Lotus Cortina | From sedate sedan to lethal track weapon

Photography by Don Weberg • Insert Courtesy Ford

[Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Story by Don Weberg

Ah, the 1960s. The Packers nabbed the first-ever Super Bowl title, hips across America were shimmying to “Twist and Shout,” and political rebellion was the word of the day. On the automotive front, Ford was dominant in just about every possible arena.

The brand’s Jekyll and Hyde car, the Galaxie 500/XL, was one of the most intimidating race cars ever, yet in stock form it was highly appointed, luxurious and allegedly quieter than a Rolls-Royce. Ford also released the Mustang during the decade as well, totally shifting the mindset of the automobile industry.

Ford was also heavily invested in racing programs. From Indy to Daytona, Sebring to Le Mans, and countless club racing tracks in between, Ford called the shots. They used reports of their on-track capability as part of a 1960s advertising campaign called Total Performance. 

While the goal of Total Performance was to push sales of Ford street cars, one could argue that the campaign had its roots in a model tuned by another manufacturer: the Lotus Cortina.

Magic Beans

During the early part of the 1960s, Ford of England had established itself as a manufacturer of truly fine cars. People wanted Fords. However, the manufacturer’s offerings were a touch stodgy, and a new generation wanted modern styling, zippy performance and low prices. The company delivered, and the Cortina was the tip of the spear.

Initially known to English Ford insiders as the Archbishop, this car was completely styled in about nine months. Using a host of existing parts cut costs and saved time. 

The new car would be publicly named Cortina in honor of the Italian venue for the 1956 Winter Olympics, Cortina di Ampezzo. Ford Chairman Patrick Hennessey had suggested it be called Caprino after the city in northern Italy, but after rumors circulated that the word translated to “goat dung,” it was dropped. 

Production of the Cortina De Luxe began in June 1962, and by September cars were hitting showrooms around Britain. It was an instant hit: Within three months, more than 60,000 units had been sold.

Ford fit the Cortina De Luxe with a 1198cc inline-four based on the tried-and-true 1-liter Kent engine. The redesigned lump produced about 50 horsepower and allowed for a respectable 29 miles per gallon. Top speed was just shy of 80 mph, and zero to 60 took about 23 seconds.

The car wasn’t a rocket, but handling was crisp, braking was decent, and all things told, it was the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. It even had a useful back seat and trunk. 

People knew there was more to be had from this little car, and Ford proved it in January 1963. A robust, five-bearing, 59-horsepower 1498cc engine was offered as an option, creating the Cortina Super. This new package also received a four-speed manual transmission plus a heater, windshield washer, additional chrome trim and more supportive seats. Performance improved, but not in strides. 

In late January, Ford introduced a higher-compression 1500cc engine, creating the Cortina GT in the process. This model performed exceptionally well, but something even better arrived that same month: a Lotus-tuned version, the little car that truly kicked off the Total Performance campaign.

I Smell the Blood of an Englishman

The Lotus Cortina didn’t happen by accident. Walter Hayes, Ford of Britain’s public affairs chief, was friends with Lotus head Colin Chapman. The successful Lotus Elan already used Ford’s 1.5-liter block, but it was the trick twin-cam head that awoke the potential within. 

Hayes wanted to take the Cortina racing in Group 2, so he approached Chapman with an idea: What if Lotus engineered 1000 tweaked Cortinas? The arrangement meant cash flow for Lotus and gave Ford a streetable race car. Both companies would build on their reputations. 

An agreement was struck, and Ford delivered Ermine White Cortinas—sans running gear, interior and proper suspension—from their plant in Dagenham to the Lotus factory in Cheshunt. Work quickly began on the Lotus Cortina, known then as Type 28. 

Chapman had a plan: Modify the steering, suspension and brakes while adding stiffening braces. To help weight distribution, the spare tire would be relocated to the trunk floor; the battery would keep it company. 

Chapman also planned to add lightness by replacing the steel trunk lid, hood and door skins with aluminum pieces. (Oddly, the finished Lotus Cortina still weighed 150 pounds more than a standard Cortina.) 

Of course, the heart and soul of Type 28 would be its twin-cam engine—originally built by Ford, modified by Lotus, and proved in the Elan. Harry Mundy, whose credits include designing engines for BRM and Coventry Climax as well as assisting in the development of the Jaguar V12, engineered the Lotus modifications. The block was bored to 1558cc and topped with a twin-cam aluminum head fed by twin two-barrel Weber 40DCOE carbs. The rev limit was 6500 rpm.

