The Ford Puma was a small, compact coupe based off the Ford Fiesta MK4. It was sold in Europe and the UK only, from 1997 until 2002. It was popular and well received- improving Ford’s reputation for great handling and driving dynamics, in an affordable package. It was one of the first Ford cars to have a waiting list since the original mustang in 1964/65. This car was developed very sensibly, with Ford Europe utilising and part-shelfing what they could. It was designed by a renowned car designer who had redesigned the image of cars for Aston Martin and Jaguar.
Ford would have specialist engineering for the engine- Yamaha, with their in-house motorsport division make adjustments to the chassis, handling and transmission- Ford SVE. Ford also had consultation from a notorious race car legend at hand. The result was a quick, sharp-handling, stiff-well balanced, eye-catching package that was affordable for most. It was a successor to the previous coupe from Ford Europe, the Ford Capri, despite being slightly smaller.
The Puma had two interesting reasons for being conceived. Ford were currently late to the game with mainstream 4-cylinder twin-cam engines; they had mostly stopped with the pinto twin-cam in 1996 with the Escort RS2000 16v MK6 and its ‘Zetec-e’ (or earlier, ‘Zeta’) twin-cam replacement was pitched for the performance and regular sport models in the compact and midsize line-up of Ford, for the Escort, Mondeo & Cougar (and Fiesta XR2 16v & RS1800). Ford had started working with Yamaha and their partner Mazda in designing a new small alloy-block family of 4-cylinder engines, loosely based off the Ford ‘CVH’ engine, called the Sigma (dubbed as ‘Zetec-se’ or ‘Zetec-S’). It is important to note the ‘Zetec’ (‘Zeta’/’Zetec-e’/’Zetec-R’) engine family has no relation to the ‘Sigma'(‘Zetec-S’ or ‘Zetec-se’) engine family. But Ford hadn’t yet developed their own Variable Timing system, such as a Honda’s notorious ‘V-TEC’ technology. It would save them money (and time) to go to someone else, than develop their own variable timing system. While Toyota often worked with Yamaha on engines, Ford had work with them before with the American market Taurus SHO saloon, but in a similar way to the Puma. Like the Taurus SHO (‘Super-High-Output’), the Puma was originally meant to exist, with the engine it possesses originally planned for another car.
The Taurus SHO’s Yamaha V6 engine was pitched for a mid-engine sports car, like the Toyota MR2 and Pontiac Fierro, but ford had cancelled the car to focus on their new Explorer SUV replacement for the Bronco, but where in a contract with Yamaha for new engines, in which they couldn’t back out of- a similar case with the Puma. In the 80s and 90s there was a boom in the UK with hot-hatchbacks and sports compacts- as they were desirable and really accessible at first, in which they sold in droves. This resulted in them getting into accidents due to people speeding and racing them, or simply that they were stolen way too often. As a result, a car class that was originally cheap to insure was now more expensive to insure than not just coupes and sports cars, but in some case, exotics. In the 90’s, a Ferrari F355 was cheaper to insure than a Ford Escort RS Cosworth (in certain parts of the UK).
Ford had been planning a higher performance Fiesta, in place of an XR2 16v- what would have been a Fiesta ST Mk4. But insurance rates for hot-hatchbacks where so high, they had started to damage sales of their sports compact line up. Manufacturers, such as Ford found it more economically beneficial to tone-down the power in some models, such as the Escort Si & GTI. But Ford couldn’t afford to lose out on the performance market. And Ford had entered a contract with Yamaha for a specialised version of the Sigma engine to be produced by them. And it had been decided that the plans for the high performance Fiesta would be cut. Ford where stuck in the mud as Yamaha had begun work on producing these new engines. So Ford decided to use them for something else. The second reason for it conception is for the market of coupes being very popular in the 90’s. Ford decided they want a strong share of sales for the small & compact coupe sales- they found that a small coupe would have been far easier to insure also, so Ford got to work on conceiving a compact coupe, the (SE161) Puma. The Puma would fill the gap of a ‘B-segment’ hot-hatchback (Fiesta XR2/ST) and also as a sport compact before a high performance variant of the new Focus (ST170/SVT) was released, while serving the main purpose of a coupe & sports car for Ford of Europe.
