In a three part series, Patrick le Quément speaks exclusively to DTW about the Ford Sierra’s troubled genesis.
All car designers set out to create beautiful objects, not simply for artistic reasons, but for commercial ones too. After all, a beautiful car is more than usually a successful one. But like success, beauty has many parents and midwives, whereas failure (and ugliness for that matter) is almost always an orphan.
Automotive design is a collaborative process, requiring no small measures of vision, craft, intelligence and determination, but in the final analysis, it requires a consensus; after all, no modern car design can be decided upon by a single individual. But with the cost of failure so high, the process can often appear as something more akin to an act of faith.
During the 1970s, risk-aversion was Ford of Europe’s operative modus. Marrying proven, conventionally engineered hardware, with fashionable, durable styling and a wide range of engines, body styles and trim levels, all backed by exhaustive market research, this formula proved successful, even if the cars themselves were not always the sophisticate’s choice.
The 1982 Ford Sierra marked a pivotal shift from this iterative pathway and its uncompromising appearance precipitated an unprecedented aesthetic revolt from traditional Ford buyers, elements of the motor press and fleet managers alike, unwilling to buy into the designers’ vision.
The background to the Sierra (codenamed Toni) lay in the late-’70s drive towards efficiency; advances in areas such as turbocharging, solid state electronics and aerodynamics becoming key areas of research and development. But in purely market-driven terms, no carmaker could be seen to ignore the growing importance of these technologies in helping shift perceptions, in creating the desire for the new.
Change was in the air. The success of the progressive front-driven Fiesta, led to the supervisory board sanctioning Klaus Kapitza’s sharp-suited, bustle-tailed Erika (Escort) design for 1980. But Ford of Europe Vice President of Design, Uwe Bahnsen and his senior designers wanted to move the dial still further – their ambition being for outright design leadership.
Hundreds of people would ultimately become involved in the process of designing and productionising the Sierra, but the key figures behind its creation were as follows:
Uwe Bahnsen: Ford of Europe Vice President – Design.
Ray Everts: Ford of Europe Chief Designer – Exterior Design.
Patrick le Quément: Ford of Europe Executive Designer – Exterior Design.
Klaus Kapitza: Senior Exterior Designer.
Gert Hohenester: Senior Exterior Designer – later design Manager.
Lutz Jansen: Lead Aerodynamicist.
Bob Lutz: Ford of Europe – Director of Operations (Sales/Marketing).
Patrick le Quément recalls the design sensibility at Merkenich at the time: “The Ford Designers were thoroughly European in their design references, not rejecting US designs but feeling that there were two worlds apart. Hence the fact that we looked with far greater interest at what was happening on the European scene, be it from Italian coachbuilders or forward thinking European manufacturers”.
But before any definitive work on Toni could take place, a design philosophy was first established. This came primarily from Chief Designer, Ray Everts, who was, “the thinker, the person who led the team towards a new design direction, which included the analysis of the greenhouse on the move”. Everts, who in his earlier career had been responsible for a number of highly streamlined designs, would be instrumental in the shift in ethos away from the defined surfacing of Erika towards more fluid shapes.
This influence was brought to bear upon senior designer, Klaus Kapitza. “He [Kapitza] was enamoured with fluid shapes, I would say that he was the great influence in the Merkenich studio at the time, as he took over my role as the man responsible for the Forward Design Studio when I left for an assignment in Ford Dunton. Klaus was an excellent designer but he was a taciturn, sombre fellow who was not strategically oriented. He just drew beautiful cars”.
Another to be taken by Everts’ cerebral approach was Gert Hohenester, who up to that point “had designed very crisp and remarkably proportioned models. Gert came up with the Porsche approach, the man who designed the first model that carried all the traits that were maintained until the production car”.
As the Sierra’s design theme began to be teased out, Uwe Bahnsen, who understood just how difficult it would be to shift hidebound perceptions amid senior management took the prudent strategic decision to include Ford’s newly appointed (former BMW) Head of Operations, Bob Lutz in the process. Patrick le Quement: “He had no official role in the product development at that time, but he was invited to the Design Center by Bahnsen as it was known how much of an eye he had for design”. Lutz would become a pivotal part of the story – “Sierra could not have happened without him” – and his backing for the design was crucial, since he carried a good deal of weight in Dearborn; Henry Ford II trusting Lutz’s judgement, which proved vital to the Sierra’s chances.
But despite getting Lutz on board, Bahnsen himself needed to be convinced, not just of the merits of the proposal, but that his team had composed a compelling enough narrative to sell the design to a highly sceptical and pathologically risk-averse Ford supervisory committee. The preferred Sierra designs may have emerged, but this was just the beginning of the process.
It was now time to enter the vortex.
Our grateful thanks to Patrick le Quément for sharing his recollections of the Sierra programme exclusively with us on Driven to Write.
 Patrick le Quément: “The greenhouse on the move was a chapter in a design analysis which documented the gradual evolution of exterior design, one notable point being that the cowl intersection with the hood was continuously moving forward, shortening the hood, but also hinting at the ultimate move towards ‘one box designs’”.
 Patrick le Quément: “Gert was enamoured by the Anatole Lapine Porsche 928, with its voluptuous sculpture and unusual for the time treatment of the rear pillars. Gert came up with the 3 door version which was the base of the XR4 body. This 3 door version was planned to become the regular body for the 3 door market but, it was decided that a last minute change should be made to the tooling and the central (B) pillar should be eliminated to improve visibility. This was never mentioned or published… Indeed, such a design would never have come up naturally, it felt unbalanced to have such a long rear window.”
 Patrick le Quément: “Bob Lutz mastered several languages which included the design language”.
©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.