Getting to know Britian's best selling car

A Long-Duration Test of the Ford Cortina Mk. 3 in 1600 (o.h.c.) GT form

People in Britain are buying More Cortina Mk. 3s than any other cars. The Cortina by Ford of Britain, their first model to have a name based on a European town, was introduced in September 1962, known then as a Consul Cortina. I remember going to its its pre-view and being unimpressed, for it seemed a gutless affair compared to the 80-bore o.h.v. Ford Anglia. However, perhaps the Dagenham Company had been a bit premature, in introducing us to the new Ford in 1,198-c.c. 75-m.p.h. form. Five months later a 1,500-c.c. engine was made additionally available and Super models were introduced, with bigger brakes, improved interior decor and so on, while Colin Chapman had selected the Cortina to be the recipient of his Lotus twin-cam engine.

This was the start of the Cortina’s remarkably successful career, both sales and competition-wise, and who can deny that these successes are closely linked ? Today the third version of Ford’s singularly successful medium-range car, backed by the smaller Escorts and the top-size new Consul and Granada, is Britain’s best-selling car, having in the first quarter of 1972 out-sold BL’s 1100/1300 range for this honourable and coveted position.

To understand how Ford of Britain has achieved this status of popular-car maker it is necessary to look briefly at Cortina development. In March 1963 the model-range was extended by the arrival of a de luxe estate car version but much more exciting from our point of view was the announcement, in April 1963, of the Cortina GT. Then, as now, Motor Sport objected to the Gran Turismo initials being stuck on a family-saloon shape car but the Weber-carburetted engine and other modifications certainly gave the Cortina an excellent performance without impairment of its noted economy and dependability. I still remember with affection this original Cortina GT, with its splendid gear-change which is now an accepted and appreciated Ford feature, and its considerable refinement of detail—such as the fit of doors and boot-lid and smooth functioning of its cubby-hole lid, for instance.

The roadworthiness of the Mk. 1 Cortina GT was emphasised by its first four places in the 1963 Acropolis Rally, followed by winning the Team Prize in the RAC Rally, which secured for it, in company with the faster and stronger Cortina-Lotus, the RAC World Manufacturers’ Rally Championship.

By the autumn 250,000 Cortinas had been sold, although it was less than a year since it hod started to come off Dagenham’s capacious assembly-lines. Before that fruitful year was out, automatic transmission was made available, for those who wanted it, on the normal 1,500-c.c.-engined Cortinas. For the next nine months Ford contented themselves by just turning out this very acceptable car, with a diversion when the town of Cortina honoured the car named after it, and the collection of a “Car of the Year” award before such titles had become largely meaningless. Then, in September 1964, the now very well-known Ford patented system of body ventilation known as “Aeroflow” was introduced, whereby air was extracted by venting it via non-return flap-valves from the low-pressure areas round the rear quarter pillars, stale air being changed every 40 seconds and quarter-windows relegated to the realm of unnecessary appendages—a great breakthrough for Ford’s Chief Engineer, Fred Hart, who adopted this invention by Clive Conway Miller and covered it by British Patent No. 1,052,458.

By September 1966 a million Cortinas had been produced, paving the optimistic way for a Mk. 2 version, announced in October. This was a restyled, more luxurious car, with a 1,300-c.c. five-bearing engine, the 1,500-c.c. engine being optional, and disc front brakes. It is interesting to remember that it was available with column or floor gear-lever, or no gear-lever at all.

The advent of another year, 1967, heralded the de luxe Cortina-Lotus and a so-called GT version of the Cortina estate car. The Cortina’s popularity never waned, indeed by that April Dagenham was producing the record number of 1,500 every day. The next important breakthrough came in August 1967, when the conventional o.h.v. power units used previously were replaced by the new “Kent” range of over-square engines with bowl-in-piston combustion chambers and cross-flow porting, in conjunction with push-rod-operated valves. Ford claimed that Cortinas for 1968, powered with these new engines, accelerated from to 60 m.p.h. 4, 3.5 and 1.2 sec. faster than the 1967 Cortinas, respectively in De luxe, Super and GT form, which gave a time for the Cortina GT of 12 1/2 sec. A month after this significant development, also ready for 1968, came the Cortina 1600E, a luxury model with Lotus suspension, wide-rim wheels and radial-ply tyres, a sign that the performance of the car was recognised as acceptable to those who also sought comfort.

During the period 1967-68 the Cortina Mk. 2 went from strength to strength, success to success, no doubt due to Ford’s domination as the power behind racing cars of all types, from FF to F1, and the Cortina’s growing record of victories in rallies, saloon-car races, even ice-races. etc. This was probably part or the reason for the institution of a £4-million export deal negotiated with Huyun Dai Motor In Korea and an order for 1,200 Cortinas from Czechoslovakia. And, although you and I may look sideways at kick-ball, preferring mechanical sport, there is no denying the sagacity of Ford in arranging for the Cortina 1600Es chosen as personal cars by the England World Cup footballers to be turned out in an all-white finish and registered GWC (Great World Cup) 1 to 30!

