By Roger Houghton

Ford XR8 1.jpg

The South African automotive industry has been amazingly resilient and innovative over its history of more than a century. Recently, the industry has had to cope with the hugely damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Years ago, though, the challenge was making cars fit for use under local road and weather conditions, followed by a very stringent local content programme in the face of political economic sanctions. But great challenges often bring about great innovations…

The industry was given a big shake-up in 1961 when an increasingly demanding local content programme was introduced. Initially the programme was limited to 11 listed components: tyres and tubes, batteries, trim, exhaust system, paint, glass, seat frames, road springs, carpets and mats. However, the programme took a big jump in 1964 when the local content requirement for cars changed to 45% by weight, jumping up to 55% in 1968. The final step was a demand to move to 66% by 1977. The last phase also required 66% local content for commercial vehicles by 1981. Heavy punitive duties were levied on imported built-up cars during this period, going as high as 115% of value in certain categories!

This resulted in an amazing period for the industry as the seven local manufacturers worked together to share many components, including engines and transmissions, as well as boosting support for a growing number of local parts makers. The high cost of developing local content resulted in many manufacturers extending product life far beyond that of the parent company, while many special models were designed and built to fill gaps in the market.

One of the identified gaps was for performance cars. Here both the factories and local tuning companies and franchised dealers took up the challenge and built a host of amazing cars that were made and sold only in South Africa. Some of these creations were so-called ‘homologation specials’ for use in motorsport where the authorities required a minimum production run. These ‘motorsport specials’ included cars such as the Ford Capri Perana, Ford XR6 Interceptor, Chev Can-Am, various BMWs, Alfa Romeos, and Toyota TRDs, as well as a Fiat 131 Racing and a limited-production Mazda Capella Rotary.

Ford is the brand which generated by far the most of these SA-only builds, with the factory, dealers and tuning outfits all getting in on the act. It is therefore no surprise that one of the last of these SA-only ‘super cars’ was the Ford Sierra XR8, which was probably the last new model to come out of the Struandale plant before Ford’s merger with the former Sigma Motor Corporation to form Samcor, based at Silverton in Pretoria. The opening of the SA economy, which followed a few years later, meant that it was no longer necessary for motor companies in SA to build special cars as they could then import what they needed when import duties came down.

Ford XR8 3.jpg

What makes the tale of the XR8’s local development especially interesting is that the person responsible was local man Brian Gush, who was to go on to great things within the Volkswagen Group internationally before retiring last year, and whose success story was chronicled in the October 2020 edition of CAR.

The Ford Sierra XR8 programme was, in fact, the first in which Brian had overall project responsibility as acting chief engineer. The decision to design and build the XR8 arose from the needs of Bernie Marriner, who was then Ford South Africa’s legendary motorsport boss. The previous Ford Cortina Interceptor ‘homologation special’ with a 3-litre Essex V6 fitted with three downdraught Weber carburettors was being beaten on the racetrack, so Bernie realised that he needed more than the Essex V6 to be competitive in motorsport when the Sierra replaced the Cortina in the local Ford line-up.

Bernie got talking to V8 specialist Willie Hepburn at a Kyalami race meeting and Hepburn suggested the Sierra be fitted with a V8 power unit. So the team loaded up one of Willie’s spare V8 engines and took it down to Ford Motorsport’s workshop in Port Elizabeth. “Bernie’s guys offered the V8 up to a Sierra prototype and, of course, it didn’t fit. The main problem was the water pump fouling on the bonnet lock-carrying crossmember,” recalls Brian. The upshot was that Bernie went to Derek Morris, the product engineering director, and asked for help from Derek’s department to complete the job.”

There was a strict austerity programme running at Ford SA at the time, with bans on overtime, airfreight and the like. Brian was called to Derek’s office and asked if he would run the project as acting chief engineer – the condition was that there was to be no overtime for him or for anyone he chose to join his team, nor could any of Brian’s current projects be allowed to slide. One concession was that Brian could sign off airfreight for the XR8 project. Brian’s direct boss was not happy with this unusual arrangement, but an enthusiastic team was soon assembled to work at lunchtimes and after hours on this exciting project.

