Into the Vortex – Part Two

The headwinds intensify.

The Merkenich team discussing strategy at a Toni design review. Right to left: Uwe Bahnsen, Friedl Wülfing (Studio Chief), Patrick le Quément, Ray Everts and Dietrich Tenner (Chief modeler). Image (c) Steve Saxty

Early 1979, and as Patrick le Quément wraps up his assignment at Ford UK’s Dunton research centre for the Ford Cargo truck programme, he receives a summons back to Merkenich from Chief Designer, Ray Everts. [With] “6 months before the Go With Two[1] decision, I was asked to dedicate all my energy to the Toni project, for the battle was far from being won, there was much to do, to convince, to improve!”

Part of what Bob Lutz would later characterise as le Quément’s “decisive role” in the Toni design programme was to help build up a detailed analysis of Ford’s design strategy with a view to providing Uwe Bahnsen with the precise data he required to convince the Detroit board of the necessity for radical change. Using analysis and experience from both Erika and Cargo programmes (the latter a revolutionary design in itself), Everts, le Quément and the team concluded that promoting aerodynamic efficiency was the route to take. “We felt we were ready to appeal to our Lords and Masters for, after all, aerodynamics was to be had for free (or so we thought at the time), but it also gave us the opportunity to invent a brand new formal language and take a divergent route from the Me Too approach”.

Part of Bahnsen’s role here was to play the ‘Devil’s advocate’. While he did not oppose the direction the team were taking on the Toni design, on his weekly visits to the Merkenich studios, he routinely challenged their thinking; after all, as le Quément makes clear, in order to sell the design to a “Detroit soaked culture dominating senior management”, he first had to believe in it. But Bahnsen could be persuasive, because as a consummate professional, he was taken seriously. Having worked long and hard to gain for the design function the respect for which it was owed, the Ford design chief’s intelligence, professionalism and meticulous preparation ensured that “when Uwe spoke, people listened”.

But he was up against formidable opposition, and here, the enthusiastic support of Bob Lutz, who really got behind the Hohenester proposal would prove vital, especially when the Merkenich team was faced with a deluge of ultra-conservative Toni proposals from Ford outposts as diverse as Dearborn, Dunton and Turin (Ghia). Another key supporter of the Merkenich design proposal was senior US Ford Executive, Don Petersen. Departing on a flight back to Detroit, Lutz handed him a small photo of the Hohenester proposal, bearing the legend, “View daily until familiarity is achieved.” His strategy seemed to work, Petersen also coming on-side and subsequently becoming a cheerleader for progressive design in the Dearborn studios[2].

“View daily until familiarity is achieved”. Image:

Despite a less than effusive reaction from God[3] himself at a Toni presentation, Bahnsen, Lutz and the Merkenich design team were able to celebrate their design’s approval in late 1979. During customer clinics carried out prior to Sierra’s introduction, potential customers, shown unbadged prototypes are said to have routinely miscalculated the price, believing it to be a far more expensive car[4]. Yet despite this positive advance data, and the broadly warm response the Sierra received in Europe, the acutely negative reaction following the car’s UK market introduction in 1982 was hugely discouraging for all concerned.

Patrick le Quément however remains quite unequivocal about the leap of faith they were making. “Irrespective of whatever style [was] involved, the Sierra strategy was very risky from the very first day. Namely, it was based on replacing the Cortina, the UK best seller, by a 5 door hatch. Clearly, Ford senior management made an error; it would have been so much easier to launch both a saloon as well as a hatchback, knowing that 5 door hatchbacks were popular in the rest of Europe, [while] the notchback was dominant in the UK where Ford made their big profits”.

As reports of customer dissatisfaction with Sierra’s styling reached the mainstream UK news desks, the press began running negative reports on Ford’s controversial Jellymould. Adding further fuel to the fire were revelations of the Sierra’s aerodynamic instability. As le Quément recounts, Ford’s (former BMW) lead aerodynamicist on the Toni programme, Lutz Jansen, “did not identify any problem during the model development phase.” The phenomenon it would appear, emerged on prototypes during proving. “I do recall the concern over the issue”, le Quément recalls, “the annoyance of Uwe Bahnsen, and having to solve the issue with some tacky add-ons”.

Image: (c) Steve Saxty

But not all Sierra models we so afflicted, the high performance XR4 model with its novel bi-plane rear wing proving more aero-efficient than the standard hatch. “Indeed the bi-plane rear wing was highly effective by reducing significantly the drag and giving additional downforce. The base car had a cd of 0.32 which was already 20% down on average European cars and, let’s not forget that the Cortina had a cd of 0.45[5]”.

