I Don’t Think You’re Ready for This Jelly

Sierra: brave or foolish?

Image: autoevolution

The Sierra came about on account of two intersecting imperatives. Head of Ford’s European operations, Bob Lutz had brought from BMW a sophisticated understanding of the semiotics of automotive desire; his avowed intention being to completely transform Ford’s image, especially in the West German market. This would dovetail with the determination of FoE’s Design VP, Uwe Bahnsen, to become market leaders in design innovation terms.

Having accepted Lutz and Uwe Bahnsen’s arguments for a radical design shift, the blue oval threw the might of its developmental and manufacturing capabilities into Sierra, but somehow one anomaly eluded their consideration – perfidious Albion. The British customer’s love affair with the outgoing Cortina had by 1982, metastasised into national treasure-hood[1], and perversely, realising its days were numbered, the UK market doubled-down, both in sentiment and sales.

In loving memory. Image: masbukti

As numb shock gave way to horror, tabloid newspaper reports grew of loyal Cortina owners expressing outrage over what they derided as an amorphous blob. Lurking in the background may also have been a faint whiff of xenophobia, the Cortina being perceived as a fundamentally British car, skewered by a European usurper. Despite Ford’s product strategists being hailed as amongst the savviest in the business, they were found to have feet of clay.

UK weekly, Motor’s view in July 1983 was not untypical[2], stating in print that Sierra’s styling was “the gamble that has misfired.” Staff writer, David Vivian went on to suggest that “in most potential customers’ eyes – and they include plenty of hard-nosed fleet buyers – the Sierra looks like a blancmange evicted from its mould half an hour too soon”. Despite expressing his personal admiration for the design, Vivian posited that Ford might be considering a reskin. This was of course a piece of groundless speculation – Sierra being broadly well received elsewhere in Europe, outselling the Taunus three to one in Germany for instance[3].

But while the private UK buyer might have looked askance at what was being presented, for the fleet operator, styling was of minor consequence, outside of how it might affect the car’s resale. For fleet managers, cost was paramount, but in this area, the Sierra did not make a sufficiently strong case for itself[4], a factor which played a greater role in the car’s lukewarm UK sales than the fact that half the country seemingly loathed the shape.

Sensing weakness, it is said that GM’s UK management offered Cavaliers at advantageous rates to fleet operators, forcing Ford, already spending £millions on sales support and incentives to maintain market share to dig deeper – steadily eating into Sierra’s already wobbly margins. And with Ford struggling to deal with the early build and quality issues with the car, Sierra fell a good deal short of the highly ambitious sales volumes predicted for the model[5].

The turnaround took three years, but by its mid-cycle refresh, the Sierra’s perception had recovered and by the latter-end of the decade, with the better-accepted second-series car in the marketplace, residual values were tracking higher than those of Cavalier, with running costs virtually neck and neck[6].

While the Sierra’s original styling certainly didn’t go over as well as hoped, it was not the only factor which counted against it. Failings in design, production engineering, on-road proving, in marketing and in product planning all took their toll, since a good many of the Sierra’s baked-in problems could have been identified and averted before launch.

Moreover, Sierra as launched lacked competitive powertrains[7]. The basic 1.3-2.0 litre engines were old and lacklustre, the V6 too large for many taxation regimes and Ford were completely wrongfooted on diesel, which was by then rapidly becoming pivotal for high-mileage business users. The 2.3 litre DERV unit was hopelessly outclassed by the opposition. This speaks of a failure of oversight, market intelligence and a tightwad mentality. It didn’t serve them well.

Ford was used to success, expected nothing less. The Sierra took time to become accepted, a concept outside of the Dearborn lexicon. Ford management’s somewhat hysterical reaction to the Sierra’s disappointing early sales was perhaps consequence of having taken a hesitant step well outside their habitual comfort zone, but led to a raft of knee-jerk reactions which came with significant consequences.

A brain-drain of their finest design talent, the dismissal of a hugely respected design leader and a wholesale retrenchment into uninspired, by-the-numbers product. Worse still, owing to the $millions incurred by early sales support, subsequent costs were ruthlessly pruned, in particular from the 1991 Escort programme – decision which would bite them hard as the motor press justifiably savaged the car. Bob Lutz too would became inextricably tainted by the fallout, in addition to being further tarred by the failure of the Merkur programme in the US which he also championed. He too would depart.