The initial concept was an open roof coupe, called the Lynx, built by Ghia in Turin, Italy and was revealed at the 1996 Geneva Motor show. However with mild adjustments to the design, it would be unveiled the next year as the Puma, to sit below the Mercury Cougar (sold as a Ford outside of the USA).
The final production version was designed by many designers combined, which notably included Claude Lobo, Chris Clements, Chris Svensson, Marian Bowen, as well as Ian Callum. Ian Callum, had been a prominent design, changing the dated image for the likes of Aston Martin and Jaguar, which where owned by Ford at the time; he also worked on the design of the Ford Escort RS Cosworth and Ford RS200. Ford SVE Motorsport modified and reinforced the design of the chassis. With regards to the engines, the initial, key engine to the car is a 1.7 Sigma (Zetec-S) twin-cam, 16v I4 engine which had Variable Cam Timing. While this was the engine the car was shaped around, Yamaha where only set to produce a certain number each year, in which the demand for the Puma superseded. As a result Ford offered a smaller 1.4 16v I4 Sigma engine (replaced by a 1.6 16v I4 Sigma later). With producing the 1.7 VCT engine, Ford shipped out raw parts to the Yamaha Motor Company in Iwata, Shizuoka, Japan, such as a raw, un-bored 1.4 Sigma block, from Ford’s Sigma engine factory in Valencia, Spain, to ship them to Yamaha in Japan to manufacture into a 1.7 engine, and to modify and to produce other aspects of the engine, then to be shipped back to the Puma’s production line in Cologne, Germany.
The 1.7 featured Variable Cam Timing (VCT) and received upgrades such as elimination of cylinder liners- but a nikasil compound coating of the cylinder bore instead (to withstand higher temperatures and a lower coefficient of friction- while increasing the capacity from 1.4 to 1.7). Other upgrades to the engine design included a modified cylinder head and a unique inlet manifold to resonate a unique noise meant to resonate a sound that would resemble that of historic rally cars. It is also key to add that normal Sigma engines already had sintered rods, which seemed quite impressive as that would usually only be found in exotic car engines (for the time at least). The gearbox received calibration for short timing ratios, braking was improved (later cars had larger brakes added) and a stiffer suspension setup and a wider track- than the fiesta.
The 1.4 was even improved with a mild upgrade, with profiled cams, producing a subtle 90 BHP rather than the 80 BHP, which for then, gave a decent acceleration time, especially with regards to the fuel range and great handling it offered. While the 1.7 VCT only offered 125 BHP, it was all about handling with the Puma, and yet it still returned a good acceleration time of 8.6 seconds to clock 60 mph. Ford where really eager to pitch this as a driver’s car, even on the lower powered models. While the car was aimed at the Renault Megane Coupe and the Opel/Vauxhall Tigra, it was very much similar to the older 2nd Gen Honda CRX 16v & Si, and the Mazda MX3 V6, in which had similar performance, and more so, a similar design ethos and engineering philosophy. However the car was pitched with many other contemporary coupes of the time, such as the Fiat Coupe and Hyundai Coupe; it was similar proportions in size and performance with the Alfa Romeo 916 GTV 16v Twin-Spark.
The Puma was a sales success in Europe, which was the only market it was sold in. It was more successful than the Probe before it, and the Cougar which was launched a year after it. Even though the Puma was based off a ‘B-segment’ platform, the Fiesta, it was pitched as a Compact or ‘C-segment’ coupe also. However Ford viewed the Puma along with previous and future coupes in the same scope, with regards to segment, while also acknowledging it being based off a small car platform. While the Cougar was a larger ‘D-segment’ sized coupe, like the Capri and Probe, it was to eventually replace the ‘B-segment’ based Puma, after sitting above it in the car line-up. However the Puma outlived the Cougar for an important reason; it was designed with a market in mind. The previous Probe also had an identity issue, which led to poor sales- as it was designed solely for the American market, thus it didn’t compete well in Europe against European and Japanese competitors.
