Learn to love your Cortina - Blackbourn 448

By: Rob Blackbourn

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ford cortina 2 ford cortina 2

While we honour GT500 Cortinas here, it's possible that run-of-the-mill models deserve more love

A conversation with a local bloke about the Covid-positive sting-in-the-tail of Lewis Hamilton’s triumphant Formula 1 year led to a wider discussion about F1, including its standout personalities over the years. No surprise that Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart got honourable mentions – my surprise was my new mate’s reminder that both of these racing royalty stars had competed in his all-time favourite car – the Lotus Cortina.

While I’ve enjoyed some memorable moments punting Chapman-enhanced Mk1 Escorts, I’ve never driven a Lotus Cortina. But I’ve certainly been an admirer, particularly in the days when they performed their exotic three-wheel dance moves in the hands of McKeown, Moffat, Jane and the Geoghegans.

Beyond the high-octane glamour of Lotus versions of the Cortina, the basic Brit Ford’s place in automotive history is a significant one that perhaps should be more widely appreciated.


A Falcon powered mile muncher

It was quite something when Ford of Britain decided that the ordinary British motorist would warm to a new family car named after an Italian ski resort town that was first (obviously) foreign, and second associated with a holiday activity for the elites. These were folk long accustomed to buying vehicle models named after familiar geographical features of Blighty, like Anglia, Oxford, Vauxhall, Cambridge, Thames, and Bristol. But this courageously-named Ford scored. Big time! During a 20-year production run, involving five model generations, Ford sold more than 2.8 million Cortinas in the UK, topping British sales charts as best-seller for many of those years. The global sales figure was around 4.3 million.

Cortina achieved this success despite owing its basic design to the American Roy Brown Jnr, then in exile in Dagenham as punishment for the failure of his previous baby, the Ford Edsel.

Its body engineering made a big contribution to its success, drawing on the latest techniques used in the aerospace industry to produce an advanced-design monocoque body, maximizing strength and stiffness while minimising weight. At 787kg all-up, the Mk I Cortina was over 200kg lighter than its similar-sized Consul Classic stablemate. This was the key to its performance potential that made it a natural platform for high-performance variants like the Lotus version and Harry Firth’s local race-winner, the GT500.


Roy Brown kicked a goal

Another feather in Ford of Britain’s cap was Cortina’s stunningly short gestation period, only two years from idea to production, a development time challenging the best of today’s efforts that benefit from huge assistance from computer-aided design and development. Apparently Dagenham Ford’s management was determined to get Cortina to market before their Cologne Ford rivals could launch the new Taunus, a parallel development exercise. The Brits pulled it off.

When I was working in Britain in the late-70s the Cortina dominated the market, only beaten as best-seller one year – by Ford’s own Escort. The way employers preserved hierarchy markers within the ranks of their organisations was interesting, given that whole company-car fleets were Cortinas. Your basic sales-rep’s Cortina would be powered by the 1.3-litre motor with minimal options. The next rung up the ladder got you 1.6-litre power and some comfort additions. Senior managers’ cars sported 2.0-litre badges signifying ‘Pinto Power’. If they had been very good boys they might also score a Ghia badge.

Although Falcon-six powered Cortinas weren’t my favourites (being nose-heavy understeerers), they were very efficient mile-eaters away from the twisties. An Adelaide-to-Melbourne drive in a TC XLE 250 back in the day makes my point. Appreciating that the 2.76:1 diff-ratio offered easy high-speed cruising, I upped the ante in the journey’s mid-section where the towns were few and the scrutiny was minimal, asking myself, "Could I knock off 100 miles in the next hour?" The answer was yes – my best recollection is the tripmeter showed 107 miles. It was easy, relaxed and quite satisfying. Later on, past Horsham, I wound the driver’s window down for a bit of air at a calmer speed. Shortly after, on a dead-straight section I was suddenly stunned and momentarily unable to see. Mid way through a successful panic stop the penny dropped – the headlining was down around my ears. Air gusting through the window had got above the headlining, first pressurising it, then inverting it.

My little drama resulted in a running design change that modified Cortina headlining-bow anchors to prevent the bows rotating. That’s product improvement in action.

From Unique Cars #448, January 2021

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