Image: lenouvelautomobiliste.fr

The Sierra was a pioneering car for Ford in a number of ways and its story illustrates why carmakers generally try to move forward incrementally. Innovation is difficult, expensive and more than usually comes with all manner of unintended consequences. But even if Ford tried, they simply could not turn back the clock.

Brave or foolish? A fine line exists between the two states. One can ask whether Sierra was the right car for Ford in 1982? One can also query whether the blue oval was even capable of making the kind of car Bob Lutz had in mind, or if it was the appropriate course of action to have done so. There is more than one answer to this, but ultimately, these questions serve no purpose. This is the car they built and these were the consequences of their actions. The Sierra changed Ford for good. Surely that is enough.

[1] Cortina ’80 (dubbed Teresa at Ford) was a stop-gap face and canopy-lift to buy time while Sierra was developed. Dynamically, it was pretty unsophisticated (although it was okay to drive). 

[2] Despite his comments on its style, Motor’s David Vivian went on to laud the Sierra: “…it’s the most effective volume car Ford have ever made; a car vastly superior to the Cortina in performance, economy, refinement, handling, ride and packaging…”

[3] Ford would end up selling over 2.7m Sierras worldwide, 1.3m of those in the UK. Hardly a failure.

[4] The GM J-Car was cheaper to run, took less time to repair and had a better spread of body styles and engines – particularly diesel. It also didn’t scare the horses. 

[5] Car magazine stated that the Sierra’s inability to meet sales targets precipitated the closure of Ford’s historic Marina plant in Cork, and layoffs elsewhere. One alternate reality might have been to have retained Cortina in production in Cork for the home and UK fleet market until Sierra became firmly established. Instead Ford pumped $millions into robotics to build the Sierra in Cork, only to shut it down two years later. But everyone’s a genius in hindsight.

[6] Source: Car magazine.

[7] What took Ford so long to adopt the CVH engine family for an in-line installation remains a mystery. 


Sources: Steve Saxty/ Car Magazine/ Motor

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

30 thoughts on “I Don’t Think You’re Ready for This Jelly”

  1. ” Sierra being broadly well received elsewhere in Europe, outselling the Taunus three to one in Germany for instance.”
    This is not reported enough, the Sierra only ‘failed’ in Britain.

    1. I can’t really see almost half of all cars produced being sold in single market being a failure? The question is, why didn’t the Sierra sell as well globally as on the UK market?

    2. I was going to say. Eoin probably identifies the key problem with the car, it was not seen as British. The Cortina fitted in with the UK´s urban landscape and the Sierra didn´t, much like the Citroen CX didn´t. From a marketing point of view, GM managed to move with the the times an completely non-scary way. However, we don´t talk about the Cavalier that much, do we?

    3. The Sierra didn’t sell well out of Europe because it wasn’t sold there. The markets where the Cortina were sold in the Asia Pacific were given over to the Ford Telstar, cheaper to source from Japan, and available in booted form from the start. The only major market it was sold in outside Europe was South Africa, where it didn’t flop but also wasn’t a huge success.

    4. “However, we don´t talk about the Cavalier that much, do we?”


      One of many things one can say about the Sierra is that it simply signifies changing times: times when it simply wasn’t feasible to develop a car for the UK only (it hadn’t been feasible for the Cortina either, but seemingly, the UK duped itself into believing it was a UK-centric model – granted: its conservatism suited that market better), times when expectations of car design and aerodynamic performance were shifting. Just like these days, car manufacturers (and a host of other industries) find themselves having to guess at circumstances years in advance when circumstances (and fashions) change on a monthly basis.

      In hindsight, GM’s approach to distribute the “newness” a little more evenly over the whole product (design, technical specifications, engine choice) was better judged but how many (few) times have we been able to say that GM judged things better than the competition?

      As you say, in the end the Sierra probably benefitted Ford (and the wider industry through the brain drain after the initial panic) because although it retrenched into conservatism for a while, its renaissance as a design leader with the Focus was believable partly because they’d been there before. With Toni.

      Vauxhall/Opel never attained such a status, even if – say: the Opel GT or some Opels from the ‘nineties and early 2000s should have earned it one. And even if Ford subsequently squandered that status again to the point where they scarcely dare to call their EV debut a “Ford”.

      Congratulations on a cracking series, Eóin and DTW.

