Replacing the Cortina was never going to be easy – it was a British icon, and a top-seller for more years than the company’s rivals care to mention.
That led Ford of Europe down the path of radicalism… and as we all know, customer resistance soon followed. However, the ending was a good one.
By Andrew Elphick, Mike Humble and Warren Loveridge
Streamlining the future…
It seemed that everybody loved the Cortina just a little too much. It did everything you ever needed a car to do, if only averagely. Pleasing Coke bottle inspired styling allied to simple rugged mechanicals combined to create a car that everyone wanted, the car ‘for Mr Average’. In one word, ordinary. However, in September 1982 shock waves were sent across the nation’s suburban driveways and motorway service stations. What was this ‘Jellymould’?
The joint Cortina/Taunus replacement Sierra, aka Project Toni, exploded onto the scene and, for many long time fans of the Blue Oval, it was too hard to stomach. Publicly Ford was proud of its cutting edge design, but behind closed doors management heads were rolling even before the new car’s honeymoon period had ended…
The man in the street was not alone in his bewilderment – back in early 1978, Ford’s American management was just as startled. Did its European cousins actually intend to market a car that looked like a motor show special to the fleets? After all, this was the Ford Motor Company, purveyors of solid sensible transport, not some exotic European carrosserie. If you wanted cutting edge, you visited Citroen, surely? And just one year before, the NSU Ro80, along with the NSU marque, had sailed into history – a victim of its own misguided reach for the skies.
According to Ford’s Robert Lutz: ‘I gave him (Don Peterson) a small sketch to put in his pocket on his return to the US and inscribed on it the words “view daily until familiarity is achieved”. It worked.’
However, by coincidence, Giorgetto Giugiaro tipped the balance towards the successful signing-off of the Toni project in its most advanced form. Unveiled at that year’s Turin motor show, the Isuzu Piazza prototype had been very well received; enough for the Ford boardroom to give its own new ‘aero-look’ model the go ahead. Within two years, the Sierra was was signed off, and Ford management had been encouraged along the way by praise heaped on Giugiaro’s similarly sleek Lancia Medusa concept, a four door aerodynamic hatch-cum-supercar.
A total of $1.2bn had been set aside to develop, engineer and produce the car and its assembly lines. Robert Lutz (who would become Ford’s European chairman by the time of the Sierra’s launch) handed the reins of the Sierra project to Ford’s Vice President of Design, Uwe Bahnsen, a man who enjoyed sleek fastback designs, if the model Rover SD1 that graced his desk was anything to go by. It was something that would haunt in him the future.
Beneath him, Ray Evertz assembled a team of designers for Bahnsen, among them an ambitious young designer called Patrick Le Quement, the man responsible for the Cargo truck cab. Perversely, although several alternative proposals were created for the Toni, the original proposal was deemed right from the start.
The Sierra had been developed without prior knowledge of the C3-generation Audi 100’s highly aerodynamic shape, which made aerodynamics de-rigueur. Of then-current production models, the Sierra’s drag coefficient of 0.34 had only been beaten by the Porsche 924 and Citroen GS. And as for its middle market rivals, no-one had come close to that figure.
Referred to as an ‘aeroback’ design by its creators on account of its bustle at the rear, the Sierra sported a similar body shape to the recently launched Escort Mk3 (known internally as Erika). The later XR4i improved on the standard car’s Cd figure by incorporating sculptured side panels to control air resistance across the wheel faces, as well as its iconic bi-plane rear spoiler. The result was a very impressive Cd of 0.32.
Having said that, no production Toni could come close to matching the Sierra ‘taster’ prototype – the Probe III – of 1981. But, then, that did feature overtly aerodynamic features including Citroenesque enclosed rear wheels, and integrated door mirrors (which would appear on the production 1988 Probe coupe). That car’s Cd was 0.25, although its main raison d’etre was to soften-up buyers hooked on the Cortina, selling them the idea of its sleek new replacement.
This revolution in mainstream car styling was impressive enough for the Sierra to be displayed in England’s Victoria and Albert museum during 1982.
With added dash…
However, so as to not scare traditionalists, both a stylised finned grille and a flush nose cone (complimented with built-in driving lights) were offered, defining the range topping Ghia and XR4 models as objects of desire. All this was finished off with full flush wheel covers – the first European Fords to feature them.
The inside story was far more conventional, despite tipping the nod to the ergonomic command centre style of dash layout favoured by Saab and BMW. Another unusual step was the use of two different dash mouldings depending on specification: GL, Ghia and XR4i models were deeper and gained the Fischer C-Box cassette storage system and a four-way joystick fader control for the stereo system (both big sales draws in 1982).