Patrick le Quément alongside the Probe III concept which previewed Sierra. Note bi-plane rear wing. Image (c) Steve Saxty.

So how did the bi-plane wing work? “The upper wing caused an increase in the flow speed beneath it, resulting in a far better flow attachment down the hatch, thus increasing the pressure on the lower wing which acted as a spoiler. Even if it was a rather bold design, we elected to go ahead, as the trials at the Lommel Proving Ground (with and without bi-plane) were highly conclusive. The car changed into a highly enjoyable well handling car which contributed to stability at very high speed”.

But while the Sierra’s aerodynamic performance would prove a good deal more nuanced than the cut and dried scenario frequently asserted, Ford’s senior designers were not out of the Vortex yet. Not by some distance.

Continue reading.

[1] Patrick le Quément: “In the development process there are 4 key phases, whereby in the first presentation there might be up to 6 or even 7 models shown for Design Direction. At this point 2 designs are selected, called officially Go with Two, whereby it may be asked to jostle together a combination of 2 different models blended into one. There follows a Go with One selection where minor modifications may still be asked, which is then followed by Model Freeze”.

[2] Petersen would also became pivotal in backing Ray Everts’ Taurus/ Sable design, which proved a huge commercial success in the US. He also (briefly) became CEO. 

[3] Henry Ford II was frequently referred to by his minions as God. He is reputed to have detested the Merkenich proposal. 

[4] Source: Cars : Freedom Style Sex Power Motion Colour everything. Stephen Bayley (Conran Octopus).

[5] The 1976 Mark IV Cortina exterior design was carried out by le Quément.


Our thanks once more to Patrick le Quément for his kind assistance.

Thanks also to author, Steve Saxty for his assistance with image sourcing. Steve Saxty’s books detail the design and product planning of Ford cars, like the Sierra. Readers can get 10% discount – plus free UK shipping – at


©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

28 thoughts on “Into the Vortex – Part Two”

  1. I presume everyone is familiar with the Wheeler Dealer episode where Ant Anstead builds a third wing for an Escort Cosworth, with input from designer Frank Stephenson.

    1. Since the bi-plane wing wasn’t used on the Sierra Cosworth, I assumed at the time that it was mainly cosmetic.

  2. Good morning Eóin. As your investigation reveals, the Sierra really was a unicorn in the history of mainstream car design and production, at least in stylistic terms. It was the product of a rare courageousness on the part of Ford senior management, taking a huge commercial risk with such a critical model for its profitability. It could have gone quite differently, as revealed by the silver model in the background of your header image, which features a much more conventional front end.

    1. The grille between the headlights also appeared on Sierras sold in Spain, both in 4 and 5 door form. I think it was part of a mini restyling for the final years of the Sierra range.
      About Linda, for me it has a bit of Ford Australia in the front, and Saab 9000 in the rear.

  3. In true sexist 1970s fashion, Ford’s model programmes in those days were named after favoured secretaries. I believe the silver model in the first image is from Project Linda, which was usurped by the much more radical Project Toni.

    I sometimes wonder what the authors of the brave original Sierra really thought about the rather fussy looking car it eventually became.

    1. The mini-grille inserted between the headlights on the Sapphire really is an insult to the original design.

    2. Project Linda looks not unlike the Austin Montego, noting in particular the quasi-wrap-around rear glass effect.

    3. Weirdly, that grille only featured on UK and RoI (and South African) four-door Sierras. Mainland European cars got the standard frontal treatment:

      Were buyers in the British Isles deemed to be so conservative that the absence of a grille would have ruled the car out for them? Very strange thinking.

    4. Indeed, Daniel! There were some markets that were so conservative Ford put that grille on the entire line-up, not only the sedan.

      Remember, these were the peculiar times the public couldn’t live without a grille between the headlights. Even VW had to put one on the refreshed B4 Passat because of supposed public pressure after the grille-less B3 Passat.

    5. It’s funny that you should mention that, Ingvar; I was just looking at an advert for PlQ’s book (looks very interesting, I must say), and it seems that one proposal for the MK3 Golf didn’t have a grille. I think it looks really good. Here’s the advert for the book:

      Can’t someone commission PlQ to do some EVs?

    6. I’ll try doing that link again.

      I wonder if anyone has thought about doing a replica Probe (exterior, at least), using a Sierra.

