Ford of Europe bets its future on a car that appears truly radical.
Exactly forty years ago, the European automotive landscape was upended by a new car that looked like nothing we had seen before. Even more surprising was that it came from Ford, that most conservative of automakers, which had made its fortune from producing cars that were… just as expected. Ford was emphatically not in the business of challenging its customers’ expectations, but meeting them head-on.
The company’s ultra-cautious approach to product development had created generations of cars that were only modestly and iteratively updated from their predecessors. This suited both conservative private buyers and cost-conscious fleet operators, for whom reliability and low running costs were by far and away the most important factors for them to consider in choosing a new car.
Ford might have followed both automotive fashion and advances in technology, but it did so from a safe distance. It was the very antithesis of, for example, Citroën or Lancia, two manufacturers that continually pushed the boundaries of what was possible in technical and aesthetic terms and, as a consequence, often tested the patience and loyalty of their customers in so doing. The wildly oscillating financial performance of both automakers and their regular brushes with bankruptcy was something that a company like Ford would never countenance.
The Cortina was the car that exemplified Ford’s ‘value engineering’ approach to its products. Introduced in 1962, it was light, efficient and simple to build. It handled, steered and rode adequately well and was reasonably comfortable and economical. The mechanicals were simple enough that anyone reasonably proficient with a set of spanners could maintain it in good condition. It enjoyed some stardust from the high-performance Lotus Cortina, but it was at heart simple and reliable family transport, nothing more and nothing less.
Four(1) further generations of Cortina would follow, each one developing and refining the formula just as much as was necessary to keep the car competitive. Ford also perfected the art of differentiation, producing a broad range of trim and engine variants, from the poverty-spec 1.3-litre L to the fully-loaded 2.3-litre Ghia, so providing not only a car for every budget, but also a ladder of aspiration for owners and users to climb.
Ford’s domination of the medium-sized saloon and estate market segment was, in the UK at least, aided by a distinct lack of serious competition from domestic(2) automakers. Vauxhall had always seemed to shy away from taking on the Cortina directly. In the 1970s, it was essentially a two-model manufacturer, and both the Viva and Victor were half a size larger than the Escort and Cortina respectively.
In 1971, British Leyland belatedly introduced the Morris Marina, which had been benchmarked against the Cortina Mk2. By the time it reached production, Ford had already moved the game on with the 1970 Cortina Mk3. Although no longer overall than the Mk2, it was significantly roomier inside, thanks to a 76mm (3”) stretch in the wheelbase to 2,565mm (101”). By comparison, the Marina’s wheelbase was just 2,438mm (96”) long and some of its engineering was pretty outdated even at launch. That, and British Leyland’s woeful reputation for build quality, militated against the Marina, although it still sold well enough
Ford’s only other UK-manufactured competitor was Chrysler Europe’s Hillman Hunter, a conventionally engineered saloon and estate that had been introduced in 1966 and not meaningfully updated since. It was not a bad car, but now quite outdated and outclassed. Neither the Victor, Marina or the Hunter ever seriously challenged the Cortina’s sales success.
In Europe, however, the Ford Taunus TC2(3) did have a direct competitor in the 1975 Opel Ascona B. The Ascona was just 20mm (¾”) shorter than the Taunus and was a handsome looking conventionally-engineered two and four-door saloon with a good reputation for reliability. GM saw an opportunity to make a pitch for the valuable company car market in the UK, then dominated by the Cortina, and redesigned the Ascona B with a ‘droop-snoot’ front end to become the Vauxhall Cavalier. The Cavalier immediately began to make inroads into this market, threatening the Cortina’s hegemony.
