Regrets – we’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. Actually that’s not strictly true – it seems we all look back on our catalogue of car purchases with some degree of regret. There are cars we regret selling. Cars we regret not buying. And cars we regret buying. PetrolBlog’s latest feature has certainly struck a chord with many of you, leading to an outpouring of tales of regret.
A tale of regret from PetrolBlog’s resident guest blogger, Rob Griggs-Taylor. It involves a Ford Sierra XR4x4i and falls very much into the ‘avoid meeting your heroes’ category.
Over to you, Rob.
Sometime around 1991 my dad bought a Ford Sierra XR4x4i finished in a lovely shade of Crystal blue with the ubiquitous (at the time) red and white Ford coach line stripes down each side, the unique 4×4 badges on the front wings and the inevitable rear spoiler. The Sierra at the time was considered a bit tedious and perhaps a bit old hat. Everything else in its class had either transitioned to front-wheel drive or was about to do so.
The Sierra, however, was a semi-considered choice. One of our neighbours owned a car body shop and built and drove rally cars as a hobby, and his latest one was an early 1.6L Sierra five door that he had prepared for the sport. Part of the preparation had involved throwing away the frankly underpowered 1.6-litre four-cylinder lump and replacing it with a 3.5-litre V8, previously ensconced in a Rover SD1. This had been lightly breathed on to produce something around 200bhp, and as the car was minus practically all its trim and only had two lightweight race seats inside, it really shifted. A limited slip diff meant that a half-way decent driver could hold ridiculous power slides and the sound of the V8 was addictive.
Both dad and I were lucky enough to drive the car for a couple of hundred miles each as Graham, the owner and builder, was trying to run in the new engine in time for an autosprint as a shakedown. It was a (very) memorable experience as it cornered with optional attitude – if you felt like being lairy you could hang the tail out, and if not it would just point the right way and proceed with little drama but at significant speed.
Anyway, dad adored the experience, despite having to climb over the roll cage door bars to get in and buckling up the four point harnesses. It was a great car, but dad needed the practicality of a normal saloon with a boot. So a plan was hatched that a decent Sierra would be purchased and Graham would convert it to a road-going version of his rally car, complete with V8. So we went looking for a decent 5-door Sierra hatch.
A 2.0i GLS was about to be purchased when I chanced upon the XR4x4i. We had driven an early version in the initial stages of the hunt and hadn’t been that impressed, but the later facelift version was utterly brilliant. It had so much traction that you could go round corners at speeds we’d never contemplated before, and the sound and grunt of the 2.8 V6 Cologne engine was great. It was bought in a heartbeat and dad kept it for over a decade, a family record that stands to this day.
I loved the car. I’d been lucky enough to drive it extensively and it was such an incredibly competent all-rounder that I really wanted one but they were so expensive, both to buy and run that I never thought it would be possible.
Fast forward to 1998. I’ve gradually moved south from Scotland to London and my office is within walking distance of my flat. I have allocated parking and I’m not going to put many miles on a car. My friend Mark has a white 1989 Ford Sierra XR4x4i slightly later than dad’s and with the updated 2.9 version of the V6 which happily runs on unleaded fuel. An unusually competent piece of financial dealing has left me with a couple of grand to spend and Mark’s Sierra has been rear-ended by a small truck, resulting in it being declared a write-off by the insurance company. He bought it back and had it repaired by a professional body shop but now wanted to sell it. Well, it would have been a shame not to, so I travelled up to the East Midlands by train to collect the car.
It was an inauspicious start. Mark captured the moment when I first reached for the door handle as the legal owner of my very own Sierra XR. It sputtered into life, first running on four cylinders and after a while the fifth one chimed in but the sixth was noticeable only by its absence. Driving across town following Mark in his E30 BMW 325i Touring I felt like I’d made a horrible mistake. It’s the loneliness of the first drive in a car you’ve just bought. You’re there listening for rattles, rumbles or strange engine noises and wondering all the while if the transaction you’ve just made was smart or about to drop you into a world of hassle.
I was definitely in the latter camp until finally that reluctant sixth cylinder finally woke up. Suddenly the drive was transformed from a vibrating, worrying experience to a smooth, considerably faster, and much less nerve-wracking ride. Mark’s friend Robert swapped from being a passenger in the 325 to the Sierra with me. I was chasing Mark and the speeds were rising (Mark later told me that Robert said he’d never been faster round one particular corner) so we decided to go karting to burn the adrenaline off a bit.
A couple of hours later we parted company and I cruised south to London while Mark and Robert headed back north.
The journey was dispatched in comfort and I was extremely pleased with my purchased by the time I’d reached home a couple of hours later.
Things went well until a trip home to Scotland. On the way north I had what was probably the drive of my life, over the A696 and A68 from just north of Newcastle upon Tyne through Jedburgh to Edinburgh where I met up with a friend. In those halcyon days before speed cameras most drivers had an awareness of the traffic police, and how they tended to work. Midnight on a Friday night was a good time to be outside of town, and I took full advantage of the unlikelihood that there would be any on that lonely road across the border, completing my journey in a time that I still struggle to comprehend possible. I’m obviously not about to put in print the speed, distance or anything that would allow anyone to work out just how illegal that night back in the late 1990s was, but it’s safe to say that I may have slightly exceeded the national speed limit. Even taking great care to observe the speed limits in built-up areas my friend was taken aback at the time I arrived.
The following day I accidentally drove through a large puddle on the nearside which knocked the engine out on the spot. After about an hour I finally got it running again, but it wasn’t quite right.
Up to this point I’d been managing about 33mpg on a long run, but it gradually got worse until I was struggling to achieve double figures for fuel consumption, which suggested that something was badly wrong. I travelled up to my parents where I was finally able to park my white Sierra next to dad’s blue one. By this time his had quad headlights, lowered uprated suspension, a strut brace, quick shift, Janspeed exhaust and a set of 7×15 TSW Evo wheels.
On the way back to London the fuel consumption continued to get worse until I was only managing 7mpg, so I did something I’d never done before (or since). I booked the car in to a local Ford dealer to get it fixed. Six weeks and half the purchase price later I got it back, in exactly the same condition as I’d put it in. To this day I don’t believe they actually did anything to it, and it’s left me with a lasting suspicion of main dealers.
To add insult to injury, the following day the clutch went, resulting in another multi-million pound bill. Well, it felt like that to my rapidly diminishing bank account. And the week after the fuel tank started leaking. Cue another bill for the part and a friend and I swapped the tank in the car park outside my flat in an effort to save some money.
Sadness, tinged with massive swathes of regret at everyone’s inability to fix the fuel problem, resulted in the car being advertised for sale and I ultimately swapped it for a Vauxhall Astra GTE which came complete with wheels that wouldn’t run straight at speeds over 50mph, resulting in yet more expense but at least I was comfortably back into reasonable fuel costs again.
So why was it a regret? Well, it’s ultimately that dangerous thing of achieving your dream and finding out it’s not as great as you’d expected. And that’s not really fair on the Sierra XR4x4i, because if you bought a reliable one I’m confident you wouldn’t regret it even now. The combination of space, speed and roadholding was practically unbeatable at the time, and it was only the fact that quite a few expensive things went wrong with mine that tarnished the experience for me. Dad’s one on the other hand was a gem. Buy one like his.