It might be hard to think of the Ford Mondeo as a car that saved the company. Ford was the bestselling brand in the UK before the Mondeo appeared in 1992 and has remained in that envied position ever since.
What difference did it really make? Only everything.
When the Mondeo went on sale it represented a turning point in Ford history, at least as far as the cars it sold in Europe were concerned.
By 1993, those of us who wrote about the car industry for a living were thoroughly sick of the Fords we drove. The Fiesta was reasonable but the Granada was ancient, the Sierra older and even further off the pace. But the car that genuinely outraged us was the still-quite-new Escort MkV.
This wasn’t just a bad car, it appeared to be a cynical car too, engineered to the lowest standards Ford thought it could get away with.
And get away with it, Ford did. Back then it was almost impossible for the customer to fully inform him or herself about which car choice to make. You could read a line or two in the listings at the back of the specialist motoring magazines but, unless you happened across a group test of every relevant car in the class from an independent, honest and informed outlet (of which there were few), you shopped blind.
Except it was worse than that: many people just walked into their nearest dealer and bought whatever car the principal recommended. And as Ford had more than 1,000 dealers while its nearest rival Vauxhall had nearer 600, Ford’s number one position was no great surprise to anyone, despite it having not a single class-leading car to offer – and some product that was genuinely woeful.
Yet we knew the Mondeo would be good even before we drove it. In general, car manufacturers loathe the press turning up to its launch events armed with rival products to test against the new cars but, when Ford launched the Mondeo in France in January 1993, it offered to send a lorry to the Autocar office where I worked and transport all the rivals to the launch.
When we arrived, there were no marketing men parroting their well-rehearsed patter. Instead, engineers were everywhere, unchaperoned by press officers, desperate to share their passion for their new car.
The Mondeo was as good as they suggested, catapulting Ford from close to the bottom of the class to undisputed leadership. It was well built, rode beautifully, was very well equipped and a delight to drive. Ford had spent $1 billion on developing the car and every single dollar had been worth it.
Even so, the fear that it might prove a one-off remained and we would need to wait another four years before catching sight of the next new Ford to be developed from scratch. In replacing the miserable Escort, it was so transformative that Ford even changed its name – and the resulting Focus did more even than the Mondeo to cement Ford’s reputation as the creator of the best everyday driving machines you could buy.
By the time the Focus went on sale in 1998, the internet was already transforming our world, including the automotive one, ensuring customers could be as well informed about any new car as the people trying to sell it to them – and without even leaving the house.
The days of slickly-marketed mediocrity were over. Had the Mondeo not stopped the rot when it did, Ford’s reputation would have been shredded.
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