Ford Sierra XR8
Want a fast Sierra that won’t break the bank, is rarer than any Cosworth, and has a stonking great V8 in the front? Step this way…
Words Murray Scullion Photography Jonathan Jacob
The South Africans have a word that's suitable for this Ford Sierra – roff. It means rough in character.But think characterful Sierras and you'd expect the Cosworth to rule the roost. Head down the list and you'll think of the XR4i and XR4x4, maybe the rare 2.0iS. You may remember the Merkur XR4Ti Andy Rouse used to win the BTCC title in 1985. But this fast Ford begs to differ, and will start its argument in the loudest manner possible.
Meet the XR8, conceived to defeat all in South African Group 1 touring cars, taking the fight to the BMW 745i and Alfa Romeo GTV6. Detroit, Munich and Milan had responded to the embargoes placed upon South Africa thanks to the then government's apartheid system by giving the market a freer reign when it came to its product lineup. But for those who do not know this history, the XR8 doesn't look much different to an XR4x4, barring the badge on the boot. Worse still, the clumsy-looking grille has the whiff of mail order bodykit about it. ‘You don’t see many of those anymore,’ comments the cashier from behind the till of a quiet and unremarkable filling station just outside of Stoke. He doesn’t know the half of it. His expression changes when the 5.0-litre Ford Windsor V8 bursts into life, filling the Potteries air with a dark rumble that's pure muscle car throb. But that throb's much more potent than in the Fox-body era Mustang that served up its engine, with 20-25bhp liberated by the absence of US emissions gubbins. This all adds up to 216bhp, which in modern parlance is only middlingly warm. But in the mid-1980s this was huge, and only the RS500 would beat it in the battle to be Sierra top dog. However, most impressive is the torque, a healthy 276lb ft delivered at a lowly 3250rpm. This rather defines the XR8, as we soon discover at our first slippery roundabout.
But don't think that this was simply a lash-up with a factory warranty. Far from it. This was a properly engineered car, with spring rates stiffer by 50 per cent at the front and 40 per cent at the rear – all needed to help accommodate the 30kg weight increase the V8's presence confers.
Even so, you'd think that the big lump up front would lead the nose to the apex and far beyond it, rewarding (if that's the phrase) the spirited driver with Capri-style, barely controllably oversteer on the way out. It is, after all, 33kg heavier than the Cologne V6 found in the XR4i and Capri. But you'd be wrong.
True, there isn't a vast amount of grip on offer. Ford increased the wheel size by an inch but there's barely enough rubber to keep the biplane rear in place, the frankly comical 195/60 tyres ushering in a wee dollop of mid-corner understeer before hanging the rear out. But it's so pliable, so amenable, so balletic in its sideways shimmy that it never feels like you're about to ingratiate yourself with the nearest fence. It's big-hearted fun.
Stopping the Sierra proves to be much more of a challenging prospect. It may have four-piston Porsche 944-sourced calipers and 11in AP Racing vented discs, but go too hard and heavy into a corner and the rear will lock up with some aplomb.
However, remove the ham from your fists and the Sierra is as easy to play with as an elastic band, the Ford giving full permission to be driven on the throttle. It all promotes smoothness, rather than the point-and-squirt turbo style of a wound-up Cossie.
You may not feel so smooth when it comes to the clutch. It's heavy and generally unmotivated when you're trying to hurry along. The Warner T5 gearbox, also sourced from the Mustang, isn't playful either, with first to second taking longer than a MasterChef winner announcement and second to third is on the toddler-after-an-E-number-binge scale of difficult.
Much like its homologation special European cousin, the RS500, the XR8 is an intriguing mixture of technical prowess and parts bin hunting, built so that the race cars could dominate, with road car tractability a bit of an afterthought. Chief engineer Rudi Greggus said it was a bit over-engineered for a road car. That dodgy front grille, for example, isn't there for aesthetics. The nose may look like a bog-standard Sierra but though the engine slotted into the Sierra's vast front section well, accommodating the radiator necessitated a two-inch extension and a bespoke headlight treatment. That ungainly grille we mentioned earlier's needed to direct as much air into the four-barrel Holley carburettor as possible.
