Under the Knife – Breaking the Mould

Today DTW features a car that was given a new lease of life with an extensive and highly effective makeover.

1983 Ford Sierra Mk1 (c) aronline.co.uk

Ford regularly plays fast and loose with its mark numbers, often applying them to even quite modest facelifts of the outgoing model. However, in the case of the Sierra, the Mk2 designation was well deserved.

Ford launched the original Sierra in 1982 as a replacement for the conventional and conservative Cortina Mk5. The new model was a rear-wheel-drive car like its predecessor, but the aero body (believed to have originally been the work of Gert Hohenester working under the supervision of Design Director, Uwe Bahnsen at Merkenich) was dramatically different, with a hatchback instead of a conventional boot.

Ford had tried to manage market expectations with its 1981 Probe III Concept, but the production car was still a great shock to many. The higher-specification models with the fully faired-in front end and large dual rectangular light units looked rather futuristic, but the low-line models with smaller headlamps and a three-slat grille looked very plain, especially the base model where the grille was unpainted grey textured plastic.

1986 Ford Sierra Mk1 Ghia (c) ford.co.uk

The Sierra quickly acquired the unflattering jellymould nickname and faced significant resistance from potential buyers, many of whom were attracted instead to the smart new Opel Ascona C and its Vauxhall Cavalier equivalent. The GM model had been launched a year earlier in 1981 and, beneath its neat, if conservative styling, it was front wheel drive, a layout which was no longer regarded with suspicion by fleet managers.

Moreover, the Ascona/ Cavalier was available in both four-door saloon and five-door hatchback variants, making it attractive to a wider range of buyers than the hatchback (and estate) only Sierra. Worse for Ford, there were a large number of Cortina models unsold at dealerships which drew potential buyers away, attracted by the generous discounts available.

Ford realised that it had made a significant miss-step with the Sierra and it needed a more conventional looking three-volume saloon quickly. The most expedient way to do this was to re-engineer the Escort Mk3 hatchback and, in September 1983, it launched the Orion. This was a quite pleasant looking car, if perceived to be smaller and rather staid in comparison with the Ascona/ Cavalier. It sold steadily, mainly to older, more conservative buyers.

1983 Ford Orion. (c) Favcars

There remained the problem of what to do with the Sierra. A major redesign was ordered, together with the development of a three-box booted version. This came to fruition in September 1987 with the launch of the Sierra Mk2. The revised car was now also available as a saloon, called the Sierra Sapphire in the UK. The front end of all models was revised to have wider headlamps with outboard indicators that wrapped around into the front wings. This eliminated the slightly awkward visible panel gap that had surrounded the fairing panel/grille on the outgoing model. At the rear, wider but slimmer rear light clusters were used.

1990 Ford Sierra Sapphire (c) honestjohn.co.uk

The biggest and most expensive change was quite subtle, but highly effective. The radii of all the corners in the door windows was reduced to make them look sharper. This had the effect of making the glass area look larger and the frames slimmer. A slightly larger quarter light in the C/D-pillar completed the overhaul and transformed the appearance of the car.

1989 Ford Sierra Mk2 XR4x4 (c) ford.co.uk

In hindsight, it is a moot point as to whether the facelift was as transformational as I would argue, or whether the public had simply become more accustomed to the aero design. It was probably a combination of both factors but, in any event, the facelifted car was a great success and remained on the market for a further six years before being replaced by the first Mondeo in 1993.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

53 thoughts on “Under the Knife – Breaking the Mould”

  1. There was really nothing wrong with the Mk I Sierra design-wise, it was actually spot on the job. And I always thought the reactions to it was highly over reacted. It was only a scandal insomuch that Ford was an extremely conservative company, and people just couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that Ford was now leading the design trends instead of following them ten years after the fact. Had it been the second generation Talbot Solara nobody would’ve batted an eye…

  2. I think the grey-grilled ‘Pov-spec’ version was the problem – people talk a lot about a halo car bringing buyers to the brand, but I think also the cheapest model on the lot has to look good. When the cheapest model visually has gaps that show ‘here’s where all the things you can’t afford would be’ (grey grille, low spec lamps, missing side protection etc) all over the body it’s a turn off, and is negative for the brand as it’s a visible manifestation of penny-pinching. The best bottom-spec designs look perfectly elegant in their minimalism, with nothing added, but nothing visibly taken away. Higher spec models can pile on the chrome, rubber strips, tints, alloys and spoilers, but if the base model looks incomplete you’re doing something wrong and insulting your buyers.

