A Ford Cortina with a V8 Secret

Story and Photography by John Webber

Why would a longtime collector and accomplished vintage racer with a shop full of rare and wonderful Porsches build a quirky British outlier into a weapons-grade screamer?

Because he had a vision, that’s why.

As Jerry Peters tells it, a humble, early Lotus Cortina GT helped ignite his lifetime passion for cars. In the mid-’60s, when he was a delivery boy in Jacksonville, Florida, making his rounds along a wicked section of road the locals called Dead Man’s Curve, he spotted a pair of fast-approaching cars. As they wailed by, he was astonished to see a tiny, boxy sedan–he had no clue what it was–pull a nifty pass on an unsuspecting, and no doubt humbled, ’64 Pontiac GTO, then considered king of the streets.

Jerry tracked down the little flyer at a local hangout, where he learned that it was a Lotus Cortina built in the U.K. and powered, to his amazement, by a four-cylinder engine. His enlightenment occurred around the time the potent Shelby-created Sunbeam Tiger was surprising a lot of would-be racers, so naturally he thought, “This car ought to have a Ford 260 or 289 V8 under the hood–sort of a Cortina Tiger.” On that moment, Jerry vowed that he would someday own a Cortina, and he would, indeed, stuff a V8 in it.

In those days, Jerry was driving a VW delivery truck for Brumos, the famed Porsche dealer. Whenever the van broke down, he was allowed to drive his boss’s Porsche 356 Super 90. After that, Jerry says, “I was always looking for ways to disable that truck.”

As the years passed, his interest in small, agile sedans like the Lotus Cortina (he was a Jim Clark fan), Datsun 510 and BMW 2002 grew because he liked their “sleeper” looks. “My interest in cars helped me focus,” Jerry says. “I loved cars, but I knew that took money. I wasn’t college material, so I knew I’d have to work extra hard to get them.”

Decades later, his efforts paid off with business successes, and he was able to indulge his passion. Even as he bought and traded Porsches and other exotics, he stayed on the lookout for a Cortina.

He first bought a Mark II, but soon realized that the body style just wouldn’t do. “It had no fins and no ‘ban the bomb’ taillights,” Jerry says. So he located and began chasing a rust-free, 23,000-mile 1965 Cortina from Canada. He kept tabs on it for several years as it passed between various owners. Finally, he was able to acquire it through a trade deal that involved a Bentley once owned by Vanna White–yes, that Vanna White.

Once he acquired the Mark I GT, Jerry started collecting parts for his dream. When his plans to modify it became known, he risked the ire of some purists in the Cortina community. They thought the car too nice to modify, even after Jerry pointed out that Carroll Shelby had been known to modify a British car or two. He won back some friends when he shipped all the car’s running gear, at cost, to a Cortina enthusiast in the U.K.

Building a Sleeper

While the long-held “Cortina-Tiger” vision was Jerry’s–in high school, he had actually sketched a concept–he turned it over to Atlanta builder Johnny Riddling to bring to life. “He had the general outline of what he wanted and the drivetrain picked out,” Johnny explains, “but besides that, he let me sorta do it the way I wanted to, and I like to build a car that’s clean, nice and simple.”

Johnny admits this philosophy increased the challenge of stuffing a high-horsepower V8 and modern drivetrain into a tiny car. “Room,” he says, “was very hard to come by.” Johnny started by stripping the car to its bare-metal shell. He then began planning clever ways to rebuild the Cortina so it could handle serious horsepower while still appearing to be, well, a Cortina.

The build took just under a year, with much of the time devoted to designing, fitting, testing and refitting components into the GT’s close confines. But the meticulous planning, packaging and fabricating paid off. From bottom to top, this Cortina is operating-room sanitary, almost spartan.

Where’s All the Stuff?

Hidden, that’s where. The clean, uncluttered look was driven by Johnny’s “less is more” philosophy.

Under the bonnet, the stroked small-block Ford nestles like it was born there. It looks less squeezed for space than the original four-banger with side-mounted carbs.

