The Ford Sierra is a rare enough sight in Australia, but one with an XR-8 badge on its winged boot can’t help but turn heads.
In the late 1980s Ford Sierras were terrorising Australian racetracks in devastating flame- spitting fashion. The European imposters landed both the 1988 and 1989 Australian Touring Car Championships, while also muscling their way to successive Bathurst titles these same years. Little wonder greats including Brock, Moffat, Johnson and Bowe lined up to race these turbocharged animals.
The boosted 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines in these racing Sierra RS500 Cosworths were pushing out upwards of 500kW, complete with some colossal turbo lag to ensure they were more than a bit of a handful. In 1987 a road-going Ford Sierra RS500 was created by Ford UK for Group A homologation purposes, with a mere 500 produced for eager performance fans. But these be-winged performance family cars can’t claim to be the rarest street legal Ford Sierras roaming the earth. That honour goes to a South African-only special, the Sierra XR-8, of which just 250 were created in 1984 and 1985.
The Ford XR-8 badge is a familiar one to we Aussies, indicating an all-important V8 under the bonnet. You’re unlikely to ever see one on a Sierra however, unless you’re in the Noosa region and Keith Maricich is out exercising his Blue Oval rarity.
Keith, a South African import himself, reckons his is one of only two in Australia. “I believe from the 250 built in South Africa that 50 went to the UK,” he said. “There’s no definite number of models that have survived, maybe only three dozen left in existence. And only about ten or 12 that have remained original and not been modified.”
The Sierra XR-8 is certainly an unusual beast, looking like an everyday family sedan if you ignore the bi-plane rear spoiler and burbling V8 note. Sierras were common family cars in 1980s South Africa, but the model lacked a true performance variant; a rather tepid 3.0-litre Essex V6-powered XR-6 was the flagship when it was first introduced.
This was hardly enough to satisfy true performance enthusiasts, but Ford South Africa had an ace up its sleeve. It had easy access to the 5.0-litre (302 cu in) small block V8 from the Ford Mustang, and a bent-eight was exactly what the brand needed for Group One touring car racing. Sling the same motor in Sierras the public could buy and the model would soon shake of its boring reputation.
Ford South Africa built 250 of these five-door XR-8s, choosing to keep the body and interior reasonably subtle. All came only in white with the body’s lower trim painted Ford Motorsport blue (Keith’s has been repainted white), while a subtle tri-blue strip ran along the flanks and boot.
By modern standards it’s not an overly powerful or quick car as the 5.0-litre Mustang pushrod engine is good for only 161kW at 4750rpm despite its displacement. Peak torque of 374Nm at 3250rpm is a bit more grin inducing though. It could hit 100kmh in around seven seconds (no disgrace in 1984) and on to about 230kmh, and with 6×15-inch Ronal wheels with skinny 195/60 tyres these rear-drive XR-8s would easily flick their tail out.
Having owned the Sierra XR-8 for nearly 15 years now, Keith counts his V8 Ford as a much-loved member of the family. It was out of the question that he’d sell it when he moved to Australia in 2009. “I wasn’t going to give it up: this is my kids’ car and it’s not for sale,” he said, clearly having lost none of his affection for this special Sierra.
Keith’s working career has involved co-owning and running a V8 shop in South Africa, retailing body parts, spares, engines and the like. His car-mad father was always building V8s and Keith picked up plenty of knowledge along the way to ensure he has been able to enhance and maintain the XR-8 during his ownership.
“My business partner owned five Sierra XR-8s so I got to know the vehicle then,” Keith said. “Growing up mum had the Sierra XR-6, but we were certainly a V8-orientated family. I’d owned a VW Beetle and Golf and was looking to get a V8 along the lines of the work we were doing. It had to be a daily driver but something I could track too. The XR-8’s aerodynamics for the time were up there with the Porsche 911, and it really appealed having the factory Mustang 302 motor. These cars were incredible for off the production line in the 1980s.”
He’s not wrong. Ford South Africa gave these Sierra XR-8s a Borg Warner T5 five- speed manual gearbox, AP Racing 280mm brake rotors with four-piston calipers and independent rear suspension some 40 per cent stiffer than a normal Sierra’s. Other goodies from the factory included an 85mm deep British Serk radiator, completely new front crossmember, half-shafts, and driveshaft, plus an uprated propshaft and differential.
With the revered Kyalami race track only a short drive away, and Keith’s desire for drag strip and gymkhana fun, it was inevitable he’d make a few changes to have the XR-8 even more track-focused. He’s added a Hurst short-shift kit and white gear knob (this being the only real flashy point in an otherwise dull family Ford interior), and done away with the standard independent McPherson front suspension and uprated to a Bilstein coilover kit. “My first drive impressions were that it was just insane,” Keith said of his XR-8. “But once I put the coilovers on its road holding, especially on the circuit, was unbelievable, and I was still able to drive it to work every day.”
A quick drive of the Sierra XR-8 on Keith’s local roads proved old-school V8 power still delivers plenty of joy. There’s no power steering or ABS so it commands respect and a bit of muscle, but once on the move it feels a lovely predictable steer with lazy and seemingly endless pull from the big and thirsty V8. Keith confirms it’s a playful thing to drive, the rear end steps out easily but predictably and it’s proved a superb track toy with excellent front-end grip.
These days Keith runs his own bike and triathlon shop and has three children, meaning time spent with his Sierra XR-8 is limited; something most family men can sympathise with. His experience working on the car has given him valuable skills in his current career however, with part of his role being a specialist bike builder and mechanic. Setting up and maintaining bikes for anyone from casual commuters to professional athletes means attention to detail is key, much like when pampering a classic car.
“Having a mechanical mindset is key, it’s a good logical way of thinking,” Keith explained. “Bikes and cars aren’t too dissimilar and need to be safe. Both are modes of transport and you need to ensure the brakes are working, the wheels are running true and that components aren’t worn. High performance cars and push bikes can be specially set up too. You can look at tolerances and clearance of your brakes, the crispness of your gear shifts, tyre pressures and more. A well set up and maintained car or bike is a very satisfying thing.”
Keith’s enduring affection for his XR-8 ensures it won’t be leaving his family any time soon. And as much fun as it is as a local cruiser with that distinctive V8 rumble, Keith has his eye on a return to the racetrack with Queensland’s hairy Lakeside raceway the main target.
Built for the circuits of South Africa, this fascinating Sierra XR-8 looks set to show Australia what it missed out on in the 1980s.