    1. @Ingvar – I’m afraid you’re not right on this – there were 2 different 3-door pressings – one with long single rear window and one with a small coupe window followed by the same rear quarter-light as used on the 5-door

      Cosworth, and earlier (mostly Euro market) 3 doors – one big window:

      XR4i – small pop-out coupé windows and trailing quarter-lights:

    2. I may be wrong, but I think the side pressings is the same? It’s just a difference in punching out holes for the window, either one large sheet are stamped out or two smaller ones. Into the press comes one large sheet of metal that are pressed into a form, including metal over the window area. In the next stage, the hole(s) for the windows are punched out. As said, I may be wrong on this, but as penny pinching as Ford was I highly doubt they would order a double of such a deep pressing if they could do with one, the logical conclusion is that the difference in appearance is made in a simpler way.

  3. I have to agree with Ingvar regarding the Mk1 Sierra; the local Ford dealer was an hours walk from home when the Sierra launched. My dad took a thirteen year old me just to go and have a look. We both just stood there. Go on, I’ll throw in open mouthed – but we were amazed. So much better than the frumpy Cortina.
    What I find amazing now is the subtle alterations of the windows, something I would’ve never spotted and without a comparison, I may still not fully appreciate.
    And a little later, a Matchbox XR4x4 in white became pride of my “fleet.” Think I’ve still got it, somewhere…

    1. I couldn’t find my own so this will have to do. The bees knees ? Or not?

    2. Hi Andrew. I had the same Matchbox model. It would be remiss of me not to point out that’s an XR4i with its biplane rear spoiler, not an XR4x4.

      The XR4i (or XR4 as it was originally) only lived about two years before being replaced by the more sober looking five door four wheel drive variant.

      The non-sporting Sierras were originally planned to be available as three door hatchbacks with the XR4i’s “six-lite” window treatment, but they looked a bit odd without the spoiler. Hence the oddity of the Sierra having two different three door body styles.

  4. Good morning all. It is amazing how such a subtle change can have so much impact. Here are two good comparative photos:


    If anyone has any doubts about how impoverished looking the base spec Sierra was, here’s the reality:


    1. Why was the poverty-spec even a thing? And how many were sold? Was it only a UK thing? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in mainland Europe.

      Also, I think the facelift is visually inferior to the original. And I don’t mind the thicker window surrounds, in a sense that’s what makes the car. With the larger glass area the Mk II lost something of the visual purity of the original, it isn’t a coherent whole anymore.

    2. Hi Ingvar. The poverty spec model sat at the bottom of the original Sierra range at launch in the UK. Confusingly, although it was a hatchback, it was called the Sierra Saloon. Above it was the L, GL and Ghia. The XR4i followed six months later. Interestingly this was originally based on a GL trim level and didn’t even have electric windows.

      I completely agree about the Mk1. I much prefer the purity of the original.

    3. Hi Ingvar. The base spec Sierra above is Dutch registered, but I don’t think they were ever big sellers anywhere. They were so impoverished looking that the vast majority of private buyers found the extra money to afford at least an ‘L’ spec.

      As to the merits or otherwise of the facelift, as I said, it’s a matter of debate, but it did lead to a jump in sales. Perhaps the most obvious change, the revised front end, might have been enough on its own?

    4. With hindsight, and Daniel’s photos to compare, I think the front indicators had just as much impact on de-jelly-moulding the side view as the windows did.

