50 years up close and personal with Ford’s finest
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Sierra RS Cosworth vs BMW M3: the 1986 Italian job
Although my 1969 first foray into Europe for work was to drive a longer distance, with a ferry trip to Sicily and back via Turin, this epic multi-car trip of 17–22 July 1986 was the most action-packed 2,300 miles I’ve ever covered. We were to drive from London to the fabulous 3.3-mile Mugello track, set in one of Italy’s most beautiful regions not far from Florence.
Tackled in an early (1985) three-door Cosworth (C232 HVW), the objective for Performance Car magazine was to bring Ford’s 1987 European Touring Car Championship contender into head-to-head contact with the prestige opposition: BMW’s first-edition M3. That rivalry would escalate with a first World Touring Car Championship title also up for grabs in 1987.
Back in 1986, editor Jesse Crosse hadn’t just wheedled a 14,000-mile pre-production Sierra Cosworth out of Ford, but had persuaded BMW’s press people in Munich that it would be a good idea to have the white whale-tail invade its international press debut! Yes, the confrontation would be of intense interest to both sides, but it was still a ‘big ask’.
Both Ford in Britain and BMW Motorsport in Germany were fascinated that we were taking our Correvit timing gear along for side-by-side track acceleration runs of the similarly powerful showroom M3 and RS Cosworth (the M3’s 200bhp played an official 204 Ford horses), plus indulging in some limited track time for the Ford alongside the M3.
Making it happen involved a lot of tolerance from BMW, but both sides agreed that we should hide this scoop test from the regular European media by agreeing an arrival time over a long weekend in between sessions for the mass media, who would be exercising over 30 immaculately presented M3s. In any case, by the time the already thrashed and travel-stained Ford arrived, there was no danger of confusing it with a pampered press machine.
Initially, the trip started off well, in sunshine. I met art editor Paul Harwood and staff photographer Peter Robain at the magazine’s Middlesex offices, where they appeared alongside a long-term BMW 325i the magazine operated. The Bimmer was packed to the boot and back-seat maximum with a large quantity of rather valuable camera and timing gear, worth thousands. Thereby hangs a tale…
I installed myself in the familiarity of a Ford cockpit and remembered that Jesse had endorsed its status with the casual comment: ‘It’s obviously had a hard life, but it goes really well.’ Lackadaisical performance was never an issue with the original Cosworths, and for long road spells this one could idle off-boost, keeping the laden six-cylinder BMW company, particularly in heavily regulated Britain and France. Overall consumption, including the track sessions, averaged over 23mpg, specifically measured over 2,200 miles. I then did at least another 100 joyous and selfish UK miles that were unmeasured.
We were in a Calais hotel by midnight and were off to a deceptively bright and early French start. I doubt we did 20 miles before the Ford-BMW convoy was halted, not just by police but gendarmes acting on behalf of French Customs. One look at the BMW boot, and a casual question followed on the value of all that gear loaded within, with a swift demand for documentation. As we had no paperwork, we were escorted to the nearest cash machine to pay a fine equivalent to over £500.
The long day turned into a series of setbacks, some severe. We had lost half a day with the customs and police, Paris and the Périphérique were log-jammed, and I was the only one with access to a credit card, then very limited to the amount you could withdraw at cash machines. The Visa card did keep us topped up across numerous French halts, and by evening we were running in 11pm darkness in Hautes-Alpes ski-resort country between Grenoble and Briançon. I enjoyed winding the Cosworth through twisty sections, until on an uphill left I hit one of many fallen rocks. Swiftly after that unwelcome ‘clunk’, the oil light blinked. Race-trained to know that absent oil means imminent consequences, I stopped. What now?
Fortunately, Robain was a Land Rover man of cross-country resourcefulness. The Cosworth was jacked to allow limited under-engine access in the torch-lit partial darkness. The leaking cast-alloy sump was mollified with repeated chewing gum implants, and we limped the Cosworth close to the nearby Serre Chevalier resort at about 2am. I chose the village high street of La Grave because I could see a small roadside Renault-branded garage. I knew that Renault had specified major alloy engine parts for decades.
That we found only a single hotel room for a trio of Englishmen at that dark early-morning hour was a minor miracle. Much laughter followed the next morning from the self-styled ‘Ali Baba’ garage proprietor and his youthful assistant, on hearing the ‘three-blokes-in-a-bed’ tale. We set off gingerly in mid-afternoon sunshine for the nearby Italian border and, remarkably, the Sierra sump stayed sealed for the rest of that tough trip. However, there were other RS Sierra components that would throw tantrums in the face of so many BMWs gathered at the picturesque track backdrop.
The Italian trek south was harsh, especially for the occupants of the heavily laden 325i BMW. We got to Turin around 8pm, heading on down to Brescia, Parma, Reggio Emilia and Bologna. Now the Cosworth cleaved through heavy rainstorms, turbo motor happy with a water-cooled life, but visibility was limited and I felt for those following in the smooth, but now distinctly less responsive BMW. The thunderstorms did ease as we reached BMW’s Tuscany press-launch base, checking into Montecatini Terme’s Bellavista Palace, a five-star hotel, at 1am on Sunday morning.
