John Topley’s Weblog


Time for a quick quiz. What do the following have in common?

  • The Compact Disc
  • Mark Thatcher gets lost
  • The Mary Rose

If you answered “the year 1982” then maybe you remembered those events from the time, or perhaps you just guessed from the title of this post. A bit of a give-away, that. My main memories of that year also include:

  • The Falklands War
  • The Sinclair ZX Spectrum
  • Channel Four
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾
  • The Ford Sierra

Why am I telling you this? It’s because I can’t quite believe it’s twenty five years ago and specifically, it’s a quarter of a century this month since my father took me to the Birmingham International Motor Show, where we were party to the UK launch of the Ford Sierra: Man and Machine in Perfect Harmony. Much more on that later.

I don’t remember a great deal about 1982 as I was only eight years old, but I recall watching live television showing the Mary Rose being raised from the depths of The Solent, where she’d rested since 1545. Specifically, I remember the TV commentary being a bit more exciting than the pictures, which as far as I could tell showed huge yellow cranes lifting up a few old planks of wood. Fortunately, I have a better developed sense of history and occasion now!

Channel Four Television launched in November 1982, a fact that only comes to mind because it’s referenced in that hilarious book of the year, Sue Townsend’s “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾”. I remember reading the fictional diary whilst staying with an uncle and auntie and for some truly bizarre reason I spent the first half of the book thinking that Adrian Mole was a girl! Anyway, having a fourth UK terrestrial television channel was a big deal, because this was at a time when television was only on in the evenings—if I remember correctly, apart from school programmes you got the test card during the day (breakfast television didn’t start in the UK until 1983).

My memory of The Falklands War is simply of it being on the news a lot and of doing a school project on it whilst it was going on. Predictably, it seemed like an exciting event to a young boy at the time. I don’t remember having much of a sense of the horror and suffering of it, although perhaps I did and those memories have faded.

I probably saw the newfangled Compact Disc demonstrated on Tomorrow’s World at some point that year, although I didn’t actually get to hold, own or listen to one until 1990! I was still impressed though. I wish the BBC would bring Tomorrow’s World back as I used to really enjoy watching it, even if most of the inventions and breakthroughs they showed didn’t end up making it into our everyday lives. Perhaps it’s because of the age I was that the early 1980s seemed like a very exciting time, technologically. We seemed to be on the verge of some golden new technology age, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1950s and 60s. Digital technology was starting to come through with digital audio and fibre optic cabling and with computers starting to appear in homes.

I suspect that like many households, our first home computer—if you ignore a Binatone TV Master games console from the late 70s: were they even computers?—made it through the door under the guise of being able to help with the household accounts or being good for John’s homework. Naturally our 16K Sinclair ZX Spectrum soon earned its keep as a games machine!

My memory of the arrival of the little rubber-keyed black box of magic is that for some reason my Dad ordered it directly from Sinclair Research in Cambridge rather than buying it from a shop. I think the parcel may have come on a Friday and we spent hours that night trying to set the damn thing up correctly! There was no monitor, you connected it to your TV which had to be tuned to the computer signal. I think that may have been the problem. Fortunately we eventually got it all working and were able to load the bundled Psion “Horizons” cassette of demo programs and were soon playing the “Brick the Wall” game, which you probably know as “Breakout”. There was some crazy stuff on that tape, I can tell you. Such as a biorhythms program—still not entirely sure what they are—and a program that simulated population growth in rabbits! Good times.

No one born after about 1985 can possibly appreciate the sheer excitement and feeling that you’re living in the future that came from having a home computer in the early 1980s, in the same way that I probably can’t appreciate those thoughts and feelings arising as a result of building an Altair or owning an Apple ][ in the 1970s.

Some time in the autumn of 1982 my Dad asked, apropos of nothing, if I’d like to go to the forthcoming Motor Show, a biannual event then held at the huge Birmingham NEC complex. Although I don’t think I was particularly into cars, I did have an interest in things shiny and mechanical so I eagerly agreed. The day arrived and we hit the road early. I think it was on this first Motor Show trip that I sat in the passenger seat and decided to break up a dull motorway journey by giving the thumbs-up sign to any lorry drivers that we overtook. Surprisingly, they all cheerfully reciprocated. You should try it some time. On second thoughts, it probably works best if you’re eight or under!

