Let me paint you a picture. It’s 1982, and years of driving up and down Britain’s motorways on Important Company Business has paid off. The pencil pushers in finance are letting you upgrade your trusty Ford Cortina Mk5 GL to something that better reflects the amount of ass-busting you’ve done to climb the greasy corporate pole. [Welcome to another installment of Damn Good Design, written by real auto designer Adrian Clarke. -Ed].
After a delicious pie-in-a-tin dinner, that evening you settle into your favorite armchair to enjoy a healthy high-tar cigarette and a large tumbler of alcoholic brown. As you peruse the Cortina brochure, you turn to the back pages where the high-spec models are. There it is: the 2.3 V6 Cortina Ghia. Luxury with a capital L. That would wipe the smile off the face of the wanker next door with his bloody German 3 series BMW. He doesn’t even have a six-cylinder engine. Luckily there’s a Ford dealer next door to the pub where you have your lunchtime pints, so you can pop in between rounds to check out what colors are going to be available for 1983.
Except our off-the-peg-suited hard-working British executive would be in for the shock of his life — an automotive event so seismic it curled the kipper ties of Real Men up and down the land. The Cortina was dead, replaced in late 1982 Ford by a mass-market car that appeared to have arrived via a time portal from the future – the Sierra. It’s a car so alien and cold it was like being punched in the face with a Gary Numan album. Not many cars can claim to have altered the trajectory of car design, but the Sierra was definitely one of them.
First A British History Lesson
The Cortina first appeared in 1962. The idea was to create a modern family car that would be cheap to buy, easy to operate and economical to build. It set the template for the mass-market European saloon for the next couple decades – a monocoque body, simple rear-wheel drive mechanicals and carefully managed trim levels. The very name Cortina was meant to conjure up ideas of exotic European travel, as opposed to the stuffy saloons named after British university towns like Oxford and Cambridge that Austin sold.
Ford of Britain and Ford of Germany were still separate entities at the time, but Detroit pulled the strings from across the Atlantic. Executives, designers and engineers from the U.S. side frequently worked in Europe for a few years to gain experience and buff up their resumes. However, Roy Brown Jr, the same Roy Brown Jr who had designed the Edsel, was sent to the U.K. as a demotion for that crime and he drew the original Mk1 Cortina.
Moving Away From Detroit And Towards Europe
This transatlantic shuffling of staff is what led to a lot of British market Fords in the sixties and early seventies having a very American appearance – a similar thing happened at Vauxhall, GM’s British arm. Having separate Ford divisions in Britain and Germany was unsustainable long term, so in 1968 Detroit grabbed the corporate shotgun and forced the two companies into an unwilling marriage to form Ford of Europe. This led to European Fords turning away from Detroit stylistic influences towards a more formal, cleaner look first seen on the Mk2 Capri of 1974 and the Mk2 Escort of 1975 (shown below, with a Mk3 Cortina for comparison).
Despite looking reasonably modern, the mechanicals of these cars was just above an anvil in terms of sophistication. The OHC inline ‘Pinto‘ engine had been introduced to replace the old ‘Essex’ V4, but that was as advanced as it got. The Escort, Cortina, Capri and to a lesser extent Granada were all pretty much swappable regarding their RWD powertrains. This was great for keeping costs down and reliability up, but by the mid-to-late seventies they were beginning to lag behind the opposition. Throughout this period Ford of Europe’s business model was to take the bare minimum in terms of engineering, clothe it in handsome but safe styling, and then market the hell out of it. And it worked; between 1972 and 1976 the Cortina was Britain’s best-selling car, only overtaken by the smaller Escort.
A Rapidly Changing Market
But the Euro market was changing rapidly. Fuel economy was increasingly an important factor in buying decisions, and small cars were switching to FWD for efficiency reasons. The Fiat 127 of 1971 set the blueprint for the small FWD hatchback ‘supermini’ and scared the living shit out of every OEM across the continent. Ford was forced to play catch-up and came up with two brand new FWD models in quick succession to compete: the Mk1 Fiesta of 1976 and the Mk3 Escort of 1980. These shared very little with existing models – only a few Kent engines were carried over – so they cost an absolute bomb to design and develop. Then in 1981 came the new version of what was to be the Sierra’s main competitor, the FWD Vauxhall Cavalier.
The Cavalier was GM’s J-Car, but unlike American models, the Vauxhall/Opel J-cars were well built with advanced engines and decent interiors. As well as coming as a traditional four-door saloon, they were also available as a five-door hatch, something that we will see was to wrong-foot Ford product planners spectacularly. Ford had been thinking about the Mk4 Cortina’s replacement way back in 1976, coming up with a series of concepts codenamed “Linda.”
Linda was an advance program by the designer of the Mk2 Escort RS2000, Tom Scott. Taking Giugiaro’s ideas of flat surfaces, deep side glass and sharp creases, Scott applied them to a three-box saloon with an angled, aero nose. The saloon version was more convincing than the awkward-looking five-door, which at the time Ford was expecting to be the biggest seller. Ford higher ups wanted the new car to look different to anything else, but Linda was deemed to be a step too far and too close to what Giugiaro was doing. They wanted something original, so when our old friend Bob Lutz was promoted to become president of Ford of Europe, he cancelled it and ordered an emergency refresh of the Mk4 Cortina to become the warmed-over Mk5. This would buy them a couple more years to come up with its replacement.
