Raise a glass to : 40 years of the Ford Sierra

Ford Sierra advert - 1982

‘Man and machine in perfect harmony’. That’s what the ads told us. But it was in the beautiful photography that accompanied these memorable words that told us all we needed to know – Ford was getting brave. Ford had abandoned the smart conservatism that distinguished the Fiesta, Cortina Mk4 and Escort Mk3. Here’s to 40 years of the Ford Sierra, truly a case of man and machine in perfect harmony.

If you’re younger than, say, 30 years old, you might struggle to appreciate the effect the launch of the Sierra had on the national psyche on 22 September 1982. The British landscape was utterly dominated by the Cortina, which had been the best-selling car of the 1970s – sometimes taking up to 15% of the market by itself. Check out any streetscene from 1983, and there will be more Cortinas than you can shake a stick at.

Handsome and square-cut, and oh-so late-1970s, the Cortina defined an era. But more than that, its model structure reflected the career paths of many. So, replacing it was not going to be the work of a moment for Ford. We’ve painstakingly tracked the conception and birth of the Sierra in the site’s development story, so there’s no need to retrace that, other than to say that it was a monumental $1.2bn gamble for Uncle Henry that would end up having a huge effect on the firm’s future trajectory for at least a decade.

Ford Sierra 1982

Rewind to 22 September 1982, and the impact was enormous. Unveiled at the British Motor Show in Birmingham, the public was genuinely stunned by this highly aerodynamic motor. Had Citroën dumped one of its prototypes on the Ford stand? Hardly… The press would soon act as a real cheerleader for the new car.

CAR magazine spearheaded that and headlined its October 1982 issue with ‘SIERRA SHOCK! It really is a good car’. Steve Cropley summed-up his review: ‘Quite simply, Ford has done it all. It has 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.’

However, as we soon found out, the trouble was those millions only cottoned on in Britain after several years. Sales started slowly as customers resisted making the move the ‘Jellymould’, plumping for the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 instead. The pair would fight a battle royal for company car dominance throughout the 1980s, with Ford only gaining the upper hand following its far-reaching 1987 facelift, and the consequent arrival of the Sapphire saloon.

Ford Sierra XR4i - 1983

The two cars really were the polar opposite of each other. The Sierra retained many of the Cortina’s engines and its rear-wheel-drive transmission clothed in a svelte new body with a 0.34Cd aerodynamic drag factor. Mechanically, that seemed old hat. The Cavalier, on the other hand, had a ho-hum looking body, but all-new overhead cam engines and front-wheel-drive transmission. Initially, it seemed that Vauxhall had made the correct call.

These slow UK sales were big news for Ford. Considering the Cortina’s best years saw it beat 190,000 sales, the Sierra’s performance was half-hearted to say the least. In those early months, Ford reacted swiftly, introducing scores of improvements, uprated engines and new trim levels along the way – but the arrival of the facelifted model (below) was a masterful piece of perfectly-judged design.

Four decades on and the Sierra’s place in the pantheon of classic cars is signed, sealed and delivered. But it’s taken time. That aerodynamic styling meant that it clung on to modernity far longer than its rivals (and the Cortina), and that saw numbers on the road rapidly fall to endangered levels. However, the future for the Sierra is now secured, and not just because of the RS Cosworth’s competition success.

Ford Sierra Sapphire

The Sierra’s legacy is that it scared its maker into avoiding introducing another innovative-looking car until the brilliant Focus Mk1 in 1998. Uncle Henry would end up building the same-again Fiesta and Escort in 1989 and 1990, as well as the visually timid Mondeo Mk1 in 1993 (despite being a dynamic masterpiece), which would ultimately do far more harm to the company than the Sierra ever did.

So, here’s to the Ford Sierra. A car ahead of its time, and which still looks great to this day!

Ford Sierra UK sales 1982-1993

  • 1982 13,213
  • 1983 159,119
  • 1984 113,071
  • 1985 101,642
  • 1986 113,861
  • 1987 139,878
  • 1988 162,684
  • 1989 175,911
  • 1990 128,705
  • 1991 93,650
  • 1992 77,253
  • 1993 20,737
Keith Adams
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25 Comments

  1. I always thought the Mk2 Cavalier looked dull and boring – in contrast to the Mk1 which looked much better – so I liked the Sierra from the first day, as it looked much more interesting than the Cavalier. And with the various styling changes made to the Sierra during its life, it ended up a very good looking car.

