By on August 7, 2013


Never forget: people make all the difference.  This often overlooked fact in the glamorous world of automotive styling rings true for the life of Mr. Uwe Bahnsen. I froze in my tracks when I heard of his passing on Car Design News. His work at Ford and with the Industrial Design community influenced me, and every American who loved cars in the 1980s.

How ironic that Mr. Bahnsen’s passing was the week TTAC’s own Ford Sierra passed its citizenship test in Texas: so here’s a great Germanic-Texas Beer for you, Mr. Bahnsen.

Every car is designed by a team–not a person—but the kind words spoken about Uwe’s life say he was no ordinary designer.  And he was a good man: so instead of paraphrasing Wikipedia and the great work by Car Design News, let’s see what he did for us.

Bahnsen’s work with the “bathtub” Ford Taunus P3 and second generation Escort/Capri are impressive alone.  Especially the P3, a progressive–if not radical–design for the early 1960s.  But what’s the Super Bowl of a car designer’s career?  Being the VP of Design, making a paradigm-shifting sedan that sells well around the world. A vehicle that lives long enough to go from radical to mainstream over the course of a decade.

That work is the 1982 Ford Sierra. Unlike more exotic brands (Audi 100 and beyond) that went “Aero” thanks to pricey Italian design and/or expensive engineering for limited production, the Sierra was wholly affordable and completely common. A people’s car like the Model T and VW Beetle…just not to that famous of an extent.

Sierra meets the big fan…

But you catch my drift. Us Yanks only know the Sierra in Cosworth/Merkur drag, so perhaps the firsthand experience of Bahnsen’s hard work as told by Mr. John Topley says it best:

“It’s difficult for me to convey just how radical the Sierra was when it was launched. This was the car that replaced twenty years of the Ford Cortina, a favourite with both fleet and family buyers in Britain. By 1982 the Cortina was looking pretty tired. It was still a best seller but by all accounts it wasn’t a great drive and the technology was pretty agricultural. In spite of which, Britain was still buying masses of them.

By contrast, the new Sierra looked like nothing else around, aside from the even more radical Audi 100 which came out at the same time. I think the Sierra was more important though because it was a mass market rather than executive car.”

Moments in time like these are rare, how often does a design change the way a person moves?  On multiple continents, for over a decade?  This moment elevated the car design game thanks in part to Ford’s Aerospace division, the beginnings of finite element analysis, and usage of new technologies that made the Sierra’s wraparound bumpers and ergonomic dashboards so cutting-edge. It’s a most fertile ground for a designer.

While we (probably) live in the Golden Age of technology, Uwe Bahnsen’s world experienced a far more dramatic change from far less technology. Aside from the aforementioned Audi, most carmakers embraced this technology/design philosophy years later. Boo to them: Uwe and his team were on the cusp of something special…the future!

Uwe Bahnsen made the most of this opportunity, take it from the guy that owns one of his creations.  To this day, the original Ford Sierra looks more futuristic than a Toyota Prius, providing an ownership experience that satisfies the senses like a far more expensive BMW. This doesn’t happen often, especially in America.

More to the point, the Sierra is an ergonomic and aesthetic treat. I’d love to ask Mr. Bahnsen hundreds of questions about his life, but the fact remains: his contribution to the Automobile shall never be forgotten.

Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a lovely week.


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23 Comments on “Vellum Venom: Uwe Bahnsen, Car Designer, RIP...”

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  • avatar

    I could prose on for a week about the Sierra in all its forms, but I think you covered it with “ergonomic and aesthetic treat.”

  • avatar

    +1 for the Shiner. The very same beer kept me refreshed while I was out in the 100 and some change Texas swelter fixing a vacuum problem in my W126 today.

  • avatar

    indeed a very important designer of the late 20th century RIP

    so it took you all this time to get your imported Sierra registered in Texas? there must be a tale to be told there Sajeev. looking forward to the full story

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    The most important styling magic occurs when an object is pleasing to look at, desirable to own, and affordable to everyone.

  • avatar
    spreadsheet monkey

    RIP Herr Bahnsen.

    The Sierra was a massively important car in Britain, a symbol of suburban family life in the same way the Taurus was in the US. Was ubiquitous on the roads in the 80s and 90s.

  • avatar

    I remember how radical the Ford Taurus/Sable was when it first came out. I actually pulled off the road into a Lincoln/Mercury dealer to get a closer look. I have never before or after been so impressed by a mainstream sedan. Wish it would happen again

    • 0 avatar

      And its all because Dearborn wanted to be the company they saw in Ford of Germany.