Lutz knew the J-car based Cavalier was going to be front drive, and he pushed for the Cortina replacement to be the same – but there just wasn’t the money available. Ford was burning mountains of cash developing the new FWD Fiesta and Escort, so the Cortina replacement was going to have to use the existing RWD engines and gearboxes. Even though he was overruled, Lutz thought that if the new car could ride and drive like a BMW (where he had worked previously) and had a distinctive appearance, then maybe it wouldn’t be kneecapped by carrying over the existing powertrains. This constraint would turn out to be one of the defining factors in the decision to take a big step forward in terms of design.
Befitting their status as a satellite studio, Ghia was the first to be given the job of coming up with a proposal for what was now code-named ‘Toni.’ Their full-size model was very angular and too similar to the previous Linda idea that was scrapped. Lutz then asked Uwe Bahnsen, head of Ford’s Merkenich studio in Germany, to come up with some forward-looking ideas. Designer Gert Hohenester produced a series of sketches unlike anything that had ever been seen – a slick aero shape with five doors, a stubby tail and faired in light units.
How The Sierra Came To Be
Ford being Ford, they didn’t have the balls to go with the Merkenich idea straight away; not when they could waste a load of money first. Because the new car had to compete with Japanese imports in Europe, Ford thought that by concentrating on aerodynamics, they could make gains in performance and fuel economy despite having to use antiquated engines. Now the product engineers were starting to nail down their requirements, the Dearborn studio, Dunton in Essex and Ghia (again) were asked to submit alternatives. In the end, Ford had a mind-boggling 14 different full-size hard models fighting for space in the studio. Unsurprisingly the Dearborn models had a distinct Japanese influence, while the Dunton studio, knowing the U.K. market inside out, came up with something conservative that they hoped wouldn’t scare Cortina buyers. Ghia just threw a load of shit at the wall to see what would stick – their most convincing model was a sort of faceted, chisel nosed theme with thin pillars and an airy glasshouse.
The weaker proposals were culled, and it came down to a choice between the Merkenich proposal, and Dunton’s ‘future Cortina.’ Lutz had fully committed himself to Bahnsen and Hohenester’s daring aero shape, but Henry Ford II absolutely hated it. In his view, Ford sold pleasantly styled normal cars with rugged mechanicals for the man on the street, not cutting-edge Euro weirdness like you might get from Citroen. And Ford was very aware of the failure of the NSU Ro80, another advanced for its time six glass saloon.
Ford had no idea that Audi designers were putting aero efficiency front and center with the forthcoming 1983 100 (5000 in the US), but at the 1979 Tokyo show Italdesign revealed the Giugiaro-designed Asso di Fiori concept car. Commissioned by Isuzu and amusingly based on the GM T-car platform, Isuzu were so pleased it was rushed into production by 1980 essentially unaltered, as the Piazza (Impulse). Another Giugiaro concept much closer to the fivedoor Ford was designing, the Lancia Medusa, appeared at Turin in 1980. The acclaim these two cars received, and constant championing by Lutz convinced Ford management to choose the futuristic Merkenich Sierra proposal over the safer Dunton one. Ford had ironically scrapped Linda for being too close to Giugiaro’s thinking and were then encouraged by his work years later. In October 1979 the final design was signed off.
The Cortina for better or worse had been part of the fabric of working-class Britain for nearly three decades. It was the default family three box. Which trim level you drove defined your place on the social ladder. Line workers in the L, executives in the Ghia. Poet Laureate Sir John Betjemen immortalized the car in his 1974 poem ‘Executive’:
““I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner; I have a Slimline briefcase and I use the firm’s Cortina.”
Ford knew they would have a hard time convincing existing customers, so they decided to produce a concept to start warming the public up to their radical new car. The Probe III was unveiled at the Frankfurt show in 1981 and had undergone a full aero optimization program as well as the typical concept glow-up; covering the wheels, bolting on a biplane rear spoiler and blending the door mirrors into the A-pillar resulted in a cd of 0.25. The production car eventually ended up with a figure of 0.34, much better than any of its class rivals.
Launching A Spaceship
The Sierra was finally revealed at the 1982 Birmingham Motor Show to the deafening sound of crickets. Initially only available in five-door hatchback and estate (station wagon) body styles. It looked so unlike anything seen before – and from Ford of all people? The press and public alike quickly christened it a ‘jelly mold’. Where was the boot (trunk)? What on earth was this thing?
The Sierra was a radical take on the family car. Their commendable commitment to aerodynamics meant the Sierra had bonded front and rear glass, one-piece door stampings, faired-in headlights and bumpers and once you got above the base model, full-width featureless wheel covers with small vents on the circumference for brake cooling. The mid-range l and GL models did have a grill of sorts, but it was molded into the nose in body color plastic. It wasn’t needed as cooling air for the radiator was ingested under the front bumper. Because buyers of the more expensive models would be more design literate, the upscale Ghia did away with this traditional flourish having a solid surface between the lights. The base model had bare unadorned flanks, and other versions had the slimmest of rubbing strips along the side.
