Is there anything a nineties touring car can learn from a sixties saloon car? After a day battling with a Lotus Cortina and a Ford Mondeo, Matthew Franey thinks there might be
Photography by Tom Wren
There are few names more evocative in the history of British motorsport than that of the Lotus Cortina and few sights more memorable than one of Ford’s classic saloons sliding sideways towards the camera, Jim Clark working furiously at the wheel.
The Lotus Cortina was the car that attracted a plethora of racing enthusiasts to the track in the 1960s and a legion of racing stars into the cockpit. It was also Ford’s most prominent entry into a class of racing that would dominate the national scene for the next three decades, culminating in its latest offering to the ever more popular British Touring Car Championship, the Mondeo.
Between the two cars lie three generations of Ford saloons and vast development and progress, but both are perfect representations of their era — one a seat-of-the-pants driving experience, the other a state-of-the-art technical marvel.
Original Cortina race cars are few and far between in 1997, but a fine selection of recently race-prepared cars currently compete in the Classic Saloon Car Championship and the Mansell Motorsport-run Cortina pictured here is a fine example of its ilk. Built from a 1966 chassis and engine, the Cortina, presented in classic white and green livery, is as close to original 1960s spec as you will ever get.
The Mondeo, on the other hand, is no converted road car but a Schubel-built racer from day one. Cast your eyes over both as they sit in the Silverstone paddock and it would take an unusually good patter to convince the uninitiated that one is a direct evolution of the other. At first glance there is as much in common between the two as a Williams FW19 and BRM V16. Under the bonnet of this Cortina lies a 1600cc, twin-carburettor four-cylinder engine which only hints at its special performance with its Lotus cam covers. Though fitted with an uprated steel crankshaft, rods and twin-plate racing clutch, it retains its two-valves per cylinder top end yet still produces a distinctly healthy 170bhp as a result.
By contrast the Mondeo is the epitome of the modem race car philosophy. Though its 2.0-litre V6 engine is based on that of a road car, not only is it not available in any road Mondeo, it’s not even Ford’s own engine but the Mazda-designed unit fitted to its MX-6 coupe and Ford’s Probe. The race fettling, however, is carried out by Cosworth and the result sits transversely-mounted in the car and pulled back towards the driver and tilted downwards to lower the centre of gravity. To accommodate this change, the Cosworth engineers ran the Mondeo’s driveshafts through the engine’s vee, with some 300bhp going to the driven front wheels.
Running off the Cortina’s engine is the original casing for its four-speed gearbox, the syncromesh replaced with a straight-cut dog ‘box geared to pull over 120mph in top. Despite a long throw that would be unacceptable on a modern racer, the Cortina’s transmission is a delight, clutchless changes possible according to its owner, but effective and quick the conventional way, too. With more torque than you’d imagine and gearing low enough to give a genuine sensation of acceleration, changes are rapid and accompanied by a satisfying clunk.
Quick through the gears the Cortina may be, but it is only when you have sampled the six-speed sequential shift on the latest generation of touring cars, that you appreciate the pace of evolution in motorsport. The 1996 Mondeo utilises a transversely-mounted Hewland sequential ‘box, shifts made via a carbon fibre arm protruding from the steering column. Simply depress the clutch and click the lever forward to engage first, then pull back each time you want a higher gear. Clever electronics mean that you don’t need the clutch to change gear, nor to lift off the accelerator on the way up through the transmission. Just pull back and the throttle is momentarily killed for you, a thump your first indication that everything has already moved on a stage.
Having driven the championship-winning Audi A4 last year, my abiding memory was of the aggression needed to force through the next change on the German saloon. The Mondeo required no strength whatsoever, the shift as smooth and slick as it was expeditious.
Visual contrasts abound as you cast your eye across both cars. Inside the Cortina, large bucket seats are the only nod to modern requirements, the remainder a simple but effective job of paring down a ’60s road car to run on the track. Gone are the carpets and rear seats while a respectable roll cage slots in around you. A large transmission tunnel rests alongside your left leg, the stick mounted off it quite a long way in front of you. Across the dash there’s a large rev counter painted red at 9000, but there’s little to be gained other than engine wear above 8000rpm. In the roof a small interior light, further evidence of the car’s more humble beginnings, seems slightly incongruous.
Jump into the Mondeo for a quick look around and… well you can’t actually just jump in. Open the door and the first thing that strikes you is a roll cage bar that looks more like the barrel of a mortar, further side impact protection blocks half the doorway and a mammoth seat with head restraints curls around its helmeted driver.
