With a modified 475bhp Ford EcoBeast motor, custom widebody kit, bespoke interior and hyperintelligent chassis, JH Restorations’ RS4Ti is a Merkur like no other.

The classic jelly-mold profile of the Ford Sierra is instantly familiar to European eyes. The design that shocked in period by turning its curvaceous backside on the car industry’s broadly established keenness for right-angles and designing things with set-squares, the sylph-like hatchback rapidly became a ubiquitous everyday sight. A car that really moved forward European attitudes toward automotive design.

aerial portrait shot of Ford RS4Ti

What is the Ford Merkur XR4Ti?

In North America, it was a slightly different story. Yes, you could buy a Sierra, but no, they didn’t suddenly appear on every suburban driveway. It wasn’t even called ‘Sierra’; the Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln-Mercury division came up with the idea of launching a sub-brand, Merkur, to sell the model in federalised form to a Stateside audience.

In the end, Merkur only existed for five years and sold just two models – the XR4ti and the Scorpio. It’s the former that’s of particular interest here, as it was an Americanised version of the Sierra XR4i available in Europe, complete with biplane spoiler and split side windows. However, instead of rocking the 2.8i Cologne V6 from the Capri, the XR4Ti got a turbocharged (hence the ‘T’) Lima four-pot.

In Europe, the Merkur XR4Ti was officially sold only in Switzerland. None officially came to the UK. Except for two very special cars, that is. They were the cars that BTCC legend Andy Rouse turned into very successful touring cars in 1985 and 1986. He won the BTCC Drivers Championship in 1985 behind the wheel of an XR4Ti – a feat he couldn’t repeat in the Sierra RS500 Cosworth.

With 42,464 examples sold between 1985-89, it’s fair to say that this wasn’t exactly a runaway success – but that’s not to say that this niche interloper didn’t find its fans on the other side of the Atlantic. And in one snowy corner of Canada, an idea has been bubbling up for a few decades now…

front on shot of Ford RS4Ti

Introducing the Ford RS4Ti Merkur

Striding in from stage right at this point is the affable figure of Jesse Henke, owner of JH Restorations in Ontario. This striking and startlingly reinvented Merkur, proudly crafted under the banner ‘Remade in Canada’, is his baby, and it’s quite unlike any other Sierra you’ve seen before.

2.3-liter EcoBoost engine

2.3-liter EcoBoost engine

Turning the key, the rev needle sweeps left as the adjacent boost needle flicks right, an exploratory dashboard boogie backed up by some genuinely unexpected noises from the engine bay. Sure, JH Restorations’ Merkur is a 2.3-liter, just as an XR4Ti would traditionally have been, but the boosted Lima is long gone.

The continuity of displacement is deliberate, but what lurks beneath that extravagantly sculpted bonnet today is a full-fat EcoBeast: a forged crate motor that’s been further uprated and enhanced by JH’s artisans, along with Ford Performance and Livernois Motorsports, to create a snorting and effervescent 475bhp powerhouse. The ethos of this build was to take the iconic Sierra shape and do something truly different with it – not just another RS500 clone, but a retro-futuristic vision of what a widebody Sierra could be, harnessing the RS500 essence and taking it to strange new places. This isn’t an XR4Ti. Not any more. This is an RS4Ti.

JH restorations emblem

JH Restorations

Unconfirmed rumors over the years have suggested that Ford’s ‘XR’ moniker stood for ‘eXperimental Racing’ – and while that may or may not be true, it’s a notion that Jesse and his team have taken and eagerly run with. It’s an idea that they’re eminently equipped to tackle: “JH Restorations in Oldcastle, Ontario, Canada, is a full-service restoration shop that handles every aspect of our builds,” Jesse explains. “We’ve been building and modifying high-end vehicles since our inception in 2005. We mainly focused on North American hot hods and muscle cars at first, with a change coming in recent years to mix up our projects with imports and modern muscle.”

blue, retro Ford interior

Why modify a Ford Merkur XRTi?

So why a Ford Sierra (sorry, Merkur XR4Ti) this time? “It was chosen more out of sentimentality than an actual need to build a car,” Jesse continues. “This Merkur was owned by a close friend of the shop, going way back to high school days. My friend Tim and I used to spend a lot of time bench racing and comparing the Merkur to classic muscle cars – it was a Merkur vs. Beaumont battle, Beaumont being a Canadian-built muscle car, similar to a Chevelle in the US. We wrenched on both cars through high school, all the way through our studies in engineering and into our careers, spanning some ten years of fun.”

rear wheel on Ford RS4Ti

Fiberglass body kit for the Ford RS4Ti Merkur

To pay tribute to the cars that were so crucial to the formative years of this automotive passion, it was decided to adopt the Merkur, tear it down and build it back up into the performance machine it always deserved to be. The initial idea around the JH shop was to craft a straight clone of the Brit-spec RS500, with an off-the-shelf fiberglass bodykit, chassis upgrades and a few go-faster bits bolted to the Lima. But as you can see, that plan didn’t even get off the drawing board, as this is a team committed to doing things properly, and creating things in ways that nobody has ever thought to do before.