The V8 sits as low and far back as possible for more balanced weight distribution. For sufficient ground clearance, this scheme required a shallow oil pan with added sumps on the sides.

Gone are the Cortina’s MacPherson struts, and the clean, fabricated inner fender aprons now hide an oil cooler on the driver’s side, electric water pump on the right, and associated wiring and connectors.

Front suspension is now a Mustang II A-arm setup fabricated to fit the Cortina’s narrow track, complete with rack-and-pinion steering and Wilwood brake system. The rear suspension faced the same track constraints, as the preferred 9-inch Ford axle was far too wide.

Suspension supplier Heidts came to the rescue, fabricating an independent setup that was shortened, braced and linked. Jaguar/Wilwood inboard brakes were also added. To accommodate the wide tires, Johnny cut in a hidden 2-inch section in the fender wells. “Mini-tubs,” he calls them.

To house the Tremec six-speed transmission and driveshaft, he modified the transmission tunnel, although surprisingly the Tremec’s shifter mated up to the original shifter’s location.

A stout six-point roll cage and subframe connectors add rigidity, connecting the front and rear under the car. The first attempt at a brake system was “too much like a race car,” as Johnny puts it, so he installed an effort-reducing remote vacuum booster and accumulator behind a panel in the car’s trunk. The side-exiting exhausts are tucked up under the floor pans to gain adequate road clearance.

Simple Appeals

So far, this Cortina has appeared at last year’s PRI Trade Show, Ray Evernham’s Indianapolis show, several cars-and-coffee gatherings, and a few shows around Atlanta. Everywhere it goes, it’s surrounded by admirers who pepper Jerry with questions, and he’s happy to comply.

When Hawk Performance displayed the car at their PRI stand, it drew so much attention that a Hawk staff member told Jerry, “We had to assign someone to deal with the Cortina questions so we could sell Hawk products.”

Admirers range from hotrodders to vintage car buffs, with the possible exception of those who believe Lotus Cortinas should remain completely stock. For most, however, this classic GT’s appeal goes beyond tiny car, big engine swap.

Subtle enhancements and attention to details–both old and new–give it a personality that’s equal parts hotrod, vintage rally car and sleeping beast. Sure, it’s way over the top, but it doesn’t brag about it.

Racing legend Jim Clark, who competed in the British Saloon Car Championship series early in his stellar career, became known for flinging his Cortina sideways around turns, defying gravity on two wheels. Imagine what he could have done with this one.

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Comments
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gjz30075
gjz30075 HalfDork
12/13/17 6:44 p.m.

I saw this car at the Mitty, and later at our British Car show in Norcross, GA and it's a killer!    Fantastic workmanship.

TreDeuce
TreDeuce New Reader
6/13/20 3:59 a.m.

Had one of these for years as part of my collection and never once thought about putting in a V8, which is kind of surprising for me. My history includes a lot of American V8 to Foreign chassis builds, the first a Ford 260" Sprint engine into a 58' Volvo 544.  the second another 260" Sprint engine into a Bug Eye Sprite. Then a 58' Vette 283" into an A100. more Healey's and other hybrids followed in the 60's and 70's. and then there were 240Z's and Gen-2 RX-7's and Miata's.   Most built for friends.

Today my current project is an LS-400 V8 into a 91' e30/325is. Not the typical American V8 combo, but a sweet and realistic combo for the chassis.  On that subject, does anyone have info on converting to a 5-lug wheel pattern for the E30's.  I may be converting the rear to an E36 rear component assembly with 5-lugs, but I might just keep the stock assembly and drive with restraint so will need 5-lugs on both ends.

The Cortina is one nice and clean build. Sleepers are a lot of 'surprising' fun.

 

 

 

 

mcloud
mcloud New Reader
4/11/21 7:50 p.m.

This Cortina begs for a two-tone paint treatment!  Perhaps a contrasting color in the cove spear, and center part of the wheel.

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