Quick! Who remembers what they were doing back in 1997? If you’re like me, you’ll remember turning 24 at most… But happily, many of us car guys & gals remember specific years based on what we were driving. A few of us lucky ones with
OCD sharp eyes and minds remember specific years based on cars we saw curbside. 1997 is one such year for me: late in the year I was holidaying nearby and whilst out walking one evening, I spied with my little eye, something beginning with…S! Yes, that’s right, a Sierra station wagon, curbside!
I’d been Sierra mad (details in here) since 10, learned to drive in my parents’ one, and by 1997 owned my third. I had the brochures and knew the details like the back of my hand. So as I approached this one, I knew that the ‘V6’, ‘4×4’ and ‘Ghia’ badges meant it was a Very Special Sierra Indeed. I immediately fell in love! But we had a dinner reservation and had to keep walking; when we returned the VSSI was gone, destined to remain a cherished memory. Fast-forward to August 2014, and I was geocaching in a town north of my home. Suddenly…what’s that in that sales lot…is it?…Oh…OHHHH! Unintentionally finding the very car I craved 17 years earlier blew my mind!! It was meant to be!!! And without giving it enough thought, it became mine!!!! Get your superfluous exclamation points here!!!!! To celebrate the splendacious wonderousity of the occasion, let’s delve into the life and times of a Superbly Innovative, Excitingly Ravishing, Remarkable Automobile!
In the late 1970s, the Cortina/Taunus twinlets were Ford’s entrant in the European/Australian/New Zealand family-car market. They sold well, being the market leader in the UK and New Zealand. But the basic structure had been around since 1970, and although updated for 1976 (and again in 1980), it was a conservative design – especially compared with the avant-garde creations British-Austin-Morris-CousinBob-Rover-WhoeverTheyWereCalledThen had on the showroom floor (which is where they often stayed…)
Charged with deciding the direction of ‘Project Toni’, the Cortina replacement, were Ford exec Bob Lutz, long-time Ford designer Uwe Bahnsen, and up-and-coming designer Patrick Le Quément. Led by Lutz (I’m going to trademark that phrase), the team came up with concept sketches which must have scared the crap out of the top Ford managers!
I can imagine the conversation: “Hey guys, check out Toni!” “Nice headlights, but Bob, isn’t this your wife?” “Sorry, wrong sketch, here’s Toni” “…uh…um…can we look at the picture of the pretty lady again?…” “C’mon guys, Toni’s gonna revolutionise the mid-size family car!” “By scaring our customers away, screaming?”
Despite misgivings, management allowed the Led-by-LutzTM team over a billion dollars to proceed with Project Toni. They could have bought all the pretty lady pictures they desired, but wisely spent the money developing the car. As the styling became finalised, management remained nervous – there was a very real fear that the buying public would gather around Toni with flaming torches, pitchforks, garlic and
To prepare the public for the radical new ‘Cortina’, Ford displayed the Probe III concept car at 1981’s Frankfurt Motor Show. Designed by Le Quément, the PIII was Toni wearing contact lenses, falsies and a lot of makeup. Ford probably figured the buying public would be so shocked by the Probe (“Turn your head and cough III times sir”), that the production version would be a pleasant surprise.
As it turned out, Probe the III wasn’t badly received at all, but it must have been with tremendous trepidation that Toni teetered on stage at Britain’s International Motor Show on 22 September 1982. Toni, who’d changed her name by deed poll to ‘Sierra’, represented such a shocking departure from the Ford ‘norm’ that pictures immediately began filtering around the world. I remember my BL/Honda-mechanic Dad showing us a picture in the newspaper and saying “See this? It’s replacing the Cortina. One of these will be ours one day.” I was 8 and our family car was a 1975 Cortina wagon, so that Sierra picture seemed unimaginably other-worldly!
Upon launch, the Sierra greeted the world in three different body styles: a 5-door estate, and 3 and 5-door hatchbacks. The 3-door was available with a single side window, or as a sports model with two smaller side windows. Despite the revolutionary styling, the Sierra remained rear-wheel-drive, and most running gear was Cortina-based. Engines ranged from a
lively asthmatic 1294cc 4-cylinder to a 2792cc V6. Ford tried to ensure there was a Sierra for everyone, so there were more variations than you could shake a Ford-branded stick at! Unlike the Cortina, the top-spec Ghia came loaded with electronic features – like a warning light for worn brake pads and a digital vehicle display that gave frost warnings!
Those of you in the United States will recognise the XR4i coupe as the Merkur XR4Ti. We’ve previously featured XR4Ti outtakes on CC, including a red one Robert found here, a red one Brendan found here, and a
red uh white one Jason found here. Jeff Nelson also wrote some XR4Ti history here.
While the Sierra was busy launching in the northern hemisphere, in NZ the Cortina remained the top-selling car; the default purchase for families and fleets. But its time was over so in late ’83 Ford NZ followed Ford Australia and replaced it with the Telstar – a lightly made-over GC Mazda 626 sedan or hatchback. But the lack of a Telstar wagon left Ford NZ in quite a quonsiderable quandary, as Kiwis love station wagons – they suit our ourdoorsy lifestyle. So it wasn’t surprising when Ford decided the market was too big to abandon, and in late ’84 replaced ‘tina with Toni.
To get unsuspecting Kiwis used to the Sierra’s spacey styling, Ford NZ broke the ice by importing a limited number of V6 hatches – the XR4i 3-door and the Ghia 5-door. They even persuaded Prime Minister Robert Muldoon to trade his Triumph 2000 for a V6 Ghia! The publicity ramped up when numerous publications revealed that Muldoon didn’t bother with government limos, preferring to personally drive his Sierra to Parliament every day.
By August 1984, Ford NZ began assembling CKD Sierra wagons. There were two engines and spec levels: the 1600/2000cc ‘L’, and the 2000cc Ghia. All were 5-speed manual, with Ford’s C3 auto optional on the 2-litre only. The L came with a rather unattractive grille (made far uglier on the UK base model by being unpainted black plastic); the Ghia came with a smooth front panel with no grille opening.
My first Sierra experience was in late 1984, when family friends bought a Ghia wagon. I remember my first ride in it – and being fascinated by my first introduction to a trip computer – it had so many intriguing functions! At 10, this was the future – today!
In late 1985, the facelift Mk1 arrived, with the 1600cc dropped, and the L gaining the Ghia’s bigger-headlit degrilled front end (unlike the Ghia, the built-in spotlights were fake on the L). I first experienced a facelift Mk1 in January ’89, when my parents realised my (hehehe) dream and traded their ’83 Cortina on an ’85 Sierra L. I had just turned 15 and gained my learner driver’s licence, so the timing was incredibly convenient! *rubbed hands with glee at the time*
After years of riding in Sierras, I was finally able to drive one myself! It was a great car to learn to drive in, but sadly for me, Mum and Dad sold it a bit over a year later, when three growing kids required something with more seats (a Toyota Townace).
Meanwhile, in 1987 the Mk2 Sierra was released. It received a new frontal design and slightly bigger side windows, but the big news was the introduction of a sedan variant, the Sierra Sapphire. With strong Mercedes-Benz W124 overtones, it was really rather handsome!
Sadly the Teutonic sedan was verbotten in NZ, as the Telstar fulfilled Ford’s sedan needs. We continued to get the Mk2 Sierra wagon, now only in L spec. But we were blessed with the expensive 5-door XR4x4 and the even more expensiverish 3-door Cosworth.
But in 1988, Mazda introduced a 626 wagon, which meant Ford could introduce a Telstar wagon. So the Sierra’s fate was sealed and 14-year-old me was mortified! There was a huge rush on sales in the Sierra’s last few months – it achieved unheard-of sales for a single engine single-spec single-body car, and even topped the sales charts for one final month.
The Telstar wagon duly took the Sierra’s slot in our market. It was more modern and space-efficient, with far better engines, but didn’t gain anywhere near the Sierra’s following. My parents owned a 1990 Telstar wagon from 1994-96, it was nice-looking, but interior comfort and ride/handling weren’t a patch on the Sierra. Ultimately its FWD unsuitability for boat-towing meant Mum and Dad traded it on a 4wd Subaru Legacy – beginning a love affair with Legacys that continues today.
In 1989 I visited the local Ford dealer with my Grandad while his XF Fairmont was being serviced. Grandad was having coffee with the dealership owner, and told him that I loved Sierras. I remember my elation when the dealer said “You know it’s coming back later this year don’t you?”. No! No I didn’t!! I was even more elated when he gave me the latest UK Ford range brochure, full of Sierra variants I hadn’t even heard of – like a V6 Ghia 4×4 Estate! True to the dealer’s word, in late ’89 the Sierra was indeed resurrected here in facelift Mk2 form (new engines and updated dashboard).
Our resurrected range was 2.0 GLX wagon, 2.0i Sapphire Ghia sedan, 2.9i V6 XR4x4 5-door hatch, and as Ford NZ’s NZ$95K flagship, the Sapphire Cosworth sedan. NZ was unique in selling the Sierra and Telstar side-by-side on the showroom floor – Ford was at the top of their game in our market then, which was reflected in their sales. I first experienced a Mk2 Sierra in 1991, when one of the Church elders bought a Sapphire Ghia and let me ride in it – oh I was still in Sierra-love!
The Sierra gained a new interior for 1992, but fuel compatibility issues saw it withdrawn from NZ. I was saddened, but it was a 10-year-old design by then, and no longer a revolutionary style leader. European production ended in December 1992, ready for the 1993 Mondeo to step into the Ford family-car role it still fulfills today.
Although I was in Sierra-love when the resurrected range arrived here, all I could afford for my first car in 1991 was a 1971 Ford Escort. Nice, but not a Sierra. Sigh. But in January 1994, in my third year at University (BA in History seeing as you asked), I found an August ’84 Sierra L on the local sales lot for only $3,495! At the time that was extremely cheap for a Sierra, so I sold my Esky and made the red beast mine! Of course it transpired it was cheap for several amusing reasons:
- The factory red had faded to 11 different shades of reddish-pink
- There was an interestingly large hole in an A-pillar
- Extensive rust in the doors – around the windows and the bottoms. The driver’s inner door structure was so bad at the bottom, I could prise the skin out, slide my arm up inside and unlock the car without the key…
- It had an exciting habit of stalling
- Lots of weird electrical anomalies
- It was an ex-Hertz rental car, which probably explained all the above
I got the pillar fixed, and repaired the holes around the side windows with copious silicon sealer (used to great effect on my recently-sold Honda), which I coloured red using a permanent marker-pen. The door bottoms weren’t repairable, so I ignored them. The stalling issue was traced to a too-tall battery that moved slightly forward under braking and shorted out on the bonnet’s underside. The burnt hole in the bonnet eventually gave that one away, and a proper Ford battery with recessed terminals sorted it.
The electrical issues remained, and whilst removing the dashboard one day, I discovered surface rust on the upper firewall, and strange disfigurements in the wiring loom. I surmised it had been immersed in salt water, as salt eating the wiring would explain both the electrical glitches and the spectacularly bad rust (all Sierras rusted around the windows, but I’ve never seen another with such rotten lower door structures).
After a year or so of ownership, Ol’ Rusty needed an engine rebuild. Once the head was off, my mechanic Dad pointed out it shouldn’t be possible to put one’s hand on a piston and rock it from side to side in the bore… After being rebored and reconditioned, it ran great! For a month…when the C3 auto blew its rear main seal, dumped its oil and left me with no gears…
Ol’ Rusty was too, well, rusty, so in 1995 I graduated Uni, started working and traded it on a January ’87 Sierra L – also an auto, but a C4 this time. It wasn’t rusty, but after a few months blew its rear main seal, dumped its oil and…well, see above…
Shortly thereafter the clearly altered chassis number got me curious, so I contacted the first owners, who confirmed they used to own rego NF9517 and very much liked their silver Sierra. Except the NF9517 I had was champagne and had never been silver in the engine bay… Further investigation showed I had actually bought two wrecked Sierras welded into one…
Owning a Frankencar of dubious origin was a bit of a worry, so in July ’96 I traded it on a champagne August ’86 Ghia wagon. Owning a Ghia was a revelation after my two Ls! The velour trim was luscious, and it had all the fruit, including my first ever sunroof – a glass tilt-slide affair. I loved that sunroof, and even today rate a sunroof as a must-have if possible. My Ghia was a C4 auto, and ran well for 3 years until it blew its rear main seal and…oh, you get the idea, see above and abover. I had it fixed but it blew again a year later… Is there a support group for survivors of Ford C3/C4 transmissions?
It was while I owned my Ghia in 1997 that I spied the magnificent magenta Sierra I lusted after! But time marches on, and in late 2000ish, my Ghia was getting high in mileage and the paint was deteriorating, so I sold it to an acquaintance. He enjoyed it for a couple of months until the C4 blew its…oh never mind…
Over the 14 years since selling my Ghia, I went on to hate and love several cars (including falling in like with a Magnificent Honda) but I missed my first love, and for years surfed the Sierra listings on our Trade Me internet auction site, just hoping the magenta marvel might materialise.
Fast forward to August this year, and as noted in the intro, I found my – MY! – magenta Sierra in a car sales lot! Further investigation revealed it was the one I saw in 1997! So after coughing up NZ$3,700, my 17 year dream came true! Of course I knew “25-year-old British Ford” spelled further expenditure, and since buying it 12 weeks ago, it’s spent 11 weeks and four days in my mechanic’s premises – I want it to be mechanically sound enough that I won’t have to spend money on it for 10 years or so.
There’s a fairly lengthy list of required repairs or replacements, most of which have made my mechanic utter words like “obsolete” and “unavailable”… Thankfully the 4×4 was only available with the 5-speed manual transmission, so no C3/C4 oil seal issue to worry about!
Disappointingly, the fresh WOF (Warrant of Fitness, NZ’s stringent 6-monthly road-worthiness certificate) my purchase was conditional upon turned out to be issued by a dodgy garage! Thanks to spending the first eight years of its life in the UK (where roads are salted in winter), there is some serious unWOFable rust underneath…
The rust repairs will cost over NZ$1,800, which 99.9% of folks will think is madness to spend on an old car, let alone a plebian Sierra. But the V6 4×4 Estate was rare new, and is even more so now. The wonderful UK resource, howmanyleft, says there are just 224 left, of which only 40 are licensed. Add to that the four that are in New Zealand, and you start to see why I’m spending more than it’s worth on keeping it alive and healthy.
Of the 1989 models like mine, there are only 64 left, of which only 9 are licensed! Even more awesomely, mine’s a rare factory-body-kitted Special Edition (I have the brochure) that was only produced for a few months in late ’89! Its original UK number plate slots in the number series Ford UK used on their press cars at the time, so it may even be one of those. Regardless, it makes me feel awesome to know that I have something so rare, and I’ll be keeping it forever! Even more awesomerer is the indescribable feeling of unintentionally stumbling across a car I’d first seen and lusted over 17 years earlier. But the most awesomerest feeling in the world is knowing that finally – finally! – it’s mine and dreams can come true!