The concept of a modernized RS4Ti began to crystallize and, once the pieces of the puzzle started to slot themselves into place, there was no turning back.

rear 3/4 shot of Ford RS4Ti

CAD modelling

“Helpfully, the bodyshell was solid, so it would serve as a good starting point for the project,” Jesse recalls. “With little to no body rust or damage, the car was stripped down to its bare bits and pieces. From this point, we had the vehicle scanned and 3D-imaged, allowing us to work with a local designer, ACL, to produce CAD modelling to bring the design to life. The aesthetic worked out to be a mix of me, my team, and skilled graphic designer Matt Labute of Brightworks Auto Art.

We worked back and forth for many months, trying to perfect the look of the RS4Ti, knowing we wanted to keep the ’80s look and feel of the car yet clean it up and mix in modern hot-rodding cues. We worked hard to take the look of the UK cars that were raced back in the day, whether it was the RS500 or the slightly different Cosworth models, and add them back into the RS4Ti. This was all to reach an end goal of a clean-looking, ‘what if?’ version of those classics.”

Coilover top mounts

Bespoke parts and problems with the build

What’s worth bearing in mind here is that the team were building a rod for their own back. It’s the nature of creating uniqueness that, since no-one’s done it before, the path to success is beset by setbacks and complexity. Specifically, when you’re building and modifying a car that wasn’t especially popular in your home market, finding parts can be a right pain in the backside. Repro parts are few and far between, especially in North America, and new-old-stock bits are the proverbial hens’ teeth.

Thankfully, a glimmer of salvation was found in the form of Jeff Herson at Merkur Midwest, who’s essentially the linchpin of XR4Ti parts procurement. “His knowledge of the cars and his networking over the years led to a great deal of hard-to-find parts being located or repaired,” Jesse confirms. “The seemingly flowing design of parts and their fitment into the car was a mix of my ideas and the knowledge and skill of my younger brother, and co-owner of the shop, Jordan. I would come up with an idea, and Jordan – sometimes reluctantly – would set to work making it fit.

Every part and piece of the vehicle was fine-tuned, modified, updated, and retro-fitted to make it all look and function like it belongs. Details like the bespoke emblems, to the updated gauge cluster that takes in information from the modern EcoBeast powerplant, right down to making steering knuckles to adapt Ford-specific parts to GM hubs and make Wilwood Corvette brakes work on Mustang struts. Everything serves its purpose and functions as it should.”

front 3/4 shot of Ford RS4Ti

Crowd pleaser

Naturally, this isn’t just about function, and form was equally crucial. Just ask the attendees of the 2023 SEMA Show in Las Vegas, who saw the RS4Ti shimmer from the revered Toyo Treadpass catwalk into the Battle of the Builders and, ultimately, winning the Top Sport Compact category as well as the People’s Choice award. A few short weeks after that it wowed the crowds at the Performance Racing Industry show in Indianapolis. Quite simply, it’s exquisitely crafted and impossible to ignore.

“The creeping doubt with this car came when we realized we had undertaken a task no-one had ever attempted with an XR4Ti,” says Jesse. “It is quite literally a one-of-one build. There was no reference to how this Merkur would turn out or how it should be done. Was it going to be a flop, or would the build take on a life of its own once unleashed on the industry and public? As the RS4Ti approached its debut at SEMA in 2023 the nerves were high, but the chance to show off the build was at a point of no return. With the car on its way to Vegas, and the crew on a plane to Sin City, it was all or nothing.

Ford retro seats

Admiration from the car community at SEMA 2023

“When the trailer door opened in the parking lot behind SEMA’s central hall, there was stifled awe among the onlookers as the RS4Ti was rolled out,” he continues, beaming with justified pride. “Not because this was a rare supercar, or some antiquated classic or long-lost highly-pedigreed car, but more like: ‘Wow! It’s great – but what is it?’. Fellow builders, most of whom we really look up to, stopped by to shake hands, admire the car and give congrats on a build well done. And everyone seemed to enjoy the fun and design that the car carries in its full-on ’80s glam rock design – think Def Leppard meets rowdy ’80s sport-compact!

The rest of that week was a blur, with top honours and awards won, placing top-4 in the show. The build appealed to many, some who wanted to know what it was, some keen to learn the story, and lots of Merkur fans who wanted to see what had been done… and to a shocked bunch back at JH, who finally got to understand whether what they had built would be accepted.”

It’s safe to say that it’s been more than merely accepted, but embraced, revered, and instantly and infinitely desired. What Jesse and the team at JH Restorations have created here really is a Sierra like no other: fast, wide, mean, agile, unique. The average North American car fan may not have known a lot about the Merkur XR4Ti model before, but it’s damn sure on their radar now.

Love modified Fords? Be sure to visit our headline Ford events; Ford Fair Silverstone and FordFest at Mallory Park.

Photos Kenny Kroeker. 

rear trunk in Ford RS4Ti