The car that started the trend for homologation specials and managed to make Ford look cool
By Richard Heseltine / Photography by Marc Wright

Of course, if you’re going to make an emotional investment, you have to embrace the minutiae. That’s the problem with so many performance cars – they’re difficult to engage with: all noise, bluster and belligerence. It’s all too easy to see past the little details, the ones masked by all the ‘be fast, be thunderous’ stuff. Not so here. Admittedly, this car is so loud, boisterous and eager to please that it’s actually rocking just on start up but, right now, the only point of focus is the small badge in what passes for a centre console. The one that reads ‘Lotus, Indianapolis 500 Winners 1965’. This may be a production saloon but it has breeding.

Think of the Lotus-Cortina as the world’s first homologation special, a car in which motor sport really did improve the breed. Here was the modish must-have of the mid-60s, an all-rounder as at home radiating status in urban cityscapes as three-wheeling its way to glory trackside. In volume terms, it was never a big-number success – just 2894 were made from 1963-68 – but that is to entirely miss the point of the exercise: the Lotus-Cortina gave Ford an image overhaul. It performed the impossible and made the Blue Oval hip.

Just think back to a time before the GT40 vanquished Ferrari at Le Mans; before the pop-pop-pop cacophony of a BDA-powered Escort resonated around a forest stage. Before the DFV turned Formula 1 on its head. Ford meant honest, dependable, maddeningly formulaic products aimed at Everyman. Motor racing, at least in Europe, wasn’t really part of the game plan. The odd win in rallies – Ken Wharton’s Tulip triple (1949-50 in an Anglia, ’52 in a Consul) and Maurice Gatsonides’ 1953 Monte Carlo in a Zephyr among them – failed to have much of an impact on Ford’s spreadsheets in any quantifiable sense. None of the top brass was interested.

Then along came the 1960s and the desire for a more aspirational profile. Ford was going racing, initiating the Total Performance programme that would see it win on Sunday, sell on Monday. In Blighty, it had its work cut out. The Cortina GT proved a fleeting success but something more focused was needed, the sort of thing that a perennially cash-strapped sports car manufacturer run by an engineering futurist could rustle up in a hurry: enter the ‘Type 28’.

The brainchild of Ford new boy Walter Hayes, the Lotus-Cortina was conceived with original plans which called for 1000 examples to be homologated as Production Touring cars for the International Sporting Code’s Group 2 category. Lotus boss Colin Chapman had long been keen to produce an in-house engine, the Coventry Climax item used in the Elite baby GT proving overly expensive and fragile for road car applications. With a timely injection of funds behind him, ‘Chunky’ turned to The Autocar’s technical editor Harry Mundy to conceive a twin-cam head for the rugged five-bearing Ford Kent bottom end. The resultant 1498cc four made its debut in the back of a Lotus 23 sports-racer for the June ’62 Nürburgring 1000Km. Jim Clark ran away from more powerful opposition during the opening stages of the race, leading by over by two minutes at one point, before crashing out on the 11th tour on the point of being overcome by exhaust fumes. If nothing else, Lotus had served notice of intent.

After substantial revisions by Cosworth’s Keith Duckworth, the capacity being raised to 1558cc, this soon-to-be-a-classic ‘twink’ was inserted into the Cortina hull, along with heavily reworked suspension and light alloy skins for the doors, bonnet and boot lid. Production of the Lotus-Cortina – or Cortina-Lotus as Ford’s marketing spods called it – began in February 1963, when it had a list price of £910. But it was not until September of that year that the model was eligible to race. And, after substantial testing, its competition debut left an indelible impression. On the car’s first outing, in the BSCC encounter at Oulton Park on September 20, ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears trailed home two lumbering Ford Galaxies to record a class win in his works entry. Second in Group 2 was the sister car driven by Trevor Taylor. The die was cast.

A few teething problems aside, 1964 would prove a walkover for the factory-run cars. And it would be the inimitable Jim Clark who would end the year as winner of the BRSCC British Saloon Car Championship. Indeed, images of the great Scot deftly dangling a wheel at Brands’ Bottom Bend are immediately conjured in the mind’s eye whenever the Lotus-Cortina’s name is mentioned.