The integrated warning displays on these plusher models (previously the domain of executive cars), alerted the driver of low fluid levels and brake pad wear. Additionally, the Ghia and XR4i models featured a vacuum fluorescent display alerting the driver to such dangers as lamp failure, doors ajar or freezing outside temperatures. No big deal today, but stepping into this from a Cortina must have seemed like a massive advancement. The stylised door panels with triangular moulded door latches/grab handles were an innovation too. All in all, it was quite pleasant, but as Uwe Bahnsen conceded at the launch, not so extreme as to frighten traditional Cortina/Taunus purchasers.
‘The Cortina’s dead – Long live the Cortina!’ screamed the headlines, when the Sierra finally made a bow on the 25 September 1982.
And right they were to do so, because under that memorable styling beat a very conventional heart. There were no surprises or radical shocks in the technical specifications; the main improvement over its progenitor was the addition of independent rear suspension (aping that of the Granada). Up front, the tried and tested McPherson struts were complemented by an anti-roll bar fitted behind the struts.
That independent rear suspension layout consisted of an upswept over-axle cross member which carried the differential casing (itself to be used on the upcoming 1985 Granada Scorpio). Each driveshaft was supported by a coil sprung trailing wishbone, with a self-levelling system available as an option for the estate model.
Rack and pinion steering featured optional power assistance, and the brakes were a standard mixture of discs and drums. A pressure-sensing relief valve was fitted to prevent the rear wheels locking under heavy braking applications, and all models above 2.0-litres gained ventilated front discs. All very conventional.
The engines were pretty familiar, too. The range comprised of the overhead camshaft Pinto four-cylinder and Cologne V6 units. Simple, effective and lusty (in larger capacity guises), they were capable of a service life of well in excess of 100,000 miles, even if the Pinto often required replacement camshafts at high mileage.
Available in 1.3-, 1.6- and 2.0-litre forms, the Pinto featured electronic ignition and revised cast exhaust manifolds in its new home. The Cologne V6 engine was available 2.0 (in Germany), 2.3- and 2.8-litre capacities, and was fitted with fuel injection to aid the XR4i model’s sporting pretensions. An economical but sluggish Peugeot 2.3-litre four cylinder diesel could also be specified, but only if you were a masochist.
Transmission was by four- or five-speed manual (both boxes derived from the slick Type E ‘rocket box’), or a trusty three-speed automatic.
Unfortunately the Sierra didn’t click with buyers, and sales fell well below expectations. Scalps were inevitably sought.
Uwe Bahnsen became the scapegoat for the whole Toni project, and eventually left Ford for good. Stylist Patrick Le Quement also left the Merkenich studios (initially to Detroit) instead of succeeding Bahnsen as head of Ford design in Europe – the expected career path for someone who’d been responsible for the company’s hugely important mid-liner – a clear reflection of the Sierra’s underwhelming market performance.
But Le Quement would go onto greater things, becoming the figurehead of Renault’s design renaissance during the 1990s. Uwe Bahnsen ended up teaching at the Art Centre College of Design in Vevey, Switzerland. Sierra mastermind Robert Lutz made the Ford board of directors, but in 1986 left for Chrysler after having been reprimanded for the lacklustre take-up of the Merkur brand in the US, ironically spearheaded by a federalised version of the Sierra XR4i.
Even though the public was reluctant to embrace the Sierra, Ford’s PR department was pulling out all the stops, with the press seemingly in agreement of its advances.
Four-page colour advertisements were placed in all the major national papers, the Readers Digest and the TV Times (where a complete catalogue fell out at your local newsagents). Billboards and posters sprung up, and 60-second commercials were aired, soothingly telling you that the Sierra was ‘Man and Machine in Perfect Harmony’. Your local toyshop would even sell you an accurate 1:36 scale Corgi model. In short, unless you lived in a cave, Warley’s marketing team made sure everyone knew there was a new kid on the block.
The press gave rave reviews too. Car magazine headlined its October 1982 issue with ‘SIERRA SHOCK! It really is a good car’. Steve Cropley summed-up his review, ‘Quite simply, Ford have done it all. They have built an all-new car which breaks all ties with feeble old Cortina, yet takes over those components which it was not possible (or affordable) to rebuild. It thoroughly deserves the tag “modern” and more to the point, it is thoroughly worthy of the eventual millions who will buy it.’ The trouble was those millions only cottoned on in Britain after several years.
