"It's a little difficult describing what it was like to work in a place where two, maybe three out of every four cars you saw was a Ford. There almost wasn't a need for advertising, because when there was a new model, or even a small change, within days you'd see it on a car out on the roads. It was the sort of environment where, if someone drove an Alfa Romeo, you'd eye them with a little suspicion."
Steve Saxty is talking about Essex in the 1980s. Perhaps not the most glamorous spot in the world, nor Europe, nor even the British Isles back then, but Essex had a special place in the hearts of motoring nuts – it was Ford. Ford was not merely based in Essex, with its factory in Dagenham, its engineering and design centre in Dunton, and its motorsport arm in Boreham. Essex was Ford and Ford was Essex. Probably the only modern equivalent is Volkswagen's home town of Wolfsburg, and even so, Wolfsburg's streets and car parks are more vehicularly diverse than those of Essex in the 1980s.
For Essex, you could also read Cork. Even though I grew up in the far-flung shire of Schull, in west Cork, the streets were populated mostly with blue, oval badges. My dad had a MkII Cortina estate which he used for work, then a MkII Escort van, then a Transit. My mum drove a Sierra, in which I eventually learned to drive. Even when production had ended at Ford's factory in Cork, the cars that surrounded us were Fords.
It's easy to say and to know that nostalgia is a dangerous drug, but harder to resist its taste and sensations. For those who grew up on a steady diet of 1980s Fords, Saxty has produced a book (well, a series of books, actually) that take you behind the scenes at Dunton, at the vast European operation in Cologne, and onto the punishing test track at Lommel in Belgium.
Saxty – who worked at Ford in the 1980s in the design studio at Dunton, before moving on to roles with Mazda, Jaguar, and Nissan – doesn't just tell us about the cars that we know about.
Secret Fords: Volume One is the follow-up to Saxty’s sell-out success book from 2019, The Cars You Always Promised Yourself. That original volume followed, mostly, the story of the Capri coupe and Ford’s other 1980s high-performance models. Secret Fords, as the name suggests, takes you deeper down the geek ladder, raiding Ford’s enormous archives for the tales of the cars that nearly and never where.
If it seems odd that a book about cars almost-but-not-quite made by a mainstream car company (not Ferrari, not Porsche – Ford) can be both interesting and popular, well maybe it is odd. "I think there's an element of the mystique about Ford that's almost tribal," Saxty told The Irish Times. "I'm writing volume two at the moment, which brings the story into the nineties and 2000s, and people are already telling me that they're excited to hear those stories. So that goodwill for the brand is clearly there. I think it's about memories of what cars you had, and your family had, and the cars you saw around you. But there's also a character thing. I don't think I could have written this book about Vauxhall, for instance. I could have written it about Jaguar, maybe, but then not that many people have owned or had close contact with a Jaguar, so there's not the same residual affection that there is for Ford."
If you're thinking that a behind-the-scenes story of how Ford developed its 1980s best-sellers would be strictly for the nerds… well, you're right, it is. It's no less fascinating for that, though and the picture archive that Saxty has been able to raid has turned up some truly fascinating artefacts. Proposals from Ford's US designers, or from Ghia in Italy, for cars that never quite made it, or that were eventually built as something far ordinary. Or is that ordinariness merely a product of our familiarity with what did happen? A Ghia proposal for a new Capri, for example, looks strikingly avant garde on the page, but you can see the Sierra influence in it, and maybe if it had been built there would be hundreds now for sale in the small ads.
Equally, you can see the cyclical nature of design. A US proposal for the car that would become the Sierra is far less radical than the slippery, ultra-aerodynamic car that was actually made, but also seems to contain some of the design genesis of the 1993 Mondeo in its simplicity.
There’s a pleasant sense of the sharing of a mild obsession to Saxty’s book, a sense that was there in the making. “I was in the archives, taking these wind-tunnel models out of the crate. These are big – more than a metre long in most cases – and heavy, and they haven’t been opened since the eighties. But I was able to share it, because I had the chairman of the Ford XR owners’ club with me, and so there was a sense of sharing a present, almost. It was lovely, if for nothing else than that having someone else enjoy it meant that you weren’t being that weird,” says Saxty.
Delving into the past is supposed to inform the future, though, no matter what Henry Ford may or may not have said about history being bunk. With Ford now confirming that it's going to have an entirely electric European lineup by 2030, and that it's going to share electric car platforms with Volkswagen, is there a danger that there may never be a volume three of Secret Fords? That the Fords of the future just won't be that interesting?
"Some of the cars Ford made in this era were extraordinary, such as the Sierra, so there was some bravery there," says Saxty. "That bravery sometimes took a long time to pay off, and what tends to happen if you look back in Ford's history is that it swings back and forth from being daring to being conservative. And it's probably always at its best when it's taking risks. Look at now, with the electric Mustang Mach-e – I don't think there's another mainstream brand that could realistically put a car like that on sale, with a premium-ish price, and get away with it. It's interesting that these days, in the US at any rate, if you're buying a Mustang – which once had a sort of cheesy, Elvis-impersonator image – these days, a Mustang buyer is more upscale than an Audi buyer. So that opportunity is there for Ford now."
It’s also interesting to note that, back in the 1980s heyday, while a Ford showroom was populated largely by compact, affordable, front-wheel drive family cars, you could wander in and pick yourself up a massively powerful, rear-wheel drive, lunatic-fast Sierra Cosworth. These days, with the Mustang coupe, and the incoming electric Mustang Mach-E, that’s true again. Ford’s history, and Saxty’s book, shows that what goes around comes around, inevitably, again.