Ford acknowledged this and looked at smaller companies, like Mazda, who made the one car globally. The Cougar was flawed as Ford tried this approach- making one coupe for the American market, as well as the European market, which didn’t go well. American consumers would tend to want a car that is big in size and space, comfy, with a lot of tech, but for a cheap price- however Europeans would seek a car that is engineered better, built better, to be more refined and to have a focus on driving dynamics. Trying to be the best of both worlds, Ford made a coupe that wasn’t fully American, nor too European either. While being based off the early Mondeo, it handled well and had decent performance, but with no high performance models released, in 2.5 V6 format, with 170 BHP it didn’t have the punch to match the performance of most of it’s competitors; the handling was liked- but deemed soft in comparison to its rivals. It’s interior build quality was a mixed bag good and bad quality materials, making it suffer, especially as Ford Europe pitched it against premium coupes such as the BMW (E46) 3-Series Coupe.
The Puma was the first European Ford coupe since the Capri- and similar to that car, was designed with European drivers in mind, thus it was a success. The latest sixth generation Mustang has been a sales success globally- it is an American car, but it designed and engineered to have great driving dynamics, build quality & refinement that can appeal to a global audience, as a serious contender. As of 2016, 2017 & 2018, it was recorded as the world’s best selling sports car; in Germany, it has even exceeded the Audi TT and Porsche Cayman in sales in recent years.
According to ‘The cars you always promised yourself’ written by Steve Saxty, who was a product designer for Ford, and was involved in SE161 Puma programme, notes that in the Puma’s development, it was actually considered for sale in Japan, as well as Europe. This was considered due to the Puma’s overall design and engineering principle, which made it similar to other small coupes from Japanese automakers such as the Honda CRX, Mazda MX3 and the Nissan NX200.
However, eventually the idea was dropped, as despite there being a demand for small coupes in Japan (at the time), Ford already had trouble competing with domestic car brands in Japan due to a small dealer network, and the reputation of their car line-up. While Ford of Europe globally were mostly known for their compact European cars with sporty, engaging driving dynamics and motorsport pedigree, the only reputation Ford had in Japan was niche, American style cars, suvs and trucks; anything other than that would have been re-badged or redesigned Mazdas (such as the Probe and Laser).
The advertising campaign was based on the film Bullitt, which featured the iconic car enthusiast, Hollywood actor, Steve McQueen.
The advert had him drive around San Francisco, playing the style of music from the film, driving a Ford Puma, reminiscent of the famous car chase, and parking it in a garage beside a Bullitt GT390 Mustang (with the Motorcycle from the great escape), in which he, the bike and mustang vanish in a ghostly fashion, with the Puma’s marketing slogan, sitting there saying, “Puma- A Driver’s Dream”.
There was a high performance version of the Puma released in 1999 to 2001, which was modified an tuned by Ford’s overall motorsport devision (Ford Racing) in conjunction with Tickford (who rebuilt and tuned the car in many areas). Tickford had worked with Ford before, on the Sierra RS500 Cosworth, Tickford Capri MK3 and would so on the following Focus RS MK1 (Which was produced in a simillar way to the Racing Puma). It was called the ‘Ford-Racing Puma’, after Ford’s overall- global devision, ‘Ford Racing’, now known as a ‘Ford Performance’. It was originally going to be the Puma RS, initially revealed as the ‘Puma Cosworth Concept’, with the drivetrain for the concept from an Escort RS Coworth- with the AWD, but the regualar car was pitched to have a modified Puma drivetrain and powerplant, only to a greater extent that the final product. The final production ready car was previewed at the Puma ‘ST160 Concept’. Ford’s performance division had overspent and cuts had to be made to the performance, not the handling of the car, so it wasn’t going to be Turbocharged, cutting the power from the intended 200 BHP bracket to about 155-160 BHP.
It couldn’t have Recaro seats but Sparco seats and they had to cut the limited production from 1000 cars to just 500. It was going to be badged as one of the new ‘ST’ cars, second to the Mondeo ST24 & ST200, but it was decided that it’d too expensive for that marque, but not powerful enough for the RS nameplate- so they experimented with the ‘Ford Racing’ badge, which didn’t give the car much recognition or reputation when it went on sale. Ford lost about £5000 on each Racing Puma sold, and they had already cut the cost down to about £22,000, which at the time could have bought a Lotus Elise, Subaru Impreza WRX or even used Porsche (964) 911. And despite it handling even better than the great handling normal Puma, it only shaved about half a second off the 0-60 mph time.
