To quote David Grohl of Foo Fighters fame (the nice man of rock), I have a confession to make: I like the Ford Sierra. It took 14 years after its launch for me to really appreciate it, though. Being the age that I am, I grew up loving and worshipping cars that were designed with a ruler and a set square, rather than in a wind tunnel. I was 10 when the Sierra landed into our local Ford dealer – Skippers, and I was aghast at what I saw compared to the seemingly immortal Cortina.
Until the mid-1990s, I had driven plenty of them and even worked – for a brief period – on the spanners at a huge family owned Ford dealer. But the Sierra still didn’t flick my switch, as t’wer, until I actually took the plunge and bought a four-year old 1.8 GLX five door in Tasman blue in the back end of 1996. Piling on the mileage from day one, I grew to respect the well thought out cockpit, love the supportive front seats and adore its ability to soak up motorway miles with comfort, economy and credible refinement.
Looking back, it’s easy to understand why the Sierra did so well in both fleet and retail even after a shaky start, it really was a car for all people with all budgets. Bereft of any real character or excitement in the cooking models, the Sierra was in essence, a steel umbrella if you like, an essential tool akin to something like a can opener or a disposable razor – something you never ponder over but depend on day after day.
The Sierra excelled by being very average, or in other words, by doing nothing badly but by doing everything as its design intended. But by 1984, the Sierra was hopelessly outclassed by home spun rivals like the Cavalier and Montego in terms of performance, economy, servicing costs and even passenger space. Yet, the Montego gained a reputation quickly for shonky quality and hopeless reliability, while the early Mk2 Cavalier had cylinder head components made from toffee. The Sierra simply built up momentum and got on with the job with no real fuss to speak of.
Unlike the Montego, which had the ludicrous idea of a different engine design for every capacity, Ford equipped the Sierra with everything from the 1.3 to the 2.0 with a single design family of OHCs – known in the trade as the Pinto. Far from being the benchmark for efficiency and refinement, the Pinto was developed into a range of fairly hardy and dependable engines. Yes they became a bit knocky and tappety after a while, but that was more often than not down to poor maintenance than anything else.
Ultra high mileage examples were commonplace and completely life expired engines would just keep going on and on seemingly forever belching out clouds of blue smoke akin to a two stroke moped and simply refusing to die. But by the late-’80s, the Sierra was so behind the rivals in terms of technology and power, it was becoming a bit of a joke – so the economy-special 1.8 ‘E Max’ was replaced with an all-new CVH engine known as the R2A in 1988. The 2.0 Pinto was then replaced the following year.
The new 2.0 plant was, just like the Pinto, a four-cylinder unit with the same bore and stroke layout with eight valves – but here is where the similarities ended. A DOHC alloy cylinder head was introduced, driven by chain rather than rubber belt, and both efficiency and performance were on a par with mainstream rivals. Designated ‘i4’ this engine was available in twin choke carburettor or Bosch fuel injected tune. It was then coupled with a brand new gearbox design in a hope to pull back flagging sales especially from Vauxhall’s superb Mk3 Cavalier.
Whereby the Pinto looked ancient and decrepit when popping the bonnet, the i4 looked imposing and modern packing almost every spare inch of space in the engine bay. Sales of the 1990 Sierra range picked up as a result, but it didn’t take long before the lack of development funding and some terrible news of reliability were banded around the motor trade. Ford had rather hastily developed this engine knowing the Mondeo and Zetec products were a few years away, so the i4 was designed and built on the cheap.
Some truly awful problems dogged the engine soon after launch. Issues such as stretching or snapping timing chains were commonplace. The cooling system was prone to furring and blocking, which led to overheating which would also blow the cylinder head gasket just for good measure. It was also known for the head to crack in extreme cases, and sometimes the spark plugs would simply seize into the head when over tightened or overheated – it was a truly awful engine for such a high volume maker.
Just like earlier Pinto models, the oil spray bar was prone to blocking on cars using the wrong oil or subject to poor maintenance. Though whereby the Pinto was resilient to abuse, the i4 would quickly destroy its modern hydraulic tappets and at worst, ruin the delicate machined alloy cam bearings pretty much rendering the engine as scrap. But to put things into context, a well serviced and cared for twin cam Sierra was dependable in daily use – but these cars were packhorses not thoroughbreds, especially in fleet use.
The Sierra also gained a new gearbox for the 2.0-litre engine, which was far from as slick-shifting nor hard-wearing as the previous ‘N’ series based box of old. Designated the ‘MT-75’ this new transmission featured a weight saving alloy casing and reverse gear synchromesh but suffered from a rubbery shift quality and often failed at relatively low mileages. This was a real shame, as both the Cortina and earlier Sierra featured a sweet and light short throw gearchange – the trademark for all older generation Ford RWD cars.
Towards the end of production, the Sierra ended up with a confusing range of four cylinder engines. The 1.6 ‘Pinto’ was changed to a 1.6 injected ‘CVH’ that bore no similarities to the larger 1.8 ‘CVH R2’ unit, thus meaning that the three four pot petrol engines each had their own separate engine type. This was slightly amazing considering its replacement was little more than 18 months away – the 1.8-litre turbo diesel and 2.9-litre V6 petrol models remained unchanged to the end of production in 1993.
After the Sierra bowed out, Ford developed the i4 engine into a 2.3-litre and fitted it into the Galaxy MPV model. One would have thought that engineering matters would have been cured, but the same old issues of timing chains and engines simply blowing apart also dogged this models reputation within the trade. This was a real shame as the engine ran quite sweet while offering a credible balance of power/economy when performing as required.
I owned a twin cam too, a 1992 GLSi Sapphire bought from a private owner, and formerly a Hertfordshire Police CID car. It came with full service history and never once missed a beat. But after selling it onto a work colleague two years later, who thrashed it and abused it, the poor thing subsequently blew up. After buying it back and fitting a second hand engine, I resold it again making a slim profit – but the twin cam was a pain to work on being the complete opposite to the Pinto which was a joy to wield a spanner on.
Amazingly, though, the Sierra remained popular right up to the death bell tolling in 1993, partly thanks to Ford’s all-conquering publicity and marketing department allied with the halo effect of the superb Cosworth model. The memorable ‘Everything we do is driven by you’ campaign had the public tripping over themselves to the local Ford dealer, proving that if anyone could make a silk purse from the proverbial Sows ear – Ford could do it every time.
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