In Memoriam: Ford Sierra 1.6 Ghia E-Max

Mike Humble takes another look at some of the less likely extinct cars in the UK, according to data supplied by the brilliant How Many Left? website based on DVLA data.

Pictures: Andrew Elphick and Words: Mike Humble

7: Ford Sierra 1.6 Ghia E-Max

In Memoriam: Ford Sierra 1.6 Ghia E-Max
The MK1 Sierra was so different it hampered sales for a few years.
Over the years, I have owned three Sierras – one of which I owned twice; but I will never forget my first Ford Sierra. Working as a media  logistics specialist in the North East of England and after a few weeks of hard overtime including most Sundays, I handed my money over after a negotiated discount and took ownership of a metallic red Sierra 2.3 Ghia. My friends were jealous and I had never felt as proud – and it joined the other Corgi models on the book shelf in my bedroom that I had bought with my paper-round money. The world was taken by storm and surprise back in 1980 with the Austin Metro, but people fell out of their chairs two years later when the Ford Sierra entered the public arena. Styled like nothing else at that time, it was met with mixed reaction with some people (myself included) in awe of its curvy style, while others were in complete aghast.

A truly massive advertising campaign in the press and the box ensued that the world knew about the new kid in town – who can ever forget the strains of Vangelis and Chariots Of Fire with the swooping helicopter shots of the Sierra XR4i. ‘Man and machine in perfect harmony’, was the tag line of the most expensive (at that time) 1983 TV advert. As quick as a flash, I peddled down to our local Ford Dealer – Skipper of Darlington, for a glossy brochure only to be told they had run out. My persistence paid off and I finally got one, my all time love of the SD1 was in risk of becoming second choice. I adored the aerodynamic look, the flush fitting headlamps, the epic bi-plane rear spoiler of the three-door XR4i and the way it paid no homage whatsoever to anything else on the market back in ’82.

The quiet suburban streets up and down the land back then were sprinkled with offerings such as Cavaliers, Marinas, Cortinas, Renault 18s and other varying three box saloon cars. Sales reps plied their wares in their Cortina 1.6Ls and everything seemed to have boot – to quote the great Huey Lewis, ‘it was hip to be square’. The Sierra changed all this but by no means was the car an overnight sales hit owing to Ford, quite literally, re-invented the wheel. Initial sales were slow as buyers rubbed their eyes trying to get a better view of the swooping jellymould shape and its tailgate that offered a cavernous luggage space. The wraparound cockpit design of the controls was an ergonomic masterpiece. There was nothing wrong with the cars, people just needed time to get used to it.

Buyers didn’t  have much to be worried about. Underneath its sleek body a range of improved existing engines and gearboxes were to be found, it was very much the case of same meat different gravy. Power units were the 1.3, 1.6 and 2.0 OHC ‘Pinto’ engines and a pair of Cologne built V6 plants, the carb-fed 2.3 and injected 2.8. The latter delivered 160bhp, and added real drama to the range. Finally, there was the 2.3-litre diesel.

Gearboxes were based on the excellent N-Series type, again, seen before in the Cortina and Granada with a five-speed unit on the XR4i. Revisions included electronic ignition on the 4 cylinder cars with vastly improved engine and gearbox mounts to improve refinement, to finally rid the car of its transmission vibration that so affected the Pinto-engined Cortina. The suspension was changed too, with simple struts up front and a clever yet simple fully independent set up working at the rear.

Body styles included a three- and five-door hatchback, closely followed with a stylish looking five-door estate. The interior was a world apart from the outgoing Cortina. Its facia was as curvy as the cars body offering a superb commanding view of all the controls and the roads ahead with extensive warning lights on the higher range that even told you if the washer fluid was getting low – features normally reserved for cars of a much higher class. Range-topping Ghia models boasted electric windows all round, central locking with torch key, a pump action pneumatic lumbar support fitted to the very smart front two tone velour seats and a full colour co-ordination of the interior plastics. Bob Lutz and his design team had produced an astonishingly good package that was also impressive to drive.

The 82 Sierra Interior was just as revolutionary as its exterior
The 82 Sierra Interior was just as revolutionary as its exterior

The first major revisions to the range came in 1984 which also coincided with Austin Rover introducing their new model in the family car sector – the Montego. New for this year, Ford introduced an economy-tune engine, called the E-Max, based on the 1600. At the same time, Ford dropped the slow selling 1.3-litre engine but introduced an interim 1800cc version to compete with the Cavalier, which was a roaring sales smash.

