2 Feb 2013

Living with (and loving) - Ford Puma

@LeahRebeccaUK writes about her Ford Puma.  This is quite long (and funny) so sit down, make a brew and enjoy

The Ford Puma (And my love affair with it) 

Part 1

Eleven years ago now I bought myself a Ford. I know - heady stuff. Therefore - and what I really mean is what I thought I was buying was; a reasonably capable, reasonably dynamic, and reasonably reliable, reasonable vehicle (sorry – I’ll stop saying that now). You know, something that would give me, at least, a few years of reasonably (oops) trouble-free motoring. And that’s exactly what I got, really. It was, after-all, a Ford. But I also discovered that I’d got more than that. I actually think I got a great deal more than that. You see, I’d bought myself a Puma, and it really surprised me. My little “Fiesta in a frock” actually still surprises me most times I drive it.  And when I do drive it I’ve nearly always got this big, stupid grin on my face (this might just be me, though). And if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin to tell you why…

An introduction

For a girlie, I guess I know a lot about cars and engineering. I will quantify that. I drove my first car aged 8 (sitting on my Fathers lap). Morris Oxford, before you ask (shuddup – I’m old). But the Oxford, or the Anglia, or the Rover P6 (3500S in white), or the Opel Rekord, #noitwasntbloodyoliver or the whatever it was at the time, would break. Sometimes often. As a consequence, most weekends my Father would have to work on, (read, swear very loudly at), the car. I’m no tomboy, but science and engineering were always subjects which fascinated me, and still do. My parents lived smack bang between Redhill Aerodrome (Bristow Helicopters and the Tiger Club), and Gatwick Airport. 

How could I not notice engineering!? From the age of 10 I’d be interested in watching Dad work now and then.  By 11 I’d be helping, and by 12 I could drive on my own and was helping my Father regularly, while learning about cars. Well, about cars and swearing, more accurately. Anyhow, it must have set a precedent as, by age 20 I’d successfully served a four year mechanical engineering apprenticeship and become a qualified toolmaker (City & Guilds) Eight exams; all credits and distinctions (four of each). As I said, I guess I know a lot about engineering and cars, and that was about the time when I discovered that I might just actually be able to really drive the things, too.

Owners and drivers

There are, in my honest opinion, two main types of motorist at large in the UK. There are those who can very competently and safely pilot a car, and there are those of us who drive a vehicle as if it is almost an extension of ourselves. As if driving was an emotional thing, rather than just time spent while getting between the places you wanted to be. While some use their car with the same amount of interest and passion they would have while turning on their washing machine, I can’t do that. I just cannot drive a car feeling I’m just controlling a machine. For me anyway, it’s always been far more… involving than that.

Back to the Puma

I was working as a producer in local radio when the company suddenly noticed that I’d had use of the ‘pool car’ for a tad more than the “three months” I’d quoted. They were on the ‘phone and now wanted to know if I realised it had, in fact, been well over a year (yes), and they wanted to know when they could expect it back please, and absolutely no fluttering of eyelashes was going to help me. The car in question was a Hyundai 2.0l Coupe. The pretty one with four round headlights and a spoiler and everything. These always seemed only to be driven by other women whenever spied on the road, which I didn’t mind at all. Mine happened to have all the options and full black leather and was mailbox red. It may have saved me a lot of money with parking wardens etc, if not being noteworthy if poked with a stick, but it was going and that was that. It's flowing lines and comfy interior were, in fact, only spoiled by one small thing. It wasn’t actually very good. Oh, as a machine to comfortably transport you about the land, it was lovely. But it never challenged me as a driver. Not once. It either bored me, or scared me. It really didn’t like being driven with any real enthusiasm, was never rewarding if you did, and developed some rather nasty and unpredictable habits if really pushed. But hey, it was free and it looked pretty, and pretty is something that seems to be quite important to me, maybe more than most. An example? Vauxhall has produced only two cars which I’ve found attractive enough to consider owning. The Calibra, the current Astra VXR and, if it counts, the original Opel Manta. That’s it. What if I could find something curvy, like the Hyundai, but also reasonably (sorry) fun to drive? I had no need for anything commodious or exotic. I just wanted automotive fun. What I needed was a shortlist, and mine looked a lot like this;

Mazda MX-5, Honda Civic Type S/R, Ford Puma, Vauxhall Tigra (just kidding!)