  2. Fab postscript to a greatly insightful series. A landmark for a landmark. Many thanks for taking the time and effort to bring the Vortex series and this piece to the site.

    1. I think they had quite a long time to ponder the question. Almost all Volvos up to that point had been designed by Jan Wilsgaard who had joined Volvo in his twenties in the early 1950’s. He’s attributed to the Amazon, 140-series, 240-series, the 7-series, and finishing his long career with the 8-series. Peter Horbury took over as head of design in 1991, after having worked on the 480, though that is commonly attributed to John de Vries from Volvos subsidiary DAF. Horburys first car was the 1992 concept car the Volvo ECC which set the template for Volvos coming design program almost a decade later with the first generation S80, S60, and V70. Looking at the ECC it’s fascinating to see how much and many of the styling cues that actually made it to production so many years later, so I think it’s safe to say the Volvo board had time to ponder.

    2. Peter Horbury took over as head of design in 1991, after having worked on the 480, though that is commonly attributed to John de Vries from Volvo’s subsidiary DAF.

      Peter Horbury was previously a designer at Ford, where he worked on…the Sierra. It’s really quite remarkable how the mass exodus of car designers at Ford following the shameful treatment of Uwe Bahnsen shaped the look of European cars across most of the major manufacturers in the 1990s and beyond.

    3. That’s funny, didn’t even know about the Horbury/Sierra connection. He went back to Ford, then Volvo and Geely.

      The point is, I think they hired him with the exact purpose of re-inventing Volvo. It’s quite funny to compare the Ford Sierra against the Volvo 760 that was launched in 1982. There couldn’t have been two more disparate design briefs? If you think Bahnsen got flack for the Sierra, imagine the outrage of coming out with that brick during the same time period? The problem for Volvo was never really the design by itself but the prolonged lead times. The 760 would’ve been on top of the game in 1978 with contemporary cars like the Peugeot 604 and the C2 Audi 100, perhaps not in 1983 against the C3? The Volvo 440 was an “in between classes” car like the Austin Montego or the Peugeot 305. It would’ve been an ok car in 1982, not so much in 1988. Nothing of which was Wilsgaards fault, and Volvo had continued confidence for him up until his retirement with the Volvo 850 perhaps being his finest achievement. Which would’ve been a stellar car in 1986, very similar to the Renault 21.

  3. What I don’t understand is why Ford, if their leaders were really so displeased with the design and market performance of the Sierra (1982), when ahead and in 1986 in the USA released the Taurus – a design that was also considered quite radical and ahead of it’s time, if not as much as the Sierra.

    1. And how they gave the go ahead to the 1985 Granada/Scorpio. It could be argued that in the executive car market a two volume- 5 door body was even more inusual than in the Sierra class.

      I know that in 1982 the 1985 Granada design was already “frozen”, but I imagine the panic inside Ford when they saw the Sierra wasn´t the runaway success they hoped and the flop could be duplicated with the new Granada.

      I suppose that in 1985 the Sierra was already selling well and it prepared the public to the Granada/Scorpio.

  4. It’s also worth mentioning that the stockpiles of new Cortinas on dealers’ forecourts being offered at heavy discounts to clear stock didn’t help the Sierra one bit. British buyers could pick up a new Cortina Ghia for the same price as a Sierra L.

    This video is a fascinating insight into how Ford viewed its new Sierra compared to the competition. Of course it’s heavily biased, but it’s a fun time capsule from a bygone era.

    It’s interesting that they were able to get William Woollard to front it. I would have thought that would have broken BBC impartiality rules as he was also presenting Top Gear at that time.

    1. That’s an interesting period piece. Thanks for posting, Joel.

      One thing I noticed was the dropping of the definite article before the name ‘Sierra’ in the voiceover. This was/is, I think the American influence coming into play, where manufacturers always refer to their cars in this manner.

      When William Wollard took over, his commentary alternated between “Sierra” and “the Sierra”. He seemed to use the former when reading from a script and the latter when talking ad-lib to camera.

      It’s interesting that all three ‘typical’ British company car drivers interviewed were fans of hatchbacks over booted saloons. One wonders how typical they were? It’s also interesting that they chose not to interview a Cortina driver to ascertain his thoughts on the Sierra.