Some nifty engineering work made sure that all three engines shared the same crankshaft – so the 1.6 now had a smaller cylinder bore, yet a longer stroke. But this paid off with its maximum torque being developed further down the rev range. The E-Max unit had a computer programmed ignition system fitted with a Weber twin choke carburettor, and was otherwise known as the lean-burn engine. The XR4i was now the 2.9i XR 4×4 available in five-door form only.

A five-speed gearbox was standard and Ford engineers altered the rear axle ratio making high speed cruising came at lower revs, the power rating of 75bhp remained the same and the Sierra 1.6 E-Max could achieve 50mpg. General performance was not so good, the all new Montego 1.6 had more power (86bhp) better fuel economy (54mpg) and both the Cavalier and Montego were vastly quicker cars through the gears. In the defence of the Sierra, it was heavier & larger in comparison and as people became more accepting in aerodynamic cars – helped by the Audi 100/200 range – the Sierra soon far outsold the Austin and remained close behind the Cavalier Mk2. The styling of the Sierra never really dated as much as the boxy Vauxhall, or angular Austin – and some practical yet neat styling revisions both inside and out ensured the Sierra remained a good looking car.

Later developments introduced the excellent Cosworth making household names of racing drivers such as Andy Rouse & Didier Auriol.

Cosworth - A massive sporting and sales hit!
Cosworth - A massive sporting and sales hit!

The old yet durable Pinto engines were deleted by the early 1990s, and were replaced by a range of CVH 1.6- or 1.8-litre engines, while the popular 2.0 gained a chain-driven eight valve twin cam unit. The old bombproof Peugeot diesel was killed off, and became a 1.8 turbo diesel Endura unit.

None of these newer engines were as robust or reliable as the older generation engines, but by 1993 the Sierra was dead – long live the Mondeo. So once the seemingly everywhere Sierra along with its arch enemies – the Cavalier and Montego have quickly faded away with one model – the 1.6 E-Max Ghia, like other ’80s wonders such as the Phillips Video Disc or Sinclair ZX Spectrum, are now all but extinct.

But oddly only enough, it only seems like yesterday!

Mike Humble


  1. I doubt they will have sold many Sierras in that configuration in the first place. The vast majority of Ghia models had 2 litre engines.

  2. I had an early 1.6 Sierra, albeit in lowly L trim. It was incredibly reliable, good to drive, and had what is still one of the sweetest, slickest gearboxes I’ve ever experienced.
    Rot got it in the end. By its eighth birthday it needed the outer sills and the front crossmember by the radiator patching, and then it was just a case of fighting a losing battle with the tin worm. That and the TCA bushes which it used to eat within 18-24 months.
    The Pinto engine was bombproof though. I used to change the oil every 5-6000 miles and that was it. Just kept on going. 180k on it when I scrapped it, never needed the oil topping up between services, and not a single knock or rattle. It was one of those cars you could leave for a month in the depths of winter, jump in, touch the key and it would start instantly. I know all cars do that now, but they didn’t in the 80’s.

  3. Lol! I too had a Corgi Sierra – mine was metallic aqua……time is becoming kinder to the jellymould – or at least I am – I have a particular fondness for the basic models, with the slatted grille (especially the poverty spec 1.3 standard model – grey grille, steel wheels, one door mirror)…..A neighbour got a brand new, white 1.6GL as a company car in 1984 – I was gob-smacked by it – light years ahead of the Austin Ambassador my dad had at the time – I loved the interior – comfy and stylish seats, informative dash (all those warning lights – and a rev-counter – ARG take note!), and it went well too. It got even better at the ’85 facelift, when all models got the Ghia nose – all of a sudden it became, to my eyes at least, a stylish car, rather than an oddball. Would I have bought one though? Sadly no. My money would have probably gone on the other star of ’82, the Citroen BX – probably the last true Citroen before they all became even uglier Peugeots (Xantia and XM aside).

  4. I had an ’85 model 1.6L in the late ’80s. Nice car all round, but a slug on the motorway. It really needed the 5th gear it eventually received. The 1.3 must have been glacial! Hard to believe they’re disappearing when they used to be everywhere!

  5. Jonathan, my 83 1.6L had a 5 speed box. It was a (costly) option, IIRC. My dad had an 84 2.0 GL at the same time, which was a four speed. Hard to believe really.
    Excellent motorway car with the 5 speed box. Very little wind or road noise, and you could hold a conversation at anything under 80 without raising your voice.

