The first, the last
Ford Sierra and all that’s behind it
When released, its hyper-streamlined shape was breathtaking and the interior looked very modern. The dashboard with backlit instruments and switches was built around the driver. Even the doorhandles looked like something out of a science-fiction movie. On the other hand, the engines were old friends of Ford drivers around the world: none of them were new developments. The most popular petrol one had even been used in the infamous Ford Pinto of the early 70's. Still, the Sierra was anything but a Taunus/Cortina in a new, modern dress.
Patrick le Quément, President of Design, born in Marseille in 1945 and at Ford since 1968, was the leader of project „Toni”. Le Quément together with Ford Europe's vice president of design, Uwe Bahnsen, was responsible for the Sierra. The public first saw the shape of the future family sedan – actually a five-door aeroback – in 1981 when Ford revealed the Probe III at the Frankfurt Motor Show. This concept car was way too modern for an everyday car, but as it later became clear, the silhouette and several details were very close to the real Sierra reaching the showrooms in 1982. The Probe III was probably there to shock the Taunus/Cortina-driving average public: the Sierra was almost conservative compared to it.
Aerodynamics was the keyword when developing the new family car. The engineers and designers worked hard to make the car more fuel efficient, better to drive and more cost-effective to produce. To achieve all this, Ford people in Cologne spent over 2.8 billion Deutsche Marks (approximately the same amount in dollars today) for the development of the Sierra. Searching for the most aerodynamic shape, Heinz Ostendorf and his team spent more than 75 days in the wind tunnel testing all the design ideas. People were working hard in the Daimler-Benz Windkanal in Stuttgart, as they were guests in the facility, and only the costs of renting it amounted to 1.2 million Deutsche Marks. Every idle minute spent there was like throwing money in the huge fans of the wind generator.
The engineers succeeded, the car finally achieved a drag coefficient of 0.34, and adding a vertical tear-off edge to the estate's rear door neutralized its sensitivity to side winds. But being aerodynamic is not everything, the body also had to protect the passengers. Finite element calculations were just the beginning. “Jutta” in Köln and “Cyber 126” in Dearborn, two supercomputers of the time, were connected to do the maths. Using the high-tech computers to simulate the crash of a Sierra, made up of 11,600 elements, saved time and material, but 100 cars still got sacrificed for crash tests, road tests, and the corrosion test carried out in a salt-sauna.
The interior also had nothing in common with the Taunus/Cortina. At its time the dashboard was aid to be like an airplane's cockpit with all the instruments and controls facing the driver. High-spec models had a vacuum fluorescent display to alert the driver of any doors ajar, defective light bulbs and low outside temperature. A board computer was also available, giving information about fuel consumption and range. It even had a stopwatch. Electric windows, power steering, central door locking and other equipments were available for the car, which was not very common for the class in those days.
Although the engines and gearboxes were old friends of the engineers, the suspension was a new design. The Taunus/Cortina had a live axle in the rear. The Sierra's new independent rear suspension performed better and even had 40 kg less unsprung mass. The front suspension was a new design too, using MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar fitted behind the struts.
With these improvements to the body and with other components, like a new electronic ignition system, even the old engines performed better and got more efficient. The same engines used in the Taunus/Cortina made the Sierra faster by 20 kph and its fuel consumption dropped by 15 percent. For a short period of time, the 1.3 litre engine was the standard in some markets, but in general the range started with a 1.6 litre. 75 PS petrol. A 90 PS two litre V6 was also available, but the 2.0 inline four was more popular. You could even opt for the top-of-the range 2.3 V6 petrol and a 2.3 diesel. The 2.8 litre V6 was only available for the XR4i, which was not just the fastest Sierra with a 3 door coupé body, but was also meant to replace the legendary Ford Capri.
The XR4i, a strange 3-door but three side-window model with the iconic bi-plane rear wing was sold in Europe and the US, too. It had the 2.8 litre V6 Cologne engine for the European market, whereas the US version – sold as Merkur XR4Ti – was fitted with a 2.3 litre turbocharged in-line four. In South Africa the XR8 was top of the range, and only 250 were made for homologation. Never available outside SA, using a 209 PS 5.0 litre Mustang engine it was the biggest and most powerful Sierra until the Sierra RS Cosworth came out in 1985. This turbocharged, two-litre monster paved the way for several racing legends later. For that one Cosworth developed the Pinto-based engine, but Ford had to order at least 15,000 units. The original Sierra Cosworth project planned to use 5,000 of them, but production stopped at 1,653 cars. So the facelifted 4-door sedan also had a Cosworth version – even available with 4WD. The latter Escort RS Cosworth (which only looked like an Escort but in reality was a Sierra underneath, having a shortened floorpan) used the same YBD engine and 4WD drivetrain until 1996.