Clandestine comparisons and a hard bargain
Now time became precious, for the deal was that the very temporary collusion between the lone Ford and BMW’s media fleet had to be completed before the next media group arrived. That meant premium-quality photography, performance timing and the full M3 experience all had to be bagged – and out of sight. That was the plan, and I’m proud that Harwood, Robain and I completed that mission, but there are relevant details I omitted from earlier accounts.
Even in the rush to get Performance Car’s Cosworth-versus-M3 morning trials completed, particularly the full performance figures and side-by-side action photography, I was still able to drive three M3s (I had full reports to write about the new BMW for other media outlets) on local roads as well as around the Mugello track. The M3s were all properly developed, with and without catalytic-converter exhausts. Some track sessions were hard on them – and the accompanying Uniroyal tyre team. We had an informal competition around the fabulous turns and twists of the heavily contoured circuit that saw the best man on 2m 37.3s versus my 2m 38.0s. Many beers were consumed that evening to salute those fun-packed laps, but first there was a small Sierra RS snag to overcome…
Messrs Robain and Harwood had been out clicking frantically through the breathtaking Tuscan backdrops, returning with some excellent village scenes featuring the two rivals. Sadly, the Cosworth’s exhaust system simply dropped off when asked to indulge in track life. Much head-scratching, as a turbocharged car without a sound exhaust system is a badly wounded performer. There was also another obligation to fulfil: BMW had some hardcore BMW Motorsport engineers present – and they desperately wanted to experience the RS Cosworth out on track.
A deal was struck: BMW mechanics would repair the stricken Ford but the price was to allow an M3 development engineer actually to have a drive in our pre-production Cosworth. I had verbally promised Ford UK press personnel that I wouldn’t allow any BMW people to drive this early production car... so, promise broken – I’m not proud of that.
The hardcore BMW mechanics taught me a lot of colourful German swear words as they welded up the exhaust system but they did a great job. So solid was the result that it lasted not only the track laps with the BMW Motorsport engineer aboard but also the entire trip back home. It took the Ford press garage back in UK some equally expletive-laden labour to separate the track-repaired iron manifold-to-downpipe unions.
Some background about BMW’s motorsport-orientated rival
That enforced track time at Mugello with the BMW Motorsport engineer taught me just how thoroughly Munich had redeveloped its M-format 3 Series for the road, starting rather earlier than Ford had done with the Sierra Cosworth. BMW Motorsport GmbH began work on the M3 for public sale in July 1981 and planned 15,000 examples. At Ford, the first planning meeting wasn’t until March 1983, and SVE was handed the project by September of that year.
Ford initially intended to manufacture a total of 5,500 Sierra RS Cosworths to meet the homologation requirement, but that was only true of the three-door first edition, as the company then carried on and built more Sierra Cosworths as four-door derivatives. As it turned out, BMW also made more M3s than originally planned. Including all evolution versions, but not the M3 cabriolet, some 17,184 M3s were built and more than 500 competition-only M3 kits were sold profitably. Ford totalled over 30,000 showroom Sierra Cosworths, but the difference was that these came in three- and four-door bodies, and also with an 4x4 version.
At Mugello, Dieter Quester demonstrated a low-power prototype of the race-spec M3 that underlined equally detailed preparation for the track. Nevertheless, it could be seen, even before any competition confrontations, that the turbocharged Sierra Cosworth formula was always going to have a power surplus compared with a normally aspirated M3.
Apparently, BMW senior management had dismissed the turbo route for its performance 3 Series. Ironically, their vision at the top of the famous four-cylinder building looking over Munich’s 1972 Olympic Park was clouded by the fact that Mercedes and its deadly 3 Series rival, the 190E series, already had a 16-valve 2.3-litre performer (2.3/16) to sell to an eager public. That engine’s cylinder head and some ancillaries were the work of… Cosworth!
The journey home
Monday morning, and time for the pictorial people’s final photography in 5.30am soft light in Montecatini old town. Both cars filled, we made a noon departure for a superb coastal run up to La Spezia and Genoa, then via Turin to exit Italy through the Susa valley and Colle delle Finestre. From the near-12,000ft summit, we phoned ahead to book into Michelin-listed Hôtel Million in Albertville, a Savoie regional destination in France that we reached without incident by 8.45pm that Monday evening.
Really, the rest of the trip, after an 8am departure from the fabulously tasty Million fare, was an unremarkable high-speed run along the French autoroute network via Chambéry and Mâcon, although the Cosworth and its totally seduced driver did get into an unworthy dice. Some Moto Guzzi bikers were attracted by that whale-tail and an unfamiliar Ford, with a result that proved turbocharged four-wheelers then had a top-end velocity advantage over contemporary two-wheeled Italian legends.
We ate south of Paris, and were in Calais by 6.30pm for the 7.45pm ferry back to Dover. By the time the bug-spattered C232 HVW, in grime-white, was tracking round the M25 in relaxed twilight 85–90mph illegality, I had fallen totally in love with it. I’d always held another plain-white Ford, the original Ermine White Escort Twin Cam, as the Blue Oval love of my life, but now the Sierra RS Cosworth’s lure of accessible speed, and the promise of many more adventures to come, presented serious challenges to my loyalty.
As it turned out, the Sierra RS Cosworth would deliver on every bit of its long-term promise, adding a bonus for me as a frequent track companion. Yet I never owned a three-door for more than temporary transitions between road and race, and I failed in bidding for two early road examples. Sad, but the memories of trips like these are some compensation.