The List – Ford Sierra RS Cosworth

‘It was like something from another planet’

Each month, one reader gets the chance to drive one of his or her dream classics. For one glorious day, Mark O’Brien becomes the wing commander of a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth 

Words Adam Towler Photography George Williams

It was like something from another planet,’ says Classic Cars reader Mark O’Brien with a child-like sense of wonderment. We’re reminiscing about being eight years old and seeing a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth out in the wild for the first time, now that we’re cossetted by the same grey Recaro racing seats we once looked at longingly. We’re a similar age, he and I, and the effect on young eyes was profound. As we agree with eyes misting up: it all seemed just so very exciting.

In a motoring landscape not yet saturated with German premium marques for all, everyone’s dad seemed to drive a Sierra, or perhaps a Vauxhall Cavalier. But none were like this one. It genuinely delivered Ferrari performance at real-world prices; it really was a racing car for the road; and it really did look utterly outrageous. It still does – a braggadocio that has to make you smile.

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Mark’s List

• 1987 Ford Sierra RS Cosworth
• 1987 Ferrari F40
• 1964 Ford GT40
• 1965 Shelby Cobra 427
• 1990 Honda NSX
• 1989 Mazda RX7 FC
• 1986 Porsche 959
• 1973 Porsche 911 RS
• 1968 Dodge Charger

I was slightly concerned that given Mark’s list – featuring exotica such as the Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40 – the Ford might be underwhelming. In turn, Mark was worried that given the 17 years that have passed since his first kerbside encounter, the Cossie might no longer possess the ability to dazzle; that it might feel like yesterday’s tired old hero. Rapidly, I sense both our fears are unwarranted.

‘It’s so low,’ Mark exclaims as we refuel in a service station. ‘The new BMW 5 Series alongside looks like a tank!’ It’s true, the Cosworth sits close to the ground, a reflection on how much cars have grown in the following decades as much as its chopped ride height, and never more obvious than when you have to bend down to insert the fuel nozzle into the filler neck. ‘You forget how long these cars are as well.’ He has a point. To be honest the Sierra looks slightly surreal under the fluorescent lights of the forecourt, no less removed from the modern norm than if you parked a Morris Minor there.

It feels more powerful than it is, but it does come in with a real surge

Launched in 1982, the Ford Sierra had not initially found mass-market favour. Ford needed to add some lustre to the Sierra, and quickly, so it turned to a favourite ploy – motor sport. Legend has it that during a visit by senior Ford executives to Cosworth HQ, a 16v version of the Ford Pinto four-cylinder engine had been left out in full view. Over a pub lunch afterwards a plan was hatched to turbocharge this new engine and install it in a Sierra homologated under Group A motor sport rules. At least 5000 would need to be built for the car to be eligible, with a further 500 ‘evolution’ models constructed on which the racers would be based.

Ford’s famous Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE) department developed the Sierra RS Cosworth (as it was to be known), with engineers seconded from Ford Motorsport based at Boreham. Although it was to be a usable road car, there was to be no concession to the task of creating a race winner. By late 1984 prototype testing was underway, and the car was first shown to an amazed public at the 1985 Geneva Motor Show.

D443 RVW is no stranger to the pages of car magazines because it currently resides in the Ford Heritage Collection. It has always been on the firm’s books, its early life reputedly spent as a driver-training car for SVE Engineers, hence the fitment of a full rollcage. After years spent pounding around test facilities it was in a sorry state until receiving a full rebuild by SVE insiders. It was pensioned off to the company’s collection of old Fords based in Dagenham. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the most popular cars on the fleet.

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Thanks to its ownership history RVW is completely standard, and something of a rarity among the type – their innate strength and suitability for tuning meaning that most have substantially more than the rather unstressed 204bhp of this example. And power is the first question mark that hangs over the Cosworth today: will 204bhp do justice to this car’s reputation, when most current front-wheel-drive hot hatches have more grunt? Of course, comparing a classic with cars of today is of little more tha curiosity value, but it somehow makes both Mark and I feel all warm and fuzzy inside that the Cossie still has enough bite, even in this standard form, to carry off its outlandish exterior. Performance was always at the centre of the Cosworth proposition: this was a 150mph car on sale for just £15,950.

‘It feels more powerful than it is,’ says Mark as he throws one gear after the other at the Sierra, ‘but it does come in with a real surge: that dates it I suppose. There is lag, though it’s not mental, but when you rev it, it doesn’t get any more tuneful, does it?’ He’s right, even if the unique exhaust parp of the YB is amusing with the windows lowered: no-one has ever called the YB refined. It sends zings and tremors around the Sierra, up the gear lever and into the steering wheel which, while giving the Cossie an earthy, workmanlike quality, also play their part in building up a ‘mechanical’ aura. It’s 27 years old now, built in a time when cars felt more like mechanical machines than electronic internet-ready pods on wheels, but there’s a real sense of man and machine together – or machine requiring man to get involved and concentrate to get the best from it. The Borg Warner T5 gearbox promotes a similar feeling, ‘I really like this ’box. You don’t expect too much from it when you look at that gearstick – it looks like it’s been taken from a Transit – but you can feel if the gear is sticking as you shift. It’s another way the car talks to you,’ says Mark.

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We’re making our way to the Peak District for our test, but a fundamental navigational error on our part caused by too much chat – about Cosworths – and not enough concentration on the road signs means there’s now a sense of urgency in getting to our destination. The Cosworth seems to grow horns at this point. As Mark points out, it gets better, happier and smoother the faster you go. I agree, and I’ve noticed it before: it can feel grumpy and disinterested just ambling around, but once you’re running much more quickly everything seems to click into place.