All this competition work and good publicity for a good car paid off, and by July 1970, after seven years, ten months, the millionth export Cortina left Dagenham—by helicopter to a customer in Belgium —the fastest million ever by a British car in Overseas markets. At roughly the same time the 2,000,000th Cortina was made. The ratio of home-to-export sales at this time was a well-balanced 50.2%/49.8%.

That is the background to the Ford Cortina Mk. 3, announced in October 1970. Technically and style-wise it was a much changed car, with far more pronounced rear-window rake and greater areas of glass than on the Mk. 1, offered in 35 basic versions. The Mk. 3 was the same length as the Mk. 2 but 2.1 in. wider and 2.7 in. lower, with a 3.5 in.-longer wheelbase, 3.5 in.-wider front track and 5 in.-wider rear track.

Ford’s L, XL, GT and GXL option packs, evolved for the Capri, were applicable and there were 1,300-c.c., 1,600-c.c. and 1,600-c.c. GT push-rod and 1,600-c.c. and 2.000-c.c. single-o.h.c. engine options, these “Performance-Plus” power units being developed by Allan Aitken, Ford Chief Engineer for Engines, after they had been secretly tested for twelve-months in 300 staff Capris, in Britain and seven European countries. The 1,300-c.c. engine alone had a dynamo instead of an alternator and wasn’t coupled to an optional automatic gearbox but it and the push-rod 1,600-c.c. engine had bigger inlet ports and throats, bigger inlet valves, revised valve timing, piston bowl profile and cut-aways, new, longer inlet manifolding and changed choke and jet sizes. The 1600 GT and 2000 engines were entirely new o.h.c. designs with toothed-belt camshaft drive, valves inclined at 15º and operated by rockers and, of course, the cross-flow porting of the push-rod Ford engines. The Mk. 3 dispensed with MacPherson-strut i.f.s. in favour of short and long double wishbones, in conjunction with coil-springs, and the coil-sprung live rear axle was located by a four-bar linkage, developments supervised by G. W. Howard, Ford’s Executive Engineer for Vehicle Engineering. Each Cortina model has its own spring rates to comply with weight and performance—see accompanying table.

The Cortina Mk. 3 was planned to provide models ranging from 85 m.p.h. and nearly 36 m.p.g. to 103 m.p.h. and 33 m.p.g., the biggest-engined version being somewhat more economical than the 1600 GT by Ford’s reckoning. The lines of the car, for which John Fallis was largely responsible, were a breakaway from earlier Cortina styling and the upholstery was of a new fabric devised to comply with Ford’s demand for a long-wearing, fade-free, unsoilable material which would also grip but not grab and absorb perspiration. It was evolved by James Czelny, Supervisor of Ford’s Interior Trim Laboratory at Dunton, and Arthur Chapman of Textile Bonding Ltd., who took their problem to ICI Fabrics, Jersey-Kapwool and the 3-Ms Company, the combined result being a unique knitted material, to combat two-way stretch, instead of the conventional woven upholstery, arrived at after experiments which began in 1966. Moreover, the covers of the front seat squabs unzip easily when they have to be removed for cleaning.

Thus was the third generation of Cortinas evolved, and after setbacks due to the labour unrest experienced by Ford in 1971, during which, as if to prove even they are not infallible, ride and noise defects had to be rectified, this Mk. 3 version is now selling faster than any other British car, which must be enormously satisfying to Mr. W. B. Batty, Ford of Britain’s Managing Director. It all stemmed from a top-secret project, known to Ford in 1961 as the “Archbishop” programme, the enormous financial investment in which Sir Patrick Hennessy agreed to calmly and quickly at a meeting of Directors held at 88, Regent Street, London, that summer. . . .

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So what is the Ford Cortina Mk. 3 like? In order to find out, I have been driving a 1600 o.h.c. GT version for longer than the usual road-test period. I took it over from Ford’s Press Depot at Brentford in a thunderstorm, tropical rain and a minor hurricane, and was immediately reassured by the excellent visibility provided by the big Triplex Hotline back window, the notably slim windscreen pillars uncluttered by quarter-lights, and the efficiency of the two speed wipers. Coming from a BMW to a Ford I felt at first that the latest Cortina GT was a vulgar car in its interior appointments, although otherwise a handsome one particularly from the “bulge nose” frontal aspect the bonnet and grille shape, different from that of the new Consuls and Granadas, giving it distinctly purposeful look.

