Raise a glass to : 30 years of the Ford Sierra Sapphire

Mike Humble

Here’s yet another one of those car birthdays that makes you feel old. Ford’s medicine to a customer base that still mourned the passing of Cortina came along thirty years ago. The old faithful to family and fleet as well as being honoured amongst thieves, we raise and wiggle a glass to the Ford Sierra Sapphire. Like ’em or loath ’em they were a textbook lesson in how a manufacturer just knows exactly who buys a car, why and what for.

The Sapphire in top line launch trim in 1987 – a 2.0i Ghia.

We have covered the Sierra at length on AROnline before so we won’t be going into the full belt and braces approach to the Sapphire, a car that’s just marked thirty years since its launch, but it marks a little more in some people’s emotions. That’s because the Sapphire was the last UK-produced Ford to feature rear-wheel drive at a time when almost everything else in its class didn’t and it also became the last family-sized car to be produced at Dagenham. Produced in the UK from 1987 to 1990 with models after coming from Belgium, the Sierra Sapphire sold in very strong numbers right up until its deletion in 1993 with the advent of the all-conquering Mondeo.

It really was exactly what it looked like – a Sierra with a boot, and this was by no means a bad thing either. The slightly stiffer body shell gave the handling a little bit more tidiness while the fully enclosed passenger compartment benefitted from a notably quieter environment. By now the Sierra was a proven product in the market place and Ford did little to scare the workshop staff by opting to mirror most of the driveline options already fitted to the five-door models – that meant the usual range of carb and fuel-injected OHC Pinto units for the petrol models with a PSA-designed 2.3-litre diesel thrown in for good measure.

A star car when launched which enjoys legend status today. The 150mph RS Cosworth Sapphire came in two or four-wheel drive. An unmolested example these days fetches serious coinage, even the traditional LX or GLS models command prices well into four figures

Barely a year after launch the 1800cc lean burn Pinto unit was deleted in favour of an all new 1769cc CVH type engine (internally known as the R2-A) which bore little similarity to the existing 1.4 and 1.6-litre CVH found in the company’s front-wheel-drive models. The main reason for the differences was that this unique engine featured certain build and component ideas that would eventually find their way into the Zetec power unit design which was to follow a few years later. The same year (1988) also saw the Peugeot-based EN Series 2.3-litre diesel make way for a brand new smaller unit of 1.8-litre capacity also of PSA design that added an all important turbo decal to the boot.

Further engineering updates came in the form of an all-new 2.0-litre i4 twin cam engine and all synchromesh MT75 transmission for 1989 and, as expected, the Cosworth models followed suit in either two or four-wheel drive flavour. Soon after, the remaining 1.6-litre Pinto-engined models were deleted in favour of a traditional 1.6-litre CVH power unit and other updates included clever packaging detail changes as well as colour-keyed exterior and interior tweaks, Ford kept a fairly average car selling in respectable numbers right up to the whole Sierra range deletion in 1993. On a personal level? Well, I owned a twin-cam Saff some years back and found it to be one the very best motorway cruisers bought on a budget.

Happy Birthday to the Sapphire!

Mike Humble


  1. With respect Mike, I think you will find (as they say in Gwent) that the 1.8 turbodiesel was a stroked-out 1600 Kent diesel.
    My brother had a Sapphire in South Africa, where the saloon replaced the hatch rather than being built alongside it. It had manic central locking which would unlock and relock at high frequency – to get into the car, you had to pull the door handle at the precise moment when it unlocked, otherwise it would lock you out again.
    The mad, bad XR8 was only built as a 5-door hatch.

    • Absolutely correct Ken on the 1.8L Dsl. Also the R2-A designation for the 1.8L CVH is new to me (probably used by those strange Powertrain Planners). I believe it was more commonly known as iCVH (i for in-line), was unique to Sierra and, I believe, sourced out of North America. It was planned to satisfy the company car tax rules, but was never a match for the GM Family II in the Cavalier.
      One other. maybe little known, fact is that the doors were changed on all Sierras coincident with the Sapphire launch (an unheard of investment for a mid-cycle change) as the original large radius side window corners just didn’t look right with the notchback body style.

      Derek Weale
      Senior Product Planning Analyst, Sierra (at the time)

    • I had a 92 1.8 cvh it did 330,000 miles I sold it to a bloke who put another 35k on it then banger raced it

  2. My dad was a sierra man back in the day, seemed decent enough cars at the time. He never had a saph though, his mate got a nearly new 2.0glsi sapphire on a g plate at about 6 months old. I remember it seriously impressing me as a young lad. I think saphs still look tidy even now. Ford could do no wrong for me as a youngster, until the mk5? Escort of about 1991

  3. Had a 1.8 Hatchback and it was a nice driving old bus and good for an indicated 120 mph!
    Always liked the shape of the Sapphire.

  4. The car some believed Ford should have made from the start of Sierra production.

    A less radical look that didn’t scare the three-box Cortina-loving public and fleet buyers.

    That said, it was a neatly executed adaptation of the original and as facelifts go, it did freshen the Sierra up, moving it further away from its roots in the ‘jelly mold’ Probe concept car.

    How times have changed. I remember reading about the Sapphire in either Autocar or What Car? This new Ford saloon was a big deal, with something for everyone from the entry level junior sales rep model to the luxury of a car with Ghia badges on its wings.

