This bat-winged brute made as big an impact on the street as it did on track and stage, but it took some manhandling…
By Richard Heseltine
Despite all the focus groups and Blue Sky Thinking manufacturers call on when dreaming up car names, it is often better to merely keep things basic. Don’t try and be hip, repel all notions of coming over all lower case or inserting random apostrophes into nomenclature (we give you the, cringe, Kia cee’d…). Such syntactically challenged nonsense is enough to make you grind your teeth down to the gums in exasperation.
And besides, of greater significance in the mind of most punters is the status inferred by a particular variation of model. And often it’s mere initials that impart this: my GL trumps your lowly L and all that. Yet in performance car lore, few tags have ever instilled greater reverence than that of Ford’s Rallye Sport sub-species. Before the aura was eroded by mismanagement, an RS badge glued to a Blue Oval product promised excitement, motor sport kudos and a few choice bourgeois trappings.
But nothing – nothing – in Ford’s back catalogue stirred the soul quite like its ballistic take on the humble Sierra. Which is where the car’s other badge comes in: Cosworth’s input made this supercar-baiting rep-mobile satisfying to brows both high and low. It had credibility beyond the mulleted wideboys that cliché would have you believe were the sole customers for this populist brand. The ‘Cossie’ pulled off coolness and widespread appeal simultaneously, due in part as much to its otherworldly appearance as to its outrageous performance capabilities.
And it really was outrageous, having been conjured with the single purpose of returning Ford to the front line in touring car racing. Ever since the Capri had finally been killed off, it had been left to the Escort to maintain Ford’s relevance trackside. But, save for Germany where Zakspeed performed miracles, there were only class positions to fight for closer to home. A new car was needed and the Sierra was the obvious choice because it was rear-wheel drive, aerodynamic for its era (0.34Cd drag coefficient) and it needed a marketing boost. While its ‘jelly mould’ shape may seem tame today, the Sierra was met with unyielding customer resistance when introduced in 1982.
During the racing car project’s embryonic stages in early 1983, there was plentiful discussion over which engine to use – either the enduring 2-litre ‘Pinto’ boat anchor or the 2.3-litre ‘Lima’ four-banger as used in Ford’s short-lived Merkur (pronounced Mare-Coor) XR4Ti in the US. The latter model had enjoyed some racing success Stateside, and Andy Rouse would use one (badged as a Sierra) to clinch the ’85 British Touring Car Championship. Switzerland’s Eggenberger squad would also claim a win during the following year’s European Touring Car series finale at Estoril but this was patently a short-term fix.
The definitive solution came in the form of a Cosworth 16-valve cylinder head on the Pinto engine. That and a turbocharger and fuel-injection. A programme for 5000 cars was approved with sales scheduled to start in September 1985. Meanwhile in Germany, Cologne Motorsport engineer Eberhardt Braun busied himself with refining the base car’s outline for track usage. Changes were made to the front, not least the addition of an air-dam, but it was what was occurring out back that caused a degree of consternation among the suits. The rear ‘bat-wing’ spoiler served its purpose in creating downforce but it wasn’t greeted with much warmth by those charged with selling road-going replicas. Hard to look at it might have been, but it was equally impossible to ignore. A quarter of a century on it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.
So the Sierra RS Cosworth had shock value, but while it may have looked like a car that was helping the police with their enquiries, the definitive production car soon found favour among even those who would never otherwise have considered buying a Ford. Unveiled at the March ’85 Geneva Salon, the requisite 5000 cars – actually 5052, including 500 evolutionary models – had been built by the end of the following year despite early delays due in part to teething problems with the BorgWarner ’boxes. Group A homologation was achieved in January ’87, and the model swiftly proved as adept off piste as on it (witness Jimmy McRae’s Circuit of Ireland rally win that year).
Yet this was just the opening salvo; it was those evolution models which mattered. With 5000 identical cars built to satisfy homologation requirements, regulations allowed for at least 500 further ‘enhanced’ editions. Enter the mighty RS500. Continuing from where the regular production car left off, the new strain featured what became known as the ‘YBD’ engine which was based around a stiffer cylinder block and came equipped with a massive Garrett turbo. From a road car perspective, the differences weren’t that marked – a 20bhp hike to 224bhp – but race-tuned engines could exceed 500bhp, which was hitherto unthinkable. Physical changes amounted to a reprofiled front bumper with enlarged air inlets, while underneath the regular subframe crossbeam was retained but with revised pivot points for the semi-trailing links. Remarkably, the batch of RS500s was completed by outside specialist Tickford in just six weeks.
And the RS500 won often, battle raging between Ford and BMW for honours in the original one-year-only World Touring Car Championship in 1987: Ford triumphed in six of the 11 races to claim the manufacturers’ title. The drivers’ crown, however, went to BMW’s Roberto Ravaglia. Same too in the European Touring Car Championship a year later. In the UK, however, the inter-marque conflict took on different connotations as the BTCC was then still class-based; the Fords ran up front, the M3s in the secondary 2-litre category. And as we all know, the driver who won races outright – even a lot of them – rarely took the title. The exception was 1990 when the underfunded but diligently developed Trakstar entry carried Robb Gravett to the overall crown by a whopping 27 points. Then along came the 2-litre-only Super Touring category, which spelt the end for the Cossie, at least in the UK.