VW Golf MkII, Seat Ibiza, MGTF, Audi A3.

Now before you all start looking for my marbles, let me say that I had already pretty-much discounted the MG immediately as, although I’d driven one and it was immense fun (No really it was, if you ignored the rattles. It was a bit less fun when the vct stopped working though, but hey!) I also had no desire to be having head-gaskets replaced on an annoyingly frequent basis. Looking at my list, I thought I’d be lucky to find a Golf that hadn’t been fiddled with too much, and I was wondering if I could live with how a Civic looks from the side (which, I think, is like a van), and started trawling through the ads. Of the cars listed here, the only two I’d never driven at that time were the MX-5 (have now, and it’s a brilliant little thing) and the A3 - although I’d only driven a 1.6 Puma before and only the Civic type-S and, in both cases, only very briefly. The first of these that I spied within my criteria was an Audi 1.8S in dark blue, which was being advertised by an independent dealership. I called, I went, and I drove.

My conclusions from the drive were pretty much what I’d expected from it. The Audi was beautifully well - made and exquisitely put together, with the cabin having a quality finish and feel. It wasn’t unpleasant to drive, it didn’t feel particularly fast, and the suspension managed to find bumps where I know there were none - although strangely it still rolled about in the bends. It managed to feel heavy. To summarise, I was driving what felt like a slightly larger, slightly upmarket and sadly, slightly softer alternative to a Golf. Hmmm. With more power and maybe Quattro, I imagine that these could be a lot of fun. But this one? Not for me, thank-you.

Nothing happened for a while, other than me going to see a couple of Golfs, both of which were not as advertised, with one male owner feeling the need to ask me if I actually knew anything about cars as he realised that I’d turned up to see it on my own, that I was a girl, and that I was under the bonnet of his car. *Sigh*

The next weekend seemed to be almost as much of a waste of time as, after a thorough trawl through the press and web, the only interest locally was a Puma 1.7 in green. I couldn’t remember seeing a green one before and it’s not a colour I’d normally choose. (See what I mean? I’m stupidly picky about such things. Another example of this is I think all cars with only one reversing and fog-light look really cheap, and it’d have to be something very special for me to be able to ignore that.) I nearly didn’t call at all but, for the lack of anything else to look at, I did and thirty minutes later I was crawling underneath an R reg, three and a bit year old Puma 1.7 in metallic dark green with 54k on the clock, a new MOT, and a fresh full factory service and new cambelt under its belt. 

First impressions were good and that green actually really suited the car. It was spotless underneath and the only blemish I could find anywhere on the body was a tiny dink under the driver’s door lock, looking like a heavy keyring had been dropped. This aside, it was spotless and looked (and smelt) brand-new. Hell, even the jack and tools had never been opened or used, and the exhaust was still the factory original. Popping the bonnet revealed that zetec 1.6 unit which those clever Yamaha chaps had kindly fiddled about with, only giving it back to Ford after fitting custom pistons and head, making it a 1.7, and drastically reducing the engines reciprocating mass. 

This I already knew, but hadn’t really thought it would make a very big difference to the standard 1.6 zetec unit in the Puma I’d already driven. Asking for a test drive, I climbed aboard in the passenger seat, as the male owner said he’d be delighted to take me for one. The only things I therefore really noticed on my test chauffeuring was that the passenger electric window rattled a bit if opened halfway (I now know they all do this), and that the suspension had not deflected in the slightest when the (really rather large) owner had climbed aboard. 

