Nostalgia Years: Jim Christie’s 1991 Sierra Sapphire 2.3 Ghia – “The Ghia of Fear”

I’ve always had a thing for Sierras. Perhaps this stems from the Mk3 Cortina that a friend and I tried to restore when we were at school – a natural extension of that experience if you will – or perhaps it’s because I had a shabby Mk1 Sierra through my years at university and enjoyed every minute of it that the association with the car stuck. I can’t quantify it – even though I am entertained by the wife’s Alfa, I always smile when I get back into my current daily hack – a 1990 Sapphire 2.0 GLXi – and feel its honest simplicity. Sierras are now sufficiently rare on the roads as to be unique, which is something I find appealing in the rush-hour queue of bland euroboxes.

Rare but strangely appealing

I owned the car in this feature between late 2001 up until the end of the summer in 2008 when I sent its sorry remains to the great scrapyard in the sky. Even though it’s long since gone, I still think fondly of it.

At the time it came to my attention, I was driving a similarly-aged Sierra 1.6. The Ghia was in the back of a local newspaper advertised as “good condition, spares or repair” and having seen it over several nights, I finally rang the owner for more information thinking it might be nice to transfer some higher-specification bits to my poverty-spec LX.

It turned out the Ghia was a two-owner car. Given how popular the Sierra had been with corporate buyers during its production life, and how readily they had changed hands on the second hand market afterwards, you might say it was relative rare to find a fairly original one with any history let alone a stack of receipts half-a-mile high and all the MOTs from new to verify pretty much every inch of the 138,000 recorded miles.

A £175 Sierra Ghia. What could possibly go wrong?

Advertised at £175, I couldn’t quite believe my “luck”. Here I was looking at a top of the range Sierra – complete with power steering, ABS, electric windows, mirrors and sunroof, a heated front screen, front fog lamps, headlamp wash/wipe and a plush interior with rear headrests – just about 10 years old and not in physically bad condition at all – for less than two hundred quid! The only minor niggle, and I saw it as that at the time, was that the cylinder head was in a box in the boot having blown the head gasket quite spectacularly.

Every silver lining has its cloud and rather than strip the car for its higher-specification trim as I had originally planned, I decided to bolt everything back together with a fresh set of gaskets with the intention of selling the car on. I think the harassed cylinder head must have practically split right up the middle at the first turn of the key but it ran well enough so I pressed on.

Now anyone who has battled with the DOHC in a Sierra or Granada knows they can be fickle beasts but in my relative ignorance and excitement I blundered in and started driving it. Within a day or two I finally got the message that all was not well with the twin-cam: coming home from work and sat in traffic, the engine boiled itself dry, laying down more steam and smoke than Fred Dibnah in the process.

Having briefly driven the car and seen its potential, I decided that I would get rid of the LX, keep the Ghia and do what the original garage advised the previous owner to do – so I did some ringing round and sent it off to a local company for a new engine.

Quite why I chose that instead of doing the work myself is still a bit of a mystery even now but it all went horribly downhill from there. The local company turned out to be a bunch of cowboys and didn’t so much recondition the engine as bodge it back together.

As you might expect, the reliability of the engine was atrocious. It would randomly lose its coolant overnight, my drive was littered with bolts I could find no homes for and the engine leaked oil faster than the Exxon Valdez. The clutch pilot bearing in the back of the crank collapsed mid-journey and it went through a spate of eating starter motors every three months. I got quite adept at changing them in the dark and my local motor factors would know what I was there for without asking.

It quickly became very clear to me that the only warranty I was going to get from the engine builder was the “do it yourself” sort and for about 18 months I lived in an almost perpetual state of paranoia about what I would have to fix next. Most sane people would have just got rid of the car but I was too stubborn to let it beat me – and besides it owed me a significant sum of cash by this point.

That took 18 months to resolve. As I had paid for the work on my credit card, the finance company were equally liable for the quality of the work and things only really started to change for the better when, having had a judgement against them from Peterborough County Court and feeling the heat from Derbyshire Trading Standards, the engine rebuilder did a runner and shut up shop leaving the credit card people holding the baby. They chose to settle – generously – out of court.

