By on December 12, 2018

Imagine you’re an American auto executive in the 1980s, looking on in desperation as all the youthful and wealthy customers head almost solely to BMW showrooms for their sports-oriented sedans and coupes.

Now imagine you work at Ford, and you’ve decided to do something about it. By the way, you’re Bob Lutz right now.

It’s Merkur time.

The story began with the European market Ford Sierra, which was the company’s large-ish family car for the constrained confines of crowded Europe. Developed while Bob Lutz was in charge of Ford’s European arm, the smooth Sierra was a success as soon as it became available as replacement to the boxy Cortina in 1982.

Available in several body styles, the sporty version was the three-door liftback in XR4i trim. Mr. Lutz had Texas-sized ideas for this one, and set about convincing other Ford executives it should come to the United States. He was successful.

The Sierra would need to undergo a bit of alteration to meet federal regulations in the United States. Ford’s engineers had instructions to make the car U.S.-compliant, but to leave the Sierra’s character unchanged. Catalytic converters were added to the XR4i, as well as side impact protection beams. At the front and rear, bumpers were stretched to meet impact standards. While European Sierras gained their powered by a 2.8-liter Cologne V6, this engine was chucked for the American XR4. Instead, Ford used a 2.3-liter inline-four Lima engine, fitted with a turbocharger. That’s why the T was added to the badge on the back.

All American-bound XR4Ti units were built by Karmann at their factory in Osnabruck, Germany.

Ford’s American CEO, Donald Petersen, mandated that this new, hot Sierra and its eventual Scorpio sibling (future Rare Rides) must not be sold with the common Blue Oval. Instead, the cars would be badged with a new name — Merkur. Say it out loud, “Mare-KOOR!” Select Lincoln-Mercury dealers would shift Merkur units, and 800 signed up for the task.

The XR4Ti not-Ford went on sale in 1985, and almost immediately failed to meet sales expectations. Customers largely continued to purchase the European cars they would’ve bought anyway, leaving Ford with a headache. The company also had to contend with an unfavorable exchange rate with the Deutschmark, as well as new safety regulations approaching at the end of the decade. The whole experiment was over after 1989. Sad!

Today’s Rare Ride is stunning in white over tan, featuring some choice lace alloys to complete the package. The original customer clearly chose luxury over driving enjoyment, selecting the automatic transmission option. That means the five-speed manual is gone, and the C3 three-speed auto from the Pinto is in its place. The sparkling white package is yours for $5,100.

[Images: seller]

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63 Comments on “Rare Rides: This Merkur XR4Ti From 1989 Is Pristine...”


  • avatar
    kinsha

    I heard a long time ago that the front seats in these were some of the most comfortable ever made.

    • 0 avatar
      snakebit

      You heard correctly. 95 percent manual adjustment(for height, recline, and legroom-only the lumbar adjustment was power). The comfort of the front seats is the first thing I remember about the two that I owned(an ’85 five-speed with cloth upholstery and an ’88 with five-speed, leather, and sliding roof. I got the ’88 as an Acura trade-in and six years old but with only 4,000 miles(the woman who bought it new drove it only from home to the commuter rail station each workday and back-it seemed like a brand new car to me. Worth all of the $5K wholesale I paid. And unlike others who suffered electrical and other issues with these, I had absolutely no problems with either XR4ti. The only downside is that L-M dealers didn’t know how to sell them – they weren’t Town Cars and Mark’s.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    one t5 swap away from 80s bliss.I remember a family friend owned TWO Merkurs, a red Xr4ti, and a white one. Such a pleasant family, who enjoyed the curvy roads in SW MO, I don’t remember where they were from originally, but it was flat.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    I wanted to like these when they first came out, but I’ve never been able to get past the awkward styling, especially the greenhouse with its B-, C-, and D-pillars, and the not-flush aero headlights. It’s like an oversized, smoothed off Escort.

    We need another Mare-KOOR Rare Rides, if you can find us a Scorpio out there on the List of Craig.

  • avatar
    JMII

    No bi-wing? No sale! I knew a guy with a white over red version back in the day. I rode along with him once and it was the quickest FWD car I had ever been in. Of course my point of comparison was a Dodge Omni and a VW Rabbit. Still these are super cool and always get a thumbs up from me.

  • avatar
    ajla

    If I was shopping at a L-M dealer in the late 80s I would have thought “Oh, that’s interesting” and then gone directly to a Cougar or MKVII.

    I wonder if anyone out there bought a new Merkur and then later bought a new Catera.

  • avatar
    EquipmentJunkie

    I always longed for an XR4Ti…manual, of course. I couldn’t find one in 1991, so I got a Jetta GLI instead.

