I’ve been driving around for the last couple of days, and will be for the rest of the week, in a ’97 Ka that’s been in the family for thirteen years.
It’s hard to believe it now, with rusty, dishevelled old Ka's ubiquitous on our roads, and on the back of scrap lorries the country over, but the Ka looked like it was from the future when it arrived in ’96. Ford was in the middle of its “edge design” adventures, the Ka was quite a radical departure for the small car market, and particularly for dull old Ford.
It went some way to readying the public for the original Focus, a car that was such a leap from the miserable old Escort as it was possible to make. In some ways, the Ka was more radical than the concept car that it was born from, the Sub-B, a rounded, jellified car, similar in outline but without the sharp edges that distinguishes the Ka. It also had conventional round headlamps, rather than the enormous but cleverly integrated units of the production car.
Under the skin, though, the Sub-B was far more advanced than the real deal would become. It was intended as a launch platform for the Orbital series of two-stroke engines that Ford was experimenting with, a project that would eventually be still born for reasons of reliability, emissions and expense. In fact, the engineering under the Ka would end up almost Neanderthal in its simplicity, a recipe, the same recipe, that had worked so well in the Fiesta.
You had macpherson struts at the front, a twist beam at the rear. Discs at the front, drums at the back. Front wheel drive, of course. And what engine would go into this quasi-futuristic piece of radical styling? Nothing but the ancient old Kent four, a generation of which first saw service in the Anglia of 1959. No fashionable 16 valve, twin cam badging here, it had eight valves operated by pushrods! It was fettled for the day, of course, with centralised fuel injection and a catalyst, and an exciting new name; Endura-E, as an effort to put us off the scent.
For all its severe old-fashionedness, though, the engine was in a way perfectly suited to the Ka. It had a surprisingly big heart, not in the least bit revvy but game for a bit of action when pulling away, and never feeling remotely breathless around town. The breathing difficulties came on the motorway, when thrashiness could be expected if you had the nerve to go for an overtake, but this didn’t stop Ka’s being caned along at 90 on motorways across the nation.
Ford knew this wasn’t a sporty engine, they didn’t even fit a rev-counter until the mid-term update when the Endura was phased out for the OHC Duratec to replace it. At this point, the Ka seemed to be moving away a little from its original message of innovative simplicity.
At launch, the Ka was available in two flavours, Ka, and Ka2 . Ka2 had the additional niceties of electric front windows, a radio/casettte with AM and rewind, power steering and optional air-conditioning, items that the base car did without. A Ka3 came later, with alloys and air-con added to the mix. Outside, all three had non-painted plastic bumpers wrapped around substantial sections of the front and rear of the car, including the wheelarches; a terrific idea for EZ-dent urban traffic, and which lent the Ka even more stylistic uniquity. I wish Ford stuck to their guns, but marketing won the fight and customers were later offered body-coloured bumpers, which rendered the whole point of the bumpers, and that aspect of the concept, null and void.
The SportKa and StreetKa were interesting diversions, the former in particular being an absolute hoot, but the Ka otherwise took a turn for the worst after its mid-life refresh. The dashboard lost its amusing revolving glovebox and said hello to a swathe of oily black plastic, and general construction fitness seemed to take a step down the ladder, too.
In my view, the Ka, in its launch iteration, was the closest anybody had come to replacing the original Mini. A tiny car, not far from Mini length, with capacity for two giants and two Lilliputians, plus some luggage, more if the littluns stay behind, fitted with only the bare essentials required so it would function as a car. Essence of motoring, in a cute, handy format, and not outrageously priced like the Mini had become.
Inside you got moulded seats with hard-wearing fabric covers that weren’t disgusting to the touch, you got the simplest of FM-only radio/cassettes, sacks of headroom thanks to the VW Beetle style domed roofline, bare metal on the doors a-la 2CV and a dashboard with actual design creativity; a teardrop shape incorporating natty little swivelling air nozzles and the simplest possible instrument cluster. A speedometer (reading right up to 140mph for some reason) flanked by a fuel gauge and an array of warning lights.
