Opinion : Welcome to the classic fold, Ford Focus

Ford Focus Mk1

I’ve explained many, many times how some cars become classics more quickly than others – some tick that box as soon as they roll off the line, while others need to wait until they’re on the verge of extinction before we pay them attention. In many ways, the brilliant Ford Focus Mk1 falls into the former category, and yet its ascent into the classic hall of fame is moving towards the latter.

And that’s a shame, because many of you are never going to experience the sheer joy driving one of these amazing cars. Before we even get the dynamics, let’s consider its commercial success, and the impact it had on the wider automotive industry. In short, here was a car that ended up being a UK best seller and proof that British buyers weren’t afraid of buying something avantgarde, as long as it was fit for purpose. A bit like a BMC 1100/1300 almost four decades on…

It really was that good – and it really did make that sort of impact. Long story short, it was just brilliant by whatever metric you threw at it. When it broke cover at the 1998 Geneva Motor Show, it strutted its concept car looks so successfully that even the best-styled of its opposition – the Peugeot 306 – looked old hat, and just a little staid. Ford had been turning around its conservative image, first with the brilliantly clever Ka, and then the gloriously over-styled Cougar, but this was something else entirely.

Ford Focus

Moving the game on visually and dynamically

After the dross that was the 1990 Escort it replaced, the Focus was a paradigm shift into the desirable – and, for years, Ford didn’t look back. I remember my first drive in late 1998, and was absolutely blown away by the thing, my previous antipathy for the firm being wiped away in one fell swoop. The Ford Mondeo may have had the engineering and dynamics of a class-leading car (and I’d enjoyed a few at the time), but the Focus layered great design into the equation, and brilliance was achieved.

My chariot at the time was a Volkswagen Golf Mk4 after a brief and very unsatisfactory dalliance with a Rover 416 (HHR), and – quite – happy I was with it, too. Yes, it felt like the controls were connected to their componentry through a layer of snot, and it cornered with all the enthusiasm of a hungover Best Man on wedding day, but it was a quiet, refined motorway cruiser. It also felt like a quality item… and had blue dials! Once I’d driven the Focus, I wanted to swap my VW for a Ford – not something you see written very often.

However, I ended up dropping out of the new car world shortly after, replacing the Volkswagen with a Citroën CX, and that was that. I was enlightened into the classic car world. Or so I thought. About ten years later, a friend of mine offered me his mum’s 2004 Ford Focus 1.8 Zetec (below) for not a lot of money.

An absolute peach

This one came to me as a banger rally friend got in touch telling me his mother’s Focus had cut out on her a couple of times, and she’d lost confidence in it. She was going to trade it in for a new Honda Jazz, and the dealer offered her a paltry £500 for it. I said I’d give her £600, which everyone was happy with – considering the car was less than ten years old at the time, that seemed like a very good deal to me.

Of the random ignition cut-out she described, I never did find a trace, and never once was I caught by it in the six months I had it. Servicing and parts were an absolute doddle and, as one of the very few Fords I have owned in my time, I did find that a refreshing change. I remember it being one of a select bunch of sub-£1000 cars that I’d jump in to now, and drive for the fun of it.

Despite having access to newer, flasher cars at the time I was happy to take my family away for a week’s holiday in France and during that highly enjoyable time, when you could go abroad unhindered, I really did take to the Focus’ excellent interior room, clear stereo and its ability to hammer out a 500-mile day without breaking a sweat.

Ford Focus Mk1

There was a problem, though

This was first car in a very, very long time in which I was stopped by the police for speeding, while on that French holiday. To my eternal shame, I was flagged down by a local enforcement officer, who literally jumped out of a hedge at the end of a very long and deserted straight. He said to me in English, ‘do you know how fast you were going, Sir?’

To which, I replied in fluent French that I was desperately sorry, I must have allowed the speed to creep up, and that I was enjoying my holiday in the locality. I pulled out my wallet, expecting a punishing deduction from him, but instead, he walked around my car, took a long and sorrowful look at it, and said, ‘you’re free to go… but watch your speed.’ I was amazed. I guess he was feeling sorry for me!

