The Big Red One

The ‘Cossie’s iconic 2-litre, 16-valve, double overhead cam, fuel injected, turbocharged red-topped fire breathing power plant started life in the 1970s.  In a van.

Glamourous?  Very.

Well, it didn’t strictly ‘start’ life in a van: that was just one of many places the humble ‘Pinto’ engine found itself.  The Pinto, one of Ford’s most versatile and well known 4 cylinder engines, was named not after the humble pinto bean, nor the pinto horse, but after the North American Ford Pinto (sort of an American Fiesta) that was named after the horse.  The Pinto engine was also known as ‘the metric engine’ – it was the first Ford engine that was designed and manufactured using those new fangled millimetres instead of good old feet and inches.  It had some other names too – internally it was known as the T88, and the Overhead Cam (OHC) .  A cousin of this engine, the turbocharged 2.3 litre ‘Lima’, was used in the Merkur XR4Ti.

The Pinto was built to replace Ford’s older 4 cylinder ‘Essex’ V4 engine, which being made almost entirely of iron, was a veritable boat anchor, and not a terribly powerful one either.  This trusty old lump had been liberally sprinkled across Ford’s range since the early 1960s, but it was time to make way for ‘the new order’.

Canning the Essex meant the Pinto could now carry the torch and start lighting up the tyres of blue ovals across the globe.  Like the Essex, it was offered in a variety of shapes and sizes, and gained a cult following for being rock solid and easily maintained.  One of the more well known Pinto applications was the 2.0 litre twin-carb version fitted to the MkII Escort RS2000.  The Pinto also found itself in the Transit, the Cortina, the Capri, the Granada/Scorpio, and importantly for us: the Sierra.

Monsieur, with this Rochér you are really spoiling us

Available in 1.3, 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 litre flavours, and with all sorts of exciting fuel-delivery options, the engine became genuinely versatile.  Apart from the 1.3.  The 1.3 was as much use as an inflatable dart board in a hurricane, and was dropped before too many Sierras were lumbered with it – saying that, there’s a funny story about them which I’ll cover elsewhere.

The Pinto was a longitudinally mounted, inline, 4 cylinder, 8 valve, overhead cam (OHC) petrol engine, with a cast iron cylinder block and aluminium cylinder head, both being cast and subsequently assembled, by Ford.  The camshaft and distributor were driven by a toothed kevlar belt which reduced engine noise, as did the hydraulic tappets operated by the camshaft and rockers.  Compression ratios varied depending on the application – low compression, low output 2.0 litre engines were typically found in the Transit, but there were high compression, high power versions too.  An alternator was standard equipment, and there was provision on the block to mount power-steering and air-conditioning pumps:  lush.


In 1984, Apple Computer launched the first Mac, and showed us that computers needn’t be geeky, ugly, utilitarian, loud, or crucially: boring.  As such, the Mac, being a departure from every personal computer before it, was a commercial success – this was a textbook exercise in how to market a product.  The iconic TV launch advert in the middle of the ’84 Superbowl was the nail that pinned the Mac into the minds of millions of prospective Apple customers.

The Sierra was going to be Ford’s Mac – it was the same as what had gone before, but it was different.  Sadly, Ford didn’t have any nails.  Or hammers.  They didn’t even have blu-tack, so things went a bit wrong in the advertising area – without a miracle the Sierra wouldn’t be ‘sticking’ around for long – Ford had to weigh up some options.

It was acceptable in the 80s

As we’ve already discussed, things happened in the 80s that don’t really happen today, and vice versa.

Today when you advertise a car, you have to sell a ‘story’, or an ‘image’ to a customer and make them try and associate with it – this isn’t new but the style has changed A LOT.  Cars these days need gadgets, Bluetooth, airbags, touch-screens, cup holders, and LED lights.  Roughly shaven male models with razor sharp features, glide through computer generated scenery or bizarrely empty cities in their modern steed, subconciously feeding a message of environmental friendliness and idyllic care free travel, all in a bid to sell you finance for a car you’ll never own.  Saying that, some of the cinematography is pretty slick…wish I could do it.  Take this ad for Kia’s Stonic – a nice looking car in fairness, and a modern advert, but what’s the advert actually telling you about the car?

Compared to the reality of  modern driving – sitting in traffic, surrounded by the gruesome clatter of a hundred diesel engines knocking away at low idle, while moving 8 inches in 30 minutes, staring at the back of the same people carrier you’ve followed for the last 25 miles – these ‘lifestyle’ ads are a little optimistic.

Car adverts in the 80s were a little more… direct… See what Ford made for the Sierra in 1988:

(How many Cosworths did you count in that video?)

One direction

Ford needed to sell this jellymould and quick.  It might well have been ahead of its time but the British public are always a fickle bunch, so it was time to get creative.

The Motorsport division of Ford were a little bit lost around this time.  They had a few projects on the go, including a Group C racing car (the C100), a missile disguised as an Escort (the RS1700T), and few other exciting things that never saw the light of day.  Ford’s historical motorsport success from the 60s had fizzled away, and by the early 80s, Ford’s motorsport achievements were…well, they weren’t.

This wasn’t a massive problem for the Sierra, not directly anyway.  It wasn’t on the Motorsport radar.  However, the two were abouts to become intrinsically linked…

A chap by the name of Stuart Turner had been with Ford for some time in various top end roles, and in the early ’80s was put in charge of the Motorsport division.