XR8 3.jpeg

“We used a Ford North America 5-litre Mustang engine with a four-barrel Holley carburettor in standard tune,” explains Brian. “It was only 100mm longer than the V6. The Sierra driveline could not handle the V8’s torque, especially the gearbox, differential and driveshafts, so we selected a Granada five-speed gearbox with shortened input shaft and unique prop shaft linked to a Granada 84 BG differential unit and unique CV joints and driveshafts.”

This meant unique variations for front and rear crossmember subframes, a unique crossmember for the special radiator (no air-conditioning), and headlamps from the Sierra 2.3 on either side of a glass fibre slotted grille. Bernie wanted disc brakes on all four wheels, so they chose AP Racing four-pot callipers at the front and modified ATE Porsche 914/Ferrari 308 rear callipers, which incorporated a handbrake mechanism, which were bought as a job lot, one-time purchase. The new model was fitted with 15-inch 6J Ronal alloy wheels which were machined to fit over the callipers and shod with 195/60VR15 tyres.

“Bernie insisted on using the bi-plane, boot-mounted rear spoiler, against the wishes of Product Planning. But he got his way by quoting a lap time improvement!” Brian quips. Altogether more than 90 special components were needed for the new model.

The V8 engine was relatively under stressed, producing only 161kW of power at 4750r/min and 374Nm of torque at 3250r/min. The Granada differential and gearbox gave no trouble during extensive testing. “However, we consistently broke the unique rear stub axles during testing, which was due to rotational bending. The problem was cured by putting a 10-minute helix on the stub axle splines so that the retaining nut no longer saw a rotational load,” he says.

XR8 5.jpeg

Brian still has all the project’s paperwork and drawings, which fill a lever arch file and were required to get permission for it to be built. Eventually the programme was given international Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) approval, with authorisation No. 170. Bob Lutz, then executive vice president of Ford Motor Company, came out to South Africa to do the sign-off at Aldo Scribante racetrack and subsequently ordered two XR8s – one for himself and one for display at the Ford world headquarters.

The changes made to the standard Sierra to convert it to the XR8 derivative were of such a nature that it was referred to as a ‘deviation’ and meant it could not go down the normal production line. Initially an assembly line was laid out in the product engineering logistics store, but in the end the XR8 was built on the Louisville truck line at Deal Party.

“Two Ford enthusiasts, both farmers from the Western Cape, offered blank cheques for the first two cars, which were pre-production. When production started, we numbered the cars to comply with the required 200 units needed for homologation purposes and planned the component purchasing to make 250 cars in total. In the end, 252 cars were built: 250 in production and the two in pre-production. All the XR8s were white with Ford Motorsport triple blue stripes down the side and grey/blue moulded PVC rocker panel below the doors. Trim was grey,” remembers Brian.

XR8 9.jpeg

“The retail price at launch was R27 500, which I remember because the reward offered to me for overseeing the project was to lease one at R275 a month! Consideration was given to building a second batch of XR8s but needed a solution to the rear brake problem where no more stock was available. We found a solution with a prototype Volkswagen GTi calliper, but Volkswagen SA refused to supply Ford, despite the request going right up to the managing director, Peter Searle! Then the Samcor negotiations started so the project was canned, and no more cars were built.”

Brian Gush subsequently left Ford and moved to Volkswagen, which led to senior positions on the international automotive stage.

The launch of the XR8 made the front page of CAR magazine in January 1985, headed: “XR8 Tested. World’s Fastest Sierra”. Inside was a detailed four-page giant test where top speed was reported as 231km/h with a 0-100km/h sprint time of 6.95 seconds. Best stop from 100km/h was timed at 3.59 seconds. Fuel consumption at 100km/h was 10L/100 km.

XR8 4.jpeg
  • Views  1,204
  • 5
  • Comments  0

Add a Comment

Login or register to start a conversation.

Latest Motoring Articles

Browse our classic cars on auction
Visit Auctions
Inviting auction consignments
Selling Guide