Fanatical about Fiestas

Ford lovers take their obsession seriously. James Ruppert mingles with the faithful

Manoeuvring my way around a field in Oxfordshire, I suddenly realise that my car is unique - which is strange because it's a Volkswagen Golf, one of the most common cars in the world. However, in the stately grounds of Cornbury Park it is distinguished by its lack of an oval blue badge bearing the legend, Ford. This is a rally for the faithful: it's the Ford Fair and it's the largest gathering of its kind in Europe. There were mile-long queues of Fiestas, Escorts and Capris waiting to join a party of 20,000 like-minded souls celebrating all things Ford. Yet the Ford is surely the most unremarkable, ubiquitous and underwhelming motor car on the road, which prompts the question: why do so many people think it is so special?

At the last count there were something like 30 owners' clubs, covering every model and variant from the Model T to the Ford Transit, and many of them are in a designated club area, neatly parked, with proud owners picnicking on folding chairs and ready to enrol passers-by. Not only that, at your newsagent you'll find mass-market magazines dedicated to the marque: Fast Ford, Performance Ford and Ford Heritage.

A straw poll at Cornbury Park suggested that many Ford Fair-goers reckon that the company is British, anyway. Or at least as good as, according to one man furiously polishing his Granada. "Of course, we all know that ultimately they are American-owned, but that hardly matters really; as far as the man in the street is concerned, these motors are true Brits."

Essentially, that explains our special relationship with all things Ford. The legendary Model T was built in Britain from 1911; in 1919, 41 per cent of all vehicles registered were Fords. And when Henry Ford decided to buy a large piece of marshy Essex land, and turned it into the large and legendary Dagenham factory in 1931, the cars produced there were designed specifically for the British market. While the British Motor Corporation built the innovative Mini at a loss, Ford charged much more for the conventional and highly successful Anglia, and later it really hit the spot for family cars with the Ford Cortina, unkindly referred to as the 'Dagenham Dustbin'. Ford clearly have a knack for producing exactly what the British motoring public wants. The cars were keenly priced, cheap to run and utterly reliable.

Paul Wager is the new editor of Fast Ford, which was organising the event. I stopped him in mid-Ford Fair frenzy, and he seemed overwhelmed by it all. "I've been answering questions all morning. My new company car is that highly tuned Escort on the stand, which has attracted lots of attention and is fantastic to drive. Now I'm off to judge a 'concours' competition, which I've never done before. The enthusiasm of everyone here is absolutely incredible."

Now a "concours" competition is a beauty contest for cars, and even the kindest observer could not describe many Fords from the past 30 years as being beautiful. However, there is no shortage of owners willing to polish their pride and joy in search of a prize. Mark, who was barely out of nappies when his Mark IV Cortina was built, does not like to hear his immaculate model described as a "Dagenham Dustbin". "No way. This is one of the most reliable cars you could own, and it is also very well built. Sure, they can get a bit rusty if neglected, but this is a really tough old car which after a little work buffs up beautifully." So why does he have a Cortina, rather than a sporty XR or RS model? "Well, for a start it looks different. It's very boxy compared to the bars of soap that pass for saloons these days. My dad had a load of them in the Seventies and Eighties ... I preferred to make this into something special." The family connection seems to be a strong reason for buying and enthusing about Fords.

Concours competitor Simon Williams has a winning Capri, a model which he had craved for since his adolescence, but he reveals that: "it is actually very difficult to get original parts for these cars. For instance, nearside 'Laser' decals and also the tread plates no longer exist; as for the interior, forget it."

However, the park is full of traders with all sorts of Fords reduced to their constituent parts, and all for sale: every piece of chrome trim you would need to make your 1965 Corsair complete, plus many items that you never realised you needed - including tea-towels with Ford Anglias on them, and glass replicas of the latest Transit van. Certainly you can buy into the whole fast Ford lifestyle here, and that includes dance music cassettes to play on your custom-built sound system. A Ford provides a blank canvas on which to work, so many owners were looking to personalise their cars. There were dozens of specialists selling accessories and performance parts, all willing to help.

Another area in which the Ford Motor Company has always excelled is motor sport. From the earliest days, when Henry Ford was setting speed records (91.37mph in 1904) he knew the PR value of a race win. The newly opened Ford Heritage Centre in Dagenham had brought along a handful of cars, including an Escort which was designed to get you safely to and from the supermarket, but ended up winning the RAC Rally in eight successive years. And if you felt like experiencing what it was like to go sideways in a race-prepared Escort, the Bill Gwynne Rallyschool was offering chauffeured rides around a specially marked-out stage laid around the grounds: dusty, noisy, frightening, but fun.

In fact, Ford always managed to transfer this sort of excitement to the road, with their sporty models. Often it was the packaging on the GT and XR models which sold them - wider wheels, stripes and uprated interiors - rather than their performance.

There was no shortage of buyers and sellers at the fair, and the public address system sounded like a dating agency: "Melanie is after a low-mileage Fiesta XR2 Turbo ... Darren wants a good home for his immaculate 1981 2.8i Capri."

I certainly didn't need any more convincing that Ford's had a fanatical following, and ought to be taken seriously. So I sheepishly crept into the driving seat of my non-Ford, and left the party.

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