A £1,100 competition saloon which is also a very practical road car, possessing extremely usable acceleration, very powerful Girling brakes, a top speed of over 100 m.p.h. and good handling qualities.
Soon after that man Chapman had been signed on by British Ford, Dagenham announced the Lotus-Cortina, which was to have a 1 1/2-litre twin-cam 105 b.h.p. engine in a Consul Cortina 2-door saloon body-shell using light-alloy doors, bonnet top and boot-lid, a close-ratio gearbox, modified suspension with a properly-located back axle with aluminium differential housing sprung on Chapman coil-spring struts, Corsair-size servo-assisted front disc brakes, larger tyres and other modifications to improve performance and handling. This Lotus-Cortina was announced enthusiastically in Motor Sport last February, when I remarked that it sounded like the most exciting British car since the Jaguar E-type.
Team Lotus were to run a trio of these Fords in saloon-car races, but the project was a long time coming to fruition, probably because the twin-cam engines were needed for Lotus Elans before they found a place in Cortina body-shells. And competition work with these exciting new cars, for which a top speed of 115 m.p.h. and 0-100 m.p.h. in around 30 sec. is still hinted at in Ford publicity material, was not possible until they had been homologated, which meant that at least 1,000 had to be built. Ford Dealers, promised these fast Cortinas, grew restive, the Ford Board wrathful, but gradually these outwardly normal-looking Cortinas with the colour-flash along the bodyside began to appear on the roads and, occasionally, by the date of Oulton Park’s Gold Cup meeting, on the circuits, while Henry Taylor drove one in the recent R.A.C. Rally.
At last, late in November, a test car was placed at our disposal for a brief period, and let me say right away that we were not disappointed! The Lotus-Cortina is a very commendable all-round car of truly excellent performance, the acceleration being an outstanding feature, very usable from the low speeds at which the average motorist drives, and going on and on most impressively as upward gear changes are made, so that overtaking is rendered not only safe but a positive pleasure!
This Ford is not a 100 m.p.h. car in the sense that the “ton” can be attained almost anywhere, but it achieves an easy 85-90 m.p.h. on give-and-take roads and certainly has a three-figure top speed. Such performance will leave behind, say, a Porsche 1600 Super or Mini-Cooper S or Alfa Romeo Giulia T1, and it is accomplished without sense of fuss or stress, merely that nice “hard” sound of busy but efficient machinery associated with a twin o.h.e. engine. However, although the r.p.m. limit is set between 6,500 and 8,000 r.p.m., the engine in the test car would not go beyond the first of these figures.
Road-holding is another strong feature of Colin Chapman’s modified Cortina, the standard being extremely satisfactory, remembering that the basis of the exercise is a low-priced family saloon. The back suspension creaks a bit but the combination of coil springs, tying up the axle and reducing its weight has transformed the mediocre handling of the bread and margarine Cortina.
Cornering is mainly neutral, with a tendency to understeer. probably accentuated by the small-diameter wood-rimmed steering wheel, which makes the steering ratio seem rather low geared on acute corners; in fact, the wheel calls for 3 1/2 turns, lock-to-lock, including some sponge not noticeable when on the move. On normal bends the gearing feels just right and the steering very accurate and positive. Roll on fast corners is very moderate. The front-end feels softly sprung if sudden changes of direction or a heavy application of the brakes are made, when the weight of the twin-cam engine tends to be noticeable, but even over bad surfaces the front wheels retain firm adhesion with the road and the ride is comfortable. Even at 80 m.p.h. over a bad road the ride is very reasonable and the car in full control. At high speed there is a slight weaving action, accentuated by rough going, as if the back axle resents the restraint Colin Chapman has wisely put on it, but this does not develop into anything serious. Round fast, wide-radius bends the Lotus-Cortina holds the desired line most commendably, even with the inner wheels running along a rough verge, while the car goes exactly where it is directed when tucking in quickly after overtaking. There is some lost movement in the transmission, probably another product of restricting rear axle movement, just as the absence of a propeller shaft accentuates harshness of take-up in rear-engined cars. Had Chapman been allowed to instal i.r.s. this tendency to weave, and transmission of noise from the road wheels, might have been eliminated. As it is, there is very little judder through the rigid Cortina body shell but the axle does build up some shudder or mild vibration, which releases a number of body rattles. Reverberations from the engine can be cured by using the two lower gears when pulling away from low speeds.