  5. Just because they’re are an interesting ‘could have been’ over the years one or two coupé sapphires have been built by combining the long doors and rear quarter-lights of the XR4i with a sapphire body.

    C-pillar is a little long – but quite handsome

    It’s interesting that at launch they were happy to go with three hatchback (2 door – eventually used on the Cosworth), 4 door, and XR4 coupé) side pressings – but no saloon.

    1. Hi Huw. Thanks for sharing those photos. They remind me a little of those American ‘Personal Coupés’ that were very popular back in the day.

      I wonder if the tops of the doors had to be altered to cope with the different rain gutter arrangement on the Sapphire? The hatchback Sierras had a traditional rain gutter formed from the fold where the roof joined to the bodysides, but the Sapphire had an inboard channel instead.

    2. Actually there’s only two different side pressings, the three door and the five door hatchback. The XR4i is the three door with slightly different side window treatment. It has the longer doors of the three door and the rear side window of the five door plus a unique infill side window in between. It really only is plug and play off the shelf-bits.

    3. These are cool, I wasn’t aware of this FrankenFord conversion. I can recommend Googling the Opel Mancona conversions, the Ascona/Manta C variations are my favorites although the combination of a Manta A front clip with an Ascona Voyage body is particularly pleasant. A straight six transplant à la Manta TE 2800 would make for a rapid load hauler.

  6. I had a 2.0 litre GLX manual in metallic dark grey as a Company car. I wasn’t overly concerned about the windows but really enjoyed the hatch back and, best of all, the heated front screen. What an innovation!

    1. Hi Mike. Good to hear from a Sierra owner. It may still have been RWD, but the Sierra was a notably better engineered and equipped car than the Cortina. Was your GLX a Mk1 or Mk2? ( I thought that trim designation was only used on the Mk2, but I might be mistaken.)

    2. Hi Daniel. Mine was definitely a Mk 2.
      As an aside our local tyre shop owner has a Sapphire in the same colour and specification which he drives every day. His biggest issue is the lack of replacement interior trim parts which suffer badly in sunlight over time.

  7. Good morning Daniel. Thank you for this piece on one of my favourite cars. Interestingly the Mk1 Sierra was a big hit in the rest of Europe, trebling the sales figures of the outgoing Taurus in France and Germany alone.

    The British have never been ones to let facts get in the way of perception. The Sierra was viewed as having small windows. Actually its glass area was larger than the Cortina’s.

    A couple of your photos are a bit misleading. The 1983 Ghia had the aerodynamic slotted wheel trims rather than alloy wheels and didn’t feature aero-strakes on the D-posts:

    The Sierra Sapphire shown is a 1990 model year example. The 1987 car had a slatted grille and amber, rather than white front indicator lenses:

    Looking through some Ford brochures from the era on Flickr recently, I was struck by how Ford did what they could to address the criticisms of the car when the expensive sheet metal changes you’ve detailed were still a few years away.

    All models apart from the base got the Ghia-style full width headlights for the 1985 model year. The slotted wheel trims that The Sun had dubbed “dustbin lids” were dropped in favour of less overtly aerodynamic-looking designs. The base model got a body colour grille to replace the infamous grey plastic item.

    Patrick Le Quément has said that three quarters of Ford of Europe’s designers had left Ford within a year of the Sierra’s launch, when it became clear it wasn’t going to be a sales hit in Britain and recriminations started. What a huge shame.

  8. Ah, the jelly-mould: A car I have always had an affection and admiration for, as a competent attempt to do something truly modern in styling terms (as conventional as the mechanical package was). Whilst it’s true that the facelift was a masterful exercise, and the poverty-spec version of the original is dreadful, imagine the very first pic with a fully faired-in front end and no brightwork at all. That would have been radically simple.

  9. WordPress is swallowing my comments. Could somebody check the spam queue please.

    1. Hi John, I’ve rescued your comment from the spam folder and reformatted the photo links to do they now display without the Imgur frames. Thanks also for the corrections on the photo caption dates, which have been amended. You clearly know your Sierras!