    2. Could some of our N American readers explain that? “Mercury´s new Matador – the comfortable driver´s car – with Speedtronic acceleration, and Brake-matic stopping power… An all-new style for the modern age… With a choice of five V8 engines to suit every purse and every driving style… Matador is comfortable. Matador is modern. Matador is … Mercury! March on to your Mercury dealer for a safe and free test drive …”

    3. Oh my. You may be right that dropping the definite article from product names is practiced by the US auto industry in their marketing materials, but when we (North Americans) hear it in speech, it sounds decidedly British to our ears. (So much so that there are people in my industry [airplanes, err—aeroplanes] who insist on dropping the definite article when referring to certain British airplane models—I’ll get a disapproving scowl if I refer to “the Concorde” [despite it being only half British], as if I’d just mispronounced something, but strangely not so much if I refer to “the BAe 146” or “the Jaguar XJ6,” for that matter.)

  5. It did occur to me that the Sierra’s lack of competitive engines were also a factor (on top of the UK and European Sierras not at least initially being visually differentiated as was said to have been planned for Vauxhall and Opel versions of the J-Car), on that front what could have Ford of Europe done differently and more specifically what was within their ability to change or available / in development at that time?

    For example would an earlier SOHC/DOHC conversion of the Cologne V6 have sufficed or an earlier more sophisticated 2.5-3.2-litre development of the US built Vulcan engine (like a precursor to the SHO V6 that was said to be based on the Vulcan V6) for around the mid-80s?

    Could the notorious CVH have instead resembled something amounting to an earlier ZVH or ZE-VH with provision for Schrick 16v development being approved to both replace the Pinto as well as negate the need for the I4 DOHC?

    Alternatives to the Indenor diesel would be more challenging, the Scorpio would eventually receive the unreliable VM Motori diesels yet surely better outside diesels could have been used on the Sierra and Scorpio? Could the Lynx/Endura-D have been developed earlier and even grown to 2-litres about a decade or so prior to the presumably unrelated 2-litre (Puma) ZSD-420 diesel that appeared in 2000?

  6. One random note – if I recall correctly, in the SWAT 4 video game, published by a company called Sierra, there is a room in one level with small Ford Sierras on the wallpaper.

  7. I’ve been patiently waiting to add my input regarding the Sierra these past couple of weeks to gather my thoughts on the subject, and there has been quite a lot to digest and mull over. The question brave or foolish seems a good place to express my conclusions.

    Brave to design something so radical for the time? Yes. Foolish to not make the mechanicals similarly “radical” at the same time? Probably.

    I think the complex part of of the equation here was how different the market really was in the UK compared to Continental Europe, and striking an appropriate balance between the two is extremely difficult to anticipate even with hindsight. The Cortina was simple, predictable, and conservative. Part of me feels the Sierra’s problem is it was writing checks it couldn’t cash; that avant guard styling cloaked more of the same under the hood, so if you weren’t keen on the styling… And despite being touted as an aerodynamically superior product, the brick by comparison Citroen BX was an equal, while the Audi 100 left both in the dust in this regard. Again, if you weren’t keen on the styling, the actual substance behind the Ford of the future wasn’t leading anyone into new territory. With this in mind, the omission of a saloon at introduction seems more egregious to me. With that, you would have at least likely tamed some of the more indifferent dissenters of the styling into submission by not forcing an additional compromise (the hatchback) they didn’t want in the first place.

    So would something like the revised Dunton proposal have sold better in the UK? I’d say a strong yes. In the rest of Europe? I’d wager not without front wheel drive. Upon seeing the revised Dunton proposal last week, I definitely saw shades of MB 190 in the greenhouse/door outlines and frontal lamp treatment, no bad thing in my estimation (and this was done before the 190 was in existence, no less). That said, clean as it looks to me, without any technical innovation underneath, I suspect it would be a non-starter to many a European like the Cortina/Taunus before it. A bold looking Ford in and of itself hasn’t been a strong enough draw historically unless it’s had some other upper hand against its peers to go along with it (Focus Mark 1 springs to mind). A bland front wheel drive Sierra probably would have at least equally held the ground the Sierra we did get managed to in its day, and that its styling didn’t particularly leave a lasting influence anywhere outside of people’s minds who think it, along with much of the 1980’s, is best left in the past where it belongs.

    1. The Sierra was significantly more aerodynamic than the Cortina it replaced. The Citroën BX was less aerodynamic than its GSA predecessor.

      The contemporary Audi 100’s drag coefficient was undoubtedly an impressive achievement, but it was a longer car and didn’t have to accommodate the variety of engines the Sierra did. It wasn’t a mainstream car for the masses.