In side elevation the styling is somewhat less pleasing, for Ford went coke-bottle at about the time Vauxhall reverted to straight sill-lines. However, by any standards the latest Cortinas look impressive and one wonders whether the Capri will be able to compete ? The special 5 1/2J x 13 wheels further enhance the GT model.

The interior arrangements which startled me at first were the deeply buried triple dials before the driver—speedometer, tachometer and clock, the latter with a seconds hand which seems unnecessary at the best of times, especially in this age of universal elaborate wrist-watches (said he, glancing at his Breitling Navitimer), the equally deeply-sunk (and angled) minor dials down on the central console (fuel gauge, thermometer battery-meter and oil-gauge), the front-seat headrests and an oval steering wheel like those German cars used to have to allow for well-fed Teutonic stomach pouches but no longer seem to use, with simulated lightening holes (save us, St. Christopher!) on its cross-spoke.

Soon, however, I had become acclimatised and had to admit to a sense of security from the head-rests, which do not impede except to reduce intimacy with the rear compartment (and the impression from without that there are occupants sitting in what is actually an empty car!), that the main instruments were not too difficult to read and are immune from reflections (indeed, for those who do not use reading glasses the isolation of the smaller dials might make them more readable) and that the Cortina GT’s minor controls are very nicely arranged, although the remoteness of the four small dials I find distracting, especially as the oil-gauge digits are too small and unless one sits at arms-stretch the upper part of the tachometer dial is obscured by its cowling—but perhaps Ford think that only those who adopt a racing-style driving position look at rev, readings anyway!

A press-down l.h. knob looks after the wipers, with foot washer/wiper, a similar r.h. knob brings in the lamps, and another, below it, the rear-window heating. There is a multi-purpose stalk on the right, pressure on this enabling the self-cancelling flashers to indicate a change-of-lane in Motorway driving as well as longer-period warnings. The steering wheel is “leather”-bound and nicely placed the little stubby gear-lever is exactly right and has a rubberised non-slip knob, and the handbrake lever is well placed between the seats. In the centre of the facia there is a Ford radio and below it the three horizontal heater quadrants for volume of hot or cold air, its direction and the fan, and, below these, a lidded ash-tray and lighter. The Ford-Wingard reel-type seat belts which I have never used stow completely out of the way. Normally I am averse to cloth upholstery but Ford certainly have an excellent material, snug and non-clinging, for their very comfortable front seats, the squabs of which spring forward when little levers at their base are depressed, to let in rear-seat passengers, and which can be easily adjusted against this spring pressure by long side levers. The “Aerofiow” vents are now horizontal outlets in front of driver and passenger, with knurled knobs to control and deflect the fresh air, perhaps not quite such a good arrangement as the former end-of-facia vents.

To these early impressions I added praiseworthy thoughts in respect of the lack of lurid exterior decor, the “Cortina GT” script on the boot not even telling me whether I had a push-rod or o.h.c. engine, so that I had to open the bonnet to find out (this is easily done but the heavy lid has to be propped up) and, the 1600 badge on the bodysides and maker’s name apart, a GB/BRSCC transfer being the only other decoration.

Going home from the office I began to enjoy Ford’s oft-praised and truly excellent gear-change. It was a pleasure to use the little gaitered lever but the clutch was not in keeping, being too sudden, so that, in conjunction with not very beefy low-speed torque, care was needed for a smooth take-off. I had reason to realise this when I drove up a turn-right lane on the A40, intending to out-accelerate the many stationary cars I had overtaken, as no-one else was waiting on this occasion to visit Gerrards Cross. All set to make a quick getaway, of which the Cortina UT is readily capable, I not only muffed it but stalled violently the engine—the other drivers were very tolerant and no-one so much as hooted. The gear-change is excellent by any standards, and reverse engages very smoothly if the lever is depressed and thrust forward beyond the first-gear location. But the transverse movement is rather narrow and I may have inadvertently selected top on this embarrassing occasion, although there is no spring-loading to excuse this.

As the miles mounted up I found this Cortina GT a worthy substitute for the Escort Mexico for which I was still very enthusiastic, having only a few weeks earlier returned the smaller troublefree road-test roadburner. The Cortina is naturally more refined, although I am not going to pretend that engine or back-axle are entirely quiet. It has more than adequate performance, reaching around 100 m.p.h. on the 3.8-to-1 top gear and going front to 60 m.p.h. in the usable period of just less than 12 to 13 seconds, depending on conditions. It clings well to the road, corners fast without noticeable roll and the steering, although light and smooth, is sensibly geared at fractionally over 3 1/2 turns lock-to-lock, in conjunction with a 10.18-metre turning circle. Moreover, there is absolutely no lost-motion in the rack-and-pinion mechanism, the wheel is of a sensible size (you get accustomed to its ovalarity) and if it transmits some mild shake and vibration (not kickback) at times, it also spins nicely back through the fingers (but don’t tell the driving-school instructor!) under mild castor-return action. The dual-line servo all-disc brakes work so well that they come into the “out of sight, out of mind” category, especially as they are squeal free and very light to use. The ride is much improved, although firm enough to extract minor rattles from the body on the rougher roads.