    7. According to the caption, it is a design review of project Toni, not Linda.

      As the text of the article clearly refers to “ultra-conservative Toni proposals from Ford outposts as diverse as Dearborn, Dunton and Turin (Ghia)”, which alternate Toni proposal would that be?

  4. Many, many moons ago on a visit to the Design Museum, I picked this very interesting booklet.
    It doesn’t focus on the design itself, but rather on the whole process from inception to production.

  5. I always thought it was a few details rather than the absolute whole that led to the jellymould moniker.

    To me – the cost-cutting use a generic hole into which you fitted the pov-spec/ghia grille part added pointless shut lines and made it look partly like it was made from Lego and part like it was a cheap fibreglass mobility car. That, along with the weird height of both the scuttle and high top edge of the windscreen added to that ‘prototype-not-final-version’ feel and overall whalelike feel.

    If the headlights had been flush with the wings and bonnet (as with the Mk2), the windscreen shifted down only an inch or so and the rounded corner of the scuttle had been tightened I think it would have been far more handsome. I did a quick photoshop to illustrate:

    Also – the XR4i ‘coupé’ windows could have stood to be a couple more inches longer with a smaller rear quarter, and it actually achieves the desired coupé look.

    So for me the weaknesses were all down to the bean counters and windtunnel.

    1. Strictly speaking a proper Sierra coupé was made in form of the RS200.
      Following Group B rules windscreen, A and B posts with the part of the roof between them and the doors were taken from a production car – in this case the Sierra.

      Ford as experienced master of ‘free interpretation’ of homologation rules found a loophole allowing them to cut a couple of centimetres off the bottom of the doors.

  6. Forgive the rather puerile observation, but did PlQ select his outfit to match the Probe III he is standing next to, or vice versa? Either way, it’s all a bit beige on beige.

    But, I’m trivialising an important series, one that adds first hand insight from sources to the body of material written on this important model in the history of Ford Europe and the wider industry. I really appreciate the material here and observations.

    1. SV: “Forgive the rather puerile observation, but did PlQ select his outfit to match the Probe III he is standing next to, or vice versa?”

      I can inform you that Mr. le Quément has requested that I reply in the affirmative.

    2. Hi Eóin, thanks for the message – your response, and that of M. le Quément, has made my day. Does anyone else remember ‘Colour me Beautiful?’ …

  7. I’ve just noticed the Probe III has considerably more front overhang than the Sierra, so its bonnet is more horizontal. In this regard alone the production Sierra seems more radical and less conservative than the concept. I find that curious.

    1. Considering how similar it looks to the production model I wouldn’t be surprised if they used a pre-production body-in-white for the Probe III concept. Because of all the fairings and plastic cladding, I would guess everything in front of the A-pillar is mock-up fibreglass.

  8. Gert Hohenester worked at Opel before he joined Ford and drew the original Sierra concept. I wonder if he had a hand in their grill-less 1970s models such as the Ascona/Cavalier?

  9. This series came up in another thread, but I think this video particularly resonates at this juncture.

    1. Thank you for the video, very interesting to see these guys talking, and see how they think. Some were very impressive and some were not.

  10. I may be wrong but I don’t believe that the Group B rules did require production parts for the RS200. As I understand, it was a marketing desire to link the car to then current Ford design trends.

    I suspect it may have been a concern when other Group B cars did have a passing resemblance to a model in their manufacturer’s range, best demo strated by the first evolution Peugeot 205 T16.

  11. Interesting insight but I think a couple of factors are omitted in it’s early struggles. At launch, only the Ghia trim level got the nice doublewidth headlights, the lesser (i.e. more popular trim levels) got the single light/grille combo – as per photo above – & as if that weren’t bad enough, on launch 1.6L’s, these were unpainted which not only looked feckin awful but seemed to (very publicly) punish customers for not buying top spec, as if challenge of selling such a radical departure from popular predecessor wasn’t already enough; CATASTROPHIC product (rather than design) management.
    I do remember the aero issues (& ‘elephant ears’ is a harsh description for what was actually a small change) but even before that weren’t there other issues related to subframes? Minor knocks could result in massive repair bills, one joke I remember from the schoolyard “What do you call a red Sierra? Raspberry ripple”

    We were a Ford family: mum loved her Escort 3 & Dad his Cortina 5. Whilst we did end up with a late Sierra 1, he consoled himself with a Granada meantime. I suspect we got the Sierra because that was the lesser of two evils when the Scorpio came out…

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