      Front wheel drive was never on the cards for the Sierra, no matter how conservatively or radically it was styled. Harold “Red” Poling told Bob Lutz that the money wasn’t there for it. Lutz recalled that unlike in other car companies, the accountants at Ford couldn’t be persuaded once they’d decided on a matter. Even with its RWD platform and carry over engines, the Sierra development programme still cost Ford £600m. That’s still a huge amount of money today…

    2. Even with its RWD platform and carry over engines, the Sierra development programme still cost Ford £600m.

      Doesn’t that beg the question where those funds were directed then, and undermine my point that the car was writing checks it couldn’t cash? Unless that money was put into things like building Ford themselves a wind tunnel, modernizing production facilities via robotics, etc. that would reap benefits beyond Sierra itself, that makes the adequacy of the Sierra even less forgivable in my eyes. The fact that the BX was less aerodynamic than the GS/GSA isn’t proof of much of anything really meaningful either because those cars were developed under a very strict budget after the last minute disposal of project F, and as such, seems to prove it didn’t require a huge budget to expend on achieving good aerodynamics, so the money presumably wasn’t spent there…

  8. My two penn’orth is that I think they were both brave and foolish.

    Ford weren’t in a good place when they were developing the Sierra and were trying to get away from the commodity-like Cortina. How to do it on restricted resources? Through design and improved product – that makes sense.

    In trying to leave the Cortina behind, I think they went too far down just one path and the omission of a saloon in this market (across Europe) was disastrous. After all, the Cavalier / Ascona came as both a hatchback and saloons, as well in estate and cabriolet body styles. The subsequent success of the Sierra saloon bears this out.

    In addition, in any company there is a suspicion of newcomers and I’m afraid that ‘these new people with their fancy design ideas’ would have been on many people’s target list from the start. For that reason, assuming a rational choice has been made, everyone then has to be seen to be on board from the start and not allowed to say ‘I told you so’ if (when) difficulties arise.

    I was trying to recall the history of the Edsel – not because I think that the Sierra was as big a failure, but because a lot of effort was put in to stopping the Edsel by those who disagreed with the strategy from the start and I think there may be parallels. As I said previously, when asked for his preference, Henry Ford II ought to have said that it would be for the one(s) selected by consensus, based on rational analysis.

    Incidentally, I don’t recall there being any xenophobia relating to the Sierra – Ford was seen as an international company with a large British base. Few would have considered or been aware where the car had been designed and those who did would have had some vague idea that it would have been by a European or international team (as per the Cavalier / Ascona).

    Finally, thank you for this marvellous series – it’s made me think a lot and also remember some good times.

  9. A story I have on exceptionally good authority. Bob Lutz had a pre-production Sierra 4×4 (obviously without identifying marks), and was driving it to a lunch in the City. This would therefore have been in late 1984. He took off from traffic lights on Holborn, and was hauled in by a pair of City of London bike cops who thought he had been a bit too boy-racery and was worth a pull.
    “Did I break the speed limit?”
    “Er, no Sir.”
    “Did my tyres squeal off the lights?”
    “Well, no Sir, admittedly they didn’t.”
    “Let me tell you a little secret ….”
    He then explained what the car was, and invited them out to Dagenham in their offtime to play with it.

  10. Can we assume there is another instalment to come, dealing with the Sapphire ?
    Did those 1.3 million UK sales include the Sapphire?

    1. Mervyn: I’m afraid that this was the final piece in this series – we’re all Sierra-ed out for the moment here at DTW. I’m curious however as to what you feel is missing from the picture as regards the three volume model? Personally, I’m not sure there is all that much to be said about it.

      As regards the sales figure. I would assume that this number refers to the Sierra in its entirety.

    2. There is nothing more to say about the two volume model, but the fact that they were able to tweak it into a rather decent three-volume model, complete with a halo variant ( and yes, there was a time when I was watching used prices ) says a lot.

  11. Looking for something else, I discovered this today, from LJK Setright’s ECotY deliberations, published in Car, saying, “Such importance as the Mondeo can claim can be similarly calculated. Impressive on paper and superb in the showroom, the car proves on the road to be a typically magnificent (or even munificent) marketing exercise, but in no way a marker in the pages of history.” Nice to see Leonard sitting on the fence on this…

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