Furthermore, the front crossmember, halfshafts and driveshaft were bespoke to the car, with other Ford parts bin items heavily modified. The McPherson struts were moved upwards to clear the larger wheels and the front anti-roll bar adapted to fit the space. The rear variable-rate springs from the standard Sierra were junked in favour of constant-rate units, and the anti-roll bar removed completely to dial out understeer.
It's a pity then that the specialness of the package doesn't translate to the interior. Until the Focus-era, Ford interiors were never the last word in quality, either in tactile feedback nor aesthetic brilliance, but even so the Sierra's vast expanse of plastic doesn't come close to eliciting a feeling of quality. But that was never really the point of this car – it was built to go racing, and Ford admitted that any sales were a bit of a bonus. As such all were built before they were homologated, and all were available in just one colour – white. Unlike some other homologation specials at the time, Ford had no trouble selling all 250. It was a popular car on track too, with the racers well remembered not so much for their prowess but for their ability to vibrate the earth thanks to the mighty V8 rumble.
Back on the public highway, the XR8 followed the familiar route of fast Ford ownership – thrashed, modified, crashed, stolen (rearrange as appropriate), and as such it's still a cult car in South Africa. Much like the RS Cosworth here, its easy tuneability made it popular for illegal road racing, the back streets and industrial areas of Johannesburg reverberating to eight-cylinder shock and awe. And then, often, the noise of crashing.
Yes, the clutch is heavy, the gearbox inaccurate and the driving dynamics lacking in nuance, but you really can't help but love its simple, outrageous fun. Put simply, the XR8 is an absolute hooligan, a bit like a South African rugby player of old. The type to go out and have one quiet pint, followed by 17 loud ones. Then play rugby the next day. Then have another 18 pints. And it’s all the better for it.
The Modern Classics view
The XR8 isn't pretty. It's not even the prettiest Sierra. Nor is it the most nuanced, or advanced. But that's a big part of its appeal. There's a simplistic joy about a big V8, rear-wheel drive, and not quite enough grip. But that's not all. The Cosworth used to be the supercar for the working man, with Porsche pace for less than half the price. These days, a Porsche 996 C2 is a fraction of an RS500 and twice as fast. The XR8 nestles between the standard RS and RS500 in terms of power, and is just as fun. But it's a lot cheaper than both. Roff, indeed.
Thanks to Classic Car Auctions (classiccarauctions.co.uk) letting us sample this car. It sold for £9350 at its March 2016 sale. The next sale takes place on 18 June.
Specifications Ford XR8
Transmission RWD, 5-speed manual
Torque 276lb ft@3250rpm
Top speed 144mph
Need to know - Ford Sierra XR8
Fancy importing one yourself? It's relatively simple once the car's in the UK, as XR8 is old enough to qualify for five per cent import tax (30 years) and it just has to pass an MoT. 'The only problem with South Africa is the paperwork,' says Jack Charlesworth of MyCarImport (mycarimport.co.uk). 'You have to get a Police Clearance certificate –the car goes through a testing station to be confirmed ok for export. There are also checks that it's not stolen. You'll then need an export permit and a freight loader to put it on the ship.' MyCarImport would charge £3000 to do all the legwork for you, not including import tax.
As they were built in South Africa, most won’t suffer from rust. If you spot some rot, ask why. Is it down to a bad repair? If you're importing one to the UK, it's probably wise to make your first trip to a rustproofer, or order a kit from Rustbuster (rust.co.uk).
If you’re looking to buy one as an investment, originality is important. Lots of these cars will have been modified while they were worthless in South Africa. Tasteful mods to the suspension and brakes won’t affect prices that much – exterior modifications will make a huge difference. Some parts are bespoke to the XR8, so weigh up a project carefully.
The 5.0 Mustang-derived V8 is as tough as old boots. Leaking rear main seals are common, however. Check for any evidence of oil dripping down that back of the engine. Parts are plentiful, however.
Water pumps have known issues and aren’t reliable. Check that the shaft is tight, and the weep hole on the bottom is dry. Any wetness and it’s leaking. Once you've stopped giggling about those last sentences, be sure to join the owners clubs (fordsierraclub.co.uk or xroc.co.uk).
The Windsor engine, like most American V8s, is highly tuneable, with 1000bhp possible. If you like your cars modified, make sure the work's been done by a known specialist with receipts to prove it.
What to pay