Ford’s shapely Cortina replacement proved to be less aerodynamically accomplished than its slippery wrapping suggested.
Sierra was intended to mark a fresh direction for the Blue Oval. The brainchild of Robert Lutz, Ford’s Eurocentric Director of operations, it was designed to take on the upper-middle class European marques in sophistication and appeal. Lutz wanted a more dynamic, technological image, especially in Germany, where the ancient Cortina and Taunus’ models were viewed as throwbacks.
For years, Ford had been purveyors of fleet-fodder with legions of loyal owners and fleet bosses who wanted little else. Both reacted with blank horror at what they saw as little better than an amorphous blob, but that is only part of the story. It seems that even within Ford’s Cologne design fortress, a fierce battle played out over Sierra’s styling direction during the model’s initiation.
Work on Project Toni, as the new model was codenamed started in Ford’s Köln-Merkenich studios in 1977. Ford’s design Director was urbane German, Uwe Bahnsen, responsible for a generation of assured, crisply styled cars. He appointed Ray Everts with overall responsibility for the project. Klaus Kapitza, then head of Ford’s advanced design studio, latterly stated Gert Hohenester came up with the styling concept adopted for the car, said by Car Styling magazine in 1982 to be the very first developed. Fascinatingly, Kapitza also claimed Uwe Bahnsen never liked the Hohenester concept, but Everts lobbied hard for the proposal, Lutz reportedly was smitten and it was his backing that carried the day.
Another formidable hurdle was to convince Ford’s conservative US board to approve the shape. Although initially horrified by what they saw, Lutz pointed to the rapturous reception given to Giugiaro’s concurrent Ace of Spades and Medusa concepts. This gave the persuasive Lutz the leverage he needed, inspiring a fundamental shift in Ford management’s centre of gravity on style. Radical was in.
Given the problems that would later beset the car, it has to be assumed the shape was finalised before the aerodynamic package. Hohenester referenced Anatole Lapine’s Porsche’s 928 in the treatment of Sierra’s canopy and it’s possible that like Porsche before them, Ford became hooked visually on a shape which didn’t necessarily perform in the manner its appearance suggested.
Because while its drag coefficient was a thoroughly respectable 0.34, it stretches belief that Ford’s development engineers didn’t flag up its wayward nature well before launch. And that’s before we get started on the biplane rear spoiler; surely an overt an admission of failure, despite its ability to reduce boy-racers to quivering heaps of unrequited lust at twenty paces.
Ford made several key errors in the run up to the car’s announcement. Sierra was previewed with the 1981 Probe III concept, a softening-up exercise aimed at lessening the shock of the new. Problem was, few observers believed they’d make anything as radical – a perception the press did little to assuage. Two years later, with the car in the showrooms, the stunned disbelief was palpable.
Additionally, there remained large stockpiles of unsold Cortina’s which required massive discounting. This gave wavering customers an out-clause, which many gratefully took. The lack of a three volume body style was another key error in a market that remained deeply conservative. Ford mistakenly believing the ‘bustle-back’ appearance would provide the visual illusion of a saloon silhouette.
In service, Sierra also proved less durable than the market expected – fleet managers finding them surprisingly prone to serious accident damage and early models rust-prone. More alarmingly, serious airflow management issues led to instability under adverse conditions. Several high-profile accidents involving then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock and more seriously, Formula one team owner, Frank Williams, only lent further credence to the anti-Sierra movement.
With memories of the Edsel still lingering and initial sales well below projections, Ford management went into damage-limitation mode as their hard-won market dominance became eroded by bitter rivals, Opel. Some suggest Uwe Bahnsen was pushed out during Jack Telnack’s 1985 schisms, blamed for a poorly performing design he reportedly had little enthusiasm for.
1985 saw small spoilers fitted aft of the rear-three quarter glass to manage airflow where it had been found to break away, creating unstable vortices which afflicted early cars. More radically, hundreds of millions were spent on developing a three-volume saloon version – said to have been developed in Mercedes’ wind tunnel; its resemblance to Daimler-Benz’s W124 series suggesting this to be the case.
These too had small spoilers at the leading edges of the rear screen, and these revisions combined with revised visual arrangements for the hatch turned Sierra’s fortunes around. But they never fully nailed that wayward nature – merely neutered it. Although, with the aerodynamically superior three-volume saloon vastly outselling the hatchback, this became somewhat academic.
So, was Sierra an ill-conceived car brought to market with serious issues Ford should have known about and acted upon? There certainly appears to be some cause to believe so. It’s credible that Ford become smitten with a design that didn’t quite work, but one they couldn’t quite bear to abandon.
Its early career came close to losing them their UK market dominance but whether it hastened the end of a talented and accomplished Design Director’s career remains a matter of debate. Bahnsen himself denied any rancour over Sierra’s poor early sales, telling Car‘s Geoffrey Howard in 1987, “There was not a single negative comment – as you know, the responsibility for giving the Sierra its particular appearance characteristics was always a joint decision taken collectively by the product committee. I was never under pressure to leave… and at the time I redesigned it, it was all starting to look good again.”
He would go on to mentor a fresh generation of car stylists at the Art Center design college in Switzerland. Following his death in 2013, commentators and design aficionados eulogised him as the man who steered Ford towards radical with the Sierra and Scorpio. But wouldn’t it be grimly ironic if the cars he’s perhaps best associated with were the ones he liked least?
Sources: AROnline/Car Magazine