Mark’s current cars are Mazda’s rotary-powered four-seater, the RX8, and a MG ZS180 he uses as a daily runaround. The Cosworth’s turbocharged thrust of torque, coupled with its keen 1217kg kerbweight, means it feels very potent in that sort of company.

I love it – I wish I could go back to that time. What must it have been like to have one?

There’s the same sense of close connectivity in the steering, or rather there would be if there weren’t a worn component in the Sierra’s steering assembly that imparts just a little vagueness at times, causing a moment of doubt in your mind. Cosworths were noted for their tramlining when new, but not all of these minor movements today feel like a direct result of what’s going on at the road surface. ‘The problem with the steering just makes it even more tantalising when the car does respond perfectly,’ says Mark. ‘There’s a really nice weight to it once you have some lock on, and there are levels of grip here that would not be out of place from a modern hot hatch.’ He’s right; it might be shod with meek 205/50 R15 rubber, but you can really lean on it hard through corners, and the steering – temporary foibles excepted – is deliciously direct and full of road feel. Mark tackles a fast corner up on the Peaks and we really scythe through the curve, belying the age of the car and the meagre contact patch of the rubber underneath.

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The steering wheel is a performance car classic in its own right, and the driving position is perfect. ‘It’s a small wheel, but a great one,’ says Mark. In fact, the interior – like the rest of the car – does everything it needs to do without pandering to an exclusive customer base, as Mark attests, ‘The interior is absolutely functional, nicely canted towards the driver and the steering wheel’s perfect.’ The less said about it from a style point of view perhaps the better, save to say it really is a timewarp to Eighties executive design. It’s just so blocky and plasticky. As Mark and I note, there’s a real ashtray for the 50-a-day, hard-living and hard-driving Cosworth man, and then there’s the Ford radio-cassette player, with its separate DIN slot graphic equalizer. Switch on the system (hidden down low on the centre stack, for a typical Eighties ergonomic nightmare) and there’s the whirr of the electric aerial rising from the Sierra’s hatchback.

‘I’m so pleased it hasn’t been a disappointment,’ says Mark with a genuine and deep sense of relief. ‘I was worried…’ His voice tails off, and I know what he means. No one wants to be left disappointed by his or her hero. ‘I love it – I wish I could go back to that time. What must it have been like to have one? It still has the presence. It’s a small car, but it still has the presence.’

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There will be those who dismiss the RS Cosworth as a boy racer’s car and simply a go-faster Ford, but they are wrong: it was designed with one role in mind and the result is a car with huge appeal to enthusiasts who rejoice in motor sport and performance engineering. Mark sums it up perfectly, ‘In a modern age where cars are designed by committee and targeted at various different sectors it was a breath of fresh air to get in a car designed for one reason.’ Every other manufacturer, whose cars only caught a glimpse of its be-winged rear in motor sport, soon grew to rue that single-mindedness.

The Sierra Cosworth in touring car racing

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Ford set out to win, but the Cossie dominated to such an extent that its wailing wastegate wallop was legislated against

The original Sierra RS Cosworth was actually a means to an end. It was the key that unlocked the door to an unbeatable, 500bhp racer, because 5000 units sold allowed for a further 500 evolution models to be built with the crucial hardware changes necessary for the racing version. The standard RS could be tuned to 350bhp, but Ford didn’t just want to be competitive: it wanted to destroy the opposition. To that end the RS500 featured a much stronger version of the Cosworth YB engine, with a bigger Garrett T4 turbo and an additional row of four fuel injectors (not connected on road cars).

The RS500 wasn’t homologated in time for the start of the 1987 World Touring Car season, so Ford teams had to commence battle with the standard RS Cosworth. Once the RS500 was on stream from August the opposition – principally BMW and its four-cylinder, naturally aspirated M3 – didn’t stand a chance, on outright pace at least. Ford won the manufacturers’ title with the Swiss-based works Eggenberger team but lost the drivers’ title by one point to BMW driver Roberto Ravaglia. It was a season beset by politics and disqualifications, and despite enormous promise the series was canned at the end of the year. 

For 1988 it was renamed the European Touring Car Championship, and Ford’s works team won again. That too was then cancelled. Ford despaired – its cars were too good, it seemed.

Most national championships now became one-make RS500 events, with other manufacturers restricted to the lesser classes. In Britain,  Andy Rouse won nine of the 12 rounds during 1988 in the RS500 built by his team, but a rapidly expanding list of Cosworth drivers wasn’t far behind. In Australia Dick Johnson was the quickest Sierra driver, while Ford took the German championship with Klaus Ludwig. 

Rouse’s form continued into 1989 but he encountered staunch opposition from Rob Gravett in a RS500 run by the Trackstar team, founded by TV personality Mike Smith. Gravett would beat Rouse to the title in 1990, while in Australia the Cosworth had met its match in the four-wheel-drive, twin-turbo Nissan Skyline GTR. In Germany the RS500 was legislated out for the benefit of the BMW M3 and Mercedes 190E.

The RS500 was outlawed in most forms of racing by the early Nineties, but a few cars continued to compete in the Far East. Looking back, it was the last of the outlandish homologation specials: a road-based touring car that packed immense firepower, with more grunt than grip. According to Eggenberger driver Steve Soper, the RS500 was known to overhaul a F3000 single-seater on Silverstone’s Hangar Straight above 170mph. 

Throughout the RS500’s competitive life the diminutive BMW M3 was an arch rival, lacking the outright pace but proving more durable – particularly in long-distance events such as the Spa 24 Hours. 

The pair made for one of the all-time classic motor sport battles and contrasts. We will never see their like again.