For those of you crazy kids brought up on a regular diet of Twitter, Minecraft, and Instagram, the 1980s may be a bit of a mystery to you. You may think of the 80s as a ‘retro’ period, if you think of it at all, from which old people sprang. The entire 20th century may be simply a thing that ‘happened’. In your defence though, even to some actual adults who saw it the first time round, the 80s is still a bit of a mystery.
Whatever you might think though, the 80s were great. They even made a film about it.
I was born in the 1980s, and like Calvin Harris told us once, “It was acceptable in the 80s”. ‘It’ being any one of a thousand things of 80s greatness: Magnum PI’s moustache, the Betamax VCR, the FM synthesizer, Bananarama, Knight Rider, Channel 4, and of course, the Ford Sierra.
Yes – one of the greatest things to come out of the 80s was a car. A great big jelly-mould of a car. And I like jelly.
Born partially out of necessity, the Sierra was Ford’s answer to the 1973 oil crisis. Thanks to politicians throwing their toys out of the pram, the cost of oil went up geometrically, almost overnight while everyone slept. Sound familiar?
Petrol prices went through the roof, and at one point it was even being rationed in the UK. The last time that happened, there was a war on! And this was all before Trump became president, and before that silly idea they now call ‘Brexit’.
Well, the Sierra wasn’t going to actually solve the oil crisis, largely because it had ended before the Sierra joined the dealerships in 1982, but the knock on effects were still being felt. Fuel wasn’t being rationed in 1982 but the public were being more careful with their money; the Sierra was going to help keep a cash-strapped Britain mobile, and hopefully make Ford a bit of money in the process.
Put a tiger in your tank…?
Today, in 2019 Britain, you’ll be lucky to get a litre of unleaded petrol for much less than £1.30. That’s your basic no frills petrol with no added tigers or prancing black ponies. In 1971 however, a gallon (around 4.5 litres) of 4-star leaded petrol (like unleaded petrol, but with lead in it) would set you back around 34p. By 1975 this was around 73p per gallon. By 1979 it was around 98p a gallon, and by 1982 you’d be parting with £1.64 per gallon! Daylight robbery.
Whilst this ghastly increase was terrorising the average motorist, this oil crisis was actually doing us a favour.
See, as a society we really are lazy, and to a point, emulate our environment: water, air, electricity, and human beings, always take the path of least resistance. Every. Single. Time.
However, sling a bit of war at us, or make access to porn harder, and we can come up with some quite ingenious things (but we still can’t destroy the common cold).
The war here, was between the oil barons, and the car industry. Two parties that shouldn’t really be fighting each other.
The ‘square’ root of the problem
Despite our ingenuity though, during the 1970s, car design had, shall we say, ‘failed’. Up until the 70s, a car’s shape was quite important from several aspects – it had to be pretty to look at, and functional. Ford’s first incarnation of the Escort was proof of this – an immensely pretty car that had room for four people and some stuff in the boot. Even the Mini, which started life in 1959 nailed this simple little formula, albeit by means of witchcraft.
Sadly it was all kind of downhill after the Escort. All of a sudden, it’s like all of the LSD that was left over from the 60s was distributed to car designers’ canteens. I mean, the Austin Allegro and the Fiat Strada. Let’s say no more.
The 70s weren’t a total failure for British car design: take a moment and take a few deep breaths to admire the beautiful Triumph Spitfire, and British Leyland’s mighty Princess 2 (it’s my site, get over it), and of course the Coke-bottle-hipped Mark III Cortina.
There were pretty cars the average person could afford without robbing a bank, but unfortunately for the most part, the lasting memory of 70s car design is the “three boxes”; everything was gradually becoming square.
I’m a big fan of function over form, but was it really necessary for Aston Martin to draw their Lagonda entirely with a set-square? It wasn’t exactly formulaic but it’s lines were sharper than Stephen Fry’s wit.
The three box format for car design was taking over 70s car design. This easily repeatable formula described a square bit at the front to house the engine, a square bit in the middle to house people, and a square bit at the back to house the people’s stuff. The Allegro went one step further, and had a square steering wheel! It’s a wonder the designers didn’t consider square tyres too…
Even Ford, who had their finger right on the pulse, fell into the 3-box trap – The mighty Cortina which was beautiful in its first three incarnations, became a utilitarian, angular crate with the Mark 4 and Mark 5. The Mark 2 Granada wasn’t immune, and the nice curvy bits were scraped off the Escort as well.