However the best way to view the Puma is a blend of a retro, sharp small hot hatch- with regards to it driving dynamics yet blended with a retro Japanese sports car like the Mazda FD RX-7 or Toyota A80 Supra in terms of development. I’m not saying that the Ford Puma is a Mazda RX-7 or Toyota Supra with a blue oval on the front, but that is was developed in the same way, on a smaller scale sure- but was definitely not a regular car with a fancy hat body-style.
Chief Engineer Richard-Parry Jones has stated that it was a product that Ford Europe’s engineers were able to incorporate their automotive and motorsport enthusiasm, loose on this project, saying that it was a project the engineers where extremely keen to work on, with acknowledging from heritage and pedigree in previous motorsport & performance-road cars. Richard-Parry Jones, the Chief engineer had worked on many Fords 80s, 90s and early 2000s, especially performance Fords in the 90s- some regard his era of Ford cars to be the best handling that have come from the brand. He used to be a rally driver and as a result had a good idea of how a car’s driving dynamics should perform. With the Puma he emphasised on the balance between handling and performance for the car, focus heavily on how it drove, rather than what numbers it could produce. He stated Yamaha had produced a more powerful 150 BHP engine, they stated that which it was would be feasible to produce, but after testing Richard-Parry Jones in a prototype, he stated that it retracted from the car’s handling and balance characteristics. He also notes he was well aware of criticisms of the cars ride height, but he says that he wanted the car to be a sharp, well balanced, great handling car, in which they didn’t have to sacrifice (most of) the ride quality over. What is also interesting to add is that Sir Jackie Stewart, ‘The Flying Scot’ who is a renowned racing driver from formula one, grand prix racing and touring car racing had worked as a consultant with this car; even though he had worked with Ford Europe on many projects over the years, it still adds to the cars character and development- the only other coupe at the time with a specialist consultant was the 4th generation Honda Prelude, which was consulted by the late and great, Ayrton Senna.
While many would look down on it due to the lower power, and small size, being FWD and paired with its curvy design with sharp cues, some people would deem it as a a posers car, or as a ‘girls car’. However to that would be short/ linear minded, sexist & homophobic and in general, stupid, as it simply undermines what little someone knows on how cars work, how they are engineering or designed, or doesn’t know anything about them in general. That term leads to an immature argument in overall. What is a mature point though is the cars specification brief- and how it was developed, designed and engineered. Yamaha built engine. Factory-motorsport-works (Ford SVE) developed chassis. Designed by Ian Callum. Great balance and sharp handling. Not much then or now in classifieds can offer the driving experience the Puma does, for a relatively low price. How it was developed in its conception, design and engineering is quite fascinating and sadly, something you do not find much among contemporary car brands these days. And not to mention it was a manual transmission car only. Reliability is general good considering routine maintenance is carried out on it; however like any old Ford, it can be not only be prone to rust, but due to the design of the arch design, it can be plagued by rust. Due to the fancy nikasil plating in the cylinder bore instead of cyliner liners, while they are more efficient/ effective for making more power & torque, they are more fragile; as a result the 1.7 VCT models require a special, specific grade of 5w-30 Semi-Synthetic Oil, as well as more regular oil changes.
Sadly for the fate of the Puma, it will be back, but not as a compact coupe, but as a small crossover, which is sad as it will not be for what its nameplate has stood for, a great driving, interesting compact coupe pitched at driving enthusiasts, but as a small, B-segment crossover SUV to flog with a catchy name for those who don’t remember, or for those who liked that look of the Puma. Instead of being a Fiesta derivative that drives and handles better than a Fiesta, this new derivative will be the opposite. It will be a based off the Fiesta, like the original and it’ll replace or sit alongside the Ecosport, pitched more against the Nissan Juke and Hyundai Kona, which aren’t bad cars necessarily, and for crossovers aren’t big monstrosities with a big fake off-road persona, but despite that, it taints the Ford Puma nameplate. Mitsubishi recently did the same with their Eclipse, also a retro compact sports coupe, reintroduced as a crossover. Hopefully this isn’t a trend or bandwagon that manufacturers jump on, to make a quick cent off people’s nostalgia.