When they were new... Ford Lotus Cortina

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An original road test taken from the Motor Sport archives, January 1964

Soon after that man Chapman had been signed on by British Ford, Dagenham announced the Lotus-Cortina, which was to have a 1½-litre twin-cam 105bhp engine in a Consul Cortina two-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, 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 was 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. And competition work was not possible until they had been homologated, which meant that at least 1000 had to be built. Ford dealers grew restive, the Ford board wrathful, but gradually these outwardly normal-looking Cortinaswith the colour flash along the body-side began to appear on the roads and, occasionally on the circuits, while Henry Taylor drove one in the RAC Rally.

At last, late in November, a test car was placed at our disposal, 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 outstanding, very usable from low speeds 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 100mph car in the sense that the ‘ton’ can be attained almost anywhere, but it achieves an easy 85-90mph on give-and-take roads. Such performance will leave behind, say, a Porsche 1600 Super or Mini-Cooper S or Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti, and it is accomplished without sense of fuss, merely that nice ‘hard’ sound of busy but efficient machinery associated with a twin-ohc engine.

Road-holding is another strong feature of Colin Chapman’s modified Cortina, remembering that the basis of the exercise is a low-priced family saloon. 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. Round fast, wide-radius bends the Lotus-Cortina holds the desired line commendably while the car goes exactly where it is directed when tucking in quickly after overtaking. At high speed there is a slight weaving action, as if the back axle resents the restraint Colin Chapman has wisely put on it. Had Chapman been allowed to install independent rear suspension this tendency might have been eliminated.

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 closely spaced and high ratios I have used for a long time. 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.

I rate this a good but not a superlative gear change. The Girling servo brakes, disc at the front, drums at the back, are just the job – light to apply, yet not too light, and stop the car very powerfully and progressively.

The combination of speed, acceleration, roadclinging and powerful retardation possessed by this remarkable Ford enables 60mph averages to be achieved on British roads effortlessly and safely, the Lotus-Cortina being easy to drive. 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. The Lotus-Cortina is a very rapid vehicle by 1.6-litre standards, quite apart from the fact that it is a four-seater saloon.

Because bottom gear can be held to nearly 50mph, a snick into second produces useful acceleration that leaves loiterers far behind. Especially when it isrealised that the rev-counter needle only just touches the red mark at 70mph in this gear, or at more than 90 in third!

In spite of its racing-type engine this Ford is perfectly docile in traffic: the water temperature will rise to 90 degrees but will stay at that, and your clutch leg might get tired. Blue cam-box covers signify the 105bhp version of this 1558cc Ford engine, but for competition the ‘red’ 140bhp engine is available. This ‘blue’ engine has a 9.5:1cr, so 100-octane petrol is called for. On a fast run from Hampshire to Somerset and back this was consumed at the rate of exactly 25mpg. There is little that distinguishes the car from less powerful brethren, although the boss of the steering wheel and gear-lever knob are endowed with Lotus badges, which are repeated on the radiator grille and on each rear quarter of the body.

If the ‘blue’ engine disappoints, there is the Cheshunt-built 140bhp race-tuned 1594cc Lotus-Cortina to bring smiles of satisfaction – if you can afford £1725 or get your hands on one of the 30 to be constructed! But for all practical purposes the ordinary Ford Lotus-Cortina will soon be giving joy 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 ‘knowhow’ has been handed on to this outwardly sober Ford saloon, which goes so well and is such great fun and so safe to drive. Under the circumstances this Ford Lotus-Cortina is a good car to buy for £1100 3s 1d. In conclusion, I approve strongly of Colin Chapman’s idea of a British Giulietta, which Ford sells at a price poor men can afford. And as for the race-tuned version…

Ford Lotus Cortina factfile
Production: ’63-67
Power: 105bhp 0-60mph: 8.5sec
Max speed: 105mph

Brilliant marriage of Lotus power in Ford clothing, with smart interior details and that signature green flash. MkII from 1967 less extreme, with 115bhp and a colour choice – but everyone chose white and green… Quick and chuckable, the value keeps rising.

Perfect spec: works MkI with all the tweaks official or not and Jim Clark history! In real life, MkI always more desirable.

Bill Boddy