The Sierra stuck rigidly to modernist principles of progress through the application of science, technology and rationality. It was a stark and sparse car purged of all warmth and emotion. There are no unnecessary trim pieces, vents or external decoration. On the Inside, it was no less of a revolution. Gone was the Cortina’s flat dashboard with switches placed by being fired out of a confetti cannon. In came soft touch injection moldings, a main instrument panel and console angled toward the driver, and ancillary controls organized around four zones according to their function. This focus on ergonomics and the driver was undoubtedly again a result of Lutz’s time at BMW.
Critics Liked It. The Public Didn’t
Professional design wankers like me venerated Ford’s bravery and commitment. Prominent design critic and cultural commentator Stephen Bayley managed to arrange a whole exhibition about the design of the car as part of his Boilerplate Project at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 1982. Getting into a museum was one thing; getting the Sierra out of the showrooms was another. No one bought them. In this respect, Ford had been its own worst enemy. Anticipating some resistance to their avant-garde new model, they had stockpiled Cortinas at the end of its production run. These were now being offered at hefty discounts by beleaguered dealers desperate to shift some metal. Contemporary road tests highlighted another problem with the Sierra’s slipperiness – at high speeds it was susceptible to crosswinds. The hysteria reached such levels that Ford was forced to deny reports it was going to reintroduce the Cortina in order to maintain all important market share.
The crosswind issue was solved by adding small earlet trim pieces on the C/D pillar glazing. But the demand for a more traditional three-box Sierra was underlined in 1983 by the introduction of the Orion, an Escort with a boot. It would take Ford until 1987 to come up with the same for the Sierra, at which point they would take the opportunity to wind back the car’s austere appearance and tone down its modernity. It gained trim garnishes, the featureless face was banished in favor of a friendlier design, the flat aero wheel trims were binned for more funky, visually interesting ones and the Sapphire (the name given to the three box) had a conventional radiator grill. Before those revisions, in the meantime they had another trick up their sleeve to solve the Sierra’s image problem – in 1985 they picked up the phone and called their old friends at Cosworth….
It took more than a year but by the end of 1983 the Sierra was finally selling well – I’ve mentioned it before but the Ford UK sales and marketing department knew exactly how to sell cars in those days. It was never quite number one in the UK, usually beaten by the Escort, but it was usually number two or three in the best sellers charts. It traded sales blows with the Cavalier throughout the eighties and into the early nineties when competition from the mainland got its shit together and invaded. It sold strongly on the continent as well, where they are not so hung up on notions of tradition and class. Ford kept updating it – after the 1987 facelift it was tarted up again and finally given newer engines in 1990 to keep it going until it was replaced in 1993. In the ten years it was on the markeet nearly 1.3 million Sierras were sold, making it the tenth best selling car in the UK of all time. Overall it sold more than 2.7 worldwide.
Every revolution has casualties. With the Sierra they were Bob Lutz, Patrick Le Quement and Uwe Bahnsen. Lutz was so convinced the Sierra would make a good captive import and BMW competitor he pushed for the hot version of the car, the XR4i to be turned into the Merkur XR4Ti for the US market, where it failed miserably. This prevented him getting the top job at Ford, and he left for Chrysler in 1986. Le Quement didn’t get the Head of Design job, and consequently left for Renault where he went on to even greater success in the nineties. Bhansen ended up teaching in Switzerland.
The Sierra’s Impact and Aftermath
Although he venerated it at the time, Bayley has since argued that the cool public reaction to the Sierra made Ford risk-averse in its designs for the next twenty years. I’m not so sure that holds. Ford learnt the lessons of the Sierra’s design very quickly. The similarly revolutionary ’86 Taurus, which was as much of a financial gamble as the Sierra had been, debuted with a small grill opening and more exterior trim, particularly around the side glazing. Although the legendarily awful 1990 Euro Escort was rightly panned as another ‘bare minimum’ car, by the time the Sierra’s replacement, the Mondeo (Contour/Mystique) was released in 1993 it represented a massive leap forward in how Ford designed and engineered its cars.
The Sierra, and to a lesser extent the Cavalier, as market leader set the template for others to follow. Coinciding with the increasing use of digital tools in the studio, by the late eighties most cars had adopted tapered headlights, slim or no grille and six glass side profile. It got so bad in 1990 Car Magazine ran its famous ‘Euro Car Clones – Who’ll Put a Stop to Dead End Design?’ cover. Which makes it all the more infuriating when armchair designers point to that particular period as being a high-water mark. If anything the eventual success of the Sierra emboldened Ford to take more creative risks – the KA and the Focus were just as shocking yet found market acceptance almost immediately when they were released.
Sorry, the high-water mark was October 1982. You just weren’t paying attention.
As a British car designer of a certain age, the Sierra story holds a certain resonance for me, but as a refresher I used the following sources and highly recommend them as further reading: