Out with the old, and in with the shock of the new. Company car drivers were brought straight into the 80s with a slap in the face back in 1982, when Ford launched its most controversial car ever.
Replacing that old favourite, the Cortina, the Sierra was as radical as a pound coming in coin form. And proved just as shocking.
The three-box Cortina was not radical. Not likely to upset suburban sensibilities. It sold in droves and was driven en masse by every company car driver in the country (well, almost).
Replacing it was always likely to prove difficult – which is why Ford procrastinated for so long.
How, though, they got to something this outlandish is anyone’s guess. The company is famously in tune with the market – never more so than throughout the 70s, where it virtually defined for car dealers how models should be marketed and sold.
Ford, remember, invented the model hierarchy, invented the idea of posh Fiestas overlapping base Escorts, and so on. It was super-sensible, and did for Ford’s rivals such as BL and Rootes Group.
But the famed extensive market research saw something emerge during the design of the Sierra. Customers wanted something more radical than the boring old Cortina. It had been around for too long, was looking off the pace. Vauxhall was coming with the bold-sounding Cavalier MkII. Something had to be done.
With incredible foresight, Ford predicted aerodynamics and fuel efficiency would be vital in the 80s. It thus unveiled the stunning Probe III concept car, with flush-fitting side glass and a low drag factor. Everyone was amazed. Then… it chickened out, toned it down, and launched it
as the Sierra.
Even worse, Ford planners made a rare faux pas. They predicted the market was not ready for front-wheel drive, so launched the new car as a rear-driver. Yet gave it a hatchback, in a market that was totally wedded to the saloon. It was thus neither one thing nor another.
Amazingly, Vauxhall took the opportunity to show how things should be done. With the Cavalier MkII, buyers had a front-drive model, with sober and sensible styling, offered as a hatch or… a saloon. The engines were modern, rather than the Sierra’s Cortina-derived units, yet Vauxhall also copied the Sierra’s sensible model hierarchy.
That’s why the Sierra struggled. Legend? Not quite. Of course, Ford did not remain unbowed. Things turned around. Buyers got used to the style. Ford sold it heavily to fleet managers, who noticed how cheap to run and reliable it was. The Cavalier could shift 9,000 units a month, but Ford dealers usually beat them with 10,000 or more.
Then, in 1987, it bowed to the market, and released a saloon version – the Sapphire. A quarter of a billion pounds was spent on the new variant, and a minor facelift elsewhere. Specs were honed, a market-friendly 1.8 LX variant introduced, and suddenly there was no stopping the Sierra. Throw in a halo effect from the mighty Sierra Cosworth, and things were looking up.
By the time of the Mondeo in 1993, millions of the things had made Britain’s roads. It was never quite loved, but admired by many, and a staple of the company car fleet nationwide.
Ford, a decade late, righted its engineering wrongs with the front-drive, soberly styled Mondeo, and started a new chapter in its current glittering history. But the Sierra still has a place in history. If only for throwing away the shackles of the staid old Cortina…