The clutch of the Lotus-Cortina is extremely heavy, but engages progressively. The short remote gear lever is splendidly placed, and has a neat wooden knob. It controls a gearbox with the most commendably closely spaced and high ratios I have used for a long time, bottom gear being as high as 9.75 to 1. Chapman has clearly designed this gearbox for enthusiasts and doesn’t intend you to use a Lotus-Cortina for towing a caravan up Porlock.
The gear change is very quick and positive but the action is notchy and the synchromesh can be beaten if very rapid changes are attempted or the clutch not fully depressed. I rate this a good but not a superlative gear change. Reverse is easily engaged by lifting the lever beyond the 2nd gear position and the gears are quiet, but at certain speeds the lever rattles. The synchromesh bottom gear is as easy to engage as the rest of those in the box, which enables quick use to be made of the lowest ratio to keep the revs. up on sharp corners and steep hills.
The Girling brakes, 9 1/2 in. disc at the front, 9 in. drums at the back, with a suction servo on the n/s of the engine, are just the job for a car with Lotus-Cortina urge. They are light to apply, yet not too light and never sudden, and stop the car very powerfully and progressively with no vices, except for a tendency to pull to the right under heavy applications, on the test car. The hand brake is a normal Ford pull-out and twist affair. The combination of speed, acceleration particularly, road-clinging and powerful retardation possessed by this remarkable Ford enables 60 m.p.h. averages to be achieved on British roads effortlessly and safely, the Lotus-Cortina being easy to drive, no special techniques being called for, while its only notable disadvantages are some rather tiring engine noise and an uncomfortable back seat. However, the outstanding impression imparted by this excellent saloon car is of willing, purposeful acceleration, which goes on and on with no trace of hesitation or flat-spot. For this I feel quite certain the two twin-choke, side draught Weber 40DCOE18 Carburetters deserve most of the credit. The performance does not come up to the publicity estimates, as our figures show, but even so the Lotus-Cortina is a very rapid vehicle by 1.6-litre standards, quite apart from the fact that it is a 4-seater saloon! Because bottom gear can be held to nearly 50 m.p.h. and because acceleration commences to be really effective from around 3,000 r.p.m., a snick into 2nd gear produces extremely useful acceleration that leaves loiterers far and cleanly behind! Especially when it is realised that the rev.-counter needle only just touches the red mark at 70 m.p.h. in this gear, or at over 90 in 3rd gear!
In spite of its racing-type engine this Ford is perfectly docile in traffic, although if you motor through the thick of the rush-hour it is seemly to use 1st and 2nd more frequently than the 3rd and top gears, the water temperature will rise to 90˚ C but will stay at that, and your clutch leg may get rather tired. Starting from cold presents no problems.
I have dealt with the performance and controllability aspects of the Lotus-Cortina first, instead of commencing, as I do usually, with details of controls, instruments and decor. This is because anyone contemplating this particular and so very acceptable version of the popular Ford Consul Cortina sill regard these aspects as of major importance, and also because in general layout the car is like the normal, staid Cortina.
The separate front seats are comfortable and offer good support; they adjust in two planes, forward and upwards, in one movement. Upholstery is in matt black p.v.c., with a light roof lining. The dials are on a neat hooded panel before the driver, as on the latest Cortina GT models, but the instruments are better contrived, and in this case the background simulates metal instead of grained wood. The 110 m.p.h. speedometer has trip with decimal and total milometers, the tachometer is marked in red between 6,500 and 8,000 r.p.m., although the engine peaks at 5,500 r.p.m. The small fuel gauge is properly calibrated but shows a very definite zero some 30 miles or more before the 8-gallon tank empties. There is a combined oil-pressure gauge and water thermometer matching the fuel gauge in size; the oil pressure reading shows barely 40 lb./sq. in. at normal engine speeds, and falls to a depressing 5 lb./sq. in. at idling revs., although the green warning light does not show. In view of the fact that the twin-cans Harry Mundy-designed head has been grafted onto a standard Ford engine-base, this low pressure may prove disturbing to sensitive-minded engineers. No doubt proprietory oil-coolers will soon be offered to owners of these cars! Normal water temperature is 80˚ C. The two main dials are notable for steady-reading needles, white against a black background and moving in the same plane, which, with the steady-reading small dials and black interior trim, imparts an air of luxury, not found in lesser Fords. The usual Ford fixed r.h. stalk carries lamps and winker switches, the lamps control faired off, unlike that on other Cortina models. This makes it even less easy to use. That no lamps flasher is fitted is a serious omission; the horn push on the wheel, which is inoperative, might well be employed as such, enabling the push on the stalk-extremity to be used as a lamps-flasher.
