How this little car became a champion.
A humble little car that doubles as a rally machine? When you’re talking about the Ford Cortina, the unthinkable becomes reality.
For 20 years, the name was synonymous with competition, both in sales and on the track.
In the 1950s and 1960s it was England and not Japan that was busy exporting a variety of small cars to our shores. Not only were traditional British brands such as Austin, Morris, Sunbeam, Hillman, Humber, Triumph and MG winding up in North American garages, but subsidiaries of domestic manufacturers had also gotten into the act. Ford’s imports included the Anglia, Zodiac, Zephyr and Consul while General Motors sent over a variety of Vauxhall and Envoy nameplates. Collectively, all of these cars were eclipsed by that singular monster import hit, the Volkswagen Beetle.
Both the English-based GM and Ford imports were cloaked in North American-style sheetmetal, including massive chrome grilles and bumpers and some vestige of tailfins. Sold alongside their considerably bulkier Detroitbased stablemates, they were usually marketed as inexpensive ($1,400-$1,800) wheels for the emerging group of multi-car families, or as graduation presents for the younger set.
The Mark I Cortina, named after a town in Italy, was launched in June of 1962 as a replacement for Ford of England’s aging Consul model. To keep development costs down, the car made use of existing hardware, including the 1.2-liter OHV four-cylinder engine and rudimentary suspension. However, the body style — two and four doors — was a completely fresh undertaking and was considered extremely roomy for sedans in its class. Especially spacious was its amazing 20 cubic feet of trunk space, easily as large as some full-size cars. With 48 horsepower on tap, the little Ford nudged 80 mph, if the wind conditions were right. Fuel economy, at an average 35 mpg, was a strong selling feature, especially in countries where gasoline was an expensive commodity.
In early 1963, a more powerful 1.5-liter four-cylinder became available in a new Super Deluxe version. This engine formed the basis for both the Cortina GT and the Lotus-Cortina. The former brought the Cortina’s horsepower rating up to a fairly decent 78 while the later, with its DOHC valve train devised by Lotus founder Colin Chapman, peaked at 105 ponies. The Ford Motor Company was heavily involved in motorsports at the time and its various divisions were encouraged to develop racing programs. Of the approximately 1,000 specially modified Mark I Lotus-Cortinas assembled (all in white with dark green striping), many were used in European, African and North American contests. Many future Grand Prix stars began their careers driving Lotus-Cortinas in competition.
In the United States and Canada, most of the original Cortinas came with the larger 1.5-liter motors and many were of the GT variety. Only a trickle, however wore the Lotus badge.
After four years and more than one million cars, the Mark II Cortina succeeded the original in 1967. Although roughly the same dimensions as the Mark I, the car’s understated looks made it appear smaller. Both base and optional 1.3- and 1.6-liter motors were not only larger than the original, but boasted better fuel economy. A fourspeed manual gearbox was standard, with a newly available Borg-Warner three-speed automatic optional. The
88-horsepower GT (17 more ponies than the base 1.6), delivered lively acceleration while front disc brakes made for quicker stops. The GT’s price tag was around $2,200, about $400 more than a base Cortina.
This time around it wasn’t Lotus but Ford that readied Cortinas for competition, although they retained the Lotus-Cortina badging. A twin-cam head was again employed along with upgrades to the suspension, gearing and other hardware. Horsepower was pegged at 109, allowing the car to hit 60 mph in a little less than 11 seconds and reach a 108-mph top speed.
Originally, the Mark IIs sold reasonably well on this side of the pond. But volume dropped after the arrival of the Maverick, Ford’s newest domestic small car, in 1969, followed by the sub-compact Pinto in 1970. Overall, both were better suited to North American driving conditions than their British-based interlopers. When production of the Mark II ceased in 1970, so did American sales of the Cortina. Canadian sales remained for a few more years.
A new Mark III Cortina carried on elsewhere in both regular and GT strengths. The association with Lotus was severed and Ford’s European-only Escort underwent extensive development for the race track and rally circuit. The Mark III, a collaboration between Ford’s British and German divisions, featured a contemporary North American design plus more power, thanks to an optional 85-horse 2.0-liter SOHC four-cylinder powerplant.
Changes in looks as well as mechanical features continued until the eventual demise of the Cortina moniker, which carried on with a Mark IV model (although not in North America) until 1981.
As an attractive, roomy economy car or an all-out sedan-class racer, the Cortina had few equals and enjoyed great success in both roles.
Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications’ historic writer. Wheelbase is a world-wide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.