Project Car SOTU: The 1990 Ford Sierra

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The call came in: we’re doing a project car post series. In these posts, we deliver the report on how our respective fixer-uppers are doing.

I took a deep breath. What would I cover this time around, regarding my Beaterland fleet? The Saab, the crown jewel of my old cars? Nope, sold it a while ago to raise a bit of travel cash for my two weeks in California. The Xantia? I’ve delegated it to parts hauler duty, with no meaningful repairs being performed except a rear brake caliper getting a look at so the car passed inspection. The 205? It’ll just get driven, but the appearance remains the same save for a set of aluminum steelies. The Polo I’m actually somewhat ashamed about, as I haven’t still put the cylinder head back on it and it remains a non-runner. It’s not getting worse, but it’s not getting better.

Fittingly, there’s a new blank canvas on my doorstep. Another fresh start, yet another cheap beater that will get the skipped maintenance forced back on the schedule again. It’s old, it’s quirky-looking, it’s rear wheel drive. It has the Bob Lutz seal of approval. It’s a Ford Sierra.

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The brownish red Sierra with the Super Furry Animals plates effectively replaces the also-1990 Saab, but unlike it, it won’t get wrapped up come winter. It’s also half as powerful, but less than half the price and has roughly half the odometer reading. It’ll be my Euro Merkur, the rear-drive car I’ll attempt to drive on ice tracks and bring back to respectable shape.

More or less stored for the past ten years, the Sierra is what a car looks like when a 80-year-old owner gives up driving a little late, bearing dents and scrapes and a fairly baffling array of scratches. It was in the care of the old owner’s grandson for a summer, which probably resulted in the solitary cigarette burn in the rear seat upholstery. There’s 114 000 km on the clock, and the cam belt was last done at 73k. The problem is, that was in Feb 1993.

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As far as my interest in the vehicle goes, I’d like to think the past ten years didn’t happen to it at all. The concrete garage was cold, unheated, dark. Sunlight didn’t wreck the paint or skew the dash, road salt didn’t eat the underside. The car came out of a five-year hibernation in 2009, got inspected, found disuse and went back to sleep again. I don’t know how old the oil is. The coolant looks terrible, even after I found out Ford coolant is supposed to be a rusty peach hue.

The 1.6-litre CVH engine isn’t a civilized unit, there’s not a lot of power and with the Yuppie era cam belt I won’t rev it too high until it gets done one way or the other. I opened up the belt cover to see how it’s doing, and compared to the weathered and cracked aux belt the cam belt appears deceptively good-looking. Both new belts reside in the trunk, and I’m looking at how-tos on the procedure. To gain guts to put the Polo back together, I plan to do the belts on the Sierra myself. I’ll catch up with that on the 2015 PC-SOTU…

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Other repairs on the to-do list are numerous: I suspect the fuel tank has sludged up during the years. Last week, I swapped on the Saab Ronals on fresh enough rubber that I had laying around. After doing one side, I let the car down on the floor jack. A starting attempt produced a weak sputter, then nothing apart from endless, fruitless cranking. I walked home in the rain for an hour and a half, accompanied only by a dead iPhone battery and thoughts of a warm sauna.

The next day I came back with fresh fuel and a tip to check the fuel cut-off switch perilously mounted in the spare wheel well. I prodded that a couple times, and managed to start the car up. I’m not sure if the switch caused the mishap, or whether the possible goo in the tank had settled during the night, but with a decent amount of fuel in the tank it started fine. The tank will get drained and a fresh fuel filter mounted, to make sure. Even the crank position sensor could be a believable culprit, since it’s acting up again.

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Despite all this, I think Sierra drives and behaves well for a cheap old car. In my mind, I drive a Sierra first and a Ford second; for some reason, for me the car exists as a somewhat standalone product between the Fords of old and the Fords of more modern ages. The drivetrain is fairly conventional, with the fuel-injected CVH engine doing a half-hearted attempt of modernizing the car, but still mounted longitudinally in what is effectively an old Taunus framework in a Probe concept shape.

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The Sierra came out as early as ’82, there was a facelift in ’87 and the taillights got a smoke treatment in ’90 to celebrate the beginning of a new decade. The Mondeo/Contour/Mystique replacement was still in the works for a couple more years, and the Sierra was accompanied by the other European RWD car Ford offered at the time, the Scorpio. There’s a five-speed shifter that’ll help move the 1090kg, 80hp car somewhat more enthusiastically than a slushbox would, yet keeping the cruising revs lower than the four-speed in the first Sierras did.

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Appearance-wise, the 15″ Saab Ronals on 195/65 tires make the car look a touch heavier than it is, and the clear blinkers got replaced with amber ones to bring the looks back to the ’80s, where the car belongs. Save for the newer nose, the full-size rear side windows and the lack of cladding, the three-door bodyshell is still very much the XR4ti, and to celebrate the hokum bloodline there will be some Merkur badges applied. I don’t know if that’s the tasteful thing to do, but it’s doable. I dislike the dented and cracked rear bumper and the tow bar that caused the dents, but those will probably stay on.

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If I can iron out the dents on the sheetmetal, bring the paint back to a decent shine and get the car mechanically tip-top, it’ll prove its value as a decently cheap buy. I haggled the price down from 890 euros to 750 for the sake of the belt job, and by limiting the spending to absolutely necessary, I don’t think the car will break the proverbial bank. Parts are cheap and junkyard Sierras are still available, so I won’t get stranded at the parts counter.

All in all, the Sierra is road legal and inspected until Apr 2015, and I think it’ll be interesting how the coming winter will treat the car. I’ll do my best to treat it nice.

[Images: Copyright 2014 Hooniverse/Antti Kautonen]

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