Ford’s aero banana skin: The blue oval’s shapely Cortina replacement caused ructions amid press and public. But also within Ford itself. We investigate.
The Sierra marked 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 conservative 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 appears 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 European Vice-President of design was urbane German, Uwe Bahnsen, who appointed Ray Everts with overall responsibility for the programme.
Speaking latterly, Klaus Kapitza, then head of Ford’s advanced design studio, credited Gert Hohenester with the chosen styling concept adopted for the car, said by Car Styling magazine in 1982 to be the very first developed. Interestingly, Kapitza also stated that Uwe Bahnsen never really 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 Wolfgang Möebius’ 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 overall 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 is before our eyes come to rest upon the biplane rear spoiler of the XR4 model – surely an overt an admission of failure, despite its ability to reduce boy-racers to quivering heaps of unrequited lust at twenty paces.
Ford also 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 significant 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, General Motors. Some suggest Uwe Bahnsen was pushed out during Jack Telnack’s 1985 schisms, scapegoated 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 Daimler-Benz’s wind tunnel – its resemblance to Mercedes’ W124 series seeming to be no coincidence.
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 considerable debate. Bahnsen himself denied any rancour over Sierra’s poor early sales, telling Car Magazine‘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 car he’s perhaps best associated with was the one he liked least?
Sources: AROnline/Car Magazine