1965 Ford Cortina GT500: Oz Original

By: John Wright, Photography by: Autopics, Unique Cars archives

GT Cortina 1 GT Cortina 1
GT Cortina sideview GT Cortina sideview
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GT Cortina interior GT Cortina interior

Ford's GT Cortina is local hot rod that deserves its place in history


1965 Ford Cortina GT500

The Ford Cortina GT500 was not the first limited edition special developed with the aim of winning Australia’s 500-mile production car race, initially run as the Armstrong 500 at Phillip Island in 1960 and then moving to Mount Panorama, Bathurst, in 1963, but it was the first seriously professional effort.

Earlier examples were the 1961 Morris Sports 850 and the Holden EH S4. The Sports 850 was not sold in BMC showrooms but came in kit form with key components being a new manifold with twin carburettors and a free-flow exhaust system. The S4 had sintered metallic brake linings and combined the new 179 engine with a manual gearbox several months before Holden officially released the 179M. There was a bigger fuel tank. The final drive was 3.55 to one rather that the 179M’s 3.36 to one. Engines were blueprinted and balanced.

Both these specials had difficulties with officialdom. Neil Johannesen was compelled to replace his Mini’s twin carburettors with a single one for the 1961 race. The S4s were initially refused by Australian Racing Drivers Club (ARDC) scrutineers in 1963 but a hastily revised supplement to the workshop manual plus proof that 100 identical cars had been produced brought a reversal of this decision. But second place outright was not what the Holden suits had been planning.

The car that beat the Frank Morgan/Ralph Sach EH in the 1963 race was the Ford Cortina GT of Harry Firth and Bob Jane. This winning pair had won the last two of three events run at Phillip Island – in a Mercedes-Benz 220SE in 1961 then in an XK Falcon 500 in 1962. Theirs wasn’t the sole entry and the Holden was caught in a GT sandwich with the Bruce McPhee/Graham Ryan car third. The Bill Cunliffe/Barry Broomhall car finished fourth in Class C (and seventh outright with two Morris Coopers filling fifth and sixth positions. The Geoghegan brothers Cortina GT had a head gasket failure for a DNF. As for the four other EH S4s to finish, they completed between 123 and 111 laps (the race distance, with the winner circulating 130 times). Another car crashed out of the event.

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In 1964 the Cortina GT effectively established a monopoly on the results. But the world moves on and the 1275cc Cooper S would be gridding up for 1965. News that the big-engined Cooper S was to be assembled locally in 1965 with a specification tailored to the 500-mile race spurred the decision to employ Harry Firth as a consultant to Ford Australia. The standard Cortina GT stood little chance of beating this special Mini with its twin tanks holding 11 gallons (50 litres), its close-ratio gearbox and wider wheels.

While the 1275 Cooper loomed as the main threat to the Cortina’s continuing supremacy, it wasn’t the only one. Holden had its HD X2, for which high hopes were held and, yes, it finally had front disc brakes. Also, for the first time, imported cars were eligible, provided 250 examples had been sold. Two new prospective pace-setters were the Fiat 2300 and Volvo 122S. It’s difficult to believe now but until 1965 every competing car was either manufactured or assembled in Australia, cars like the Mercedes-Benz 220SE, Studebaker Lark, Triumph 2000 and Humber Vogue. (What is this country about to lose?) The homologation rules for locally produced cars were unchanged with 100 identical examples having to be manufactured before the race.

More importantly, nineteen sixty-five was to be the first year where the first car across the line in the race was to be officially recognised, with only class winners having previously counted in the official classification. This provided enormous motivation to the marketing departments of manufacturers and importers. While Fords had ‘won’ the last three (of the first six) 500-milers in a row, these victories – because not officially recognised – did not offer the advertising clout of a declared ‘Bathurst winner’.

In Europe the new Ford Cortina-Lotus – as it was officially known – was already the car to beat, but Ford Australia did not import it. The next best thing seemed to be to engage Harry Firth to mastermind a modified Cortina GT that would be a kind of low-budget alternative.

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It seems in part due to the Lotus-Cortina’s huge success that the Cortina GT500 only received fleeting recognition. In his 1989 edition of Making Money from Collectable Cars, Unique Cars contributor Cliff Chambers, writes:

"Yet despite their rarity and significance to Australian motoring history, those GT500s which do surface frequently carry extraordinarily low pricetags. Granted they don’t have the charisma of a Phase III GTHO but there is no good reason for a presentable GT500 to be less valuable than a restored Holden FJ, particularly if it has racing history."