      • 0 avatar

        And I say they succeeded. The Taurus/Sable was to America what the Sierra was to Europe; it brought aero designed European sports sedans to the masses in the form of an affordable car; just as the Sierra did for Europe. FOrd released other aero cars before them, but the Taurus/Sable made full-on aero design commonplace, and helped save Ford in the process.

        While many folks claim that Ford copied the Audi 100/5000s; the fact of the matter (and mentioned in “Taurus: the car that saved Ford”) is that the Taurus was well along in it’s design when the 5000s came out in the States; it only confirmed that Ford was on the right track.

        No, it was the Sierra that inspired the Taurus/Sable. The early sketches for the Taurus/Sable show a five door hatchback design much like a sleeker Sierra. But Americans do not like large five door sedans (at least not until they bloated out into SUVs); so they were offered as sedans and station wagons instead.

        I have a Hot Wheels Ford Sierra, and a Matchbox Mecury Sable wagon. Put them next to each other, and you can see the common styling DNA between them; though they were very different cars otherwise.

        I did not know about the Sierra Cosworth until just recently. I thought the Taurus SHO was an awesome sedan; but it could not hold a candle to the Sierra Cosworth; that was one amazing sedan when it came to rallying:

        While listing spin-offs of Bahnsen’s work; don’t forget the Ford Probe III concept car. Ford knew the Sierra was going to be a shock to the senses after decades of the Taunus. The Probe III was intended to prepare Europe for the Sierra. I assume it carried Mr. Bahnsen’s work even further, with it’s fully enclosed belly pan, flush windows, faired rear wheels, radically faired side mirrors, and more rounded body. It even looks like an intermediate evolution between the Sierra and Taurus/Sable.

        Sajeev; thank you for bringing this to our attention; I too look forward to hearing more about your Texas Sierra. And thank you Mr. Bahnsen for your work; the jelly bean cars of the 1980s-1990s replaced the cars of the 1950s as my all-time favorites. I still want to put together a two-part article about them.

      • 0 avatar

        You mean competent car designers, not pathetic losers who gave us the abortion-on-wheels Panther?

  • avatar

    The Ford Sierra Cosworth. Enough said.

    • 0 avatar

      The Sierra Cosworth was nifty, but folks in the States never got that car. Ford dealers were inept enough trying to sell the XR4Ti. If I could turn back time to the mid 1980’s, I would tell Ford/Mercury that if they are going to sell XR4Ti’s and Scorpio’s, their dealer sales force needs to be trained, or maybe hired specifically, to sell to would-be European car buyers. The typical Grand Marquis/Town Car salesman needed to be redirected to know more and relate better to this new shopper. All the promotion and advertising money goes down the drain if the sales force is indifferent to a new type of customer.

      I won’t bore people with all of the German-built and designed Fords I’ve been privileged to own, but I’ve loved them all, and I thank Ford for at least trying to sell their absolute best European products here in the States, despite indifferent sales people and exchange rate troubles.

  • avatar

    Indeed, the Sierra was a huge step for Ford Europe. I recall, the first review in Auto Motor und Sport was titled “Das Wunder aus Köln” (the miracle from Cologne, where Ford Germany is based).

  • avatar

    I simply do not understand the top photo. I get the designer’s passing, sad as it is, but why the pouring out of one of my favorite beers, Shiner Bock?

    One of the first things I was taught in the air force in 1969 was: you can throw out food, you can turn down tobacco (I did), you can pour out soda, but under NO CIRCUMSTANCES, for ANY reason, do you ever, ever, EVER pour out a BEER!

    Shame on you!

    I always thought the Merkur Scorpio was what the Taurus SHOULD have looked like.


    We’ll see him again, someday.

  • avatar

    Well said, Sajeev.

  • avatar

    Great article and the beer is worthy!

  • avatar

    I also own a Bahnsen design, a Ford (Merkur) Scorpio. While I like the Sierra/XR, I think the Scorpio evolved the styling to another level with lots of exquisite details when you really start examining the car with a designer’s eye. The interior was also much more modern (and still contemporary looking today in some ways) and cohesive than the Sierra interior, although I don’t think Bahnsen had anything to do with the inside of the Scorpio – I want to say that honor goes to Trevor Creed.

    In either case they are both very forward looking and radical designs for their time and I’m sorry to see the man who penned them go.

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