 The engine had started effortlessly – just as it had when I’d started it from cold earlier, and I noticed that it didn’t have aircon, which was a mistake (as I found out later) but at the time was what I wanted, and within a few miles it’d become clear that I was in the company of a car owner, rather than of a driver. This was all good news. I doubt if he took it above 4,000 rpm or used more than 40% throttle all journey and it purred like, well like a Puma so, as we pulled back into his drive I had already decided that I wanted it. After a bit of haggling, and me passing over £450 less than I thought I would be (it helps sometimes being a size 12 when negotiating with a man), I became the vehicle's second owner. And that’s when the fun started.

In the first week of ownership I didn’t really have much chance to play with my new toy much, mostly as it was pressed into immediate service taking me to or from work, which meant inner city traffic, which meant boring. However, it did give me the chance get to know it a bit better, to look at it and its reflection a lot, and to realise that they really are very curvy indeed. You’ll find two flat surfaces on a Puma, and they are the number plates. 

I found the brakes were very good, that the suspension was pretty taunt, that it was easy to drive, and that the C pillars are huge - meaning rear vision wasn’t very good. My only bug-bear was I was finding it a pain to get the driving position right, not something that usually takes more than a few seconds. You see, you drive a Puma one way – in a bum down, legs up attitude and altering the electric height adjustment of the seat, also adjusts the rake and entire attitude of the thing and takes some getting used to. A couple of times I thought I’d got it right, only to have to adjust it a few days later because the squab was cutting off the blood supply to my legs. 

Persevering with this though, will reward you with a driving position which is so perfect, that you feel like you are putting the car on, more than getting into it. I once had to drive from Coventry to Newcastle and back for a job interview. And sat beside me (at his request), was my 87 year-old father-in-law (at the time), who loved being driven in it. We both got out after a long, hot journey, having not stopped other than for fuel and his bladder, and I think we honestly both could have just climbed back in and done it again. Sorry, I digress. (I got the job, by the way.)

Righto, so I’d had the car slightly under a week, hadn’t had the chance to play with it yet, and was driving home from work on a Friday afternoon really looking forward to Saturday when my other half cheerily called to remind me that we’d agreed to drive down to visit my parents. In Surrey. I was lucky in one way as my (ex)partner didn’t really like driving, especially on motorways, but he was happily comfortable and confident with mine. But I was also beginning to get frustrated as motorway driving is usually a pretty un-exciting, mentally exhausting, and generally boring affair, and all I wanted was to get to know it better and take the thing by the scruff of the neck, and was now looking unlikely to be able to do so for a little bit longer. Nevertheless, the next morning it was loaded it up with our weekend stuff, filled full of fuel, and I pointed her (a Puma is female – she just is) in the general direction of the M40.

The journey down ‘sarf revealed that it honestly didn’t feel any differently when ‘heavy’ to when it had been running on fumes and that it simply refused to squat down at the rear when under hard acceleration, as front wheel drives usually do. It also hinted that I’d been wrong when thinking the 1.7 would feel like a 1.6. This felt much faster, being quicker and more eager to rev, while still having useful torque low down. First impressions were it felt more like a 2.0 litre! 

Long high-speed corners showed it didn’t roll much at all, and that only under very hard breaking was it possible to notice any movement at all in the suspension, and even this seemed fractional. Could the suspension, in fact, be broken!? The motorway journey also showed that the Puma was amazingly responsive, gave a lovely feel through the steering, that it much preferred travelling at 90 than at 70 (a friend owns a very long driveway), that you had to drive the thing the whole time, and that something really, really odd happens if you open a window, or windows, at speed. It gets louder. That’s it. 