    My parents eventually owned two Scorpios. Those cars were comfortable, heavy, and safe but handled well. Their first Scorpio was totalled in a head-on collision and both walked away bruised but generally unharmed. The kid who missed the corner and hit them required an ambulance.

  • avatar
    gtem

    Never been in one of these stateside hotrod variants, but I remember getting a ride to the airport in Moscow in a well worn white Ford Sierra at some point in the late 90s. After rattle trap Lada Samaras, the Sierra was smooth and fast and roomy.

  • avatar
    cognoscenti

    I had some driving experience with a Merkur XR4Ti, in the more common two-tone blue body with gray cladding, and a 5MT. I remember it being fun but it felt overweight for the stock 2.3. Honestly, I’d expect to to be a dog with the Pinto 3-speed auto – ugh. But the real problem was that they attempted to launch a new brand. I bet that this car could have sold way better if they paid Cosworth to tune the engine and marketed it as a Ford or Mercury “Sierra Cosworth”. Of course, the value proposition for this car goes down when viewed against the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, especially by the time of the 1986 refresh.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      They could not call it the Sierra here. First, there was a GMC Sierra (a trim line before it was a model name) and there was the similar-sounding Oldsmobile (Cutlass) Ciera.

      I would have liked to have seen these replace the Mercury Topaz and Sable, then the Aussie Falcon provides the next step up (“Mercury Marquis”), then the stretched version replaces (and takes the name of) the Grand Marquis.

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        Was there a Sierra GMC truck in the 1980s? Regardless, I suppose the marketing people probably tossed ideas around like “by Cosworth” or “engine by Cosworth” or some other mention, just to give it some faux-Euro flair. If they did and they rejected the idea, I can’t say I blame them… the “handling by Lotus” Geos (or Isuzus or whatever they were), only ten years later, did not exactly sell like hotcakes.

  • avatar
    BimmerTom

    I remember I had a DOS-based program (on a 5 1/4″ floppy) from Ford/Merkur where you could option the XR4Ti and the Scorpio and then print a pseudo window sticker out on your fancy 9-pin dot matrix Epson printer. I made a ton of these things as it was the first “graphics” I ever saw come out of a dot-matrix printer. Oh, those were the days….

    Too bad the 3 speed completely kills this for me.

    • 0 avatar
      snakebit

      Likewise, I had the very same large floppy disk and a salesmans product book. So far, it’s gone missing since a coast-to-coast move a year ago, but I still have the product book. I should also point out that I got sold on these cars after a Budget-Rent-A-Car promotion in 1986 when they had these(automatics) in the SFO and Midway/Chicago fleets.

  • avatar
    gasser

    In Southern California, the Acura coupes were far more popular than the Merkur.

  • avatar
    Null Set

    This was a wonderful, wonderful car. Very far ahead of its time in the US context. Much like the visionary Mustang SVO. And I’m loving that chunky, geometric dashboard. Makes me nostalgic to see a dashboard design that doesn’t give me vertigo or make me think I need to lower my dose of antidepressants.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Wonder how difficult it would be for the IRS from one of these to be swapped onto an 85ish Fox Body Thunderbird Turbo.

    • 0 avatar
      otaku

      You totally read my mind. Although I’m pretty sure the Merkur was not a fox chassis derivative, so it might be a bit of a challenge. Since it was originally from Europe, I wonder if everything on the XR4Ti was metric.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    Some older-than-me kid in high school had one of these. He seemed mighty proud of it.

    I thought it was neat little car – but was waay more in love with 60s muscle cars, or even the Regal T-Type.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    A few years ago I got to drive one of these, they’re not half bad on the inside compared to other Fords of the time. Unfortunately the automatic transmission magnified the turbo lag a good bit.

    If these had any real issues it was their grille-less front ends, in Europe the fancier Sierras gained a weird little grille to help the engine breathe. Merkurs stuck with a grille-less nose which meant that overheating was common if you pushed it. The one that I drove was certainly a bit toasty.

    They should’ve just sold these as Mercurys and given the brand a bit more of a purpose. Merkur, Eagle, Geo, I’m sure theres a few other minor brands I’m forgetting.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I had that C3 in an 80 Mercury Bobcat. It was pretty bad, but not nearly as horrendous as the 15 Focus DCT I had as a loaner once.

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        I hear yah there on the DCT, I drove a few later Focus’s with that thing and it was awful, I didn’t care for the cars themselves but having a rough indecisive transmission didnt help matters, on top of the DCTs poor reliability. Its about as good as you’d expect when you sandwich two incomplete manuals together.

        I had an 90-something V6 Mustang that probably had that C3, I can say that at the very least it was smooth and reliable in comparison, it actually functioned like any other transmission from that time. It just wasnt really suited for performance models.