The car now owed me nothing but by this point had it had understandably gained some notoriety in the Ford Sierra Owners Club, acquiring the name “Ghia of Fear” in response to my almost-daily posts on the club forum asking for help. Even after the financial settlement allowed me to sort out most of the problems and return the car to a reasonable level of reliability, the name remained with her as the demons had apparently not been exorcised completely – even though she would ferry the family around happily, from time to time she would grumble and bite and remind me how she came by her name.

Steady as she goes…

A few years – and starter motors – passed in relative peace and having eventually fitted a better DOHC engine from another car, I chose to have some fun with the last of the settlement money: fitting an AVO suspension kit and powerflex bushes all round. A chipped ECU, K&N filter, Janspeed four-branch manifold and an unbranded “sports” exhaust made it sound good and go better while smoked side repeaters, new alloy wheels and a Cosworth front grill subtly said she was no-longer any old Ghia without drawing unwanted attention.

I managed to source a new leather steering wheel and armrest from a 2000E, and a Ford 2028 CD player to make the cabin more pleasing. Following on the 2000E theme, leather seats were sourced, fitted, and then disposed of – I found it a lot noisier than the velour that had been there and the almost-constant creaking from it drove me bonkers so I put the original seats back. A new-old-stock 2000E fuel computer was a rare find and proved itself to be surprisingly accurate.

Early on in 2006, and looking for something different to do, I started doing some investigation on the 2.3 DOHC used in the Scorpio and Galaxy models. Having already noticed that it was essentially a larger-capacity, 16-valve version of the Sierra’s engine I wondered if it couldn’t be put to good use.

A shopping list was drawn up and by November 2006 I had built and fitted the engine. It ran an amalgamation of a 2.3 bottom end from a Ford Scorpio, and the cylinder head from a DOHC Sierra – the idea being to keep installation a simple “plug and play” job while making the most of the existing bolt on turning components I already had.

The 8v 2.3 makes an entrance

The 8-valve 2.3 DOHC “hybrid” I fitted to the Ghia is believed to have been the first of its kind at the time and once run in, the basic engine was further treated to Piper 285-degree camshafts and larger injectors. In that form it was rolling road tested as delivering more power and torque than the 2.9 V6 used in the performance Sierra XR4x4 but being a bit lighter than the boat-anchor 12-valve V6, the car wasn’t too nose heavy and it would respond satisfyingly when prodded.

When not being pushed along it would return sensible 2.0-litre-like fuel economy – mid 30s around town and up to 47mpg on a run – the engine seemed like the perfect compromise between performance and economy, the perkiness making the daily commute immense fun.

Having been to Ford Fair every year with the owners club since 2002, I finally braved track time in 2007 and while I discovered the 2.3 would push the car along Silverstone’s straights very rapidly, the corners highlighted the limitations in the suspension, tyre and braking setup – and the driver when I come to think about it!

Rapid, but not swift through the corners as originally thought

We both survived that however like any 80’s Ford, natural forces were working against dear old Ghia of Fear – rust had previously eaten through one set of sills, both inner and outer, three seat mounts, the transmission tunnel, two wheelarch repairs and a fuel tank and I had gotten to the point where I daren’t peer into the inspection holes in chassis box sections anymore.

Significant effort with the welder would be required to keep it on the road much longer and when a fuel line broke leading to a serious case of underfuelling – along with the attendant engine problems – I finally conceded defeat. Ghia of Fear was stripped, her parts being distributed to other owners around the country, and I replaced her with my current GLX.

Old meets new.

Although at the time I said I wouldn’t modify the GLX – she had been cosseted all her life and kept in a heated garage, her practically factory-fresh feel making any serious modification seem like a crime – I am missing the torque of the 2.3. And my spanners are getting itchy again!

You can follow Jim here.

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2 responses to “Nostalgia Years: Jim Christie’s 1991 Sierra Sapphire 2.3 Ghia – “The Ghia of Fear”

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