The Racing Puma is one of the most overlooked Fast Fords, written off by the power-hungry. Kotto Williams finds out why ignorance is bliss
Photography by Alex Salway
So, after an eighteen-year hiatus, bug-eyed the Ford Puma is back, but sadly in name only. There’ll be an ST version, but any thoughts of a repackaged Mk8 Fiesta in a Gucci suit fall by the wayside as soon as you clock the new bug-eyed SUV.
If you’re above the age of eighteen you’ll remember the original Puma, essentially a late nineties Ford Fiesta with sharp styling, lots of kit and a new engine. At the time Ford was struggling globally - the mk4 Escort was long in the tooth and the Mondeo was suffering from the cessation of tax-free company cars causing a dramatic slump in sales. The brand seemed to be surviving on the goodwill of the Fiesta in Europe and the Crown Vic & F150 in America. Ford boffins came up with many schemes and projects to reignite the fire, including the astonishing Ford Focus - but that’s a feature for another day.
One such project that was ultimately canned led to a dilemma because the ink was dry on the contract with Yamaha to develop a 1.7 litre petrol engine with VVT; Variable Valve Timing. Faced with the choice of losing the technology and paying a hefty fine or honouring the agreement, Ford chose to find a new home for the engine. Fortunately, they decided to develop the Puma coupe based on the 1996 Ford Fiesta’s platform but with uprated suspension, bigger brakes a huge amount of standard equipment and a remarkably pretty 'new edge' bodyshell. Its peppy engine, sweet gearchange, critically acclaimed chassis and keen pricing resulted in Ford not being able to make enough of them, so they introduced 1.4 & 1.6 litre versions. The marketing campaign alone was gold – Steve McQueen CGI'd into the driver's seat of a silver Ford Puma racing around the streets of San Francisco cut straight out of the iconic Bullitt. If you’re into fast cars and movie chases it’d be weird if the advert didn’t captivate your attention.
How did Ford build upon this tour-de-force of success? The answer is obvious, you enter into motorsport and develop a hot version, but the one that filtered down to customers wasn’t your usual halfhearted stickers & spoiler special. The process was a unique one. Imagine the scenario – Mr & Mrs. Jones walks into their local Ford dealership to sign for a Ford Puma, but at the last minute spy the Racing Puma brochure. Seduced, they order one, which isn’t actually a list car but an optional extra.
Then a small but mighty workshop by the name of Tickford sends their heavies to Neihl in Germany where they effectively kidnap a Ford Puma and bring it back to Daventry. A team of mechanics thereupon rip the Puma apart, throwing anything not welded in place into a skip. They widen the front track by 35mm aside, replaced the front wings with bespoke aluminium ones, fitted extended driveshafts and custom suspension arms complete with Eibach springs and dampers. Then they bond on the Marilyn Monroe spec steel rear arches, made necessary by a huge 90mm increase in rear track girth, just 15mm behind the full-bore rally car. Next comes racing spec Alcon 4-pot brakes - 295mm diameter at the front, 253 at the rear. Inside, Tickford fitted bespoke Ford Racing Sparco seats, reclaimed the remaining interior out of the skip and covered it in unique royal-blue Alcantara.
The final piece of the puzzle was fettling the Yamaha 1.7. The original plan involved some light pressure turbocharging with 180bhp in mind, but Ford blew all the budget on making it drive as well as physically possible, so Ford resorted to good old-fashioned breathing mods - more aggressive camshafts, a custom alloy inlet manifold, a Janspeed exhaust with 4-2-1 manifold and sports catalytic converter, and a re-calibrated ECU. The result was 153bhp at 7,000rpm and 119lb-ft. of torque available from 4,500rpm, combined with the 1,174kg kerb weight it was just enough to dip below eight seconds from zero to sixty.
Performance junkies sniggered and sadly the Racing Puma didn’t have the same sales success as the regular model because the major surgery required for the conversion resulted in a steep £22,750 asking price. It was a tough sell given the Subaru Impreza Turbo had already arrived on the scene harassing Porsche's and BMW M cars with its four-wheel-drive WRC pedigree and banzai turbocharged 215bhp output, complete with £2,000 change.
Alternatively, for those committed to corners you could have an original Lotus Elise for a list price of £23,000 - you had to be a very dedicated fast Ford fan to opt for the Puma over either of those two. Consequently, less than half of the planned UK production run of 500 actually made it into genuine customers' hands, with the balance of cars distributed amongst Ford's senior management via the company car scheme.
But those rules don’t apply today, the only thing that matters is the driving and boy did Ford smash it out of the park. If the Honda Integra Type-R DC2 is arguably recognised as the best front-wheel-drive car of all time, the Racing Puma must be pushing for a spot on the podium, any drive is guaranteed to raise eyebrows. The Puma has that same ability to maximize every single bhp and transfer all the right information to your fingertips via its beautifully judged, talkative steering. You can give it death and it loves it, bang the rev-limiter, flat shift, stay in second or third gear with the revs hanging at around 6,000rpm with the exhaust crackling away. Throw the car into corners at unholy speeds then hammer the brakes and it just keeps smiling. Suddenly, you’re flying around a sharp bend with the wheel at 90 degrees, right foot welded to the floor and the car’s still complying, finding grip and simply going where you want it to and giving you the sort of rush any Japanese four-wheel-drive homologation special or track-bred hyper hatch can. It’s as close as you’ll get to a race car in road-going form, and I don’t mean like a Porsche 718 GT4 Clubsport that has a roll cage, a bucket for a seat, detachable everything. The Racing Puma is more like a tarmac spec rally car made tame. It feels like the pit crew has just decided to put back in the normal interior and peel off the stickers.
