A tale of two Toni’s.
For the Sierra, the path to stylistic approval was lengthy and difficult. Given the Ford Motor Company’s scale and multi-national status, it was normal procedure to involve its myriad international styling studios to submit proposals for commercially significant models. We therefore know that innumerable rival proposals for the Toni programme were evaluated before the Merkenich scheme was green-lighted in 1979, but less known are what they were like.
For decades, Ford of Britain designed and engineered its UK model offerings. However, by the latter part of the 1960s, Dearborn management elected to bring these two entities together, eyeing reduced development costs and a more unified offering to the public. In 1967, an engineering and style centre was opened at Dunton Wayletts, near Basildon in Essex. Here, engineers and stylists would work in concert with their equivalents in Merkenich, Cologne to produce pan-European Ford vehicles – although tensions over hierarchy would manifest themselves – a matter which would take some years to smooth over.
One reason for this was that the market requirements across mainland Europe and in Germany in particular, versus that of the United Kingdom were somewhat different, not least Britain’s strong reliance upon the business user. The fleet market was not just a hugely important component of Ford UK’s business, but was itself riven by insecurities around perceived hierarchies. The bulk of Ford UK’s sales were to fleets, and the model mix tended to reflect that bias. The cornerstone of this success would become codified by a single word: Cortina.
The 1976 Cortina/Taunus was the first to be visually unified for both UK and European markets. Designed in Cologne and credited to Patrick le Quément, under the supervision of Uwe Bahnsen, the 1976 design was particularly accomplished given that it was essentially a reskin of the outgoing Taunus model, sharing much of the inner structure and even (it appears) the doors. The precise, clean lines of this fourth generation sealed its visual appeal, while the proliferation of trim levels and engine sizes ensured a distinct and rigid social stratification.
A year later, with this fourth generation in production, Bob Lutz axed its mooted replacement. Starting anew, project Toni was planned as a more advanced product, reflecting the new, more high-tech image Lutz had in mind. But while the German studio was proposing a radical streamlined hatchback shape, inspired by Porsche’s Car of the Year winning 928, Ford’s rival satellite studios had altogether different ideas.
Jack Telnack’s Dearborn studios made a number of attempts, while Fillipo Sapino’s Ghia studio also submitted proposals. The Dunton design team however, led by Trevor Creed, presented the styling scheme seen below. A clean-lined, sober looking three volume saloon with a low waistline, tall canopy to body ratio and a prominent wrap-around rear screen, à la Orion. Viewed alongside the Merkenich proposal, it was a world apart in execution, but although it looked contemporary and ‘safe’, it was blandness personified.
According to historian and author, Steve Saxty, this design, well received by senior management, was subsequently massaged at Merkenich, lending it a revised nose and tail, the latter now with a hatchback arrangement. If anything, it was worse than the earlier proposal, but to Lutz and team-Bahnsen’s undoubted dismay, it was subsequently favoured by Henry Ford II.
Wiser council prevailed, for the market reception to the Dunton proposal risked an equal, if different backlash from customers, disappointed by a car which not only replaced a well-loved old stager, but failed to advance upon the well-regarded style of the Erika Escort. Merkenich’s Hohenester proposal eventually got the nod and the rest is infamy.
It could of course be argued that Ford’s Dunton styling team better understood the British customer, who was still deeply suspicious of anything bearing a whiff of the Avant Garde. Keeping up appearances, whether in the office car park, at the local Sainsbury’s or simply in the driveway of his suburban semi-detached on an overcast Saturday morning, while sponging down his three-volume chariot of aspiration mattered far more than being seen at anyone’s cutting edge.
But was bland the answer? After all, we should not forget that the Cortina in its ultimate form was not a bland design, even if over-familiarity led to something less than fascination. In fact, it was rather handsome, if starting to look rather dated by early 1980s standards. In some ways, what Creed and his team created was a dry-run for the 1994 Mondeo. But while a less radical style might have succeeded in Britain, it was less likely to do so elsewhere in Europe.
We should also not lose sight of the situation Ford of Europe found itself in at the time. By the late 1970s, Ford’s mainstream rivals were moving wholesale towards front-wheel drive, for reasons of efficiency, rationalisation and because, to a large extent, it was the direction of travel. For reasons of cost however, FoE were denied the investment which would have allowed engineers move with the times.
Had Ford introduced their Cortina successor with a conservative body style to match what was considered by then a dated technical layout, they would possibly have faced a critical mauling of a different variety from the automotive press. The Sierra’s radical shape however, meant that such matters would become secondary, since all anyone wanted to talk about was the style.
In 1982, there remained a sizeable gulf in perception between British and European tastes. A decade later, this had narrowed considerably. The 1994 Mondeo was a thoroughly modern design, cloaking a sophisticated chassis with a body style as anonymous as anything from the Far-East. Despite the criticism of the styling from elements of the UK press, the car was a success – although how much of a success is debatable, given the enormous cost of development. Times had changed, as had customer expectations. But at Ford, the divisions would remain.
Dunton remained a key part of Ford’s European operations. The XR cars, and models like the Capri 2.8i were developed there. Dunton was also home to SVO, the motorsport operation, and the RS division. Later, the previous generation Fiesta was designed there. Latterly, it has become Ford’s centre of excellence for commercial vehicles.
 The UK Cortina Mark III had different external pressings to the equivalent Taunus, so the advent of the ’76 car was a bigger step-change there.
 Hardly a coincidence; Trevor Creed was also responsible for the Orion exterior design.
 Patrick le Quément: “… it was just another model which I vaguely recall. For you see, there were so many models done to oppose the onward march of Sierra.”
 Perhaps this was team Bahnsen’s intention?
 The irony being that the press routinely lauded the likes of BMW and Mercedes for their technical sophistication, yet criticised mainstream makers for retaining rear-drive.
 There’s no pleasing some people.
Thanks to author, Steve Saxty for the Toni images. 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 www.stevesaxty.com/shop