Absolutely no risk of my hair looking as if I’d styled it on my ironing board (which is a good thing if you’re a woman), but also absolutely no real movement of air around the cabin either (which is bad). It’s also a little bit weird and made it seemingly difficult to lower the cabin temperature quickly, which was no more than a mild surprise at the time, but something that would prove to be a bigger issue in the summer. However, all things being considered as I pulled off the M25 and onto the A217 and headed back to the B roads that I knew so well.  I was happy with how fresh I still felt behind the wheel and how driving it made me feel. The only problem was, of course, that I was still yet to really get to know the Puma as I’d not had the chance to have a play. 

And then, it dawned on me. (I have a mean IQ of 140 but can still be the dizziest, stupidest person I know, sometimes) Of course, dummy! I’m driving towards roads I’d learned to drive on, roads I’d driven (ragged) some pretty exciting carage around on before - the highlights of which being a Mach 1 Fastback Mustang, a Jaguar E-Type V12 convertable, and a Vauxhall VX 2200 turbo (not at the same time, you understand), and these were roads I still knew very well indeed. The very same roads we were about to be getting to. Tee hee. My grin got a little wider as I pulled up outside my parents’ house and helped unload the car. We’d made the journey down comfortably in a little over two hours and it had just turned 12.30pm and I already knew exactly where I was going to take the Puma to finally get to know it better, later that afternoon.

Later that afternoon

Under the premise that I was going to a garage to check the tyre pressures (which everyone knew was a fib), I drove to a local garage, checked the tyres and engine levels, climbed aboard, checked the lippy, turned the key, and knew that it was finally playtime. Now, I’m not going into detail regarding roads I know and where they are, because they are all roads very similar to the ones you and the whole UK looked at during the Olympics (sponsored by MacDonalds) while cyclists rode up and down them a few times in Surrey (Box Hill), thought looked pretty and then all went to, and frankly, ruined. Let’s just assume we’re talking twisty, black and, sometimes, red asphalt with little traffic (this was over ten years ago, remember), with no horses, no buses, no tractors, no cyclists, no horse-muck and no lorries sort of B-roads, with lots of off-camber corners, frequent and sudden hills and drops, and all surrounded by green Surrey hills with a lush tree canopy. Assume it’s just like that, mainly because that precisely what it is like, and you’re not having it.

So, I pulled out the garage and a few moments later I was pointed down a sleepy B-road doing an easy 40 in fourth. I dropped into second and mashed the accelerator into the carpet for the very first time. It yelped, put its power down, and went. Quicker than I expected, much quicker actually and I’m on the limiter already into third and hard down again. Crikey – this thing PULLS! The throttle response is instant - the 1.7s making a lovely rasp (think Alfasud) through the exhaust and never feels like it’s even close to running out of revs or pull, even when the limiter is hit and I’m changing into fourth when I notice I’m doing 40mph more than I thought I was, which is really far too fast. 

I simply wasn’t expecting this! There’s a corner coming up, so I’m on the brakes hard (which really work, despite only being drums on the back), and I suddenly remember at this belated point that a Puma is front-wheel-drive and that I’m going into a corner which drops away on the left, and that I’m barrelling into it at an alarmingly similar speed to what the rear-wheeled-drive Vauxhall VX Turbo I’d driven could handle, which is basically a Lotus Elise with an Astra GTE engine, gearbox, and Vauxhall shell. 

Oh bloody shit. 

Sudden visions of telephone calls going something like; “Hi Dad! Hi darling! So how’s the test drive going? Brilliant – it’s totally brilliantly brilliant and would you mind just coming and help me pull it out of a tree, please?” wandered about in my head for a bit. Well, until I’d arrived at the corner anyway, and so it was with some trepidation that I guided my inside wheel to the apex, turned hard into the corner, and waited – with some considerable interest - to see what happened next. 

What happened next is why I still drive one, and why nothing this side of a Honda Integra Type-R, or Toyota GT86 would get me out of one – even today. It went around the corner – which actually by then wasn’t a surprise because I could feel the front just tuck in and do it, and it was telling me it was doing it. I simply couldn’t believe how much feedback this little chassis was giving me through the wheel. 