Apart from the usual Ford self-locking very spacious boot, which looks short by reason of the angle of the back window and does not overhang the tail-end of the car, there is a good non-locking map-case (it’s too shallow to be called a cubby-hole although it conveniently distorts a fraction to carry a (milk) bottle if the lid is left open) before the front-seat passenger, a small open well ahead of the gear-lever, and elastic-topped pockets both sides of the scuttle. The matt-black interior trim offsets nicely the red finish and there are sill door locks, lift-up external door handles (the passenger’s one on this two-door body was at first far too stiff, as I found with similar handles on the Ford Granada GXL but is now satisfactory). The tachometer’s red band permits the engine to run to well beyond 6,000 r.p.m., which is its power-peak speed.

The second day with the Ford resulted in a calamity. I got it bogged down on a very slight but muddy slope on my own land. Whether the Goodyear 185 x 13 G800 Grand Prix 70 tubeless tyres, excellent as their impressively chunky treads are for gripping dry roads and dispersing water in the rain, have treads which are allergic to mud, or whether Welsh mud is extra tenacious, I do not know but the torque curve of the 1600 GT engine, reaching its peak at 4,000 r.p.m., did not help in attempting to combat wheelspin. We abandoned the car overnight and spent much time with sacks and sheets of corrugated iron extracting it next day, after letting air out of the tyres, normally at 20 lb./sq. in. all round, and it has shown a lack of slippery-surface grip on other occasions, so that I have little confidence about taking it into water-logged car parks. Perhaps what I need are those special tyres which Dunlop evolved to enable Ford to win the E. African Safari Rally! But this reminds me that it is a prompt cold-starter on the automatic choke, and that the engine’s ability to run easily in top gear at less than 2,000 r.p.m. discounts its apparent lack of torque.

Once on hard ground again the Cortina made up for lost time. Like cruising at, shall we say ?, around 70 m.p.h., westwards along the fine new M4 Motorway. After a boring hour or so getting from Slough to the Chipping Sodbury junction in this fashion I found myself marvelling at the tenacity of men who endured nearly twice the speed for much longer, as Cobb did in winning the 500-Mile Race at Brooklands in the Napier-Railton (was he elated, or, like me, just bored ?), and the bravery of those who did anything from this to twice as fast on slim-section high-pressure beaded-edge tyres which might burst or fly off the rims at any moment—Lee Guinness in the 350-h.p. V12 Sunbeam, for instance, to name but one. With today’s cars and tyres so safe I regard the speed-limit on Motorways as a terrible waste of their great potential. The Corona’s oil pressure and temperature vary not at all on a thrash of this kind but I felt for the engine of an elderly Morris Minor van which endeavoured to cling to me. . . . The Cortina has the advantage, for night driving, of Lucas Halogen four-lamp lighting.

The first tankful of petrol lasted just less than 344 miles, a very useful range, which gave a consumption of 99-octane gas of 28.7 m.p.g. A further long-range check came out at 27.2 m.p.g. The car came to me, after being driven by that fast-driving lady, Mrs. Gordon Wilkins, with 3,850 miles on its total-mileage odometer (as Ford claim to have “gone metric” I expected it to read in kilometres!), and after another 1,310 miles I looked at the dip-stick, not exactly instantly accessible down at the n/s rear of the engine, to find the oil at the low level pip. However, a quart or thereabouts of Castrol GTX, added to the 5/6-pint of the new Ford 6,000 Mile Motor Oil which the sump presumably still contained, restored the situation—say approx. 600 to 700 m.p.p. The idling speed of this engine should be 780 to 820 r.p.m. and oil pressure 35 lb./sq. in., but in the test car the latter reads between 50 and 60 lb. at speed, so there is plenty in hand for summer cruising. The firing order is 1,3,4,2 whereas on the pushrod engine it is 1,2,4,3. When idling there is sometimes a knock which suggests that the exhaust pipe leading from the impressive 1/4, 2/3 “bunch-of-bananas” exhaust manifold may be fouling the body, but no trouble has developed. The Ford Kwik-Fill battery is very easy to top up, prominent on the n/s of the under-bonnet space.

These, for the time being, are my comments on this popular £1,147 car. Having lived with it for a month I can understand why Cortinas have a similar monopoly of our roads as did Fords in the days of Models-T, A and B. It must make Bill Batty very happy ! — W. B.