  • avatar
    bluegoose

    It has a weird futuristic look to it. I’ve always been a fan of this car and this is a nice example..except for the transmission. I have read that these are not easy to maintain because the parts are rare and German. It’s not like maintaining a 1987 Fox Body Mustang.

    The Merkur idea didn’t make much sense. They should have been Mercurys. There was a period of time in the mid 80s where American Automakers were desperate to compete with European cars. The GM T Type cars were another example of this.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I wonder if Sajeev has seen this car.

  • avatar
    tonyola

    Part of the problem with the Merkur was the name. It didn’t exactly roll off the Anglophone tongue and everybody pronounced it as rhyming with “lurker”. Maybe it should have been a Mercury, since the Capri went away after 1986, leaving nothing really sporty in the lineup. Or if a new make was needed, how about “Mars”? It keeps the same astronomical and mythological connotations as Mercury. Saturn, obviously, was already taken.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      I honestly forgot it was “Mare-KOOR!” until I read that just now. I’m glad Corey included that in the article, although I still felt compelled to look up an old Marekoor commercial on the youtube to hear it for myself. Even after watching the old commercial, I still have zero recollection of anybody pronouncing it that way- on TV or in real life. Hehehe, sorry Ford!

  • avatar

    Jim Rome

  • avatar
    LectroByte

    These look much better in darker colors, makes that extra pillar dividing the rear side windows much less obvious. I wanted one of these way back when, too, but remember them as being pretty expensive for what they seemed to offer, almost like BMW 3-series money, but I could be wrong there.

    • 0 avatar
      pragmatic

      They were expensive new cheap used. I purchased my 87 in 91 or 92 for $2000. Had 70,000 miles needed an exhaust and had a cracked windshield. $400 later I was good to go. Drove it until 03 by which time I had 280,000 miles. Only major repairs included swapping the T9 for a junkyard T5 from a Ranger at ~140,000 miles and a steering rack at 200,000 and three timing belts. No engine work and no turbo work. I did need a new boost controller. I was driving home from work and it seemed quicker than usual. Then I heard a beeping every time I was about to shift. Looking at the boost gauge it was the overboost warning, I was over 20psi.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    The disappointment my car freak friends and I felt at the time with these things was the engine, the not very smooth SOHC turboed Pinto Lima lump of an engine. The UK got a proper Cosworth 2.0l turbo Cosworth engine for the money, not a Ford gargler with only a big midrange.

    That wrote the Merkur XR4Ti off for our snobby crowd. One guy who bought one tried to constantly harp on about his to constant jeers from the peanut gallery (but he was a top insurance salesman and objections he absorbed like a sponge), making out it was a supercar. Then he tried to sell the damn thing and it was worth next to nothing after two years. He kept it for a further four, his tune changing to moaning about rancid depreciation. That extra four years were forced on him by a messy divorce and no financial chance to dump the thing and buy a replacement. The ’90 Eagle Talon TSi AWD I got ate this thing for a snack, and after he drove mine, he knew it.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      The car might have been “a lump”, especially if automatic, but that was no Pinto engine. Ford ‘cheap’d out’ or sandbagged it with no intercooler, 15 psi, 3.73 gears (rear end), 16X7 alloys, KONI shocks, or big disk brakes all around, like the T-Bird and SVO of its day had.

      The 2.3T has high nickle-content and all forged internals. It could’ve been set for 20 psi safely on 87 octane and factory/stock. But even 15 psi was unheard of, for its day, essentially doubling base power, or more.

      But yeah, for best results, you did have to drive it like you were angry.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    I test drove one of these (from a Cadillac dealer, maybe they bought a Carera!) and I loved it. Red over grey, manual, it was awesome. Wasn’t meant to be, though.

  • avatar
    overdale

    “…the smooth Sierra was a success as soon as it became available as replacement to the boxy Cortina in 1982.”

    No it wasn’t, certainly not in the UK where the Cortina was the runaway bestseller of the time commanding 10% market share at its peak. Sierra sales struggled for a long time and its radical looks earned it the nickname of the “jellymould”. It was outsold by the smaller Escort as well as the rival and much sharper looking Vauxhall Cavalier.

    The XR4i in Europe didn’t last that long with the slightly peculiar multiple-pillar styling, only a couple of years. A completely different 3-door Sierra was introduced with a long coupe-like rear window behind the B-pillar, but it never looked quite right either. The XR4i evolved into the mainly 5-door XR 4X4 with all-wheel-drive and Ford eventually produced the very fast Sierra Cosworth with the later 3-door body and also as a 4-door Sapphire Cosworth saloon.

  • avatar
    JimC2

    I clicked on this out of curiosity about the asking price… but at the same time I was afraid to click on this out of fear of what the asking price might be.

    $5k seems pretty reasonable to me, sorta taking the balanced view about how collectible these are (or are not).