Turner knew that you could race a car on Sunday, win, and have excited customers through the dealer’s door to buy the same model on Monday – look no further than the Escort Mexico or the Lotus Cortina.  Two successful cars that drove sales of their original model because they had a link to winning races.

Turner’s mission was to make the Motorsport division do something useful, because as it was, there was nothing racing, and therefore, nothing selling.

Brief Encounter

While Turner, and some of Ford UK’s top brass were taking a tour of the workshops at legendary British engine builder Cosworth, they spotted what looked like a Pinto engine sat on a workbench, sporting a twin-cam head.  This was no ordinary rabbit…

As we’ve already discussed, the Pinto was a single overhead cam engine, that was solid and not really meant for greater things.   Or was it…?

What the clever Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth of Cosworth had done was guide the parade past the “YAA”.  The YAA was Cosworth’s designation for this twin-cam conversion for the Pinto.  It was their own idea for making the humble Pinto a little bit more lively, with double overhead cams and 16 valves – 4 valves for each cylinder, with the intention of selling it to amateur rally enthusiasts to give them an extra edge in the forests.

This wasn’t the first time Cosworth had fettled a Ford engine and created Thor’s spare hammer.  In the late 60s (albeit in a slightly odd arrangement) Cosworth designed and built the almighty Double Four Valve (DFV) Formula 1 engine for Ford (who then sold the engines to Lotus).  Ford, Cosworth, and Lotus were at one point like the Holy Trinity of British motorsport.   Around the same time, Cosworth had already fettled the early Cortina’s 1.5 litre Kent engine and converted that to a 1.6 litre twin-cam setup – meanwhile Lotus reworked the Cortina’s undercarriage – this brought about the Lotus Cortina which was an epic machine in its own right, a proper little rocket.

Cosworth also built the twin cam ‘BDA’ (Belt Driven, type A) engine, also from Ford’s humble ‘Kent’ engine – this found its way into the ‘twin cam’ Escort Mexico and Escort RS1800.  This also nearly became a Formula 1 engine at Cosworth’s hands, but that never worked out in the end.

With all this in mind, Turner had an idea: take this new YAA, turbocharge it, and slap it in a Sierra.  Reason being that with that combination, Rover wouldn’t win another Touring Car race (Touring Car racing was hugely popular at the time and drew really big crowds).  The knock on effects being that the motoring public would see these Sierras winning races, and shuffle down to the dealer to get in on the action.


Goldilocks’ porridge

The Sierra was chosen not because it wasn’t selling well, but because the bigger Granada would’ve been like driving a church, and the ageing Capri was due to be booked into the retirement home.  The new MkIII Escort was front wheel drive, which as we all know, is utter heresy, and it wouldn’t have taken the Pinto anyway because the Escort’s engine bay wasn’t designed for it.  The Sierra was a very happy medium – like Goldilocks’ porridge, it was ‘just right’.  It offered an ideal power to weight ratio, and with this new Cosworth engine hauling it around the track, Turner saw a brilliant ball of light at the end of the Motorsport tunnel.

Cosworth weren’t initially keen on turbocharging the new YAA engine but Ford were quite clear that it needed to happen.  The 80s was totally embracing the turbo.  Formula 1 used them, Group A and B rallying used them.  So it was a bit of a no-brainer to try and win a race without one.  Turbos meant progress, and Ford were keen to make some.

Over a ploughman’s lunch, the deal was sealed – Ford were going to have 5000 of these engines, turbocharged, dropped into Sierras, and leave Rover standing.  And, (spoiler alert!) it worked.  Best lunch ever.

Cosworth cracked on with developing the YAA engine into what would become the red topped YBB – the first of the YB series  – which found its way into what would become the Essex wideboy’s preferred conveyance: the big winged, turbocharged, in your face, Ford Sierra RS Cosworth.

In order to race it though Ford needed to build 5000 of these cars (hence 5000 engines) to prove to the FIA that the ‘Cossie’ wasn’t just a one-off just for racing.  The FIA’s rules for Touring Car racing at the time stated that any car that a manufacturer wants to race must be ‘real’, so to be ‘real’, 5000 have to be made and sold to the general public – with that requirement fulfilled, the Sierra RS Cosworth would be homologated for racing.  Ford built 5545 Cossies, and sold every single one through their RS dealers.  Well, most of them; they kept a couple for prosperity and for other exciting projects….

Mission complete

Once the Cossie was on the track, the early efforts were a bit less than brilliant. One of the key problems was keeping the head attached to the block – this took a few attempts to resolve but perseverance made it worth it.

With a bit of extra tweaking, the Cossie became more and more difficult to beat.  By 1987, Ford had learned enough to build an ‘evolution’ of it – this was the Sierra RS500 Cosworth.  Once these developments were transferred to the racing cars, they absolutely annihilated Rover’s SD1, and everything else that tried to have a go at the top spot – it came to a point where the only thing that could race against a Sierra Cosworth was another Sierra Cosworth.

Ultimately the Cosworth was a victim of its own success – the rule makers made new rules to make the Cosworth less effective on the track, because the other manufacturers simply couldn’t keep up and complained about it.

Its legacy though has left a cult following with owners clubs still going strong, and specialist engine tuners catering for them even today, 30+ years later.  Some of the Sierra’s design streaks come through today.  Aerodynamically sound bodyshells, functional spoilers, front air dams, and turbocharged engines have had a resurgance in popularity because of their innate efficiency and performance gains.  Not bad for a car nicknamed ‘Jellymould’.









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