This day at the Motor Show is possibly one of my most treasured childhood memories, so you’ll have to indulge me whilst I write about it at length for a bit. My overriding memory is that I found it incredibly exciting. For lots of reasons—a boys’ day out with my Dad, the overwhelming excitement of going to my first Motor Show and the fact that it marked the British debut of the new Ford Sierra.

It’s difficult for me to convey just how radical the Sierra was when it was launched. This was the car that replaced twenty years of the Ford Cortina, a favourite with both fleet and family buyers in Britain. By 1982 the Cortina was looking pretty tired. It was still a best seller but by all accounts it wasn’t a great drive and the technology was pretty agricultural. In spite of which, Britain was still buying masses of them.

By contrast, the new Sierra looked like nothing else around, aside from the even more radical Audi 100 which came out at the same time. I think the Sierra was more important though because it was a mass market rather than executive car. Ford put on a huge splash to introduce the Sierra to the vital UK market at the Birmingham show. I remember that they had a massive stand that was packed with promotional material such as videos and cutaway displays as well as plenty of the actual cars. Undoubtedly the Ford hype machine was in top gear but it was very exciting to me at the time and it must also have been pretty stimulating for the adults present. It’s not often that something genuinely sensational comes along that marks a complete break with what’s gone before. I remember being blown away by the sheer effort that Ford must have put into their new car, because from reading the launch brochure it seemed like it was breaking ground in so many new areas, although principally in fuel-saving aerodynamics, a direct consequence of the fuel crises of the 1970s.

A montage of pictures showing the Ford Sierra in the wind tunnel at Cologne

It’s hard to believe now, but people used to stop in the street and stare when they saw a new Sierra on the road, as if it were a spaceship. Sure, the Sierra had four wheels, an engine and a body but it had impact resistant, moulded aerodynamic bumpers made from polycarbonite, when other cars made do with a bent bit of steel bolted onto the front and back. It had an ergonomically designed dashboard with a centre console that was angled towards the driver like in a BMW, with controls that were arranged in logical zones. I remember that the brochure proudly proclaimed that the steering wheel, pedals and driver’s seat were all aligned, whereas in most cars they’re slightly askew. I read somewhere that the design brief was to “make the driver feel important”.

Ford were proud to show off their high technology in the Sierra brochure. It was all about how Ford’s computers had helped design the car and how robots would build it. There was talk of how Finite Element Analysis had enabled the car to be built using less metal and how those same computers that had produced the Sierra had helped NASA to design the space shuttle, which had had its maiden flight only a year earlier.

The Sierra was lighter, roomier, more fuel efficient, quieter, safer and much more aerodynamic than its predecessor. In fact, when new the Sierra was 21% more aerodynamic than the class average. By contrast, modern cars tend to be bigger and heavier than the cars they replace. Some of this is undoubtedly down to much tougher safety legislation and market forces but I can’t help thinking that sometimes the car makers just aren’t trying as hard. The only car in modern times that has struck me as outstanding in the same way that the Sierra did was another Ford: the original Focus. Even then, it was a brilliant complete package with original styling, rather than the major technology-driven step ahead for all cars that the Sierra represented.

I came away from that Motor Show feeling inspired. In those days I used to love drawing and I remember spending hours afterwards churning out endless pictures of the Sierra. I think it must have been about that time that I got my first inkling of what I wanted to be when I grew up: a car designer! The trend continued and Dad and I went to subsequent Motor Shows—1984: radical new aerodynamic Vauxhall Astra!—and even the Motorfairs held on odd-numbered years at Earls Court in London. However, none of these shows seemed quite as good as the first time. In fact, they seemed to get worse each year in the sense that the car manufacturers didn’t seem to put as much effort into their stands, or maybe it was just because I was older and less susceptible to marketing hype.

In a fit of nostalgia I recently used eBay to track down a few issues of Car Magazine from that era just to satisfy myself that this car really was big news in the motoring world and had not gained extra significance in the over-active imagination of an impressionable eight year old. I’m pleased to report that my memory doesn’t fail me and that the Sierra really was big news for 1982. October 1982’s Car had “Sierra Shock: It really is a good car” on the cover and a glowing report inside. From reading that issue it’s clear that everyone thought that the Sierra was going to be a massive sales success and maintain or increase Ford’s 35% share of the British car market. Of course it didn’t turn out that way, a turn of events that I took surprisingly personally at the time, for I couldn’t understand why seemingly nobody else understood what an exciting and brilliant car the Sierra was!