“That hurt us,” says Graham Goode who as variously a driver, car builder and parts supplier has more experience of the model than most. “Group A was a fantastic era. We had a great first season in 1987, and took the first BTCC win for the RS500. We then started running other cars for Mike Newman and Sean Walker. Sean’s good friend Damon Hill also joined us for a two-driver race in 1989 and did very well. The Cosworth had lots of power but not a lot of grip so you had to really stay on top of it. When the BTCC went over to just the one class for 1991, we ran a normally aspirated car for Andy Middlehurst, but we had no money so it was a frustrating time. We were fourth first time out and finished on the podium in the final round but it was pretty disappointing. We had a lot of experience with the model, had got a handle on it, so we were a bit put out when it was outlawed.
I was then approached to do the Malaysian touring car series with Petronas offering to sponsor us so we chose to go down that road. We raced out there for three years and did something like five or six meetings each year; in fact we were beaten only once during that time. We still see a lot of Cosworths in our workshops and the RS brand still seems to be very popular. People remember these cars.”
Perennial crowd favourite Ian Flux certainly does but then his first race in one coincided with the birth of his daughter, something he’s unlikely to forget. “I was down to share the Asquith Motorsport car with Karl Jones at Donington. I remember the date – May 14, 1988,” he says. “I dashed from the hospital for qualifying and the next day the turbo went pop before my stint. We then did the 1988 Tourist Trophy at Silverstone, which was a round of the European Touring Car Championship [famously won for Ford by Andy Rouse and Alain Ferté]. It was then that I learned that not all Cosworths were the same. Ours was essentially a converted rally car and was pretty horrible. The team did a great job with no money but it was hard work for the driver. I had these thin-soled boxing shoes which were fine for single-seaters and sports cars but here they just melted. The heat through the floor and the pedals was horrendous.
“My second and third outings, though, were much different. This time I had a Rouse-built car which I shared with Sean Walker for the two-driver BTCC races in 1990. It was a much more comfortable car to drive but still pretty wicked; a bit like a TVR Tuscan, you had to dominate it. The BMW M3 was a much easier car to drive, more chuckable. In the Ford you had to be very, very smooth as you couldn’t really hang the tail out because of the turbo lag. The Sierra wasn’t very adjustable but it was a thrill. Anyway, we were fourth at Donington and third at Brands so we did OK.”
Ultimately, it was the RS500’s relentless rise to ubiquity that killed off the Group A competition, but it was fun while it lasted. Super Touring was undoubtedly the way to go but it too was unsustainable, the problem being that touring cars these days just don’t set your trousers alight. Somehow a ‘reasonably priced’ diesel hatchback, however well driven, just doesn’t have the same pull as a flame-spitting 550bhp rear driver teetering on flayed nine-inch rubber. The days of the ‘homologation special’ are over, more’s the pity. “It was fun, that’s for sure,” says Flux. “I’ve spent more time in historics recently and I do hope there’s a series for proper Group A cars before long.” As indeed do we.
I raced one
MG racer turned tin-top star won the 1990 BTCC in a Cosworth after doing things his own way…
“I’d raced Cosworths with Andy Rouse before forming Trakstar with [media personality and racer] Mike Smith. The 1990 season was amazing but we struggled financially as a sponsor defaulted on payment. That really hurt us. When we started out in 1989 we ran a couple of Dick Johnson cars; I flew out to Australia to do the deal and then brought them back in a jumbo jet. For 1990 we ran our own design with direct drive across the rear axle which everyone said wouldn’t work. We won nine [of 13] races that year, seven of them consecutively.
“It was a great car to drive and stunningly quick. I don’t think people realise just how fast the Cosworths were. At Bathurst in ’89 [sharing with Jeff Allam] we pulled 189mph down the Conrod Straight, and in the 1990 500km race at Fuji my team-mate Stefan Johansson and I were in the 190s. That’s still pretty remarkable. I would have loved to have kept my 1990 title-winning car but we had no money so it had to go. I believe it went to Portugal and would be interested to know what happened to it. Anyway, we got the works Ford deal for the following year for what was the first season the BTCC was run to 2-litre Super Touring regulations, but the normally-aspirated Sapphire Cosworth was the worst car I ever drove. Aside from everything else, the engines didn’t have the sort of power we were expecting and most of the time we didn’t get near the BMWs. It was terrible, a complete waste of time.”
One to buy
Sierra cosworth – €45,000
From: Art & Revs +352 661 700 777 www.artandrevs.com
It’s easy to forget that the Sierra Cosworth was briefly a front-runner in rallying. This example was built in 1987 by Neil Gatt’s RED Motorsport concern and campaigned by future World Rally Champion Colin McRae during 1989. The Scot crashed the car on that year’s Welsh Rally and it was subsequently put into storage. Gatt rebuilt the car in ’91, campaigning it himself at local level. A year later it headed to France where it was a winner in Group N in the national series. It has recently been restored to period spec, with McRae’s livery reinstated. It’s on the button and comes with the original Ford Motorsport V5 document and a large history file.
Others to consider
BMW M3 (E30)
This touring car titan won dozens of titles and makes even mortals feel like track gods. Magic stuff.
Flawed but fun coupé enlivened WTCC but not even John Lepp could secure BTCC glory in one.
Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo
Not a classic Alfa racer, nor even a particularly good one, but it made all the right noises. Quick(ish), too.
Graham Goode Racing 0116 244 0080 www.grahamgoode.com
Power Engineering 01895 255699/272111 www.powerengineering.co.uk
Motorsport Developments 01253 508400 www.motorsport-developments.co.uk
Ford RS Owners’ Club 08702 406215 www.rsownersclub.co.uk