HEY PRESTO!

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In 1984 Ford needed a machine to take on the competition in Group One racing. With a strict rule requiring a minimum number of 200 road-going units for homologation purposes, the firm was left with no option other than to churn out a special. In true South African homologation special fashion, Ford whipped out the shoehorn and squeezed a V8 under the hood of its new Sierra.

Europe already had a performance Sierra in the form of the XR4i, which featured a 3-door body with 2.8-litre Cologne V6, but because South Africa produced only 5-door shells, this was not feasible in the rough-and-tough world of mirror-banging racing. The Cologne lump too didn’t make sense as we were still making use of the trusty old Essex 3-litre for 6-pot propulsion. Having gone down the road of racing the Cortina XR6 Interceptor, Ford also knew that the Sierra XR6 would not be competitive off the bat.

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Thankfully though, Ford could pull some Mustang running gear from the international Ford parts bin, which, when fitted to an XR6 shell, promised performance without complexity and excessive cost. So in went a 4-barrel Holley carburettor-fed Mustang 4942cc pushrod V8, power was sent to the backend via a 5-speed Mustang Borg-Warner manual transmission and the chassis was beefed up to handle the extra grunt. With the new lump weighing in 33kg heavier than the Essex V6 a beefier cross member was added, spring rates were increased by 50% at the front while the rear saw 40%, the McPherson struts at the front were moved to fit larger wheels, and because of the tight squeeze in the engine bay the anti-roll bar had to be re-routed. Halfshafts and driveshafts were designed and made from scratch locally while the 281mm vented discs all round and 4-pot from callipers came from the international race scene.

In total, Ford claimed to have locally designed from new 96 components while a further 150 were modded XR6 items. In road guise Ford didn’t over stress the motor, tuning it to churn out 150kW at 4800rpm and 330Nm of torque at the 3500rpm mark. The result was a sub-8-second zero to 100km/h sprint and top speed just over 225km/h, which although not earth shattering by today’s standards, was enough to blow off most other road users in the day while delivering a reasonable fuel consumption average of 11 litres per 100km. Thanks to the solid foundation some minor work at your local workshop could see the V8 transforming into a brutal performer and at a purchase price of R25 000 punching well above its price range.

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Supercar users weren’t caught off guard in the robot races though as the XR8 is anything but subtle. All XR8s came only in white, featured the blue pin-striping synonymous with Team Ford racing machinery, wore front wheel arch extensions and sported 15-inch Ronal alloy wheels kitted out in low profile 195/60/15 General tyres. A unique to XR8 white plastic grille is surrounded by the top-of-the-range standard Sierra range headlights and auxiliary lights but it’s at the back where the real magic happens in the form of a monster double-tiered spoiler or wing.

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The rear is also the only place one will find the XR8 badging. Inside the cabin it is more sedate in a grey hue, with the only real deviation from the XR6 being the overseas XR4i instrument cluster and a small 2-spoke steering wheel. Road testers at the time were blown away by the torque and ease at which the grumbling Ford got going. They praised the exhaust note and how the steering was well weighted and delivered plenty of feeling and swift response (a plus when you remember that the Sierra had no traction control and could kick the back end like a mule). Brakes impressed but many bemoaned the seriously heavy clutch action and commented that the gear lever throw was a bit long for such a race-inspired supercar challenger.

So Ford had a vision and plan to win on track. To accomplish this it manufactured a homologation special. But did all the effort pan out? You bet it did, with 254 production units being made and front running spots on the tracks around SA. Two race cars were originally manufactured with the first of these taking part in the 1984 Kyalami 9 Hour. For 1985 both cars took to the track in the highly competitive Group 1 Championship. Run by Ford Motorsport these two fought the likes of 3-litre Alfa GTV6 and BMW 745i in the capable hands of Serge Damseaux and former single-seater racer John Gibb. Works driver Damseaux’s car sported the tri-blue Ford Motorsport colours while Gibb, who hired the car for the year, adorned his with his company Presto Parcels colouring.

When Serge wrote off his car at Kyalami in 1985 another was hastily built at the PE factory for him. At the end of 1985 both cars were handed to Willie Hepburn, who turned them into WesBank Modified Cars. The Ford livery machine became the most well known of the XR8s when Roger McCleery christened it ‘The Animal’ during a commentary while the Presto car morphed into the Arwa Pantihose-sponsored machine. This car was used as a spare car by Hepburn in the fight against Tony Viana’s BMW and Ben Morgenrood’s Mazda RX7, but did get hired out from time to time.

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A sharp eye will then question how we managed to photograph the Presto Parcels car. The answer is because this is a copy. Built by Nick Sheward from a genuine XR8 (Number 80), this car is as close as you will get to an exact replica. Sheward completed the build in a year and thanks to detailed info from John Gibb was able to get the finer details spot on. For example the roll cage is an exact copy in shape, size and locating points as the original Presto car. Finding the correct 15-inch Compomotive Turbo rims is proving difficult but the period available alloys chosen for now are at least painted in the correct colour. It is truly a fine bit of kit though, that pays homage to the pinnacle of South African saloon car racing and homologation specials with a guttural exhaust note and impressive turn of pace.

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