This would not be the only threat Ford would face. By the late 1970s there was a notable shift in the European automotive market. Growing affluence amongst Ford’s traditional customers was raising their expectations. Increasingly attractive and sophisticated cars were coming onto the market and levels of reliability had improved to the extent that buyers were no longer frightened of technical complexity and, in particular, of front-wheel-drive. Ford’s traditional strength of simplicity and reliability was diminishing in importance and the ‘Dagenham Dustbin’ jibe often levelled at its cars was really beginning to hurt. Even the upmarket Ghia variants were increasingly regarded as slightly tawdry and lacking in genuine class.
Ford had, of course, already embraced transverse engines and front-wheel-drive in its 1976 Fiesta Mk1 and would do so again with the 1980 Escort Mk3, but the packaging benefits were less significant in larger cars, so the decision was taken early in the development of a replacement for the Cortina to stick with rear-wheel-drive. Instead, Ford would wow potential customers with a design so apparently sophisticated and futuristic that it would radically change the market’s perception of the company and its products. The Cortina name would also be banished to history and a new name, Sierra, would lead the company into its brave new future.
Championed by Robert Lutz, Ford’s Director of operations, the Sierra was designed to take on the upper-middle class European marques in sophistication and appeal. Lutz wanted a more dynamic image, especially in Germany, where the ageing Taunus/ Cortina model was viewed as a throwback. Work on Project Toni, as the new model was codenamed, started in Ford’s Köln-Merkenich studios in 1977, with styling overseen by Ford’s European Vice-President of design, Uwe Bahnsen.
At the same time in Rüsselsheim, Opel was pondering its replacement for the Ascona B / Cavalier Mk1. Like Ford, it would switch to transverse engines and front-wheel-drive for its smaller models, the 1979 Kadett B and 1982 Corsa A. Unlike Ford, however, its Cortina rival would also make the switch.
The Ascona C and Cavalier Mk2 were launched in August 1981 as part of GM’s global J-Car programme. The revolution that had taken place under the skin was hidden beneath a crisp, handsome and totally contemporary bodystyle that was an uncontroversial evolution of its predecessor. To emphasise its continuity, both the Ascona and Cavalier names would be retained. Moreover, the new model was offered in both two and four-door saloon and five-door hatchback variants, ensuring that all bases(4) were covered.
Prior to the launch of the Sierra, there were conservative voices within Ford who worried that the radical look of the new car would alienate traditional buyers. Ford attempted to prepare the market for the Sierra’s arrival by releasing a concept car in September 1981, exactly a year before the production model’s unveiling. The concept, dubbed Probe III, looked extraordinarily futuristic but was essentially the already finalised production model dressed up with a different front end, faired in door mirrors and rear wheels and other aerodynamic addenda, including the double rear spoiler that would appear on performance versions of the Sierra, in order to achieve a remarkably low Cd of just 0.25.
Despite it being widely trailed, the production Sierra was still a real shock when it was unveiled in September 1982. Not only did it look nothing like a Cortina, or anything else on the road, but it was a hatchback with no saloon alternative. This was at a time when conservative buyers still regarded a separate boot as a necessity on a ‘proper’ car, so was a risky call on Ford’s part.
And so, the battle lines were drawn. Which automaker would prevail: GM Europe, with the Ascona / Cavalier, its conservatively handsome front-wheel-drive challenger, or Ford Europe, with the Sierra, its radical aero looks concealing a conventional if well-engineered mechanical package?
The story will continue in Part Two shortly.
(1) The Mk5, more correctly known as the Cortina ’80, was a heavily re-engineered Mk4 with a new, flatter roof and deeper side windows.
(2) Readers might wonder about the emphasis on UK-manufactured competitors. The reason for this is that, even as late as the 1970s, many British private buyers and fleet operators still demonstrated a notable preference for locally built cars over imports.
(3) From 1976 on, the new Cortina Mk4 and Taunus TC2 were identical cars, apart from badging and minor trim variations.
(4) Apart from an estate, however. GM assumed the larger Rekord / Carlton estate would suffice, but in 1983 it began importing an estate version of the J-Car from Australia, where it was sold as the Holden Camira. It would not prove to be a sales success.