The Ford Sierra took Australian touring cars by storm in the late 1980s, becoming the car to have with even Holden hero Peter Brock joining the Sierra armada.
Thirty-five years since its debut, we profile the Sierra along with other iconic cars from the history of Australian touring cars in SupercarXtra Magazine issue #125, on sale now!
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A sweat-drenched Dick Johnson fiddles with an ear plug. He smiles, almost sinisterly, as his interviewer asks him about the race so far. Johnson is happy; he’d led the opening stint of the race before handing his Ford Sierra to co-driver John Bowe at the first stop, and even a fuel-filler problem that dropped them to 11th wasn’t enough to dislodge the grin.
“Were you surprised to be so competitive over here?” comes the question, asked with a syrupy British accent. Johnson’s smile grows wider; his eyes sparkle as he quietly chuckles to himself. “Ah, yeah, okay,” is his response, dripping with sarcasm.
“I mean, you’re obviously quite a match for the other Sierra Cosworths,” the interviewer insists, desperate to pull some morsel of genius from the man who’d dominated the opening laps. Johnson duly delivers, the smile fixed across his face as he retorts, “Mate, we convicts can do anything!”
Now, decades on from that interview at Silverstone in August 1988, Johnson considers the weekend one of his proudest moments. His eyes sparkled that day not simply because he’d taken on the world with his Australian-developed Sierra and shown that he was as good as anyone. He’d also claimed revenge for Bathurst in 1987, where he’d been left a humiliated spectator from lap four as a bunch of foreigners went on to dominate Australia’s biggest race.
“One of my favourite, bar none, photos was at Silverstone, down the Hanger Straight there where on lap one we’ve got 200 metres on two Eggenberger cars and a Rouse car is another 50 metres behind that,” he says with the mischievous twinkle that was there all those years ago.
After switching from the Ford Mustang to Sierra at the start of the season, 1987 was a struggle. Over the course of the year the team blew 37 turbochargers, while its two-car Bathurst effort ended with both cars out before the start of the fifth lap.
“On lap two Neville Crichton and Larry Perkins came together coming out of the Cutting and it put both of them out, so I was the lone ranger. I got to the top of the Mountain and broke a diff on lap four,” says Johnson.
“I walked back to the bloody pits and spent the whole day in a corporate box, which is very uncomfortable when both their cars are out and all their customers are there wanting to see their vehicles perform. It’s very uncomfortable, for six or seven hours, trying to explain why these things happen.”
Johnson had moved to the Sierra in 1987 in an effort to move up the order. The previous two years had been a struggle with the Mustang, a heavy, normally-aspirated car that handled well but lacked the top speed needed to be competitive. The Sierra XR4Ti had debuted in Britain in the hands of Andy Rouse, despite the fact it was never sold outside of North America, where it was known as the Merkur.
“The body was very similar or the same as the Sierra except for the fact that it had a 2.3-litre single overhead cam four-cylinder engine with a turbocharger on it,” Johnson recalls.
“I knew nothing about electronics or management systems or anything like that, so the only other Ford that was homologated as a race car back then, or a Group A car, was the Mustang. So I chose to run the Mustang for a couple of years until the Sierra came out, which was the RS Cosworth, and then in 1988 they bought out the RS500 Cosworth.
“The Mustang handled extremely well; it was just far too heavy for the amount of horsepower it had. It was only a normally-aspirated 382 Windsor engine, which I might add is the same bloody engine we’re running now if I’m quite honest. It was just far too heavy. It handled well, it stopped well, but the way the rules were structured, the car was, as I said, far too heavy. It didn’t have an awful lot of straight-line speed. But the Sierra itself, when it first came out, it was only 980kg or something, the homologated weight. It was a bloody rocketship because we could make a fair bit of horsepower but they were popping turbos.”
Throughout the course of 1987, Dick Johnson Racing struggled to come to terms with the car, though he did give the Sierra its first win with victory at Adelaide International Raceway.
The car was fast but fragile, with the differential a key concern, one that wasn’t addressed until the release of the Sierra RS5000 Cosworth in 1988, which solved the turbocharger problem and gave the car more power.
“When the RS500 came, shit, we made a fair bit of bloody horsepower,” says Johnson.
“But then we started splitting blocks in half, right across where the welch plugs go in the side of the block. Because we’d run so much boost, it’d try and split the thing in half, which it used to do.
“We ended up overcoming that by some good Australian engineering. In fact, we made some special head studs that went from the cylinder head, like it used to hold the head on but went all the way through and bolted into the main bearing studs at the same time, so it holds the whole thing together, so it never blew in half. It was bloody ripper!
“When we used to run them in on the dyno, we ran them in without a turbo hooked up, and they had all of, flat out, they had 90hp. After it was running, we hooked the turbo up, give it about 2.4 bar of boost and it had 680hp.”
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