  10. To my eyes, the failure of the Sierra, if indeed such a word can be deemed appropriate for such a commercially successful car, lies with both marketing and the accountants. Both the design team and engineers wanted the very best, and in both cases, the Sierra was vastly superior to the outgoing Cortina/ Taunus. However, the marketers seemed determined to mine every penny from the customer, ensuring that the models which would be most ubiquitous were the least attractive. The company carpark hierarchy was what mattered. Ford acted relatively quickly to remedy this, but the initial damage was done in perception terms.

    Furthermore, the drivetrains were a real letdown, given that the chassis design was such a step forward in sophistication terms. Those Pinto engines were dreadful devices, and well past their use-by date by then. (The less said about the diesel the better). The V6 was okay, but too big for most European taxation regimes. It was years into the car’s lifespan before it was given any kind of up to date power unit. What took them so long to engineer the 1.6 CVH for an in-line installation? Cost, most likely.

    Yet, despite the fault for the Sierra’s distinctly slow start (in the UK and ROI in particular) lying elsewhere, the design team were scapegoated, and (I have it on good authority that this is true) Uwe Bahnsen in particular. There may have been an element of politics in this, or perhaps Jack Telnack simply took against him, but a thoroughly decent man, and a fine Design Director was perhaps the Sierra programme’s biggest casualty.

    A question for our Republic of Ireland readers. Was Toni ever offered in non-XR three-door form? I can’t for the life of me ever recall seeing an Irish-registered example here on the auld sod. It was five-doors all the way at the Marina plant when I visited.

  11. Hi Eóin,
    I don’t believe Toni was ever offered in three door form in the Repulic, XR4i and Cosworth excepted. I don’t think the Mk5 Cortina was offered in that form here either. Nor do I think we ever got the very base model either – not that that was any great loss!
    I’d love to hear more of your impressions of Marina. Worth a feature some time?

    PS. Like Andrew,I had the Matchbox XR4i. I still have it actually, although the roof is badly scratched from falling behind my bedroom radiator…

    1. I remember reading a contemporary review of the newly launched base ‘Popular’ version of the Escort Mk2 in the Irish Independent newspaper. The gist of the review was that it was a waste of effort on Ford’s part trying to sell it in Ireland, the argument being that cars were already so expensive there that Irish buyers would, if buying a new car, stretch to a version that didn’t embarrass them in front of the neighbours!

      For those unfamiliar with this model, Ford introduced the Popular moniker for its base model Escort in 1975 and distinguished the car from the L by painting the window frames and bumpers black and, bizarrely, fitting full chromed “saucepan lid” wheel covers instead of the plastic ‘yoghurt pot’ hub caps on the L model. In other words, they spent extra money to make it look cheaper!

  12. From memory that’s exactly what happened, too – I recall seeing very few Escort MkII Populars!

    1. I believe they restricted its performance by restricting the throttle’s movement – the engine itself was unchanged. Ludicrous.

    2. Nobody in the Republic would drive something so blatantly penitential (not even during lent), but they sold a few in that there Blighty. My understanding was that drum brakes were also standard fitment all round, which was a particularly cynical move on the blue oval’s part. In 1976, my father’s employer tried to foist these upon their staff as company cars (to replace Mark 1 Escort Deluxe models) and this was one of the rationales through which they fought management’s attempts to strongarm them into accepting them. They went with Hillman Avengers instead and didn’t return to Uncle Henry until the advent of Erika.

  13. I still remember my shock when the Sierra was launched. The window radii reminded me of my very first car, a 1946 Anglia. I didn’t think the advanced shape and retro window treatment were a good match, and as for the gruesome wheel-trims on the plush versions….. The Citroen BX launched at the same time and was sharp and modern, in contrast. The Sierra facelift put right all the details that were wrong, and gave us the Sapphire which was far more attractive and didn’t need gizmos on the windows to cure aerodynamic instability.