    I’m still fascinated why very few Sierras seem to have survived. When was the last time you saw one on the road…there are far more Cortinas still driving around than Sierras.

    • Rust my friend. The cortina sold like hot cakes so they rarely had to be stored, unlike the Sierra which was a seller and so they use to sit in the yards and fields at the back of Dagenham exposed to all weather’s. I can recall my dad telling me of cars sitting out there with rusty bonnets, which he would go out and replace so they could ship em out.

  2. Early base model Sierras looked awful, with their grey grille, Ford going too far in differentiating the junior rep version!

    Wasn’t the 1994 Scorpio the next Ford with “brave” styling? Or pig ugly, to be more correct!

  3. @KC – I also preferred the MK1 Cavalier especially the Coupe & Sportshatch. I think the Sierra became a more pleasant car to look at in its final years after a facelift and Sapphire saloons introduced.

    • @ Hilton D, the Mark 1 Cavalier was a good car and started Vauxhall’s fightback in the UK, along with the Chevette. Always liked the Sportshatch and the 2000 GLS, a great motorway car that looked very nice with a vinyl roof. The Mark 2 moved things forward for Vauxhall, though, and really scared Ford.

      • I must admit I never saw any Cavalier MK1 with a vinyl roof, though such roof trim was very popular on most makes in the 1970s.

        • The fairly rare Cavalier 2000GLS had a vinyl roof as standard. When Ford launched the Cortina MkIII 2000E, I wrote to Vauxhall suggesting that they compete with a similarly top-end Cavalier, as the GL was their top-of-the-range which wasn’t that well equipped. Their response was that their order books indicated that they had the market sewn up. A few months later they launched their GLS!!

          • There is a feature on a Cavalier 2000 GLS with a vinyl roof on AR Online. They always looked good, in particular a black roof on a white car.
            By the time the Sierra arrived vinyl roofs had mostly gone out of fashion for new cars as the in thing to have was a sunroof.

  4. We tend to forget that the Cortina phenomena only existed in the UK. Ford viewed things from a European perspective and elsewhere the Cortina – badged as a Taunus sold in tiny numbers and had even less kudos than the Ital had in the UK. Also because the Cortina was in the main a fleet car it sold in the UK in bulk with tiny margins. So a car that only sold in volume in one of the European markets and with hardly any profit. Not a sustainable business model. The Sierra may have stumbled in the UK at launch but elsewhere it took off like a rocket. The only Ford that the German motor magazine Autozeitung considered better than the equivalent VW.

    • All generations of Cortina, shipped from Dagenham in CKD assembly kit form, sold like hot cakes in New Zealand. The Mark 3 and 4 diced with the BL1100/1300 line to top sales charts in the 70s despite determined challenges from the rising sun which had slowly been building market share since market entries in the 60s and 70s.
      The Mk3 arrived just as import restrictions on CKD kits were lifted and was the first to achieve its full sales potential. As in U.K., fleet buyers liked Cortinas but preferred two litre engines for repmobiles hence the availability of the 2000L spec, ultimately the most popular. Ford also expanded the trim level choice so there was something for everyone on the corporate ladder from junior rep to CEO.
      Sedan assembly ended in 1983, replaced by the Mazda 626 based Telstar after Ford changed its Asia-Pacific sourcing strategy. Estate cars continued into 1984 after ‘surplus’ KD kits were secured from Ford’s Cork plant. Sierra was introduced as a five variant estate car-only range as Mazda did not offer a Telstar wagon.
      On a market share basis, I’d argue Cortina was as successful in NZ as U.K. it was also assembled and sold in Australia and some Asian markets, even Japan.

      • The Cortina Mk4/5 & Taunus also sold reasonably well in some European markets, judging by the number of survivors.