For the following year, the underrated Sir John Whitmore went one better, being crowned European Saloon Car Champion for his efforts in his Ford-backed, Alan Mann Racing-run entry. It was in 1965, too, that the Group 2 car was homologated to run with leaf-spring rear suspension in place of the fragile A-frame system, with Clark and Sears pedalling the Team Lotus cars in the BSCC. Sears won his class, and also shared the winning car in the Nürburgring Six Hours with Whitmore. For 1966, the car’s final year as a front-line weapon, Team Lotus ran Lucas fuel-injected examples in Group 5, winning the entrants’ award in the BSCC. Just to prove the car’s versatility, Bengt Soderstrom and Gunnar Palm claimed overall honours – by 13 minutes – on that year’s RAC Rally before signing off the Mk1’s off-piste career with another win on a snowy 1967 Swedish Rally.

Away from the circuits and forest stages, road-car production ticked over, the alloy panels discontinued as standard equipment in July 1964 (but remaining on the options list). A facelifted model with new ‘Aeroflow’ ventilation, a full-width grille and other minor alterations appeared the following October and, for 1965, gear ratios from the Cortina 2000E were substituted. Production ended in September 1966, coinciding with the closure of Lotus’ Cheshunt factory (although a few are believed to have been made at Ford’s Dagenham facility). Of course, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. For 1967, the altogether less appealing Mk2 version arrived but it was assembled by Ford using parts supplied by Lotus, so there was no Lotus type number. Somehow, it just didn’t press the same buttons, Ford itself even denoting the car as merely a ‘Twin-Cam Cortina’. Despite some Mk2 success trackside, it’s the Mk1 edition that deservedly garners reverence.

And that has as much to do with the way the car looks as with its promised performance. In fact, the Charles Thompson/Roy Brown-penned outline always positioned the car among the more attractive production saloons of the period (the latter’s CV also included the Edsel…). In Ermine White with a Sherwood Green flash – as they all were save for racers and police cars – on wide steels, it just looks right, and the ‘less is more’ approach is carried over on the front quarter bumpers and subtle badging. There’s no embellishment, no quick-to-date addenda, just a measured, pared-back design.

That restrained approach is immediately evident once you’re inside. From an age before chunky pillars and safety cells rendered car interiors claustrophobic, this late-model example is a reminder of how airy cabins once were. It’s comfortable, too, not least because the driving position is not dictated by offset pedals or comedy perches. The bucket seats are not overly bolstered yet still embrace all the contact points you want and not the ones you don’t. And the extensive use of PVC is groovy, too. All the gauges are easy to read, the switches and minor controls less than a reach away, and the short, downswept bonnet ahead offers an appealing view.

When idling, the ’Tina is far from quiet, its engine vibrating eagerly on its mounts. It may be vocal, but this unit is a lesson in informed simplicity, the alloy twin-cam head containing chain-driven camshafts that operate the valves (inclined at 54deg) through inverted piston-type tappets. This highly tunable unit (105bhp) will spin happily though the rev range – the red line is 6500rpm – but has more low-end torque than typical peaky Latin twin-cams of the day, even if it doesn’t sound as melodious as a comparable Alfa or Fiat unit under load. But it still makes you smile as the twin Weber 40s pop and gobble, making it all the harder to resist blipping on down changes just to hear it rear up on the overrun. And the remote gearchange works well, largely because the light clutch action helps make it relatively easy to shift between planes (although reverse is a bugger).

Driven enthusiastically over Hertfordshire back roads, the Lotus-Cortina has much to love although, as is to be expected, ride comfort isn’t brilliant. It’s not rock-hard but you do feel the bumps, although there’s little kickback through the steering and the whole car feels very solid. There’s no creaking, groaning or mysterious rattling with this admittedly exceptionally well cared-for example. Set it up for a corner and the Cortina will squat a little at the rear; it then seems to balance itself out on exit. And the servo-assisted brakes are reassuringly easy to use and progressive.

Of course, this is all very old-tech, and a well-driven hot hatch (itself an oxymoron) will run rings around a Lotus-Cortina in just about any given circumstance. Thing is, steering one of these tin-top trailblazers makes you laugh and rewards your efforts. The experience isn’t the ultra-efficient but anaesthetised one that you might have with something more modern. You don’t leave it feeling inert and bored. It’s tractable and undramatic when you want it to be (if noisy) and flexible enough to use in real-world conditions. But then again, we were sold just on the Jim Clark connection.

Thanks to: Greenwood Motorsport 01763 849133 (www.greenwoodmotorsport.com), Neil Godwin-Stubbert and Graham Walker.