    1. Mervyn: Of course matters of styling are subjective, and to be fair, both Sierra and BX were two very different approaches to the same question, but only one of the pair was truly progressive, and it wasn’t the Citroen, for all its other virtues. I like the BX’s styling, albeit a lot less than the models which preceded it. I liked it more as a driving tool – in this aspect it was so superior to the Sierra – and virtually everything else that could be then considered a rival.

      By 1982 the BX, from a styling perspective looked to be treading water, and as we subsequently learned, its theme arose from a series of prototypes Gandini had been pitching to all and sundry since the mid ’70s. The Sierra on the other hand, was not only a seismic shift for the blue oval, but was on the crest of a wave of softer forms which would come to define the era.

      The second generation Sierra ‘Sapphire’ did in fact have aerodynamic strakes on the c-pillar. They were fitted to the outward extremities of the rear screen. Ford it’s said, spent a good deal of time (and money, no doubt) at Mercedes’ wind tunnel while they were developing the three volume Sierra, and were clearly determined not to repeat past mistakes. One could even suggest they had a good look at a W201 before they got started…

  14. I was 8 years old when this car hit the market. It caused quite a stir, but as far as I can remember it was a positive stir, at least as far as the looks of the thing were considered. My dad and I had a testdrive in a Mk2 version later on, but he was disappointed in the way it drove, so no sale.

    This car was quite popular in the Netherlands when new. In the late 90’s trade in value of nicely maintained cars had plummeted to the price of a full tank of gas and most car dealers refused to have it as a trade in altogether. As a consequence I can’t remember when I last saw one.

  15. The Danish Design Museum showed a Mk1 Sierra some years back. It stands as a testament to good, consistent industrial design every bit as praiseworthy as the much lauded W-124 or Opel Omega “A”. It´s regrettable that the designers were punished for the market´s response – the management gave out the brief and approved the result. In the end responsibility lands with the executives not the design team. The time to fire the designer is before the approval stage, not afterwards.

  16. Otherwise indifferent to the front of the early Sierra having been a pretty common sight growing up though the base spec model does look rough.

    Ford of Europe could have gone for a more conventional front that was considered during the Sierra’s development however the alternatives shown in Steve Saxty’s book were not better, yet surely there were proposed alternative fronts that at least had some potential before it was later restyled?

    1. There is very likely not one single case of a mid-life refresh that ever drew on the work done for the launch version. I think that in many cases mid-cycle refreshes are given to lower-rank designers (though this should not be the case). For that reason they do not go and get the earlier work. For another reason, the drawing and research don´t get archived in an accessible way. I´ve no hard evidence for this but I don´t imagine that if Jane Designer in 2020 wants to restyle a car launched in 2016 she can wander to a room or a terminal and open up folders of work in date order. Of the 100% of design work done probably 98% is binned at the projects end, even if just to make space for the next thing.

    2. I never heard of a model with styling cues predisposed for a facelift either.

      As Richard correctly pointed out, the mid-cycle overhaul is usually carried out be an altogether different team than the original design. Examples that immediately come to mind would be:

      Ferrari 456 GT (Pietro Camardella) -> 456 M (Ken Okuyama)
      BMW E65 (Adrian van Hooydonk) -> facelift (Boyke Boyer)
      BMW F20 (Nicolas Huet) -> facelift (Calvin Luk)

    3. Patrick Le Quément indicated in Steve Saxby’s book that he worked on the Sierra’s 1987 facelift. Also Ford look to have extensive design archives.

    4. John,

      if a chief designer happens to be in office during both the original design and facelift design processes, he obviously oversees both, as in Patrick’s case. What I was referring to was the designers doing the actual designing – for a facelift, a fresh set of eyes is usually deployed to do the work.

  17. My Mum got a Sierra company car in 1984, and as an 8-year old I absolutely loved it.

    Our relationship with the Sierra here in New Zealand was a strange one. When the Cortina was finished in 1983, it was replaced by the Telstar (Mazda 626) – which only came in 4-door saloon and liftback. So, the Sierra was introduced here only in station wagon form to plug the gap. Apparently it was possible get a 5-door liftback Sierra, but these were exceedingly rare and quite expensive. Our Prime Minister at the time was one of the few to have one.