The twin-cam Lotus engine that worked so well in the Elan was used again in the Cortina. It produced a stout 105 horsepower with the help of dual overhead camshafts.

The Lotus Cortina originally also borrowed the Elan’s gearbox, but this eventually changed—the Cortina’s specs rarely sat still. (In fact, at some point the aluminum skins became optional, and the floor-mounted tire was put back behind the left wheel arch.)

The Lotus-tuned Cortina boasted 105 ponies at 5500 rpm and 108 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. Performance was definitely better than that of the standard-issue Cortinas, as this one could reach 60 mph in 10.5 seconds. Top speed was 106 mph. The Lotus Cortina could also achieve 18 to 24 miles per gallon, assuming it was driven responsibly.

To ensure the car was glued to the road, the suspension was also extensively modified. Out back, the original Lotus Cortinas featured coil springs on a live axle plus a single-piece drive shaft and A-brackets that linked the aluminum differential housing to the body. 

This design placed a lot of stress on the differential, however, and eventually bolts loosened, oil leaked and gears shredded. Bushing problems also appeared that allowed the rear ends to collapse. 

A two-piece drive shaft was introduced in July 1964, and the alloy case became optional. By June 1965, the entire rear suspension was replaced with the standard Cortina setup, which featured half-elliptical leaf springs and twin radius arms. 

The front suspension used a simple MacPherson strut design fitted with a massive anti-roll bar. Overall, the Lotus Cortina was much lower than the standard Cortina; in fact, the trunk floor was modified to accommodate the rear suspension and axle. The result was a stiffer ride as well as tauter, more predictable handling. Large Girling 9.5-inch front discs (9.75-inch on later cars) and 9-inch rear drums provided race-worthy stopping power.

The Lotus Cortina’s interior had a luxurious feel, something unusual for Lotus at the time. Adding to the Cortina’s snugness were well-padded competition seats, a cushioned console with storage box, a wood gear knob and steering wheel, aluminum appointments and handsome carpets. The panels fit well and featured uniform gapping—even the windows rolled up and down smoothly. Interior noise levels weren’t obtrusive, but rather just right. 

Lotus sprayed a Sherwood Green “flash” along the body and across the rear end before adorning each rear flank with a Lotus badge and calling it a day. It was truly a well-made, solid car that was fun to drive. Its price reflected that fact: When the car became available in the United States in 1965, $3420 drove it off the lot. For better or worse, buyers of the time could get a nicely equipped, V8-powered muscle car for the same money.

In that marketplace, the Lotus Cortina supplanted the BMC Mini, and on the track it quickly established itself as the car to have. Lotus Cortinas were driven on tracks around the globe by seriously talented drivers such as Vic Elford, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Mike Beckwith and Alan Mann. The model’s first race was the Oulton Park Gold Cup in September 1963, where Lotus Cortinas finished third and fourth. Ford Galaxies driven by Dan Gurney and Graham Hill took the top two places, but the Cortinas beat the formerly dominant 3.8-liter Jaguars. 

Lotus Cortinas also brought home a one-two victory in the Motor Six Hour International Touring Car Race at Brands Hatch, took fourth outright in the 4000-mile, 10-day Tour de France, and proved well in the British Racing & Sports Car Club Championship, Swedish Ice Championship, South African National Saloon Championship, and Wills Six-Hour in New Zealand, to name a few. These cars quickly became known as the giant-killers.

Down the Beanstalk

While Lotus needed to assemble just 1000 cars to satisfy the racing regs, it’s reported that 2894 Mk I Type 28s were built. Although this was many more than originally anticipated, the number was still tiny enough to make these cars highly desirable to collectors. 

The ones with racing history can be especially appealing: At the Bonhams Olympia Auction on December 3, 2007, an original Team Lotus Lotus Cortina piloted by racing legends Jim Clark, Sir John Whitmore and Jack Sears in 1965 sold for $281,808. While this amount was higher than market value, it serves as a very interesting testament to the following these cars have gained. 

For sports car enthusiast Dave Steel, the Lotus Cortina represents one of those must-have cars from his youth. “As a kid I would go to Riverside Raceway, and I noticed a lot of the race drivers drove Alfa Veloces or Lotus Cortinas to the track,” he says. “I wanted to drive what the racers drove.”