The Sierra was not easily accepted by the Cortina owners in the UK, where it sold below expectations. The company soon found the scapegoats: Uwe Bahnsen had to leave Ford's Merkenich R&D development centre, and even Patrick le Quément left Ford Europe, soon becoming the head of Renault's design team responsible for, amongst others, the Twingo, the Mégane, even the Vel Satis and the Avantime. Ironically, with almost 1.3 million units during its 11 years of production, the Sierra became the 10th most popular car ever sold in Britain. In Germany the Sierra was selling very well right from the start, about three times better than its predecessor, the Taunus. Looks like the Germans were either more open to new things, or were subconsciously aware of what co-designer Peter Horbury had pointed out: the Sierra's design drew on the Porsche 928, one of the most aerodynamic sports-car of its time.
Sierras are endangered species. These cars were groundbreaking when they came out in 1982. I remember kneeling on the rear seat of our family car, playing with a Matchbox car on the rear window shelf when I spotted the first Sierra in 1983. (Yeah, at the age of nine I was an Evel Knievel - no child seat, no belt, nothing. In fact those cars did not even have rear belts.) The Matchbox fell out of my hand, that's how shocking the car behind us was to me – a silver metallic drive with no grille, huge plastic bumpers and aerodynamic wheel covers. If the Sierra was a very unusual sight in Germany, guess what it looked like behind the Iron Curtain.
But today it's very different. The car has had a very long production period, was given one major and one minor facelift, and was sold in huge numbers. They were used and abused, cheap to buy second-hand, and most of them only received the necessary maintenance or even less. The last ones left the showrooms 20 years ago, the first ones are now over 30 and could be ready for classic car registration. But specimens in decent condition are hard to find.
Early Sierras, also known as Mk1s, are the rarest. Only a few dozen of them can be found on major advertising web pages even in Germany, where they were sold in huge numbers. Most of these cars have since been reincarnated as refrigerators and tea kettles, so good ones with low mileage and no rust (at least from the outside) are selling for over 3,000 Euros.
Unfortunately rust is an important issue on all versions, but 1985-86 cars are the most affected ones, as recycled steel was used in their making. RS Cosworths reach the 30,000 mark. RS 500s can cost almost 45,000 Euros. The facelifted versions are a lot cheaper, you can find roadworthy ones for a few bucks – and this determines their fate. As the Sierra was about the last, non-prestigious RWD mid-class car and is available for little money, a lot of people use the remaining few for having fun in the snow and on drift tracks. Even I got myself one to refine my driving skills. The Desert Rat, as it is known, became famous when Ken Block killed some cones as he was asked to do by totalcarmagazine.com. I even have a spare car in case the sand-yellow estate suffers some major damage when hitting a guard rail.
Take a look at the Sierras pictured in our photographs. A white XR4i I found in a local ad used to be a Swiss owner's fully equipped coupé. The man who is selling the XR4i now has another Sierra in his garage, a rare 1.8 litre with automatic gearbox. The only signs of use are the new coats of paint on the resprayed front left wing and on the door. But apart from these, the car looks exactly like it did when it rolled out of the dealership, rocking on narrow 13” radials. Both cars are Mk1s. The XR4i was new in 1983, while the Quartz Gold coupé's 1.8 engine and A4LD automatic gearbox were developments of 1985, the first year when the 3-door coupé wasn't only available as an XR4i. So this low-profile 1985 car is in fact a really special one with all novelties of the model year.
My spare car, the metallic blue 1992 estate wearing all the modifications of the last facelift used to be a daily driver until 2 years ago. It was not as lucky as these two MK1s, but still drives pretty well. The 2.0 DOHC 8V engine is not particularly sporty, but averages 8.5 litres even in the city. Only minor rust can be seen on the panels, but several dents mark the years passed, and both front and rear bumpers suffer the typical Ford-illness: when temperatures drop, Ford bumpers of the 90's break like glass if you hit them slightly in the parking lot.
Sierras are future classics, although only a few already consider them as such. These cars represent milestones in automobile design and have actually started a change in the way our streets look. They were the first daily drivers with dramatically streamlined bodies. And remember, these are the last European rear wheel drive cars of their class. The Sierra was a first and last in one.