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    I owned an ’87 – manual. The 5-speed manual had more HP and torque than the automatic version. The sound of turbo spooling up was intoxicating and the back seats were incredibly comfortable. It was an electrical system nightmare and the dash was cracked from the Texas sun by 1993. In some strange sadistic way — I miss it.

  • avatar
    dusterdude

    I remember working at a company in the late 80’s, and a colleague came in one day saying they saw a neat looking car, but it had a weird name… He said it was “XRATI” (I laughed after I realized he was talking about the XR4Ti )

  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    Minor correction: the U.S. bound “Sierras” or XR4Tis were not made at the Cologne plant. They were assembled under contract by Karmann at their plant in Osnabruck. The main Sierra plant in Genk, Belgium had already been converted to build the 2-window (large 1-piece rear side window) bodystyle, and apparently it wasn’t flexible enough to accommodate both body side stampings.

    The Scorpio was built in Cologne after a massive investment in the plant to bring it up to the latest standards, and both the European and Federalized versions of the Scorpio were built under the same roof.

  • avatar
    kosmo

    KInda long story, but if anybody is interested…….

    When Ford decided to give up on Merkur in the US, I bought one of these that had been an employee lease. It was almost two years old, had less than 20,000 miles, and came with a bumper to bumper 100,000 mile warranty.

    Underpowered for sure, but RWD with limited slip diff, shift it yourself automatic, AMAZING front seats, rear seats folded flat, and a huge hatchback. Killer stereo with lousy speakers. A bit soft in the damping department. Still the quietest car I’ve owned.

    So for less than another thousand bucks, it received some adjustable Koni shocks and far better speakers. I drove that thing for 143,000 miles. Total problems? One window switch and one A/C relay. Parts were so scarce (overseas) by then that the Ford dealer just paid a local auto electric shop to do the repairs.

    Damn, I still miss that car!

  • avatar
    bking12762

    I sold a handful of these used back in the 90s. They sold well and did surprisingly good the snow believe it or not. The people who bought them were of the same ilk as my Saab 900 customers.

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    I always wanted one of these. Eventually found a used one at a good price, an early model with the contrasting lower cladding and smaller phone-dial wheels. But it had a crash history, so in the end I was too chicken. Like a lot of Euro cars at the time it had relatively narrow tires and pretty epic body roll but handled great and rode beautifully. There’s a small but fanatical aftermarket for these things. Those who want to can change the car’s luxury-GT demeanor to something more sinister can, with anti-roll bars the size of your thigh, an intercooler to enable over 20 pounds of boost, etc.

  • avatar
    lon888

    Growing up, my next door neighbor had one of these that he bought used. Neat looking, but I remember him telling me everything went wrong on his, everything. He loved the driving dynamics and comfort of the car but didn’t hold onto it long – just too many any expensive problems.

  • avatar
    nlinesk8s

    I had an 86 with the bi-wing. It was zippy, comfortable, and with the hatchback surprisingly practical. But it had multiple electrical issues, and Ford hadn’t thought through what turbo heat would do to underhood components. A shame but typical American cheese corporation trying to compete with BMW right out of the gate, and bailing when it didn’t immediately work out.

  • avatar
    otaku

    I remember my uncle owned one of these for a while back in the late eighties. He was always trying to claim that it was a much better car than my ’86 T-Bird Turbo Coupe. Maybe it was. Can’t really say. I know they shared the same powertrain, but not much else. I guess it depended on your priorities. I never really argued with him about it, but to me the Thunderbird just felt like a lot more car for the money.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    I had a childhood friend whose Dad was an executive for Ford. They briefly had the Scorpio. I never rode in the Scorpio, but I’ve always liked these cars. Especially when I found out they had the same 2.9 V6 that our 88 Ranger had. A reasonably strong engine at the time, it was a hoot in the Ranger when I learned to drive it, must have been more fun in the Scorpio. The “ExRahTi” didn’t hold as much appeal to me. I’d probably still do this one, even with the automatic. Just a rare and odd automotive footnote in the US anyway.

    Last Scorpio I ever inquired about was about 15 years ago on a BHPH lot. It wasn’t for sale, I was told, it was the owners and he was looking for a part made of “unobtanium” for it. (Some module that was worth more than the car was and hard to find)

  • avatar
    MiataReallyIsTheAnswer

    Way back in the 90s, my buddy owned a black one of these, gray leather, stick, also an ’89 with these sweet wheels. He was ROUGH on it so had some issues, despite it having only 60k miles. I was not overly impressed with the interior quality back then, which you can take however you like realizing I was coming from new at the time Grand Ams and Grand Prixs. I thought they were better built, which through the perspective of history (and since owning several Lexuses) is sort of amusing :)

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