A very British public…
Unfortunately for the British public, with petrol tripling in price in less than a decade, something radical needed to happen. Something less square. Equally unfortunate for the British public, they were the British public: they know what they like and they like what they know. We’re a funny old bunch like that. The British public had quickly become accustomed to 3-box cars. Therefore, that’s what they knew, and what they liked.
Ford knew this. But they also knew something had to jump out and make a stand, or they weren’t going to sell many new cars, because petrol was costing the motoring public a fortune. If nothing happened quickly, people in ties, with secretaries, could be sacked. And we can’t have that.
Like many manufacturers, Ford don’t just have the contents of the showroom to keep themselves entertained of a casual Tuesday morning. No, they’re always designing something new, something to make even more money than the last one.
Behind closed doors, Ford had been busy exploring the concept of car that was aerodynamically correct – one that used the air to its benefit. Formula 1 had been doing this for some time by now, and the aviation industry had aerodynamics nailed for some time. So why not apply those principles to a road car?
Ford’s concept (project), “Probe III”, demonstrated that a road car could benefit from having an aerodynamic shape, which reduced ‘drag’, putting less strain on the engine and therefore using less petrol to move it. The Probe III was the future. Ford had seen it.
After many meetings and cucumber sandwiches, the Probe III concept had some of its genes transplanted into the Cortina’s replacement: the Sierra. It was tested in wind tunnels – something the average road car didn’t get at the time, and it generated a ‘drag co-efficient’ of 0.34. In science terms that’s practically an aeroplane compared to the trusty old Cortina’s 0.44, which was more like pushing a brick through tar – a drag co-efficient is better when the number is lower. The much later Sierra Sapphire came in at 0.32…but we’ll talk more about that elsewhere.
Everything about the new Sierra was designed to make it glide through the air with nothing but rainbows and unicorns in its wake. In complete defiance of the 3-box rule book, the Sierra sported a smooth slanted front, an ‘aeroback’ style tailgate, smooth wheel trims, moulded door mirrors, and new 5-speed gearboxes all added up and allowed the Sierra to achieve a 20% decrease in fuel consumption over the Cortina. On paper, this humble machine should’ve destroyed the competition.
Ford were rightly patting themselves on the back for such a design success, but no: no-one liked it.
The British public were typically steadfast in their refusal to accept something that was ‘a bit different’. The Sierra was rear wheel drive, unlike many of its contemporaries that were converting to front wheel drive, and was initially offered with a choice of engines lifted straight from the Cortina, so it was cheap to maintain. It was still a car, still did the same things the Cortina did, and in so many ways an improvement over the Cortina, but crucially, it wasn’t square.
And we’re gonna party like it’s 19…
Fast forward to 1992…
It’s the last hurrah for the Sierra. After undergoing 3 minor face lifts and one major facelift, Ford have shifted over two and a half million of them. Outstanding. Come December 92, the Sierra’s position in the Ghent and Dagenham factories would be handed over to something else. For some reason Argentina continued production of the Sierra until 1994
The British public had warmed to the Sierra after all. And some were sad to see it go. It had become a staple on the roads of Britain and ironically, no-one really liked its successor, the Mondeo when that was released either! The Mondeo went on to secure its own fan base though, and from personal experience, they’re really cracking cars. Even if they are front wheel drive…
By the time the last Sierra rolled off the production line, Ford had made a car that appealed to the masses. It came in three shapes (four if you count the P100), had optional 4 wheel drive, there was electronic multipoint fuel injection, heated seats, air conditioning, a CD player, central locking, electric windows, a heated front window, a double overhead cam engine, electronically controlled anti-lock brakes, a catalytic converter, and for those that liked to get everywhere slowly, there was even a diesel version!
For those who liked to blur the scenery a bit, the XR4i offered a pokey V6 engine and the XR4x4 bolted that engine to permanent four wheel drive. The peak of development though, was the RS Cosworth, which is why we’re here: it became a motoring icon. Its 4 cylinder, 2 litre, 16 valve, double overhead cam, turbo charged engine handed over a monumental (for the time) 204 horsepower, a dirty great big aerofoil on the back, and rear-wheel drive – but the engine could handle twice that power out of the box, so a whole market sprang up to help enthusiasts make that happen. The final version for 1992 had that same engine hooked up to permanent four wheel drive, had air conditioning and leather seats and a CD player – what some might consider standard fare for a posh car these days!
Alot of the things the Sierra brought us we take for granted now, and even some modern cars still don’t offer half of this equipment! Admittedly Bluetooth was something you needed to see a dentist about, and airbags were great for sending delicate parcels, but the Sierra was still a ahead of its time and in my opinion set a bench mark by which all others shall be judged.