  5. Always love a Sierra. My dad bought an early 83 model for less than the price of a Metro due to the distress selling discounts, he then had a 1.6 GL (with a cigarette light in the back!) 1984 B reg which he had for 18 months and covered 75,000 during that time. Absolutely bullet proof. Replaced by another 1.8L Sierra. After that, he bought a new Passat which my Montego used to regularly pull home due to fuel pump / clutch problems. Can’t beat a Sierra.

  6. I worked for a company that ran sierras At head office meetings the car park had 40 or 50 all red or blue 1.6ls Because the dealers had to sell a number they could be had at a considerable discount So much so that when one girl insisted on a Fiesta it was more expensive than the sierra

  7. I remember the Sierra seemed to be practically space age in looks when it was launched. The Dad of one of my Brother’s friends had an early one.

    We were a little disappointed when my Dad had a Cavalier as his next company car, but he preferred an FWD car & considered the Sierra to be a Cortina in fancy clothes.

    As mentioned above Ford kept improving the Sierra, and the 1987 restyle made it look a lot better, especially the Sapphire.

    By the mid 1990s a lot of the early ones were in banger territory & many were driven into the ground or cannibalised for spares. I remember one of my friends bought 2 cheaply in 1997 so he could use the parts from one to do up the other one.

  8. My Dad had a base model 1.6 Sierra for a few years. Could never understand why he bought it though. On the few occasions on which I drove it I disliked it intensely. It was coarse, slow, and meanly equipped. It also rusted with enthusiasm. He must have liked the way it looked I suppose. It was replaced by a Fiat Tipo 1.4. A much nicer drive I felt.

    • @ standhill, I was a passenger in a 1.6 base twice and thought exactly the same, it was cheap and nasty inside with few refinements and was noisy and sluggish. The owner traded it in for a Rover 214 Si, like moving up to a Mercedes as acres of cheap plastic were replaced by wood and high quality plastics and the car drove so much better and had much nicer seats. It was a case with the Sierra, like all Fords, the higher up the range you went, you obtained a much nicer car: the V6 versions were the business and light years ahead of the 1.6 Pinto.

  9. Ford made much of the aerodynamics of the slippery Sierra, even referring to the very smooth wheel hubcaps (as fitted to higher spec models). The base model just had exposed wheel nuts with no hubcaps, yet the published economy was identical. All media hype?

  10. My son bought a very very cheap Sierra late one Thursday night, checked the oil and water and left to tour France and Spain on the Saturday. The thing never so much as coughed – and was utterly reliable for thousands of miles. He was so impressed he later bought a Sapphire – another great car!

  11. The Sierra was a big vote of confidence for the Dagenham factory, when it was decided most rhd cars would be made at the factory, as production could quite easily have taken place at Genk in Belgium. By the time Sierra production ended at Dagenham in the autumn of 1989, Dagenham had become as productive as Ford’s German factories and the factory was chosen as the main assembly plant for the Mark 3 Fiesta. Unlike the seventies, Dagenham became largely free of strikes and its future became more secure.

    • I don’t think Ford would have dared switch production of such a key model for the UK out of Dagenham, back in 1982.

  12. @Graeme Roberts
    The Ford Sierra was never sold in Australia; the only examples hereabouts were those few non-streetable racing variants seen in our local Group A racing series.

    Instead Ford Australia replaced the slow-selling but otherwise pleasant Cortina ‘TF’ series (Mk5) with the Telstar sedan & 5-door Hatch, being a slightly restyled Mazda 626 FWD.

    Fwiw a good mate working for Repco ran a near new and fully optioned Cortina TF Ghia auto with the 4.1L 6 cyl alloy-head (ex Falcon) and gee it was an effortless, punchy thing to drive. I myself once owned a TC (Mk3) 250 cid 4-speed, also fun and fast – and not as bad or unbalanced as legend now rates them.

  13. @ Nota, the Sierra was probably too radical for Australian buyers, who preferred conservative four door saloons and estates at the time, although smaller Japanese hatchbacks were becoming popular. Possibly the only Sierra that could have sold would have been the XR 4X4, with the V6 and four wheel drive, that would have been a good car for rural buyers, or the P100 ute. Otherwise for those that wanted a Ford, it was the more conventional Telstar.

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