  6. I had a 2.0 GLS, great seats, great dash, it drove really well with an excellent RWD chassis etc and had bucket loads of character. It was nippy in 2.0lt form and it did exactly what it said on the tin. I liked my Sierra, the only criticism I had was it wasn’t a XR4 X 4! The first generation Mondeo I had afterwards as a company car was devoid of all character, drove well and did everything it was supposed to do but fell short on charisma, at the time I called my washing machine!

  7. I remember the Sierra looked very space age when it was launched, even if a lot of the mechanicals were carried over from the Cortina.

    It’s mostly for that reason my Dad had Mk2 Cavaliers instead!

    My Uncle’s family had an ex-company one for a few years, & was still in good nick when they sold it for a Micra, my Aunt wanted a smaller car it was too expensive to insure my cousins on it.

    I do see a few Mk2 Sierras around but the earlier ones are really hard to spot. I’ve only seen 2 here in the last 4 years.

    Even in the older car haven that is Malta I only spotted 2-3, when it was easy to see early Metros & Mk3 Escorts in daily use.

  8. Had Sierra estates as a company car between 1987 and 1992, the last one being replaced by a Vectra in ’97. Loved them to bits.

  9. I had several Sierra models:
    Corgi approx. 1:60 5 door
    – White with “Golden Wonder” livery
    – Black and gold “Homefire” livery

    Corgi approx. 1:36 5 door
    – Black Texaco livery
    – Blue

    Matchbox XR4x4 approx. 1:58
    – White and grey 2 tone
    – White and black in “Shell Gemini” livery
    – Black Texaco livery
    – White and red “Virgin Atlantic” livery (must have been part of a special edition, but wouldn’t be too practical for an airport vehicle!)

    My dad had a Sierra as a company car for a while, I remember it was very “new” looking, and the angled centre console was very Saab, but he was dissatisfied with it. His company cars tend to be used as workhorses and so have to withstand considerable abuse over huge mileages.
    He took a leaf out of Simon Hodgetts’ book and went for the Citroen BX shortly after!

  10. Sierras? Love em, had several over the years from 1.6s through to V6s the 4×4 was a superb motor.

  11. Yes, The Sierra took some time to get accepted but by the mid 80s it looked better after the mild facelifts applied.

    My company changed from Cortina Estate’s to a Cavalier Estate which was faster. But on a job in Scotland (1985) we hired a Sierra 1.6L Estate and I was impressed by its finish and how it handled. Maybe they should have stuck with Ford’s.

  12. I have not seen a Ford Sierra 1.6 Ghia badged as an E-Max before or knew it extisted, its the sort name or spec found on todays current new Ford range of cars let alone the old Sierra.

    On the model and toy car front Majorette also made the very early in basic spec 5 door Ford Sierra mk1 with the slatted grille at 1:60 scale and corgi modeled the ghia spec.

  13. When you say they discontinued the “Slow selling 1.3 model” surely it would be more acurate to just drop the word ‘selling’?

  14. Still amazes me that you don’t see any Sierras left on the roads. A few older versions of every other car seem to have survived, but Sierras have all disappeared completely.

  15. @KC

    Sierras seem to have disappeared, although there is 1 taxi driver in Belfast who doggedly still drives one (not sure of engine but it is the post-facelift).

    In fact it is getting rarer to see any car from the 80s/early 90s (when was the last time you saw a mk1 Mondeo?). Perhaps a result of the lack of rust-proofing, cars not surviving big service/MOT bills in ‘banger valley’, Golden Brown’s destructive scrappage scheme and in the case of the Sierra, banger racers.

    Cortina mk5s seem to be bona-fide classics now, Sierras are climbing through the other side of banger valley and are starting to be regarded as such (although a browse through the local classifieds shows only 1 car – a modified ‘cosworth-style’ Sapphire.

  16. Awesome car that’ll always stick out from the history books as being a game changer.. very few cars have had the same scale of impact.

    The Focus came close, but included a lot of catch up.. The sierra was ALL new!

  17. These cars were everywhere once weren’t they! I never really took that much notice at the time, but I remember by neighbour’s ‘GL’ (Great prefix, why doesn’t anybody use it anymore?) and the string of warning lights above the clock, very impressed!

    I have to say though, the later saloons with the darker lenses on the rear lights (final facelift?) were really good looking cars

  18. I suspect a big part of the reason these are such a rare sight is that they were rotboxes. Inner and outer sills, front crossmembers, rear arches, floorpans, you name it. Mine needed new, and increasing amounts of welding for every single MOT from 8 years on.
    By contrast, a mate has a Peugeot 405 which celebrates its 21st birthday this year, and has never had a welders torch anywhere near it.