On this Ford the screen-washers knob is adjacent to the starter-key, and the wipers knob, on the other side of the dash, pulls out to start the single-speed wipers. There is the usual choke knob. The bonnet is opened from outside the car and has to be propped up, although the self-locking boot-lid is self-supporting. The bonnet opens to reveal the neat twin-cam engine, with those big Webers on the o/s and a 4-branch exhaust system dropping away efficiently on the n/s. The ignition distributor is inaccessible beneath the carburetters. The latter have a cold air box led through a flexible pipe from a filter in the grille. The dip-stick is close to the dynamo bracket, but accessible. Blue cam-box covers signify the 105 b.h.p. version of this 1,558 c.c. Ford engine, but for competition purposes the “red” 140 b.h.p. engine is available.
This “blue” engine has a 9.5-to-1 c.r., so 100 octane petrol is called for. On a last run from Hampshire to Somerset and back this was consumed at the rate of exactly 25 m.p.g. The absolute range on a tankful, which holds within 1/20th of a gallon what the makers specify, was 200 miles. The horizontal filler pipe is unsuited to refuelling from a can.
The Lucas 60/45 watt sealed-beam headlamps enable most of the Lotus-Cortina’s performance to be used after dark and the illumination provided in the dipped position is to be highly commended. There is nothing else to mention that distinguishes the car from its less powerful brethren, except that the spare wheel lies on the boot floor, the battery and two strengthening struts are found in the boot, the boss or the 15 in. racing-type steering wheel and the gear-lever knob are endowed with Lotus badges, which are repeated on the radiator grille and on each rear quarter of the body, and that the 6 in.-section Dunlop tyres look imposing.
We obtained the following performance figures, two-up, using an electric speedometer on the test track (average of several runs, best time in parenthesis, best Cortina GT acceleration times within square brackets):—
If these figures disappoint anyone, there is the Cheshunt-built 140 h.h.p. race-tuned 1,594 c.c. Lotus-Cortina to bring smiles of satisfaction – if you can afford £1,725 or get your hands on one of the 30 to be constructed! But for all practical purposes the ordinary Ford Lotus-Cortina (or the 125 b.h.p. Special Equipment version) should provide amply sufficient speed and acceleration and, with its good road manners, will soon be giving joy and rapid travel to many discerning sportsmen. It is a much better car than I had dared to hope and there is something very pleasing in the knowledge that Lotus racing “know-how” has been handed on to this outwardly sober Ford saloon, which goes so well, is such great fun and so safe to drive, and which enjoys the widespread Ford spares and servicing facilities. Under the circumstances this Ford Lotus-Cortina is a good car to buy for £1,100 3s. 1d., or £9 10s. extra if front-seat safety belts are specified. (Other extras are a 4.1 to 1 back axle and a reversing light).
Time will show just how reliable this combination of Ford and Lotus components proves but in 600 hard-driven miles the only failures were the Smiths tachometer, which just couldn’t believe the engines high rev.-limit, and a loose bolt holding the carburetters intake box in place. The rubber fell off the clutch pedal. Twin-cam engines are sometimes thought to consume oil but none was used by the Lotus power unit in 600 miles.
In conclusion, I approve very strongly of Colin Chapman’s idea of a British Giulietta, which Ford sells at a price poor men can afford! As for the race-tuned version…!! – W. B.