    Then came the Cosworth which would feature in the Tyneside TV Cop drama Spender. A car that in real life was as popular with ram raiders on Newcastle estates as it was with the people on the other side of the thin blue line. The Northumbria police force pressed ‘Cossies’ into service to catch stolen Sierras before they either ended up through Dixon’s window or burnt out on the disused railway lines that cross much of North Tyneside.

    Now people aspire to once exclusive German brands. Cars are now stolen to order with a lap top and an OBDII plug rather than a screwdriver and a short length of scaffolding pole. The cops have moved on too, riding around in cars bristling with cameras computers and Diesel engines.

    Happy Birthday Sierra Sapphire. A car from a different world.

  5. The boxier rear end of the Sapphire (a UK only name) was slightly out of sync with the curvier frontal stying, but overall it’s not a bad effort and shows how a saloon can be created out of a curvy hatchback

  6. Fantastic, my Dad had a 87 2.0 Ghia like the one in the picture but in grey. I learnt to drive in it aged 13 (not on the public road btw) and remember it was quite hard to reverse with the rear headrests restricting the view out so my dad insisted on teaching me to use the wing mirrors. Will always have fond memories of these, sadly can’t remember the last time I saw one on the road. The days when c120bhp and rear drive felt quite quick. Also had a 2 tier stereo with the amp below the radio cassette and the Ford joystick adjustment for speakers, brilliant.

  7. Another example of Ford providing a car for most people (those who didn’t need or want a Hatch or Estate). A useful fleet car too, before the trend towards crossovers & SUVs. I never drove a Sapphire but did drive a Sierra estate hire car which was nice back in 1986.

    Towards run out I remember the “Sapphire Classic” entry level model with white wheelcovers. Also had a ride in a client’s Sierra XR4x4 which went up the motorway like “stink”

  8. Cortina buyers were initially shepherded into Orions, before they came to the realisation that they were literally Escort saloons – a modern mk1/2.

    The Sapphire managed to look modern despite the aging base, the integrated roof gutters and the updated “wraparound” indicator/headlight units. The front was transplanted onto the hatchback Sierra to allow it to fight on, with Vauxhall-Opel readying the new aerodynamic Vectra ‘A’ / mk3 Cavalier.

    • Yes, I remember the Orion was launched in 1983 just after the Sierra hatch’s and at the time it was touted as a replacement for Cortina saloon lovers… albeit slightly smaller. The 1990’s Orion was eventually renamed Escort Classic saloon.

      • Had a 1992 mk5 Escort based Orion, terrible car, the name lived on for a short while after the 93 oval grille facelift, but not for long (94?) before it was just the Escort 4 door (which it was!).

        By this time the Astra saloon was mk3 and no longer had a distinct nameplate, nor did the new 4 door Mondeo (no more Sapphire).

  9. Lovely stuff. The last mainstream RWD family car. Mostly banger raced to extinction; blame the Sierra-only “Lightning Rods” formula.

    Make mine a 2000E in metallic blue!

    • I guess it depends on how you define mainstream, seeing that the likes of the 3 series and C class outsell the Mondeo these days!

      The latest Mondeo is over a foot longer than the Sierra, perhaps it’s not a surprise that sales of such vehicles have dropped away

      • I define mainstream in the normal, non-pedantic way 🙂

        The Sierra/Sapphire sold way more than the Merc 190 and BMW 3-series of that era. Wikipedia says 1.3m UK sales over a 12 year period.

        Am well aware that the Mondeo is outsold by the current 3-series and C-class; it gets mentioned *very* regularly here on ARonline!

  10. Funny, despite liking the Sierra very much (still fancy an XR4x4!), I always thought the Sapphire looked a bit odd.

    As an aside, I test drove a Sapphire Cosworth once and it struck me as driving like a very fast tractor – noisy, heavy and unwieldy although it did indeed go like stink. Still think the Cavalier Turbo was much nicer!

  11. My uncle occasionally had one from his works motor pool, before he qualified for a company car, but could borrow one when he needed it.

  12. The Sierra should have had a saloon option from the start, but fair play to Ford for creating the Sapphire, and by 1987 the Sierra styling in general had become less like a jelly mould. I quite liked these, as they were quieter and better looking than the hatchback, and in 1.8 Pinto form made a very good taxi or company car. Also by 1988, the van like 2.3 diesel gave way to a far batter 1.8 PSA turbodiesel, with over 110 mph and 50 mpg possible( my main criticism of the Pinto engined Sierras was the lowish fuel consumption compared with the Cavalier).

  13. Drove a modestly-sporting version back when they were current, felt as though it had springs but no dampers – not a patch on the Montego to drive.

    Best feature was the ability to carry 2-pint milk cartons (remember them?) in the hollow left when the rear armrest was down.

  14. I always thought the Sapphire looked good with the dark tinted rear light lenses (was that the Ghia version?).

  15. Oddly, the Sapphire did away with the metal rain channels that the hatch and estate continued with, so there was a different A pillar & roof arrangement.
    The door tops look different too !

  16. Was there a Sapphire ‘Chasseur’ which I vaguely remember (sounds more like a chicken dish!).

    Also the manager where I worked in 1994 had a fairly impressive purple Sierra Cosworth, complete with bonnet vents & boot wing..

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