A montage of pictures of the Ford Sierra

Unfortunately when it went on sale the Sierra was a bit too radical for the British public and Ford initially had trouble shifting them. The car was soon nicknamed the jelly mould and the early models had a well-publicised stability problem in cross-winds. If you look carefully you’ll see that all but the very earliest Sierras have little plastic “ears” behind their rear three-quarter lights which Ford fitted to cure the problem, at the slight expense of adding extra drag. The Ford sales organisation went into overdrive and the introduction of sporty models to the range such as the XR4i and later the infamous Sierra Cosworth helped to lift the car’s image and sales figures, although it never did the business in Britain that the Cortina had.

By 1987 the Sierra was given a mid-life facelift and no longer looked like the odd one out, for the style of aerodynamic design it had pioneered was now mainstream. In the early 1990s it was finally replaced by the Mondeo, a thoroughly modern, competent and boring car. It was telling that Ford decided to drop the Sierra name, as they were haunted by the spectre of its relative failure for years afterwards and following the equally radical Granada/Scopio retreated back into conservative design for much of the 1980s. Fortunately they found their bold streak again in the 1990s with “New Edge” designs such as the Ka, Puma and Focus.

People who know me may be surprised to read all this car talk, for the supreme irony is that I can’t drive! I guess I’ve always been more interested in cars as technology, engineering or object d’art than as a personal means of transportation. I think I appreciate cars in a more abstract way now, when the reality is environmental damage, traffic jam misery, speed cameras and increasing ownership and running costs. However, if I were to come across a pristine silver 2.3 Sierra Ghia on a Y plate then I might be tempted to buy it. For posterity’s sake you understand…

I can’t remember the last Motor Show I went to with my Dad—I think it was in the mid-1990s—but as you’ve read I can certainly still remember the first one we went to in October 1982. Sadly I wasn’t able to reminisce about all this with the one person I shared the experience with, as my father died early last year. When memories are the most personal thing that you have left of somebody it makes you realise how precious they are and how soon and easily the present fades into years ago.


There are 4 comments on this post. Comments are closed.

  • avatar Ian Nelson
    27 October 2007 at 19:45

    That was a really good read John, thanks. I vaguely remember all the hoo-ha about the revolutionary new Sierra, and being very proud when our family got one.
    I had a Puma, too - what a blast! Until I ended up with a speeding conviction and a day in court, ahem... now it's a much more sensible Focus with a child seat in the back...
    I do think Ford's heyday has been and gone though, I suspect we'll be looking to Japan or other East Asian countries for our next motor.

  • avatar John Topley
    27 October 2007 at 22:33

    Hi Ian, glad you enjoyed it! :-) I've been wracking my brains trying to remember what car my Dad drove at the time. I think it was his second Mazda 323 (somewhat controversially in our family he went Japanese in the late 70s following a succession of British Leyland duffers!)

    The closest I got to actually travelling in a Sierra was when I was in the primary school football team and one of the team's Mums gave us a lift to an away match in their Sierra Laser! I sat all excited in the back.

    I'm not sure about whether Ford's heyday has gone or not. I know that Ford are losing money but by all accounts the latest Mondeo is a very good car indeed.

  • avatar John Conners
    28 October 2007 at 12:18

    Yeah, I remember when the Sierra came along and how revolutionary it seemed. It's funny looking at the few rusting examples left how old-fashioned and tired they look compared to today's cars but at the time it really was a huge jump forward. I've still got a car magazine (somewhere) that discusses all the hot hatches of the era and I used to drool over the XR4i and Cosworth, imagining myself driving one. Ah, those were the days!

  • avatar John Topley
    28 October 2007 at 12:23

    It's amazing how basic the standard equipment was back then too. The brochure boasts that the base model has illuminated instruments, fully reclining front seats and side indicator lights! And if I remember, rear wash/wipe wasn't even standard on the top of the range Ghia.

It’s hard to believe now, but people used to stop in the street and stare when they saw a new Sierra on the road, as if it were a spaceship.


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