Firth developed the GT500 in the same Queens Road (Melbourne) workshop where he prepared his previous 500 winners. Over six months Firth worked with Ford Australia engineers to maximise the existing Cortina GT’s potential. The standard GT was available in Australia only in four-door guise, but Firth decided to develop his Bathurst special using the two-door Cortina body. Riding on lowered, upgraded suspension (with dampers to Firth’s own specifications), the GT500 got a huge 77-litre fuel tank in the boot with two racing-style snap-fillers on the bootlid. There were alloy cooling ducts for the brakes.

It seems that Firth drew inspiration from the (1964) Group 1-homologated version of the Cortina GT which got dual Webers, a second fuel tank behind the rear seat and also used Lotus-Cortina gear ratios. The Webers and ratios went into his GT500. As for the 77-litre fuel tank – which more than any other factor enabled the Fords to keep the slightly faster 1275cc Mini-Cooper Ss at bay – it more than doubled the capacity.

Interestingly, the Group 1 GTs produced 120bhp by 1965, up dramatically on the standard car’s 78, but still well short of the Lotus version’s 150. But the GT500 only had about 93. The 15 extra horsepower came from the Webers, higher compression ratio and a new camshaft. With 7000rpm on offer, it was much higher revving than the standard GT, which developed its maximum power at just 5200rpm.

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Despite the victory of the GT500, it was the Minis that captured the public imagination at the time. They were about four km/h faster down Conrod, with the Little/Pomroy car reaching 184 compared with the Brown/Gulson Cortina on 180. The fastest Mini lap was by Brian Foley in 3:13.7, nine-tenths ahead of the Geoghegans’ car.

I remember the pre-race magazine and newspaper features on the Cortina GT500 conveying the sense that it was almost (but not quite) cheating, more about keeping the letter of the law than its spirit. No question, Harry Firth (already known as ‘the Silver Fox’) obeyed the rules, but there was a feeling by many that the race should be between ‘ordinary’ models that could be readily bought off a showroom floor. And the fact that the GT500 surrendered boot space to fuel storage did give it the aura of a racetrack special. Just 110 cars were built and, later a further 178 two-door GTs were badged ‘GT500’ but didn’t include all the high performance equipment (While the ‘500’ edition of the GT was focused entirely on victory at Bathurst, the Aussie Cooper S was just a more focused interpretation of an existing model).

It is easy to see how a lap time advantage of even three or four seconds could soon be squandered on extra fuel stops. Other consumables, too, notably brake pads/linings and tyres could be critical. Even before the flag had dropped to start the 1965 race, many felt that the Mount Panorama circuit did not suit big cars.
This judgement was discredited just two years later when the XR Falcon GT changed the race forever. Looking back, it now seems that the years 1965 and 1966 amounted to an interim period between the days of genuine mass production vehicles and high performance specials developed especially with racing – an in particular Mount Panorama – as the number one item on the agenda.

To compare the Cortina GT500 with the XR GT is like looking at the gifted amateur versus the professional. In that two-year period lap times dropped from just under 3:14 to 3:03. And anyone who questions whether racing improves the breed has only to consider the history of series production at that circuit. Fords won a remarkable five of the first nine races (one at Phillip Island, the rest at Bathurst). The XL Falcon that won in 1962 was just an ordinary car with the optional Pursuit engine running through a three-on-the-tree manual transmission. Its victory was at Phillip Island but around Mount Panorama its lap time would have been in the order of 3:30. By contrast, the XR Falcon GT produced as a special to gain homologation for the 1967 event was a thoroughly engineered high performance sedan.

Between these two comes the Cortina GT500, a kind of hotrod. But that is its importance in Australia’s automotive history and why this car, which resulted from a kind of joint venture between a group of Ford engineers and Harry Firth, should be recognised as one of the most interesting of our Aussie Originals.


1965 Ford Cortina GT500

ENGINE 1498cc Ford inline-four, two-valve, pushrod, twin-choke d/draft Weber carb
POWER 73kW @ 6000rpm
TORQUE 137Nm @ 3600rpm
GEARBOX 4-speed Ford with Lotus Cortina ratios
SUSPENSION McPherson struts (f), semi-elliptic springs (r) with telescopic shocks
BRAKES Discs (f), drums (r)
WEIGHT 826kg (kerb)



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