Sierra: brave or foolish?
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, and perversely, realising its days were numbered, the UK market doubled-down, both in sentiment and sales.
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, 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.
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, 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
 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).
 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…”
 Ford would end up selling over 2.7m Sierras worldwide, 1.3m of those in the UK. Hardly a failure.
 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.
 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.
 Source: Car magazine.
 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