By the time the Lotus Cortina was made available to North American enthusiasts in 1965, the model had been overshadowed by the more muscular Ford Mustang in the eyes of many. It’s a shame, since the little Cortina offered scorching performance—and had the badges to prove it.

That early impression has stayed with him for many years, and he finally acquired his own Lotus Cortina a few years ago. Fresh from a total restoration, his 1966 Lotus Cortina has been brought back to original factory specs—down to the Ford hammertone blue color adorning the cam covers and Lucas battery. 

The car sports a few period-correct upgrades, too, including special Lucas Flamethrower headlights. The original-style new Michelin XAS tires also sport the appropriate vintage look. “The cars came new with Dunlops, but the XAS was an alternative,” he says. “The Lucas Flamethrowers are amazing; I never have a lack of light.”

Interestingly, for a man who owns a number of Italian exotics and oddballs, Dave notes that the Cortina has been one of the most approachable cars he’s owned. People from all walks of life ask him questions about the car. They aren’t intimidated by it, as they can be with the Ferraris.

“People seem to want to act like they know something about Ferraris,” he explains. “It’s like they’re embarrassed to not know everything about those cars, so they’re afraid to ask questions. Not so with the Cortina.”

A perfect example comes from Raffi Najarian, Dave’s mechanic who restored the Cortina and once had it in San Francisco for a week. Within that time, three notes turned up on the car from people interested in buying it.

“This car relates to a lot of people,” Dave adds. “Many women have told me how cute the car is, and I never thought I’d say this, but it’s more of a babe magnet than the Ferraris! Young people like it because it looks like it was lowered, and it wasn’t; they love the hubcaps on the wheels, the lack of chrome, the stripe, the gauges and steering wheel.”

Despite its ability to attract attention, the Lotus Cortina never sold well in the United States. The Mustang was tough competition—it cost a thousand dollars less and had more cylinders. Ford salesmen and mechanics often didn’t understand the Lotus Cortina: Was it a Ford or a Lotus? Were parts available? Who would service the car? 

“They say about 200 were brought to the United States, but I think that’s optimistic,” Dave explains. “They only really appealed to guys who like to run at 7000 rpm.”

For those who seek one, Dave has some advice: Watch out for rust and serious body damage. Also, the parts fetch nearly stratospheric prices, meaning that buying a complete, finished example might be wiser than taking on a restoration project.

“The steering wheel in that car can cost up to $3000, the pot metal surrounding the taillights cost me $250, and if you want a limited-slip differential, it’ll easily exceed $4500,” he explains. 

Nevertheless, Dave says that the car is worth the price of admission. “It’s extremely well balanced,” he continues. “The Cortina tenaciously holds a line in a curve, and you really don’t feel the lean that so many pictures of these cars exhibit.”

Dave also expects demand to continue to rise: “I think they’ll only go up in value, and you’ll be the only one on your block to have one—even if your block is the size of Kansas.”

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paulhaney New Reader
7/7/22 1:29 p.m.

With a new wife and an ME degree I moved to SoCal in early 1967. A few years earlier I owned an Austin-Healey 100 for a while. Ford couldn't sell the Lotus Cortina at $3500 so they let the dealers offer them at $2700. I bought one. It was fun to drive and the freeway offramps became test corners. I drove it to Riverside and Willow Springs to spectate at races. The distributor was fragile and adjusting the valves was a pain for a nonpatient person. One of the cam bearing bolts broke off in the head but the engine didn't seem to care. The Webers are complicated but except for replacing leaking floats didn't need much attention. The gas tank was very small so I had a bigger one welded up in aluminum. Had to cut a bigger hole in the trunk. My experience with that engine helped 20 years later when I bought a '69 Lotus Elan +2. I did SCCA drivers school at Sears Point in that car and competed in Solo 1 for several years while driving it daily. Alas I got run into on the street and the car was totaled.

joeymec New Reader
1/1/23 2:48 p.m.

In the early 70's my neighbor had a 67 Lotus Cortina.  The body was banged up but it went like heck!!  My brother and I had between us 5 Lotus Elans and a +2, so.........  It was so great to see the Lotus badge on one of those gawky Cortinas.   You know there was an animal under that humble skin.  Great memories of days of simple vehicles with a heart!!

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