Merkur XR4Ti

"Mare-koor, from Germany", drawls the deep 40-Marlboro's a day voice on the advert, as a familiar looking jelly-mould speeds through the desert, sweeping up clouds of amber sand and roaring head-on into a trio of foreign competitors. That's how America was introduced to the XR4Ti, an exoticly foreign sounding and slightly futuristic looking saloon from across the waters. There's even electronic drums and a power-metal guitar playing in the background, just to add a bit more drama. It's like a car advert mixed with a trailer for Top Gun; in fact, if the camera had zoomed in on the windscreen, you'd probably have seen Kenny Loggins inside. Wearing Aviators.

For anybody in Europe, all of this would have laughable. Who the hell would go to all that trouble for what was, essentially, a Ford Sierra? But remember, this isn't a Sierra. No, really, it isn't. Look at that bonnet logo. Click on the picture if you need a really closer look. Merkur. See? Mare-koor. Obviously different.

You can forgive people for trying too hard to promote the Ford Sierra. Any car that tried to fill the shoes of the Ford Cortina/Taunus was going to have to offer something special, and the overly rounded form of the new Ford didn't exactly meet expectations. Sure, it had all the technological advancements of a completely new car, but that dropped-ice-cream look didn't go down too well with the executives who wanted cars as angled and horizontal as their shoulder pads. Aerodynamics and low drag sounds good, but what the 80s was all about was hard, brash statements and shark-like aggression, not gliding through the air with a whisper. To be fair to the designers, the Sierra was simply too new; it didn't have anything in common with anything else in Ford of Europe's range, or even with its competitors. It would take time for people to get used to it.

It was four years after the initial launch of the Sierra that Ford of America decided people, hmm, well, possibly, maybe, had got used to it. The initial grumbles with the car had been ironed out, sales were on the up, and Ford had noticed just how many people were buying up European cars. A European Ford might be able to bite back a chunk of the market from the competition, and so plans were made to bring the Sierra to the USA.

Knowing American tastes, the Sierra would need to pull out all the stops if it was to wow an American audience, so the biggest engines were looked over to get the most power down from that rear-wheel-drive layout. It seems weird to think that a land famed for its overpowered gas-guzzlers with shocking fuel efficiency should be so stringent on foreign imports, but either way the big monster available to the Sierra, the 2.9 V6, was deemed too polluting, and an alternative had to be found. Meanwhile, the bodyshell was sent to German metalwork mentalists Karmen, for some performance enhancements.

In 1985 then, the Merkur XR4Ti arrived. All the trimmings of the European XR4i were loaded onto a structurally reinforced shell, implanted with a 2.3 litre 180hp turbo engine, then had a German-sounding name badge slapped on the bonnet (sorry, hood) to show off its engineering excellence. What this really meant is that Ford had so much faith in the XR4Ti that they weren't willing to risk their own brand’s names on it, instead creating a semi-fake brand to market the car. Merkur, you see, is simply German for Mercury, the quasi-luxury brand of Ford sold out of the same dealerships as Lincolns, which in itself was suffering from a massive identity crisis at the time.

They didn’t exactly fly out of dealerships. Every reviewer raved about its excellent handling (which was odd, since the Sierra was famed for being rubbish with corners) and lack of turbo lag, and enthusiastic clued-up buyers bought their share from their local dealer, but most people simply had no clue whatsoever what the XR4Ti was, or even who Merkur was supposed to be. Even the dealers had to be trained how to say the brand name, and many were simply unenthusiastic touting a car that robbed them of far more profitable sales of stablemates the Mercury Sable and Lincoln Town Car. For the image-conscious ‘80s consumer, plastic side skirts and that double rear spoiler were just a step too far in the tasteless direction to be forgiven. A disappointing 42,464 cars rolled away from the showrooms in four years; Ford had expected to sell 20,000 in 1985 alone.

Had the XR4Ti actually stayed in Europe, they’d have been immensely popular. A lot of the technological advancements went back to Ford of Europe for their touring car and RS programs, and American tuners found it easy to tighten up the body roll and pitching that were the only grumbles performance-wise. Had the intercooler from other Fords been added to the Merkur’s engine as standard, performance would have been upped to 210hp – more than the Sierra Cosworth, lusted after by boy racers all over Europe. And at least one, here in Poland, has pricked his ears up and taken note; it might look like another rotten executive saloon from the ‘80s, but that little Merkur badge makes a hell of a difference.