Full Circle in a Fiesta

You always remember your first one fondly, no matter how bad it was.

Your first car, that is.

When I heard the Ford Fiesta was returning to U.S. soils after a 31-year hiatus, I was transported to a time when cars were ... well, a lot different than they are today.

The commercials and ads which debuted last year featured a neon green model, but the similarities to my own 1980 Fiesta end there.

The Fiesta arrived on our shores in 1978 and made a three-year run, just as the economy was in the tank and gas was reaching unheard-of prices -- again.

Carmakers scrambled to provide small vehicles to a public just starting to see the attractiveness of Datsuns, Toyotas, Hondas and Subarus -- Japanese imports that held up fairly well and offered gas mileage in the mid-30 mpgs.

To combat this, market leader GM imported the Opel and the perpetually listing ship the S.S. Chrysler teamed with Mitsubishi to bring the Champ/Colt. Ford turned to its German subsidiary in 1978 to bring us the Fiesta, in the slot just below the Pinto and just above mass transit. The two-door econobox hatchback beared some resemblance to the Volkswagen Rabbit.

My neon green two-door joined the family in 1985, when it had 42,000 miles on the odometer. It came with a four-speed manual transmission; alas, an automatic couldn't be shoehorned into the tiny engine compartment. And the vehicle sported neither radio nor the optional glovebox door.

The heater involved one vent in the center of the dash that opened and closed, although it warmed the car equally poorly in either position. Air conditioning? Those windows rolled down. With a hand crank. Well, the front ones, anyway, at least until the gears inside the cranks stripped. Fortunately my father was a mechanical designer, and his idea for a well-placed screw solved this issue.

The rear seat folded down in one piece, though a flat cargo floor it did not make. Painted particleboard covers velcroed into the hatch to hide the spare tire.

Still, the little car's 1.6-liter engine was peppy -- its 66-horsepower easily moving less than 2,000 pounds of machine. Handling was fairly nimble and the bucket seats were far superior to those offered in most other cars of the day.

The super-touchy clutch gave me some problem until I got used to it, but then it made me kind of a legend among service stations: Some mechanics insisted I put it in the bay myself, because they were afraid to drive it.

Because the car came to me secondhand, it had some mysteries and no owner's manual was there to help me solve them. (It probably slid out of the doorless glovebox when someone sprang the touchy clutch, then flew out the window on a hot day.) For years, I thought the car lacked a windshield washer, until I happened upon a rare fellow owner who explained that the little button on the left side of the footwell -- attached to what appeared to be a blood-pressure pump -- pumped the fluid. How simple.

More pitfalls: The brakes required frequent rotor and shoe replacement, as they could not withstand the rigors of slowing the tiny car on the hills of the western edge of the Poconos. And the water pump had trouble surviving the trips back up. The windshield wipers tended to work their way loose, and once one blew right off in a heavy rainstorm. The 12-inch tires disappeared into coal truck-sized potholes, and left the front end misaligned frequently, once so badly that a body shop had to perform some of the surgery. Electrical shorts occurred with great frequency, once leaving me high-beaming other cars on a night trip across Central Pennsylvania to State College. 

So, kids, when your parents tell you how much better things were back in the day, if they try to claim the cars were, tell them I said "Nonsense." Cars have moved light-years beyond where they were years ago.

And I'm going to offer an easy prediction here: The 2011 Ford Fiesta would be a much better car than the USA 1G version even if it didn't have a full entertainment and telematics system, leather seats, air conditioning, six vents across the dashboard for climate control and defrost.

It has a glovebox door.