I ended up selling it to Mike Humble, who needed wheels at the time, and he then moved it on to his mate, Neil Rapsey – and, as far as I know, it remained on the road for years. According to the DVLA, its last MoT ran out in September 2023 – is it still around? Would I have another? Maybe this one? In a heartbeat!

Focus vs Golf

Interestingly, it arrived in my care just after I’d been reacquainted with a VW Golf Mk4 1.9 TDI (below) purchased for £500 from a colleague. This was a car of extremes, too, but in a very different and economical way.

It had mismatched tyres on it, and I vividly remember the test drive taken on a very familiar piece of B-road. Turning in for a medium-speed bend, nothing happened for a moment and, for a few milliseconds, I actually thought it was broken. But no, it finally lugubriously lurched into the bend, and I was duly re-educated. No one buys a diesel Golf Mk4 to have fun.

And yet, as both cars aged the Golf arguably made the transition into modern classic a little quicker, no doubt aided by the kudos of the brand, its timeless styling and a huge following for the brand. Consequently, the survival rate of the VW far outstrips the Ford, and these days if you see a Mk1 Focus on the road, it’s a bit of a treat, whereas the Mk4 Golf is still relatively common.

Volkswagen Golf Mk4

It’s a classic – get used to it…

And before you Dub fans write in to tell me that’s because the Golf was more reliable and better made, that’s patently not the case. The Ford Focus was blessed with an exemplary reliability record back in the day, while the Golf proved surprisingly troublesome.

Where the latter does score over the former is in its interior. The Focus looked exciting inside when new, but now it’s a mess, unlike the restrained and quite classy alternative from Wolfsburg.

So, finally the Focus Mk1 is a classic in all forms (not just the RS and ST170), and it’s finally getting the recognition it deserves from enthusiasts across the board. It’s a shame numbers have dwindled so much because it means relatively few of you will get to experience one on your favourite B-road.

So, if you get the chance to grab one cheap, I’d say take it and have some fun – knowing the way Ford values tend to go, it’ll be up there with the Porsche 911 before you know it. You have been warned…

Ford Focus Mk1

Keith Adams

27 Comments

  1. Still loads of Mk 1s on the road here in Essex. My Uncle still has one has his daily drive. I love’m having two, first in 2002, a 1.6 Silver special which was great other than it were very great with 3 doors when I was taking my parents out more (a bit if a squeeze to get I the back). I replaced it with a 1.8 TDCI Ghia. Slightly less dynamic as the 1.6 as the heavy engine meant it had more understeer, but it had plenty of go and did really good mpg. Unfortunately had to give it up when my dad got a wheelchair, and the boot wasn’t big enough, though that didn’t stop my brother buying it off me cheap (for the px price Volvo offered me). He kept for another 3 years before he could afford a SAAB 9-3. My grandad had one too, which was still going after he retired from driving.

  2. The Focus was a game changer in terms of dynamics. Vastly better than the wobbly and unreliable Escort that preceded it, it showed that Ford were back in the game.

    I know a few people who when faced with replacing their Peugeot 405/406 company car, took a Focus out on a weekend test drive from the local Ford dealer. And went back to work on Monday morning with some very definite ideas about what they are getting as their next car.

    Even after a few years, Focuses (Foci?) seemed to just keep going.

    Tough little cars and cheap to maintain outside the dealer network once they hit their fourth or fifth birthday.

  3. I think Ford were on a roll from the Mark 4 Fiesta, with its new 1.25 litre Zetec engine, up to the Mark 3 Mondeo. I’ve driven a last generation Escort and an early Focus, both being 1.6 models, and the difference was immense: the Escort was noisy, thirsty, cheaply made and boring to drive, while the Focus was a lot quieter at speed, more economical, far better made inside and drove like a bigger car. It was like Ford had been taken over by a premium German brand as the quality was so good, ditto a 2002 Mondeo 1.8 I drove a few years later.
    Volkswagen did have a patchy first half of the nineties like Ford. I can remember the Mark 3 Golf and Vento being a pair of ugly munters that weren’t as good as their predecessors and were beaten in a JD Power survey by the Rover Maestro, which must have really enraged the Germans. Also they had the bloated looking 1988-95 Passat that was quite a let down after the previous model. Normal service was restored with the 1995 Passat that looked a lot classier, was nicer to drive and had that really classy blue dashboard lighting.