Yet it still feels relatively modern, even this example at two decades old with 94,000 miles showing on the clock doesn’t feel like you've entered into classic territory. Of course, you can tell it’s getting on - the Alcantara on the steering wheel is bobbled, Pirelli P600s are no longer made so it uses Yokohama Parada Spec-IIs, yet everything that truly matters - from the steering to the gearbox, to the handbrake, to the engine response still feels taught and box-fresh. It even has everything you need and more for mundane duties - air con, heated front screen, electric windows and mirrors, ESP, traction control. Follow the standard servicing and it’ll be unburstable. If you drive the FRP sensibly it settles down, there’s no need for any pointless driving modes because it was conceived exceptionally well from the start. The aggressive, stiff suspension actually has some give to it. You could easily daily drive this car - just make sure to dial up a couple of extra decibels on the radio.
Then you step out of it and the love affair blossoms even further. The extended track makes the Puma appear fantastically low and wide, the bolt-on arches pouring over the 17 ” MiM Speedline alloys like a marshmallow dipped in a chocolate fountain. You’d swear those rims were a larger diameter but it’s an optical illusion - the Puma is just perfectly proportioned. The Imperial Blue Mica – Paint code 93 for the anoraks - was the only factory colour choice available but I do hope whoever chose it got a well-deserved promotion. It’s a combination that’s so right it's hard to imagine the car in another hue. Visually the Racing Puma turns a base car that’s as friendly as a kitten into something more befitting of a real Puma - only a Clio V6 can outshine it in the shopping trolley gone rogue stakes.
So, what are the drawbacks? Well, rarity means they’re very expensive. £17,000 is the mid-rate price of a Racing Puma - about £15,000 more than a normal 1.7 Puma. Not only that, the exotic parts and coach-built body mean parts are either hugely expensive or simply no longer available from Ford. See that left front wing? £800. The Eibach suspension strut underneath it? Just name a price because you can’t get one anywhere. Owners have become so exasperated they’ve even created their own memes, if you crash a Racing Puma the sad reality is you’re probably better off breaking it. Any repair to OEM standards will involve a very long time spent waiting and searching for parts to come up for sale. The brake calipers also need frequent attention – annual servicing and regular maintenance are wise due to the likelihood of erosion to the unpainted aluminium within the calipers.
On the flip side, it’s unlikely prices won’t go down so it’s a very safe purchase. You’ll probably make back whatever you spend on routine maintenance and petrol if you keep it for a year. All the major mechanicals are as robust as any Fiesta’s, you’re unlikely to open the garage to find a puddle of oil underneath the car, nor will it ever leave you stranded. The only caveat is they’re prone to rust - those bonded rear arches are a breeding ground for oxidisation, so inspect any possible purchase closely and make sure you have somewhere warm and dry to keep your new pride & joy.
So far I've managed to avoid talking about the performance black hole because to pigeonhole it is to miss the point of the Racing Puma, but the issue of the low power output needs addressing. The FRP is very much a product of its time and even back then 150bhp could at best be described as adequate when Renault offered a Clio with another 300cc and 20bhp. It’s the sort of power you can get today from a middling hybrid Fiesta.
IF THE DC2 INTEGRA TYPE-R IS ARGUABLY RECOGNISED AS THE BEST HANDLING FRONT-WHEEL-DRIVE CAR OF ALL TIME, THE RACING PUMA MUST BE PUSHING FOR A SPOT ON THE PODIUM - ANY DRIVE IS GUARANTEED TO RAISE EYEBROWS
Yes, it’s glacially slow compared to the turbocharged hot hatches you get now, but it does have an ace up its sleeve that’s not the fantastic handling and brakes - but the lack of a turbo. No Puma will ever win a traffic light Grand Prix but it’ll surprise a competitor, especially when exiting a corner, and there's 7,200 glorious naturally aspirated rpm to play with. The true reward is just how good it feels to drive, the loutish exhaust and zealous throttle response making the car feel a lot faster than it really is. It endears you to it in the same way old cars did.
To give you a taste of what the Racing Puma is truly about, this is a direct quote from Peter Beattie, the mastermind behind the Racing Puma - “I remember one evening following Richard Parry-Jones home, he was driving one of the development cars, so a support car always had to go along in case it broke down in the middle of nowhere… It was too dangerous for us to try to keep up with him. When we eventually arrived at his house, he told us there were two things we should never change: first were the pops on the over-run that sounded like rally car anti-lag, and second was that we should never put a rear wing on it”
Would a new Fiesta ST win in a drag race? Yes. Would it beat it on track? Certainly. Would you be laughed at by teenagers if you bought the new Puma? Yes. Would you care that your Racing Puma is slower than both the new Puma and the new Fiesta ST? Not for a single nanosecond. It’s simply one of the best handling cars of all time and it’s been almost forgotten about in the modern power race. It’s a shame, but because of that, it’s become a secret weapon. The owners of the Racing Puma smile every time they see it parked on their drive, they love to take it on hill sprints, and they wait in angst for their next Castle Combe track day. It’s like being a member of an exclusive club that when others find out about it, they want in. But if too many people found out it’d be spoiled.
And that’s the way the Racing Puma should be –unspoiled. It’s a pure driving experience that can’t be replicated in another car. It features old-school rawness but modern reliability and comfort. It’s like having a pet and not a car: your time with it may be fleeting or it may be very long. But you’ll always, always remember it fondly and even if you get another it won’t be the same. Special car, this.