering, either on acceleration or when going over quite large bumps. Eventually I was able to develop enough confidence to take fast tarmac corners holding the steering lightly with one hand, something which would have been suicide in a Mini.
Pushing the car round some of the twistier tarmac corners was even more of a revelation. Not only were the steering forces reasonably low, there was little feed back off the bumps through the steering, and surprisingly little torque reaction in an on/off power situation. Lifting off the throttle part way through a corner in a Mini induced quite a lot of oversteer, a characteristic that could be used to great effect as a safety measure in the event of a corner tightening up. This characteristic was not prominent in the Fiesta, so how could you cope with unexpectedly tight corners?
The standard technique in front-wheel drive cars is to use left-foot braking. In this technique the right foot is kept fairly hard on the accelerator while the left foot is applied firmly to the brake. The power from the engine keeps the front wheels turning while a large braking force is applied to the rear wheels, even to the extent, perhaps, of locking them. The nose of the car tucks into the corner and the tail slides out setting the car up for a tight corner. The pressure applied to the pedals determines whether the car slows rapidly or maintains its same speed.
The Fiesta behaved particularly well under this technique on loose surfaces and in these circumstances left-foot braking could be used to control the-car through most corners. On tarmac, however, getting the car sideways scrubbed off speed very rapidly and made cornering a very untidy affair. It was at this point that an oddity in the suspension became apparent. As soon as opposite lock was applied the steering became very dead and insensitive, it being very difficult to tell how much opposite lock was on. It was very easy to grossly over correct a slide. On loose surfaces it was possible to overcome an induced tail slide by applying power. This makes the front wheels spin and the nose of the car slides outwards bringing the car into line. It was obvious, however, that this sideways style of driving was not applicable to tarmac stages.
On tarmac the quickest way round the corner was to judge precisely the speed which you could negotiate the corner, turn the car into the corner relatively early and take the corner at that speed in a steady power-on understeer. Driving in this manner showed that the car had enormous levels of adhesion. It was particularly noticeable that compared to the Escort the car wasn't greatly deviated by bumps. No doubt this is due to the much lower unsprung weight, particularly at the back end where the Escort's heavy axle sometimes becomes very lively over a succession of bumps.
On the entry into the corner the Fiesta seemed to generate high angles of body roll, and there is no doubt that on a secret route rally the cornering limitations will be those imposed by the bravery of the driver rather than by the grip of this incredible little car.
It remains to be seen whether this "totally committed" approach to cornering is suitable for rallies, but you do have the emergency measure of using left foot braking to cope with the unexpected. Yet for this to be more successful the Fiesta needs a gearbox that will allow clutchless gear changes.
The straight-line performance of this car, which Roger took to a very creditable 9th place in the West Cork Rally, was not very spectacular, particularly when you are on the wide open spaces of a test track which diminish the impression of speed.
The 1600cc pushrod engine develops over 150 bhp and this prototype car is untypically heavy at 820 kg, so even with a very low final drive giving a top speed of 90 mph, the low performance is not surprising. In the handling department, however, the car shows great potential and there is no doubt that even at this early stage in its development its tarmac roadholding levels are similar to the best Escorts. Most impressive of all, however, is the design work that has gone into the transmission and suspension to make this an eminently easy car to drive. Contrary to all expectations the car is less tiring to drive than a full house tarmac Escort, probably because it demands less arm twirling.
The big question mark that hangs over the car is whether it will cope with the greater power outputs that are necessary to make it fully competitive. Will it go the way of the Mini when it was found most dramatically that there is a limit to the combined cornering and acceleration forces you can put through the two front tyres?
When you read this article the answer may be known, for John Taylor, who has been the prime mover of Fiesta development, is taking a 225 bhp BDA-engined car on the Raylor York National Rally. No doubt Peter Ashcroft of Ford will be watching the result very closely*. Having put more top results under his belt than any other competition manager in the world, he certainly wouldn't like to have a second-rate replacement for the Escort.
* On the Raylor the Fiesta was stopped by a damaged radiator and on The Circuit of Ireland had engine problems.
Top - Russell tries the Fiesta out for size