Such was the march of engineering progress during the 1960s that the MkI Lotus Cortina, of which some 3300 examples were built between 1963 and 1966, proved to be faster around twisty circuits like Oulton Park than the Grand Prix machinery of the previous decade.
Inspired by the success of BMC’s tuned Cooper version of the Mini and originally built by Lotus (and later at Dagenham by Ford), here was a two-door ‘cooking’ saloon which, having been extensively modified by Colin Chapman, changed the face of saloon car racing virtually overnight.
And anyone who witnessed the wheel-waving, Jag-thrashing, Mustang-mincing antics of Clark, Whitmore, Elford and the rest in these cars will be hard-pushed to forget them. What you got back in 1963 for your £1100 3s 1d was a full four-seater saloon, which could clock 0-60mph in around 10sec, and bang on all the way up to 110mph courtesy of the 1600 Lotus-Ford twin-cam. Breathing through a brace of throaty Webers, this unit, a bored-out version of the one fitted to the Elan, had a compression ratio of 9.5:1 and pushed out a healthy 105bhp in standard form — up to 145bhp for special racing versions.
Having been transported from Dagenham to Cheshunt, the bodyshells, which were only available in white with the famous green flash, were fitted with alloy doors and lids. And the suspension was radically altered, the ride height was lowered, there were special springs at the front, a thicker anti-roll bar and forged steering arms and, at the rear, the standard leaf-spring set-up was ‘binned’ — a big mistake as it turned out — in favour of coil-and-damper units with axle location by trailing arms and an A-bracket.
In addition there were 5 1/2J wheels, servo-assisted brakes — discs at the front and large 9in drums at the rear — and an 8in diameter clutch to replace the standard 7 1/4in unit. The 12-volt battery was relocated from its normal under-bonnet positions to the boot, which slightly improved weight distribution, and light alloy was used instead of cast iron for the clutch housing, rear housing of the gearbox and the differential casing. You could also choose from four finaldrive ratios.
Other distinguishing features included a black painted radiator grille, quarter bumpers in place of the standard full-width items. Lotus badges on the grille, tail and rear wings, a wood-rimmed steering wheel, special ‘sports’ seats. wooden gear knob and a fully-instrumented dashboard.
It was motor racing, of course, that showed the original cars’ shortcomings, revealing a surprising tendency for the rear suspension to ‘walk’, caused by the A-bracket straining the differential casing to such an extent that oil leaks became inevitable. So in September 1965 the original cart springs were reinstated and the close-ratio gearbox, which proved to be something of a pain in everyday road use, was replaced by the standard Ford ‘box.
Most of the early cars were converted back to leaf-spring rear suspension, and Ford also replaced the original alloy body panels with steel ones. Then, in April 1966, the MkII version was announced. A more luxurious car, the MkII was just about as fast as its predecessor, despite being heavier, and was available in a greater variety of body colours. The later car may have lacked the charisma of the Mkl, but with the benefit of radial tyres as standard, handled and held the road a deal more comfortably and safely.
Today, the MkI is more highly prized than the MkII, mainly because of the former’s illustrious motor racing history, but there are potential pitfalls in both buying and running one. Genuine Lotus-built Lotus Cortinas, as opposed to the Ford-made Cortina Lotuses are very rare: few were built and even fewer survive. Many were damaged in competition and road accidents — Dr Farina died in one en route to the 1966 French Grand Prix — and some were badly repaired.
Many have been rebuilt with parts ‘robbed’ from scrapyard wrecks, several have been fitted with non-original reproduction parts (if that matters), and then there are the ‘fakes’ that have been constructed from a cocktail of parts around a standard Cortina bodyshell.
For anyone wanting to discover the delights of driving a Lotus Cortina — and there are many — none of these things really matter at all, but originality, or lack of it, must be reflected in the asking price. Faking a ‘genuine’ Lotus Cortina is as easy as faking any other kind of car when there’s a lot of money to be made, and there’s no shortage of unscrupulous ‘fakers’ out there waiting to make lots of lolly.
What to look out for
Even the last of the Mkls are now 30 years old and inevitably rust has taken a heavy toll. Check particularly the inner wings, sills, top of the suspension turrets and rear spring-hanger legs. Also check for accident damage, whether repaired properly or not. One clue to a genuine Lotus Cortina is the floor ‘bulge’ that clears the differential, but all good fakes have had these welded in so don’t take anything for granted.
Replacement body panels are becoming scarcer and prices are rising, in some cases to surprisingly high levels. It’s also worth noting that some enthusiasts will not sell some of the rarer parts — they will only swap them for other rare bits and pieces.
One of the classic power units of all time, but prone to leaking and consuming oil. Also fussy in heavy traffic, frequently oiling its sparking plugs. Generally good for high mileages if maintained properly, but complete overhauls are time-consuming and generally expensive. If a vendor claims performance rating in excess of 165bhp, congratulations, you’ve probably met a man from Mars.
No particular problems but it’s as well to check that the major components — starter motor, windscreen wiper motor, battery and the rest — have been renewed on cars that purport to have been fully restored.
High-ratio recirculating ball system is reliable, long-lived and should feel precise. Sloppiness indicates that work is inevitable.
The discs/drum is servo-assisted and powerful with good ‘bite’. No particular problems. Standard Cortina rear drums changed for 9in items. Check discs for usual cracks, wear and warping.
Wheels & Tyres:
600 section crossplies were standard rubber but most cars sensibly running on radials today. Standard wheels were 5 1/2J and made of steel. Alloys were more often seen on rally rather than circuit cars.
Lotus Cortina Register
Nethermore Farm, Naish Hill, Lacock, Chippenham. Wiltshire SN15 20H. Telephone: 01249 730294.