    • I happen to like the Focus MK1, but I’m not entirely sure what the Focus has to do with Austin Rover? I don’t believe it was even built in the UK?

        • The late 90s was a golden period for family hatches, with the Focus, Mk4 Golf and Astra G all moving things on in their own way.

          Not good news for Rover incidentally, as whereas R8 really stood out as being a cut above the competition on 1989/90, the same wasn’t the case for the Rover 400/45.

        • Fair enough Keith.

          Although I do wonder, retrospectively, if the MK4 Astra was the better car? More resistant to rust, a bigger and better selection of body types (cabrolet and coupe anyone?)and a more pleasant & better built interior. oh and the engines were pretty good too! Admittedly the 5 door was a little dowdy in exterior styling compared with the Focus, and maybe the handling not quite as sweet.

          • I think that is a good point! The Astra was a really good car too. Never owned one but drove plenty of hire and company car Astras between 1999 and 2003. It wasn’t as sharp around the twisty stuff, though better than the Golf (drove plenty of them too). I have to say the 2.2 was a hoot to drive. Tge only thing is the interiors did feel cheap compared to the Focus.

          • Nah the Astra looked like an old boot next to the Focus with one of the dullest interiors ever to grace a C segment hatchback.

  4. I loved that focus, I had done many upgrades to it over the 5 years I had it to bring it to almost Ghia spec. There was only 2 flies in the ointment, the fuel pump failed outside the house and the speed sensor in the gearbox failed, and that turned out to be a pig of a job.I think it’s still around I’ll have to investigate the village where the new owner lived.

  5. I see FAR more Mk1 Focuses on the road than Mk4 Golfs. Apart from anything else far more were sold in this country, giving a much bigger starting base.

    My Mk1 is getting a bit tired, and it’s sadly time to move on now.

  6. Conflicted feelings with this one, from the viewpoint of an owner of a new 2001 North American spec 3-door with the 2.0 Zetec. The style really was something else at the time and reviews really spoke of the dynamic prowess. After a test drive I was convinced and purchased a loaded Egg Yolk yellow example on the spot.

    It drove wonderfully; the perspective of “c-segment” cars in the US is very different from European expectations (read: lower) and this car shattered the still prevailing notion that a small hatchback would feel tinny and insubstantial. It was relatively roomy. Swift. The eye catching design was amplified by selecting yellow, and it looked more expensive than it was.

    The honeymoon was brief. Hatchbacks for North America were made at Ford’s Hermosillo factory in Mexico. The early cars were notoriously unreliable, haphazardly assembled, and plagued with recalls. I lost count how many warranty claims that car racked up and how many weeks it was in Ford’s possession, often times for repeat repairs that never were resolved like the snapping turn signal stalk, sunroof seal that refused to remain intact, and rear washer pump that had a life expectancy of about 45 seconds in total. To this day, it remains the only vehicle I have owned that has left me stranded (multiple times). After two years I was done; the poor reputation of their reliability by then was known and I took a huge hit in depreciation to be rid of it. I replaced it with a Toyota Celica. The other demerit I remember not related to quality was high fuel consumption for a vehicle of that size/displacement; probably worst in class.

    On the extremely rare occasion I see one today (the sedans are still fairly common), I feel both an appreciation for the exterior design (not that horribly dated interior) and revulsion for all the things that go with experiencing such a poor quality product.

  7. A Mk1 Focus is the only car I had from new, and it was probably the best car I’ve owned.

    It was a V-reg 1.6 Zetec, and driving it for the first time was a revelation. Everything about it behind the wheel was impressive. It was in another league compared to any other car I’d driven up to that time.

    It was also the first Ford I’d owned. Until then I’d avoided them – in the days of Cortinas and Sierras and Capris – simply because they were everywhere and I wanted to be different.

    It was also reliable; I kept it for nearly 6 years and eventually sold it to a friend who kept it for another 4 years.

    I doubt I’ll ever be so pleasantly surprised by a car as I was by that Focus 25 years ago.

  8. I can’t comment on the MK1 Focus as an owner, but have had two MK2’s and two MK3’s. All have been very reliable and well equipped (in Zetec trim.) I’ve had my current Zetec 1.0 ecoboost almost six years and it has just about all the factory fitted options on it. That’s the reason I’ve kept it this long!

