The vortex claims its sacrifice.
Despite what Uwe Bahnsen later stated publicly, both he and his design team were placed squarely in the firing line as Sierra’s disappointing early sales figures were thrown in their faces, as Patrick le Quément recalls: “Design was the centre of acrimony, we had designed a car that started slowly in the UK, the cash-cow land of Ford in Europe. We entered very difficult times”.
Having taken something of a leap of faith with Sierra rather than their usual practice of exhaustive market research, Dearborn’s executives wanted someone’s head. Bahnsen would be a convenient choice and at a Star Chamber interrogation at Merkenich, chaired by Detroit Ford executive, Harold A. (Red) Poling, and witnessed by a horrified le Quément, they got their man. “The end of Uwe Bahnsen’s career was a tragedy and they almost managed to break him, but he left, dignified and became head of Art Center Europe in Switzerland”.
Ironically, Sierra’s slow early sales performance recovered, and by mid-decade the car was selling as strongly in the UK, as elsewhere. Nevertheless, le Quément was understandably ambivalent about overseeing its mid-cycle facelift, especially given the ill-feeling which now permeated. The challenge as he put it was “to retain the forward-thinking design statement of the original Sierra and yet give it a more taut and precise personality”.
The revised car was also notable for the debut of a three-volume saloon version, which in one aspect at least tipped its hat to the products of Sindelfingen. “For sure, I do recall that when we designed the 4-door Sierra sedan, we were somewhat inspired by the chamfered planes that featured on the rear deck-lid of the Mercedes 190, but that’s about it.” Homage or not, the resultant design (called the Sierra Sapphire in the UK) was very well received and continued the model’s upward sales trajectory, soon outselling the hatchback in Britain.
But for the Frenchman, too much damage had been done. “The atmosphere was so awful, I began to think about jumping ship.” Ford management’s intention had been to groom him to succeed Bahnsen, but le Quément realised he had reached a watershed. “I could not face two years living in the Ford American Design Centre, knowing that a crisis was going on in Europe and that Uwe Bahnsen was being treated in the most dreadful manner.” During 1985, the front cover of Automotive News Europe would subsequently announce le Quément’s departure to VW Audi and the fact that 16 Ford designers also left in rapid succession. Ford’s loss would be the wider industry’s gain, since many of these individuals would go on to significant design careers elsewhere.
The experience left an indelible mark on le Quément. “It totally shaped my future behaviour/strategy as a designer. I went on to pursue the goal that I shared with Uwe of positioning the Design Department into a more strategic role, knowing that this was not possible within Ford for a long time to come.” Andy Jacobson, le Quément’s former deputy, would be elevated to succeed Bahnsen in the wake of both men’s departure, and with Ford’s Market Research function firmly back in the driving seat, design took a palpable step backwards. Dearborn’s ham-fisted pogroms would come back to bite them.
Small wonder therefore that by 1995, Ford’s design centre would languish in a lowly 15th place in a global list of desirable auto studio environments. The leading place? Renault, at the time headed by le Quément. Such irony.
The Sierra was to prove a landmark design, for although others embraced softer forms and aerodynamic shapes, Ford were amongst the first truly mainstream carmakers to do so overtly. The Sierra, it could be argued then, carried out a lot of the heavy lifting to habituate the wider market to more radical design. Its broader significance in the pantheon therefore cannot be underestimated.
But automotive design is a collaborative process. As such, both successes and failures must be faced collectively. The fact that senior management ran away from collective responsibility for the Sierra’s early weaknesses, blamed the design team and hid behind the persecution of “an honourable man” speaks very poorly, not only of the individuals concerned, but of Ford, both as a business culture and an employer.
The impact of the Sierra, despite its early controversies lent the blue oval a significant and palpable image boost across Europe, catapulting them (for a brief time at least) into a design leadership position. We should not forget either that it was ultimately a commercial success. But for Uwe Bahnsen, not to mention Patrick le Quément, this would come at too high a price.
You enter the vortex at your peril.
Uwe Bahnsen remained at Merkenich until he took up his appointment in Art Centre in Switzerland during 1986. He will be profiled more fully on DTW in a separate article.
Patrick le Quément was appointed Chief Designer (second in command to Bahnsen) in early 1981. At the time that the campaign against Uwe Bahnsen was at its height, he received an offer from Volkswagen-Audi which he accepted in July 1985. He subsequently became Senior Vice President of Design at Renault in 1987 until his retirement in 2009. He is now a naval architect of considerable renown and a valued contributor to design theory and the historical record.
Despite what Jack Telnack might say, Ray Everts was the key design lead and principal lynchpin behind the 1986 Taurus/ Sable, but has since been airbrushed out of history by those whose behaviour can best be characterised by what le Quément refers to as, “Les dents qui rayent le parquet”. Following Everts’ stint at Dearborn, he became a successful consultant, working for a number of carmakers in Europe and the Far East.
Klaus Kapitza subsequently departed Merkenich for BMW, where working under the direction of Claus Luthe, he was responsible for amongst other designs, the exterior of the E31 8-Series.
Gert Hohnester remained at Merkenich but was scapegoated for the poor reception of the 1994 Ford Scorpio design. “An attempt was made to fire Gert, or rather to offer him an early retirement package which he refused. He took a lawyer and attacked Ford and they lost, and so he was reinstated. He remained there in a ‘non job’ until his retirement. A fate worse than death”. History repeats itself.
Bob Lutz surely requires no introduction.
 Red Poling was latterly described by Lutz as “the bean counter’s bean counter” He would later become Ford Motor Company CEO.
 Patrick le Quément: “Dr Hahn of the Volkswagen Audi-Group proposed that I should join Volkswagen in a group role as head of Advanced, lasting for a 2 year period, before becoming the first overall head of Group Design, which at the time was made up of Volkswagen-Audi and Seat”.
 Patrick le Quément: “Over many years I have quoted David Ogilvy’s famous remark on market research (or clinics to some), which I discovered pinned on a board when I taught at The RCA : « Most companies use market research like a drunkard uses a lamp-post, more for support rather than illumination ».”
 As Uwe Bahnsen later pointed out in interview, the decision to proceed with Sierra was taken jointly by the product committee.
Driven to Write extends its grateful thanks to Patrick le Quément for his assistance, insight and candour throughout the research and creation of this series.
My thanks also to Christopher Butt, for his generous assistance.
Thanks to author, Steve Saxty for his help 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 www.stevesaxty.com/shop
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