In Germany, sales looked healthier, and the Sierra was out-selling the Taunus by a factor of 3 to 1. It was possibly helped by the simultaneous arrival of the Audi 100 (at the Paris Salon premier both models were on adjacent stands), which also helped sell the benefits of aerodynamic design to the masses. Ostensibly, the launch of the 4×4 model (developed by Ferguson Formula Development) and ABS were delayed because the Sierra had had more than plentiful media exposure. Or so the PR department would have us believe…
But the real problem in those early months was the Cortina. Dealer bonuses designed to clear stock offered as much as £550 off a car – 10% of the list price of a Cortina 1.6 L. This meant that combined with dealer mark-up, a discount of up to 30% could be obtained, meaning that you could have a Cortina Ghia on your drive for the price of a base Sierra. Customers wanted the future but were swayed by the price of the past and the Blue Oval’s army of smooth-talking sales people. Ultimately there were just too many unsold Cortinas stockpiled throughout 1982 and into 1983.
Ford panicked and, worried that its precious 30% market share of the British market was vanishing, introduced a booted Escort known as the Orion, a less-than-subtle nod to those conservative buyers who couldn’t get into bed with the Sierra and were tempted to go knocking on the door of Vauxhall with its ultra-successful second-generation front-wheel-drive Cavalier.
However in 1987 Ford grew the Sierra family, finally giving the sales rep the saloon that he knew he always wanted. The aeroback was finally to be joined by the Sapphire.
From Aeroback to Notchback
February 1987 saw the UK launch of the Sierra Sapphire. The slightly twee name denoted the new three-box Sierra, and ushered in the arrival of the facelifted hatch and estate models.
Visually just a little smoother, the new cars featured more than 77 new or altered body stampings, and together were enough to give the Sierra a more palatable style that drew it close to the range-topping Scorpio model. The big difference between the hatch and saloon was the boot and bonded rear windscreen, a major technical advance that rival Austin-Rover had perfected three years previously at Cowley. Looking a little closer, the roof (a nod to the second generation Astra/Kadett) sported integrated flush drip rails, and the overall length of the car grew by 40mm. Implementing these changes cost Ford a cool £228m.
A nod to Britain’s conservative buyers saw one unusual change to the Sapphire model – a radiator grille. A bonnet 50mm shorter meant a pseudo plastic grille was fitted, easily differentiating the two cars in the motorway overtaking lane. Interestingly, no other European car followed suit with this largely pointless demarcation. In total, over 1200 new parts were required for the facelift, mainly electrical, with electronic engine management and electronic Teves ABS filtered down from the Scorpio, as was the Triplex heated front windscreen. Security was upped with the introduction of six-lever Chubb locks to deter car thieves and appease insurance groupings. Further technological advances would be announced in November 1987, with the launch of the notch bodied Cosworth…
For the 1988 model year, Ford dropped the weak performing 1800 Pinto in E-Max tune in lieu of a new 1796cc CVH engine, which was coded the R2A engine. This new alloy head engine featured novel ideas such as hydraulic tappets with rollers to prevent excessive wear of the camshaft, longer service interval requirements and a water heated inlet manifold/carburettor promising good fuel economy.
The physical size of the engine was much smaller that the Pinto unit it replaced. Routine servicing was a breeze and as a result, the engine was considerably lighter than its predecessor, thus losing its nose heavy feel in hard cornering. The engine was quieter, more powerful and had a reasonable turn of speed. Soon after launch, demand outstripped supply from both fleet and retail customers. Vauxhall and Austin Rover had moved the goal posts in the engineering stakes and Ford now had a product to go to battle with.
But Ford didn’t stop there…
The 1989 model year saw the end of the 2-litre Pinto units in the Sierra with the launch of an all new alloy head twin cam engine available in twin choke carburettor and fuel injected guises. Although the old single cam engine was utterly reliable and well known the world over as a robust power unit, Ford had slipped behind the competition in the power stakes against Vauxhall’s Family Two and Austin Rover’s 16-valve M-Series engine. Both trade and retail customers were demanding technology and performance, and no longer was the family car seen simply as a repmobile and packhorse.
Continuing the Ford tradition of a crossflow head, this new power unit featured twin camshafts but only the traditional eight valves. A whole new adaptive and diagnostic engine management system kept the engine in tune and peak performance with minimal attention, while all routine servicing was simple to undertake, keeping time in the service bay to a minimum.