I’d expected it to feel like a hot Fiesta – mainly because that’s all it really is, but this felt special. This was a proper, real, drivers car and I’d never driven a front-wheel-drive chassis which had so much feel, so instant a turn-in, and was so responsive to inputs. This was a chassis which had a level of competence I was simply not expecting, and I swear the bloody thing was almost baiting me. I was throwing it into corners thinking I’d be close to the limits of grip, and coming out the other side with no fuss, no dramatics, with no issues whatsoever other than a vague feeling that the Puma was thinking to itself “that the best you’ve got!?”

Ten minutes later I’m parked up and sitting on a park bench by a pretty duck pond, enjoying a cup of Earl Grey and looking at my Puma and waiting for my brakes to cool down and to stop smelling quite so badly, and I find that just can’t stop smiling. The brakes, which had never been really abused before, were smelling because I’d skimmed off the glaze that had built up on the pads with my heavy use. And I was smiling because I already knew that this little car had far more about it than what I’d thought it would have. 

 I was, frankly, astonished. By a Ford! That afternoon, and a tank-full of fuel later, I returned to my family with a silly smile on my face and a realisation that something had started. That afternoon, on the B-roads of Surrey and West Sussex, I’d gotten to know a car more thoroughly than any other I’d owned, and I just loved the dynamism of the thing. I’d learned that it did eventually have limits, but it’d always let you know you were getting there. If really abused, that it would eventually break away at the rear, but also that this was always very predictable and controllable, as the chassis was naturally so neutral. For a driver, it was an utter delight. It was almost as if someone had designed a car just for me, but I also needed to understand how it was so much better than I’d have ever thought. So I did some reading and some digging, and I discovered why.

I bet you didn’t know...

That a certain Jackie Stewart was part of the Ford team that tweaked the suspension? Yes, that Jackie Stewart. Oh, I can still remember the ubercool Puma ads on TV, with the music and imagines from Bullit superimposed with Steve McQueen driving San Francisco in a Puma, instead of the Mustang, and very clever it was, too. But I thought it all just hype. It seems, sometimes, that sometimes it isn’t.

The Puma, to date, has the following accolades;

1997 - Named Top Gear's car of the year for 'the incredible feeling and driving sensation.'

1999 - Design Council Millennium Products award for 'The first Ford in Britain designed solely on computer and in record time.'

2001 - What Car's Used Sports Car Of The Year- Ford Puma 1.7

2004 - What Car's Best Used Sporting Car of the Year Under £10,000 - Ford Puma 1.7

2011 - What Car's Best 'Gem for under £1000' - Ford Puma 1.7

See? It’s not just me who thinks them special. I think that this little car is the best, small, hard-top coupe ever made. Bar none. The 1.7 engine is an absolute gem and it’s coupled to a gorgeously snicky short-throw box which ratios are just so perfect for the car – although, saying that, fifth could be a tad longer. I’ve often been cruising at 90 (again, on my friends drive) and tried to change up into fifth, to find I’m already in it. However, it’ll happily let you bimble about at 30 in fifth yet very little is faster through the gears at the traffic light dash. Well, at least up to 40, anyway. 

The Puma has a rudimentary traction-control (which is easy to defeat, if not worth the effort), and just puts its power down without fuss or flourish. Part of the reason for this is its lightness (just over 1100 kgs) but this just helps make the Puma as versatile as it is. Keep it out of the vct and drive it like a granny (well, like it’s a Fiesta, then) and it’ll give you 44 mpg and however you drive it you can’t get it below 30. Also, you’ll be amazed at what it will carry. With the back seats down, I’ve had a mountain bike, two very large and heavy hifi speakers (Kef Concord MkIII’s), and most of my record collection (which is vast) aboard, and I really couldn’t even feel any difference. 

Part 2 will be published tomorrow morning