  19. For my 18th birthday weekend my parents hired me what must have been one of the first Sierra’s available. I was mobbed with people asking questions everytime I stopped all to a man mentioning ‘jellymoulds’ ‘new Cortina’ and aerodynamic drag factors. All I know is that it was faster than my MK2 Cortina and for some reason I felt the need to take the hubcaps off for brake cooling purposes! It survived 750 miles of my ham-fisted abuse from London to Milton Keynes and all over West Wales. Since then I’ve driven probably all of them from 2.3 autos to Cossie’s but none were as fast as that 1.6 4 speed!

  20. Yes the 1.3 Sierra was slow & slow selling! I drove a MK5 Cortina 1.3 hire car once and it was an eye opener after being used to 1.6 & 2 litre versions.

  21. I had a company Sierra 1.6LX in 1988. It was horribly slow, thirsty and poor handling in comparison to the Cavalier 1.6’s. You just could not keep it in tune. It had a real problem of continuing to run after they ignition was turned off, and also making a ‘pinking’ noise. As to rarity, I remember wandering round the NEC car park back in 1989 or thereabouts looking for my Red Sierra. Good luck, there must have been 500 in there. Amazing they have all disappeared.

  22. My 89 1,6L was possibly the worst car I ever owned, seriously sluggish, no power at all around town and motorways were a chore, and the MPG was never better than 25mpg, by the time it was 8 years old it had to be scrapped because of the rust… The Belgians cannot make cars! My later Mondeos were just as bad for the rust!

  23. Not a fan f Mr average cars but I have to say the Sierras I’ve had were some of the best cars I’ve owned for drivability. A B plate manual 2.3 Ghia (retro fitted with a 2.0L)sa the best, a couple of GLS Sapphires came after and I couldn’t really fault any of them..

  24. I am the owner of a showroom condition 100% untouched from new MK Sierra Ghia Wagon in burgandy. With only 73000 KMS on the clock. I call it a time warp vehicle. Looks as new and drives like it. I use it every day at the moment but in the past I have kept it tucked up in the garage.

  25. I used to drive a 1.6 laser for work back in 1990. It was slow, driven flat out most of the time.
    Handling was ok, but used to get buffeted about in the wind on the motorway.
    25mpg max and a clutch pedal with such a long travel that made your leg ache on long journeys.
    I had a 87 cavalier 1.8l (my own car at the same time) – it was like time travel (backwards – driving a sierra) – It put me off Fords for a very long time.
    On the positive side, it did 150k in 3 years with only routine maintenance (and still drove as badly as the day it came off the production line)

  26. I agree with your comments. I worked for a taxi firm in the late ’80s. The Montego 1.6L was the car we all used to fight over. A great driving position, excellent handling and plenty of power. The sierra 1.6 emax was a vastly inferior car to drive, it felt strangled and gutless with decidedly stodgy road characteristics and not economical at all. to get the 50mpg I think would involve the theoretical and impossible constant 56mph.
    A few years later I moved to a firm that ran sapphire 2.3Ds and cavalier mk2 1.6D, different story then. standard practise was to threaten to quit if you had to drive the cav, that was atrociously bad. absolutely no power. The later mk2 saph 2.3s were not a bad car, very comfy and although very slow were indestructible. I even bought one myself.

  27. While we’ve mentioned the 1.3 Sierras being near extinct, how many of the original 2.3 petrol ones are left.

    The also had a shortish production run.

  28. Comment 20 Ross A – July 26, 2011
    “I’M surprised there’s any 1.3 3-door variants left….”

    There are quite a few, but they’ve normally been fitted with bigger engines and a Sierra Cosworth lookalike bodykit.

  29. This car was the reason mig welders became so popular, believe it or not it was due to the sierras pre-stressed inner wings being repairable only in this method.

  30. I bought my Ford Sierra Saphire Azura 1600 year 1992 six
    years ago for two hundred pounds. I drive around 2500-3000
    miles a year and now it has done 89000 miles. I do my own
    engine maintainance,change the engine oil and filter every
    six months and the air filter and spark plugs every other year. Four years ago I checked the valve clearances,it was
    a simple job but when I saw the clearances were no more than two thou out I left them alone , replaced the cork gasket and put it back together. I tightened up the bolts holding the tappet cover on for a while. Occasionally I go
    on the motorway and at seventy miles an hour it is very smooth and quiet no wind noise. I keep a log of the work I do or have done and will keep this car as long as I can as
    it is a great motor for me and gets noticed too. There are
    a few Sierras about here , I notice them more because I have
    one . It is the basic model but with sunroof and rear spoiler and alloy wheels. In winter I press some grease into
    the joint on the sunroof top as it may let damp in.
    I look after my Sierra as well as I can and it runs well.