  9. Ford really did their homework well as the Mk1 Focus was what the market wanted, & the styling still looks fresh today, though I’ve noticed they are thinning out on the roads, certainly the pre-2001 example are very hard to see.

    The Mk2 design was a little frumpy but still pleasing to the eye, but the later marks were but sharper styled if not as much as the Mk1.

    Competition-wise, my Brother bought an ex-demo Mk4 Vauxhall Astra which was OK for a few years, but eventually developed problems with the engine management, often overheating & going into a limp mode. He managed to trade it in for a new car at a car supermarket, & was surprised to see it was still in use a few years later when he checked it on the DVLA website.

  10. There are quite a few Mark 1s in Nuneaton – the locals are rather conservative. I have tried twice to buy diesel estates, both were nixed by the better half. I have seen a Focus SVT in the UK – rumoured to have a V8 engine and RWD. Don’t know where it all fits, but possibly the best Q-ship in the world.

    • The best Focus that I know of was the development car designed at Dunton which we never saw. The 1.8 TDCI was heavily breathed on to produce if I remember about 200 bhp. It was as quick as a Cossie but it kept stripping gearboxes due to the amount if torque, even the rally prep one!

  11. be wary of the automatics. According to an auto gearbox specialist failures are common around 35,000 miles.

  12. Lets also not forget its success in the US/Canadian market. My mom had 2, both Mk. 1’s with the 2 L DOHC engine and automatic transmission. The first was still good until it got rear-ended, so not derivable anymore, the second still good but had to get rid of it as could no longer drive it in her late 80’s. I drove them from time to time and enjoyed doing so. They did have flaws, recalls on rear brakes, problems with fuel pump failures, but the handling, general reliability, room inside, clean looks, made them a popular and successful model. I had driven rental Mk I in England/Wales in April 2002 5 dr. with stick and it was a perfect car for that trip. I had a 2014 Focus from 2016-2021 that I sadly had to get rid of due to that last generation’s horrible and dangerous ‘jerking’ dry plate dual clutch automatic transmission. It was badly designed, couldn’t get it fixed, no parts available and had to move on. Combined with the shift to crossovers and SUV’s, it was killed off here by 2019 (along with the Fiesta here a year earlier). It now looks like the Focus line will be killed off in early 2025 due to the shift to EV’s.

  13. Some of the later [2007-2015] Focuses were indeed blighted by the Ford “powershift” gearbox, which was a dual-clutch thing [think of it as two three-speed manual boxes with a Sinclair ZX81 computer controlling which one got to do the work] akin to the VW DSG which had similar reliability/functionality issues.

    https://www.uk-car-discount.co.uk/news/the-rise-fall-of-fords-dual-clutch-powershift-gearbox

    Horrible things! A friend recently scrapped her 2014 Ford Kuga [basically a SUV-rework of the Focus platform] at 60K miles becaise the Powershift box was dying and the costs of repairs were likely to exceed the value of the car.

    Thankfully, my JLR Freelander2 is based on the Ford EUCD platform and so comes with a nice Aisin AWTF-80 that can handle a bit of a torque-upgrade on the engine side.

    8 seconds 0-60 is 1980s Sierra Cosworth performance!

    • Yes the Kuga with that dry clutch powershift box are hopeless, especially the 163bhp diesel. Ludicrous design, metal springs but with plastic guides/retainers,which last just until the warranty expires,but sometimes not even that long. Believe Ford in America did a recall due to consumer pressure, but not here.

      • My uncles has been replaced under warranty, while my work colleague got a refund from the dealer after it had gone through 2 gearboxes!

  14. Mk1 Focus was that rarest of things – a family car that Dad (or Mum) actually wanted to drive. Practical, safe, brilliant to drive and easy to live with. You could see Ford’s crack team of accountants had been at it but even so they proved to be durable and long-lived. We did 130,000 miles in the two used Mk1s we had, the only actual breakdown was when a plastic thermostat cover popped and dumped the coolant. But did you know the Mk1 could run on 2 cylinders in such a situation in a kind of extreme limp-home mode? The AA man said so anyway…

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