Unlikely Race Cars #3: Sierra XR4x4by Jove

I make no apologies whatsoever for being a terrible Ford Sierra Fanboy, and I was duly excited to see a Sierra Cosworth darting purposefully up the track at the Crystal Palace Hillclimb, followed closely by its later, more practical,  three-box, four-door Sapphire Cosworth successor. What I didn’t expect to see was a crazily be-winged family car cleaving its way around every hairpin while shouting with a voice I didn’t quite recognise.
Of course, we all know that the only five-door Sierra hatchback with any claim to sporting credentials was the XR4x4. Well, this used to be one of those. A long time ago.

In 1986 Ford of Europe got serious and moved their high performance game up a notch. In tandem with a hugely successful attack on motorsport, civilian versions of the 204hp Sierra Cosworth were released and a legend was immediately born. To make space for this leviathan, the former champion of speedy Sierras, the 130mph XR4i was quietly dropped from the price-lists. However, it morphed into a car which was actually far more useable in the real world.
The Sierra XR4x4 used the same Cologne V6 power plant as the XR4x4, but allied it with permanent four wheel drive. Although the extra transmission losses blunted the performance ever so slightly, the XR4x4 was quickly seen to be something of an all-weather performance hero, and it was a far more useful car, too, having gained a pair of rear doors.
Always living in the shadow of the Cosworth, the XR4x4 took a long time before it became recognised as worth preserving. Countless examples were driven to destruction and thrown away as just another consumer durable. Good ones, though, are now well worth hanging onto. And this one? Well, feel free to decide for yourself.
In 1990 the true potential of that Cologne engine became truly apparent when a 24 valve version of it became available in the Ford Granada Scorpio. Normally aspirated, it pumped out an easy 195hp, rising to 204bhp on later models. And it was courtesy of those clever blokes at Cosworth.
Crashed Scorpio 24vs were much sought after during the ’90s, their engines being transplanted into everything from Caterhams to Transits. Any car which had space for a Cologne could take the 24v version, named Cosworth BOA. For installation into the XR4x4 it required the sump from the old engine to be transferred, as this was shaped to allow the front driveshafts to pass through it. If you were willing to make the effort, an easy 50hp or so gain was there for the taking.
But why stop there? Many specialists could turn their hand to extracting further power from these engines, usually with recourse to forced induction. Turbo Technics, for example, were profligate in their creation of twin-turbo Sierra Ghia 4×4 Estates; the five-door, station wagon version of the XR4x4 and a pretty astonishing piece of kit. But the conversions were always a bit quick ‘n dirty.
Not so what we have here. The owner of this particular BOA has chosen the supercharger route, constantly driven and explaining why I couldn’t quite get my head around the noise the car was making. He explained that he chose a setup which didn’t produce an overwhelming amount of power- he mentioned 280bhp, but offered power throughout the rev range allied to “big gobfuls of torque”.
Sounds good to me. Looks good, too. The installation has been quite artful and would look factory if it wasn’t so damn shiny. My favourite piece of attention to detail is seeing how the intake duct passes through the inner wing and then back out again to keep the duct the right length and free of power-sapping changes in direction. It is a fantastically clean installation, and one which seems to suit the car perfectly.
Of course, the extra power has been joined by appropriate upgrades to the running gear, bigger and wider wheels and tyres live under widened arches in the style of the much missed Thundersaloon series, where pretty much anything went so long as the silhouette was the same as on the production vehicle.
Alas, during the race-car conversion the rear doors have become non-functional, which is a shame as it means this can never be the all-slaying family runabout I’d love it to be. But it certainly hasn’t done my unconditional love for Uwe Bahnsen’s Jelly Mould masterpiece.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2016)

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  1. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    it’s probably something about the forbidden fruit always being more appealing. but this generation of speedy Sierra, both the Cossie and the XR4*, strikes me as being among the last of a long line of mundane European cars tuned in a particular way. after this there was the Escort RS Cosworth and then something i can’t quite put my finger on changed.
    perhaps manufacturers have figured out how to disguise the blandness of the underlying cars, which in a way dilutes the charm. look at a Ford ST or RS today and it’s too convincing. it’s clearly a factory product, refined and built by real grown-up engineers with a real grown-up budget. it’s not necessarily a bad thing – i have a Fiesta ST – but the hot Sierra, the fast Escorts? geeky boy-racer wings and scoops all over the place, ricers right from the factory. it has its appeal. i think the most modern successor to that tradition, in my opinon, is the Dodge SRT-4, a thoroughly-American car that felt like Chrysler just gave a Neon and $5,000 to a committee of teenagers.
    it’s getting dark out. i should take off these rose-tinted glasses.

    1. Maymar Avatar

      I feel like part of the problem is a matter of contrast as well. Cars of the 80s (especially European ones) were rather deliberately purposeful, clean, and sparse. Dress it up with some wild wings and flares and hugely bolstered seats, and there’s some serious contrast that makes it all seem like a charming afterthought. On the other hand, when you’ve got 5ft long headlights already like some modern Fords (maybe exaggerating there a bit), going crazier seems like the planned endpoint all along. I will throw out the Ion Red Line or Cobalt SS as suitable modern boyracers though.

      1. crank_case Avatar

        Quite true, when even an Astra/Focus miserydiesel looks angry and has fat tyres and 17 alloys, where do you go? Wasn’t hard to make something look racier back then when the standard car had almost no body mouldings, and 13 inch steel pizza cutter wheels.

    2. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      I think you’re dead right. I also think that cars like the Cosworth, the first M3, the Lotus Carlton stand out for the way they were developed, with a view towards either image-boosting motorsport success or as a statement of what a company can do. The equivalent cars today are developed simply to sell. Every fast release these days just feels like another product, and you know that if you miss out there’ll be a new one out next year.
      Also, I think cars like the old Cossies garnered a different kind of respect on the street. In the ’80s, if you saw an RS500 you’d pull over and let it pass. If you saw one parked up you’d cross over for a better look. Today, though, a Focus RS will pass and you’ll be consumed by thoughts like “look, another badly driven RS”.
      Once upon a time we’d happily chat to the Sierra RS owner because we’d see him as an enthusiast, somebody who made an informed choice that we respect. Today I’d probably actively avoid a conversation with a Focus RS pilot, having sized him up as some kind of childish Ken Block wannabe.
      Perhaps this is a difference in how cars are bought these days. Car finance has never been easier to get and a young guy can go out and “buy” an RS on impulse because he wants it, whereas it used to be something that a driver might work towards gradually over the years.An older, more experienced driver somehow seems to “deserve” his car more. The young guy, either rich or on credit, is resented rather than congratulated.
      The cars are as good, maybe better, than they ever were. It’s people that have changed.

      1. wunno sev Avatar
        wunno sev

        ha! that’s me. i’m in my mid-20s and drive a hot hatch. maybe it’s the improved refinement, too – the new breed of hot hatches is totally DDable, so you don’t need a second car and, thus, the money for one.
        i would, though, still definitely cross over for a better look at a Focus RS.

  2. Philip West Avatar
    Philip West

    Hey, that’s my car. Thank you for featuring it on your website and the positive review. I actually wrote this car off at Crystal palace in 2010, hitting the large tree after the finish line, and it took me until the 2016 event to rebuild the car from a new shell and get back there to show what it could really do. We won the class on both the Sunday and the Monday, so it was at triumphant return to a fantastic event.
    I have only just come across this article, which was a really nice surprise. Thank you once again and congratulations on a great website.