  31. My uncle had an 85 Sierra Xr4x4 in red with a blue and grey coachline stripes and a colour coded spoiler and bumpers. It was full of toys like electric Windows and Mirrors and had a 5 speed gearbox 3 band digital radio cassette with 4 way speaker fader, and was well looked after – always smelt new inside and went like the clappers, much like the 2.8 Injection Capri it replaced. Sadly in 1990 someone broke into his garage and stole it and was later found smashed up. It was repaired but the new smell was replaced with paint smells and the replacement panels rusted quickly so he cut his losses and got rid.

  32. I got a used 1.6L in 1996 and loved it. The angled dashboard was a work of genius. Sadly it had to go two years later when it failed the MoT thanks to rust – I couldn’t afford the repair bill. One other thing I remember about it was the right rear lights filling with water after heavy rain… I don’t know if that was a design fault but it was certainly odd.

    It’s amazing how Sierras have disappeared as they used to be *everywhere*. At one point there were something like 14 of them on the street in Enfield where my cousin lived.

  33. The sighting of a Sierra is certainly a rarity these days BUT if you spot a 2 seater sports kit car on the road, then the chances are it is a Sierra in disguise. For so many years now many of the “7” derivative kit cars use the Sierra as their donor car for engine,gearbox and final drive.

  34. A mate of mine had a very early Y reg black 2.0Ghia Auto back in about 1991- and although it was by no means new at that point it still look cutting-edge with its Citroenesque dashboard with illuminated pictogram to show when doors were open, etc, and the grey velour seats looks about a million years more modern than the beige brushed nylon seats I was used to in cars I had at that time (Talbot Alpine, Citroen Visa Club).

    Ok, it wasn’t particularly sophisticated mechanically, and the ride was appalling down the farm track we had to use to get to a farm bungalow he was rewiring (I was acting as ‘electrician’s mate’), but it had style in spades, which gradually became diluted in later years, with only the Saph Cossie cutting a dash towards the end (especially in metallic blue).

    I want one. Not any Sierra, just a mint 2.0 or 2.3 Ghia. In black.

  35. early ghias only had fr elec windows,no rear wiper and 4 speed even on 2.0 litre- taking the mick that is.
    1.6ghia estate short lived and v rare

  36. I bought a 1982 1.6 Ghia at the auctions for £50 back in 1999, lasted me two years and was still sound when I sold it (apart from the occasional waft of blue smoke that is!). It was frost green and had a 5 speed box (despite people claiming they had 4 speeders) and drove quite well, it was stupidly slow and thirsty though which is waht made me sell it. It was a German made example rather than the horridly rusty and shonkily made later Belgian ones so it was almost rust free and had all it original paintwork

  37. I have had 7 Sierras from my first 1989 2.0L DOC GLSi through to a XR4x4 and now a MK1 XR4i and for all their “issues”, the drive is fantastic and I can still out drive most modern cars. Not bad for a vehicle that is 29 years old at the time of typing with a rust free motor in great condition costing £1,400 and insurance on a 2.8 at under £220!!!!!

    Go buy one and keep em alive I say, the last truly affordable rear wheel drive car on the british market.

  38. Had a 1983 2.3 Ghia, a 1983 XR4i and a 1989 GLSi 4×4. I loved them all, in fact I’m on the lookout for a nice XR4x4 now.

  39. A very admirable page on the Ford Sierra. Congratulations!

    I’m looking forward to reading about some of the other Ford models, and no doubt some other cars from various manufacturers.

    A little against the tide of contributions to this great website, may I inquire what would be good sources for reading more about the politics and circumstances behind the three individuals who designed the Ford Sierra which you touched on in the article?

    The Ford Sierra was a wonderful car, regrettably succeeded by the Ford Mondeo which played safe and bowed to the then outdated desire for conservative design as people had then become accustomed to, and accepted what a great car the Sierra was.

    Finally, please do tell what the initials AR stand for.

  40. I still drive my sierra classic it is magenta with cosworth lattice alloys perfect in every way still looks like new I have owned three altogether absolutely love them !!

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