And the clock, oh, that clock. It was loathed by some for being silly, where a simple digital display would have been perfectly fine. But no, Ford chose to fit an art-deco style creation in a mantelpiece-esque position just under the windscreen. And it looked really cool lit up at night, as did the floodlit instrument panel, actually. Yes, hand on heart, Ford had built a small, basic car that was actually a genuinely nice place to sit. It somehow didn’t feel cheap, just cheerful. The plastics had no real tactile quality to them, but didn’t feel offensively disposable, either. It put you in a good mood, before you turned the key.
But more staggering was what happened after you turned it. That wizened old engine churns industrially into life, before settling to a retro idle with a Mk 1 Escort flatulence from the exhaust. Before long you find that the gearbox has five well-spaced ratios so the unconvincing top-end is never really revealed, and the ‘box snicks neatly between ratios via a well-calibrated clutch. It’s also surprisingly quiet; the engine is largely buried under road noise from the skinny little tyres that you’re sitting so close to.
So, as a car the Ka proved to be far more pleasant than anybody was really expecting. A good start, but the press were dumbfounded when they discovered the next bit; that the Ka was absolutely brilliant to drive.
“No it wasn’t.” you all chorus. No, it was. Compared to the sort of unimaginative fare from Europe, Japan and Korea that swamped the market at that time, the Ka was genuinely entertaining to be behind the wheel of. Those narrow 155 tyres, (a massive 165 in those models with power steering) hung on gamely at high cornering speeds, and the steering could be trusted to do literally whatever you asked it to, clipping the apex was a matter of course. Body roll was minimal, understeer was contained, oversteer was best avoided, tending to come in rather suddenly when the limit was breached. This was the thing; the limit wasn’t Lotus Elise high, but it was a good deal higher than you’d expect, and well up to coping with that dusty old engine.
The Ka, truthfully, was a big step forward, whereas the current Ka of three years vintage, well, that’s just another car. It does nothing to advance the cause of motoring, beside being perfectly pleasant and safe.
Alas, the original Ka is largely a doomed species. It seems that Ford weren’t especially diligent in future-proofing their baby, rust protection seems to have been minimal to non-existent. The internet is swimming with stories and photos of Kas with near-terminal rot problems; holes in the sills you could post a pizza through, Emmental cheese style floor sections, and fuel filler necks that have divorced themselves from the actual body of the car. The older cars at least have a partial excuse in that they’re now fifteen years old, but problems are readily found on even cars built after 2003.
The car in these photos is a case in point; 96k miles old, it has seen a good many weeks of welding performed on it in cosmetic and structural regions to prolong its existence. It wears several shades of ill-matched paint with pride. Mechanically it’s fit as a flea, but otherwise it has reached the point where we would never consider moving it on to any successive owner. We’re happy enough to deem it safe enough for us to drive but wouldn’t want the guilt of it breaking in half with somebody’s family aboard. If, nee, when we replace it, its next home will be the cold jaws of the crusher and that’s a teeny bit sad. It’ll be hard to live without it.
It’s just such a handy car to have around. Fold those rear seats down (might as well leave them this way permanently, to be honest) and you can fit IKEA back there. My father uses the Ka for his trips to the Lake District in preference to the 5-Series, for the 50+ mpg guarantee and the doesn’t-matter-if-it-gets-wrecked persona of the thing. It’s never broken down or refused to start. It has no financial value, but it’s become priceless.
Additionally, nobody builds a car to that almost Lotus-like doctrine of simplicity and effectiveness any more. The market would collectively belly-laugh if Ford tried to sell a car with wind-down windows and no PAS today. 13” wheels with plastic trims are the stuff of genesis and the ark. Even the lowliest car today needs air-con and an MP3 player in order to sell. Simply being fantastic to drive is no longer enough. The great British public, it seems either don’t want, or are being denied, fun.