It’s time for Bangerwatch, PetrolBlog’s equivalent of BBC TV’s Springwatch, only without Kate Humble, Michaela Strachan or any wildlife. Instead, Bangerwatch takes a look at rare and interesting cars that have fallen into Banger territory, seemingly spiralling into oblivion. By giving them exposure as potential Bangernomics project cars, it is hoped that PetrolBlog can save them from extinction.
The MK1 Ford Focus may at first glance appear to be quite a strange choice of car to feature on Bangerwatch, but hear me out on this. I happen to think it’s one of the most appealing and cost effective cars you can currently buy.
History of species
It’s hard to believe that it’s over 14 years since the Focus burst on to the scene. Not since the Sierra replaced the Cortina did a new Ford make such a big impact. You need to remember that it replaced the Escort which, despite selling in huge numbers had pretty much lost the plot. Dynamically and aesthetically it lagged behind the rest of the market. Ford needed something dramatically different and in the Focus, they got it.
The Focus was the third car to benefit from Ford’s ‘New Edge’ design strategy, following in the footsteps of the Ka and Puma. It was clear from the outset that the Focus was a car that Ford had spent a huge amount of time perfecting. With the later Escorts there was always a sense that the cars were built to a budget. The Focus on the other hand felt special and in 1998 it looked unlike any other C-segment family hatchback. Ford had rediscovered its edge.
Given the familiarity of the Focus, you’d be forgiven for not studying the car all that closely. But if you take a step back to take a closer look, you’ll see that it’s littered with neat touches. Like the triangular side repeaters and the rear window that drops to a point above the rear badge. Or the little roof spoiler that houses the high level brake light. The wheel arches are also a masterstroke, so delightfully futuristic and yet somehow feeling quite retro. The headlights and front fog lights are also brilliantly executed. In fact, a silver MK1 Focus is a symphony of curves, sharp edges and proportion.
In every department it trumped the Ford Escort and in many cases, managed to trounce the competition too. Its shell was 100% stiffer than the Escort and some 15% stiffer than the VW Golf. It was 30mm taller than the Escort, although at the time it felt like a lot more! But then, the Focus was so much more than the Escort. The fact that the Focus could run on two or three cylinders to cool the engine in the event of a loss of coolant was the kind of technology an Escort owner could only dream of. A brilliantly timed and brilliantly delivered vehicle which is taken for granted these days.
The pick of the species has to be the 1.6 Zetec. On a recent road trip to the Paris Motor Show, I got talking to Sean Carson about it and we agreed that it could be the best budget allrounder currently on sale. Consider the evidence.
The 1.6-litre engine will deliver up to 41mpg if driven like Miss Daisy, that’s some 8mpg more than the 2.0-litre. Admittedly you’d get more from the diesels, but you’ll pay more at the pumps and servicing costs are higher. What’s more, because they’re diesel, you’ll have to fork out more to buy the car.
The Zetec, particularly in 3-door form, is arguably the greatest looking Focus of them all. It’s as the ‘New Edge’ philosophy demanded, so is therefore clean, simple and free of fuss.
But the 1.6 Zetec’s ultimate party trick is its ability to tackle a B-road. The 1.6-litre engine may only deliver 100bhp, but its delivery is silky smooth and demands to be driven. The 1.6 Zetec also weighs a touch over 1,000kg, so it’s no overweight and lardy family hatchback. This becomes apparent on a twisty road, where you’ll find that the humble Focus delivers excitement way above its station. The chassis is taught, the steering is direct and communicative and the ride quality is superb.
Like the Honda Civic Ti reviewed on here, the MK1 Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec is an underdog. An everyday family hatchback that is just as happy trundling to Sainsbury’s as it is tackling the B3081. And to think, you can pick a good one up for less than £1k.
The MK1 Focus sold in huge numbers so you can expect to see them in just about every village, town and city across the UK. Many will be used as cheap transport and will be seen with local radio stickers plastered on the rear window and Magic Tree air fresheners hanging from the rear view mirror. Most will live out on the street at night, their days of being garaged and treated to a Sunday wax long behind them. The glory days of 1998 now a faded and distant memory.
Look out for them in the classifieds, particularly on eBay, Gumtree and your local corner shop.
What to look for
Whilst it may be tricky to find a perfect silver 1.6 Zetec in original condition, some patience may be rewarded with a great car. And patience will be the key as many early cars will be run on a shoestring budget and services will inevitably have been missed. Hunt one down with low mileage, a good history and a small number of owners for the best results.
If looked after the Zetec engines are incredibly strong, many seeing figures well in excess of 100k miles. At this sort of mileage you’ll begin to see issues such as troublesome central locking, electric windows, boot latches, coil packs and wheel bearings. But the original Focus is easy to work on, so home maintenance isn’t out of the question. The 3-door is insurance group 13, with the 5-door a couple groups lower at 11. You may want to check for an online quote here.
Interestingly, the Focus was launched with a 12-year perforation warranty, so even early cars may still be covered.
Risk of extinction
The Focus is no immediate danger, but it’s surprising how quick cars like these will fall from grace. Just look at the number of Sierras and Escorts on the road, compared to the numbers sold. In the case of the MK1 Focus, there are just 5,800 S-plate 1998 cars left.
Caught in the wild
This silver 3-door looks remarkably fresh – just like the original press shots. With only one previous owner, it has done just 80k miles and comes with a brand new MOT. The write-up suggests that it has been well cared for and well maintained.
It looks like a remarkably honest car.
Check out the Focus 1.6 Zetec on eBay.
The other contender comes in black, which whilst looking striking, does manage to hide some of the car’s finer details. With no history and a couple of aftermarket additions, it would be wise to give this one a good going over.
Check out the black Focus 1.6 on eBay.
The PetrolBlog Verdict
The Focus 1.6 Zetec is an unlikely PetrolBlog hero. It may look like an everyday, run-of-the-mill family hatchback that doesn’t warrant anything more than a passing glance. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a proper drivers’ car. I owned a Focus ST170 for a short while and can vouch for its brilliant chassis and quality. Like the ST170, the 1.6 is lacking outright pace, but it more than makes up for it in B-road tomfoolery.
Today it’s utterly classless and yet is already ageing quite beautifully. Alongside the latest Focus, the MK1 looks more elegant, purer in design and rather appealing. What’s more, it’s cheap to run, cheap to buy, is incredibly practical and surprisingly spacious.
Still thinking of buying that diesel hatchback?
The Ford Focus Owners Club can be found here.
Images courtesy of Ford and eBay.