Yet it was that fondly remembered Model T trip that had helped to inspire this project. That journey had been to mark a minor Ford anniversary. This year there was a much bigger one.
While cogitating over Christmas, I’d realised that it would soon be 40 years since the Fiesta was launched. More than a mere birthday, this would be an important moment for the entire European motor industry. In the handful of years before 1976, car makers had been busy discovering those affordable, capable, simple yet sophisticated, front-wheel-drive, hatchback-equipped cars soon to be known as superminis.
Fiat had been early with the 127, and Renault with the R5, but when mighty Ford confirmed the importance of the trend with its pretty but simple Fiesta, it meant every serious car maker would need a model like this. Nowadays, one in every three cars sold globally is a supermini.
What made the new Fiesta even better was that it had been born at the Ghia design house in Italy. A prolific American-Dutch designer called Tom Tjaarda, who normally deployed his talents creating bigger-note cars such as the De Tomaso Pantera, had built an influential concept in Italy in 1972, which Ford’s production engineers had faithfully turned it into a baby hatchback that anyone could afford to own without spoiling its purity or simplicity.
All of which fed the question that had been burning in my consciousness since Christmas: why didn’t we beg or borrow a first-gen Fiesta – an entry-level 957cc version – and drive it to Geneva to get a taste of life back then? Maybe we could come back the other way in a modern Fiesta Ecoboost 1.0-litre triple. It suddenly seemed weird that in Geneva we’d be meeting people who late this year would be bringing a seventh-generation Fiesta into the world but couldn’t yet say a word about it.
Anyway, it was still early that morning in London, and cold, but suddenly the prospect of driving across France in such an important little car seemed enticing over again.
We were exceptionally lucky with the car we borrowed. Ford had a genuine 1976 edition with only 40,000 miles on the clock. It had been nurtured in Ford’s Heritage Collection, living in a big garage in Dagenham not far from where its peers were made in tens of thousands. It was unmarked, and conventionally coloured in a kind of period bronzey beige, but the dominating feature was inside: a set of seats in orange tartan. We loaded Stan’s stuff, started the engine, popped the clutch and drove away.
Thinking back, I've made this sound too simple. I’d clean forgotten the rigmarole of cranking a cold engine, then realising you needed to choke it, then pulling the knob way out, and then having it fire untidily on a hopelessly rich mixture, taking an age to run evenly, let alone properly, while a swirl of unburned petrol hung in the air and your nostrils. If you want a snapshot of how electronics have changed cars, drive a 1970s classic today.
Through London, we made a series of heartening discoveries. First, the car was tiny and very light (750kg claimed), about the size of the first Ford Ka launched 20 years later. It fitted everywhere and turned on 20-pence piece. Second, it rode perfectly well, tiny wheels and all. Third, the unassisted steering was accurate and light (if a bit wooden) and road noise was low, mostly.
We were out of London and on the M20 heading for the Channel Tunnel in no more time than you’d expect, which is often the way with old cars. In speedy moderns, it’s surprising how rarely you can deploy your advantage. Modern motoring is so often more about effortlessness than rapid journey times. Mind you, Google Maps was forecasting this trip at 596 miles and 10 hours – and I was pretty sure we’d be a couple behind that even if the car kept running right.