Early pre-production Mondeo GLX
There is no obvious reason to buy an old Ford Mondeo for £50, but I have. That it joins another cheap Mondeo, admittedly a ST200, smacks of a fetish.
My latest purchase is a 1994 Mk1 Ghia 24v, one of the first sold in the UK and only 1 of 4 still on the road. That this rarity can be bought for the price of a meal for two at a local Harvester is, frankly, one of life’s great mysteries. Like why Katie Price is famous.
And yet the humble Mondeo is, for me at least, the forgotten motoring gem of the 90s. Whilst others gravitate to Golfs and Peugeot GTIs, I’ve been beguiled by a car that was once so ubiquitous but is now becoming very rare.
It may be because I cut my company car teeth on the original Mondeo – I had four in as many years, racking up nearly 200,000 miles in the pursuit of PR column inches for my double glazing employer. Heady days kids.
Or it may be, more likely, because the 90s Mondeo was such a great car. It’s ubiquity and Mondeo Man image have tended to hide the car’s inherent capabilities. Here was a car with perhaps the best FWD chassis of any contemporary saloon car, endowing it with great handling. That it was also well built, comfortable and quiet explains why I was so keen to get out the office and into my Mondeo.
When Ford began developing the Mondeo the halo of greatest was nowhere in sight. Dearborn’s initial plans for the Sierra’s replacement were pretty much business as usual, but with one major change. The new car would play to Ford’s strengths of high specification and simple mechanicals, but it would be a ‘world car’, as popular in Luxemburg as Los Angeles.
The high spec but simple ethos had served the company well with all of its new cars, in particular the Cortina. It was a car that looked good and had decent equipment but the bits you couldn’t see were as basic as they come. Most buyers simply didn’t care and the ancient oily bits were sold by Ford as a virtue – simple, easy and therefore cheap maintenance.
However, by the early 90s this winning formula was beginning to fray at the edges. Vauxhall’s 80s Cavalier had run rings around the Sierra with its decent handling and FWD specification. And the Mk5 Escort, launched in 1990, had been a critical and sales disaster due to dismal dynamics and poor engineering.
Alongside these problems, Ford’s mid-size saloon market was under threat from premium German rivals such as BMW and Audi whose 3-Series and A4 were aimed at the fleet market. Now low-spec German cars, well engineered, well built and aspirational, were beginning to nibble away at the profitable market for high spec Vauxhalls and Fords.
All of this made Ford anxious. The new Mondeo was being developed in the same vein as the Mk5 Escort, a pedestrian world car designed to appeal to everyone. In a word, it was going to be bland.
Thankfully a rethink was called for. A new engineering team was brought in, headed by Richard Parry-Jones, with the task of making the new Mondeo sparkle. The brief was to create a car as well engineered as an Audi and as good to drive as a BMW.
Despite joining the team very late in the day, Parry-Jones achieved exactly this, tweaking the Mondeo to deliver a car whose handling and ride were far better than anything from Vauxhall, Renault or Peugeot. It out-drove Audis and out-specced BMWs.
It’s worth taking a moment here to consider that achievement. Parry-Jones took over engineering for the Mondeo about 18 months before the car launched, so very late in the development programme. His ‘no is not an answer’ approach to problem solving enabled changes to be found and implemented quickly.
What Parry-Jones couldn’t influence was the final shape of the Mondeo. Where the jelly mould Sierra had split opinion and alienated conservative Cortina buyers, the Mondeo played it safe. The design was pleasant but bland, no match for the handsome designs from Germany.
The Mondeo launched in 1993 and was an instant success. Striving middle managers, locked out of Audis and BMWs by status or company fleet deals, no longer felt short changed. Here was a well specified car that was fun to drive, in a way that those base model Audis simply weren’t. The range was also refreshingly simple in a manner perfected by Ford – LX, GLX, Ghia and Si, with three petrol four pot engines and an agricultural turbo diesel from the equally farm-orientated P100 pick up. Distinctive wheel trims and discreet badging made it clear to fellow motorway-ploughers exactly where you sat in the company hierarchy.
As a green twenty-something I remember being genuinely impressed when I got my hands on an early Mondeo – a red turbo diesel LX. It replaced a Sierra 1.6GL and felt space age – nice interior, quiet ride, well screwed together and with a heady 88 bhp compared to the Sierra’s 70. Over the next 18 months I naturally ran it into the ground.
Ford quickly refined the Mondeo, playing to its sporting strengths with the ST24 and ST200 and tickling the chin of those spartan German marques with the kit-dripping Ghia and Ghia X models.
25 years on and we’re on the fifth generation of that original car. The Mondeo has survived, just, by playing to the original formula of decent handling and good specification, managing in the process to keep the Germans at bay. And yet, despite the car’s ubiquity, despite ‘Mondeo Man’ becoming shorthand for middle England, not many people give a stuff about the original car. It’s become rare because nobody cares about it. Even Ford use an original Mondeo to advertise its modern scrappage schemes. If the company that built it isn’t bothered, why should we?
Because those first cars are so good. Whether you drive a humble LX or enter the heady wood-trimmed world of a Ghia, the Mondeo Mk1 – and its virtually identical Mk2 sibling – are great drives. The later Focus may lay claim to the finest mass market chassis of the 90s, but the Mondeo isn’t far behind. If it was a coupe, we’d all want one.
All old Fords eventually appreciate. Not long ago we were laughing at the idea of coveting XR3s and Capris, now we all wish we’d spotted the trend sooner. The same fate awaits the Mondeo. But that’s probably 10 years off. For now, find a good one and just enjoy it.