Motoring Memories: Lotus Cortina, 1963 1967 motoring memories classic cars car culture
1963 Lotus Cortina. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

When Ford of Britain began exporting cars to North America after the Second World War, they sent what they had: slightly warmed over pre-war designs. And while they may have been suitable for English motoring, those Anglias and Prefects were marginal for a big continent.

Matters improved in 1951, with a more stylish Anglia and the new four-cylinder Ford Consul and six-cylinder Zephyr. Styling was influenced by the 1949 American Ford, and the Consul/Zephyr could claim the distinction of popularizing MacPherson strut front suspension. It also introduced overhead valves to Ford.

These models were sold until the early ’60s when they ran into heavy competition from the new American compact cars, particularly the Ford Falcon. Britain didn’t rest on its laurels: in 1962, it introduced a car that North Americans would more readily take to their hearts, the Consul Cortina with styling more European than American.

Standard power for the Cortina was Ford’s well proved Anglia overhead valve four, with a slightly longer stroke to bring displacement up from 997 cc (60.8 cu in.) to 1,198 (73.1). It developed 53 horsepower, which Road & Track (2/’63) said gave the Cortina zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration of 24.4 seconds and a top speed of 121 km/h (75 mph). Ford would follow it with more powerful 1,500-cc (91-cu in.) Super and GT models – but there was even better to come.

Englishman engineer Colin Chapman, builder of racing and road cars, had been using Ford engines since 1949 and knew how to get the best out of them. When he saw the 1,500-cc Cortina unit he envisioned it with a double overhead cam cylinder head.

Such a head was soon designed, largely by an engineer named Harry Mundy, technical editor of Britain’s weekly magazine, Autocar. He had solid credentials with overhead cam engines, having participated in the design of the famous Jaguar XK120 double overhead cam inline six.

The first Ford Lotus twin-cam engine entered competition powering a Lotus 23 Sports at Germany’s Nurburgring in the spring of 1962. Scotsman Jim Clark drove it, and although he crashed, the engine’s potential was clearly established.

Ford’s public relations director Walter Hayes noted this with great interest. He imagined a twin cam engine nestled under the hood of the Cortina and visions of rally and race wins soon danced in his head. Hayes approached Chapman, who was enthusiastic about the project, and the Lotus Cortina was born.

Hayes’s vision would be fulfilled, but only after some early teething problems with the chassis and running gear, though not with the engine.

To take the rigours of the more powerful engine and its anticipated use in competition, Chapman fitted the Cortina with a close-ratio transmission, heavy duty clutch and stronger driveshaft. The standard leaf spring rear suspension was replaced by a coil spring, trailing arm and A-frame arrangement (which would prove troublesome), although the solid axle remained. For weight-saving the hood, doors and trunk lid were aluminum.

The Lotus Cortina was introduced to the press early in 1963, with production beginning at Lotus in the spring. Although Lotus Cortinas didn’t find their way to North America officially until 1966, Road & Track (7/’64) managed to borrow one for an early test. They were more than impressed, with what they called, “a tiger among the puddycats,” and said it was “…one of the most exhilarating small sedans we have ever driven…”

This praise resulted in no small part from its spirited acceleration. The Lotus Cortina’s 1,558 cc (95 cu. in.), 105-horsepower twin cam could sprint the 875 kg (1,930 lb) sedan from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in just 10.5 seconds, and reach a top speed of 171 km/h (106 mph). This was in line with British reports, and was blistering performance for a small sedan of that era.

The Lotus Cortina quickly made its reputation on racing and rally circuits, running head-to-head in sedan races with such heavyweights as Jaguars and Ford Galaxies. It proved its durability by finishing first and second in a 10-hour race in Marlborough, Maryland, in 1964. Lotus Cortinas were also popular with British police forces.

The 1965 regular Cortina model was restyled and featured a pioneering “Aeroflow” flow-through ventilation system and a wider grille, all of which the Lotus Cortina also got. The Lotus Cortina received other changes along the way too, such as replacing the aluminum body panels with more damage-resistant steel.

Although the Lotus Cortina had more than successfully fulfilled its expectations, Ford was not entirely happy because it felt Lotus was garnering more publicity from the car than Ford was. Thus, in 1967, the Lotus badges came off, production was moved to Ford, and the Lotus Cortina became the Ford Cortina Twin-Cam, although the public would continue to refer to them as Lotus Cortinas. Production ended in 1970.

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