Ford’s Diesel Dilemma
In the late 1980s Ford also took the opportunity to ditch the harsh and unrefined 2.3 litre Peugeot-sourced diesel engine and replaced it with its own 1.8-litre Endura D unit as fitted to the Fiesta, Escort and Orion. In the Sierra however, it was only offered in turbocharged form. While no match for the Peugeot 405 and Citroen BX in performance or even economy, it was nevertheless light years ahead of the Sierra’s old pushrod 2304cc oil burner. Within 18 months, Ford had offered a bundle of new engines to keep the Sierra in the top ten sales chart – and the strategy had worked a treat.
Some revitalised models came into stream for the 1990 model year, namely two repmobile specials, the upgraded LX and GLX. The former was identified by its two-tone paint job and neat boot spoiler. In keeping with a constant programme of modifications, the Sierra was treated to little revisions such as lowered ride and tighter bushes to make the car feel nimble on its feet. Interior wise, the classic ‘wrap round cockpit’ stayed pretty much the same albeit with a new chunky steering wheel with adjustment for reach as well as rake.
Ford knew that by the early ’90s the Sierra was living on borrowed time, so a massive advertising push was made to raise the profile of the Ford portfolio. Riding on the back of massive motor sport success with the ever conquering Sierra RS Cosworth, Ford teamed up with Queen lead guitarist Brian May, who slightly altered the wording of a not so well-known album track, Driven By You.
The advertising slogan Everything We Do Is Driven By You soon became a virtual household phrase thanks to an epic one minute TV commercial, and all new Ford cars sported the slogan in their rear window.
The Mondeo was in the pipeline, but owing to the ever improving opposition, Ford’s market share was at risk. Between 1991 and the final examples reaching the showroom in 1993, a series of steady improvements and tastefully executed revisions made sure that the Sierra remained in the public eye and on the road. To keep production costs down, Ford changed the dashboard and used a cheaper but better looking one-piece moulding. More importantly during the crime-ridden early ’90s, security systems were added across the range. In the looks department, a subtle new grille and colour-coded bumpers were added across the range, along with some run out special editions called the Azura, Chasseur and Quartz.
All in all, Ford’s marketing department knew what it was doing. Until the very end, the Sierra held its own in the top ten, remaining popular until its demise, with very few unsold examples lingering after the launch of the Mondeo.
Sierra in service
As far as engineering and reliability were concerned, the Sierra was a good solid car right from the outset. The powertrains and gearboxes were carried over in modified form from the Cortina, giving no headaches to workshop staff or fleet managers. Its simple all round independent suspension was simple yet well designed, with only the track control or compliance bushes being a weak link.
The Sierra was an expensive car to design and Ford made some silly mistakes as the company’s bean counters looked at ways of saving money. From mid-1986 to late-1987 Ford decided to assemble its body shells using panels of recycled steel. Stories of door skins and wings simply rotting away within two years were no myth and this affected all Ford cars and light commercials around this time. These cars were known within the motor trade as ‘D-for-doom’, referring to rusty D-reg cars that were common place. This penny-pinching act went on to cost the company millions in warranty claims.
Moving on to the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ford’s later power units were not exactly top notch either. The 1.8-litre CVH engine, unique to the Sierra, was having massive problems with oil consumption owing to poorly designed valve stem seals. It was very common to see these cars leaving a trail of blue smoke behind. Other issues with this engine included poor quality pistons resulting in small end failure and eventual total engine destruction.
The 1.8-litre unit soon developed into a decent engine thanks to modifications in service, but big problems continued with the larger 2.0-litre twin-cam engine. Premature timing chain failure, timing gear problems, cracked exhaust manifolds, spark plugs seizing into the cylinder head and even head gasket failure dogged the twin-cam unit. As the 1.8-litre became good, the 2.0-litre fast became known as fragile and troublesome. Fitted to the 2.0-litre was a new gearbox known as the MTX. This alloy-cased all-synchromesh gearbox was far from being as sweet-changing and durable as the N-Series Cortina-derived gearbox it replaced.
When Ford tried to make an impact with new technology, it lost out on reliability. Aggressive marketing and heavy discounts kept the Sierra in the frame, but in its last year of production Vauxhall was chipping away at Ford’s fleet market share with its MK3 Cavalier. Ford rode out the problems by teasing the public with the launch of the Mondeo quite a while before it was launched, thus deflecting criticism of the old car by exciting everybody with the up and coming new models.
The Sierra gave way to the Ford Mondeo in 1993, and after what seemed like an eternity in production (in fact just over 11 years), the new front drive world-beater from Ford soon turned the image of the Sierra from a car for all people into an also-ran used second-hand bargain. Numbers still left in daily use are fast dwindling but the Ford Sierra will always be known by one of its early advertising slogans…
Man And Machine… In Perfect Harmony
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.