    The Mk. 2 Sierra was sold here in wagon, and 4-door sedan – but no liftback. I’m not sure what the rationale was for this, but they were priced well above the second generation Telstar range, which was assembled locally.

    Here, you can see some local children eating one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yWU-cItT_0

    1. Hi Scott. Thanks for sharing your Sierra memories with us. The KFC advertisement is very imaginative. Is it done by CGI, or did they really destroy a Sierra estate to make it?

  18. Hi Daniel – no such thing as CGI back then! Not here, anyway. So iconic was the ad, that years later a telly show tracked down the original kids and interviewed them. The headrests were sponge cake, the tyres were licorice, and after a few takes their dream job was starting to feel a wee bit sickly. I can only assume the Sierra was a write-off that was cut up for the job, or Sierra parts were added to a cab/chassis ute of some kind for the later shots. Looks convincing though, and given ad agency budgets in the 80’s, anything is possible.

  19. The 3dr Sierra Mk1, with a Ghia front end, would be the “end-all” Sierra
    but sadly it was never offerred, AFAIK. Such a car would probably qualify
    for one of the best looking 2dr(3dr) non-exotic shapes ever made.

    What puzzles me to this day: I once saw, on holidays in Croatia, an Austrian-registered 5dr Mk1 (but a later model year, effectively a Mk1.5 if such a thing exists) which was rather basic, an ‘L’ I reckon, in white, yet it had a Ghia-like front end with the wider headlights and ‘no grille’.

    Could it be that in Austria the Ghia front-end was offerred as an option,
    or as a “Mk 1.5” accolade? Or was it simply a retro-fit / post- front-
    damage repair ‘addition’?

    1. Hi Peugeotiste. You’re right: as John mentions in his comment above, all models apart from the base received the Ghia’s larger headlamps and faired-in nose in 1985, which explains your Austrian “Mk 1.5”

    2. Hi John. Interestingly, the DLO looks rather sharper, with smaller radius corners, on the sign-off model than the production car:

      More like the facelifted car, in fact.

    3. Hi Daniel. Hmm, I’m not sure I perceive that difference. The sign-off model is in fibreglass and is a five door on the hidden side.

      You can see why they had second thoughts about the “six lite” 3dr style, as without the XR4i’s rear spoiler it looks a little unbalanced.

      Also, thanks for cleaning up the Imgur branding from my post. I find their user interface as baffling as ever!

    4. You’re welcome, John. I notice that, below the sills of the mock-up, there seems to be the same profile as on the production model. I wonder if the fibreglass body was mounted on a production floorpan?

    5. That’s a remarkable observation, Daniel! I’m not sure. It certainly looks like it.

      The model was for Ford’s so-called Go With One meeting where senior management committed (or not) to putting the presented design into production. Would the floor plan have been designed at that point, two years into the programme with three years to go? I don’t know.

  20. Only just come across this. One issue not mentioned is the aerodynamic instability of early production cars. A friend hired one at Geneva Airport and reckoned it was almost undrivabke on windy days. As I recall, this was fixed by converting the rubber frame to the rear quarter light into a sort of wing. If only there were any left you’d be able to see this feature on 1984/5/6 cars!

  21. Hi Glyn. As this series is specifically about good or bad facelifts, I didn’t bother to mention it but, yes, the early models were notoriously susceptible to crosswinds, as former UK Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, discovered to his cost on the M4, when he wrote off his new Sierra.

    The solution was, as you say, a slim strike fitted to the trailing edge of the rear side window to disrupt the airflow. On the pre-facelift cars, it was an obvious addition, being fixed by a couple of Phillips screws. Post-facelift cars had it better integrated (on the five-door, at least. It was always more obvious on the three-door.)

    Here are a couple of comparative photos of the three-door:


    The strake is visible on the facelifted car

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