Shoehorn yourself into the Mondeo and try and come to terms with your surroundings. The large, suede steering wheel – once attached – pushes deep into your chest, the dashboard replaced by a carbon fibre binnacle. All the information you need is at your fingertips, a liquid crystal display in the steering column letting you know your gear, revs, temperatures and much more besides.
For further safety, and to improve the weight distribution, the driver’s seat left-hand drive on this German-built racer is pulled into the centre of the cabin, the wheel twisted towards you. It is not the most comfortable of seating positions.
With the little V6 fired up, the Mondeo idles comfortably enough, but is much happier once fed a bit more fuel, every blip of the pedal followed by a scything response. Pulling away is reassuringly easy, and the most misleading few seconds of the entire day. The short, but light clutch does not bite furiously’ and the transmission does not snatch or judder as you make your way out onto the track. But get above 6,000rpm with the throttle buried into the floor and it is an entirely different story.
Ford and its BTCC drivers would be the first to admit that last season’s Mondeo was cursed with several afflictions for which the engineers never found a cure. Unable to produce the front-end grip and stability that is so important in a front-wheel drive tourer, the Mondeo was prone to chronic understeer. When that was dialed out, torque steer remained an added conundrum.
In a season of racing, Ford’s engineers never solved the riddle and as the Mondeo twisted under full throttle on cold tyres I began to understand what the drivers had been forced to cope with.
In the final third of the rev range the Mondeo engine’s power comes in with tremendous gusto and uniformity, but it struggles to put the power clown, the car bucking sideways two or three metres. Several times I thought I was about to be thrown into the pitwall and once I thought I had broken a driveshaft.
Get some heat into the tyres and the torque steer becomes more manageable, the twitches easier to predict. But while the problem is thus dissipated, the front end remains a handful through the session.
With the huge 15-inch, six-pot, vented disc brakes hauling the Mondeo down from sixth to second for the hairpin, the load on the front of the car is even more considerable. As a consequence the heavy demands placed on the car become an added burden, its balance upset, and the back end suddenly becomes very nervous as well.
The faults that the Mondeo displayed were very much the result of designers trying to extract the last percentage point in terms of performance. Tune a modem racer to the nth degree and any flaws in the chassis or suspension become apparent as setup problems. The good driver can adapt around them, but at the end of the day, the 1996 Mondeo was not a perfect racer and it showed in its results. Behind the wheel you can see why.
That’s not to say the Mondeo is a bad car. It’s most impressive aspect by far is the ease with which it changes direction. Through the third-gear Esses, where the brakes are not required, the steering is truly phenomenal, pointing the car exactly where you ask, but remaining light and precise. What’s needed to drive this car fast is balance. A constant throttle and progressive braking help to keep the Ford’s poise, but upset it and you will provoke that annoying understeer.
Balance and poise is probably what you need to drive the Lotus Cortina fast as well, but I’m damned ill managed to find it. There is only one way to drive a rear-wheel drive car like this and that is on the throttle… through the side window.
From that first glorious howl as the exhaust note rises to the way it barrels out of every corner, the Cortina is a guaranteed grin-maker. As power is forced into the Dunlop race tyres, the car simply slides sideways. It is as predictable as you could wish and once you have set the opposite lock, you don’t need to turn the wheel again: just lift or lower your right foot according to your required angle of attack. The steering is a bit wooly on turn in – a brief pause before the nose follows the wheels round – but grip is better than you might imagine and even the brakes – discs at the front, Capri drums a t the rear – come in with good progression if you work them hard.
The Cortina is so enjoyable that the very real danger is that you end up over-driving on every lap, lurid oversteer proving more fun than the desire to take the quickest line though the corner.
If you succeed in overcoming the adrenaline rush and pull the hooligan element within you back into line, then things can become very quick indeed. To really drive the Cortina properly, drive it progressively and cleanly – with a little bit of opposite lock but no more. Do that and it will fly.
There seems scarcely a point in saying the Mondeo is the better car. It would be shocking were it not. Perfect it may not be but as a showcase for what the appliance of technology can do to an everyday saloon car it is, like of all its ilk, a mighty achievement. The Cortina can counter only by being more fun to drive and while that might not do much for your lap times, when it comes to the simple pleasure of driving rather than racing, it’s an attribute the Mondeo proves unable to answer.
Our thanks go to Ford West Surrey Racing, Roger Stanford and John Smirthwaite of JS Engine Developments for the kind loan of the cars.