Car Of A Lifetime: 1974 Ford Cortina – Living Beyond the Design Brief

Cortina1-Warragul

When you’re telling a story, they say you should begin at the beginning, go on till you reach the end, then stop. But where is the beginning, when telling of a car you owned for a quarter-century? Does it begin in 1982, when I bought the car? Does it begin in 1976 when I got my licence? Does it begin in 1974, when the car was made? Or does it begin even earlier, when the car in question appeared at the Melbourne Motor Show in 1972 , and a poor but car-mad fifteen-year-old from the wrong part of town eagerly made the round of stands, collecting many (but not all) of the brochures that were to be had? Let’s start our journey there.

 

CortinaBrochures 1

Somehow, when I pored over those brochures in the privacy of my room, I knew that I’d wind up with a TC Cortina someday. I read the specs, sorted my way through the options, and figured out what I wanted, as only a fifteen year old would do. There were lots of really nice colours to choose from, but the plum-coloured XL with gold fender stripes on the brochure cover looked pretty good to me.

CortinaXLInterior

The base L looked a bit barren outside, although the XL’s interior was a bit over the top with all that chrome and woodgrain. Definitely I’d get the big 2000 OHC engine, and a manual. Options? Well….. it’s amazing what you could do with an unlimited theoretical budget!

CortinaBrochure4

Cars were fun in those days. My brochure-fests continued year after year. Ford later upgraded the Cortina with Falcon running gear, but the six had a bad reputation for understeer, whatever that was. I’d stick with the four. They brought out a mini-brougham XLE model – I thought that was just ridiculous. Still, you saw a lot of them around.

CortinaBrochureBack

The later TD facelift with the plain dashboard and plastic grille didn’t look as nice to me, though I liked some of the other changes. The later square-bodied TE just did nothing for me; undoubtedly more modern, it just lacked something – that shape was gone. So I’d have a TC, someday – it looked the best of the lot.

Reality was a bit different. When I got my licence, driving to college was out of the question – battling all that way through traffic, with nowhere to park? Not for me. Melbourne had a good 1920’s tramway service. As a history buff that was fine by me. Trams took me to college, and later to the hospital for work. I could always borrow the family car when I needed to go somewhere the network didn’t service. Dad’s ’67 Falcon wasn’t new, but in my neighbourhood having a family car at all was a plus.

Ford AUS Falcon XR 1967

Borrowing the family car….yes, I reckon we’d all have our tales to tell about that. I didn’t drive a lot, as the car was bigger than I would have liked and parking was always a problem, but there was one day I’d taken the car into the city – I’ve forgotten why. I was driving home down St. Kilda Road in the evening peak hour traffic, revelling in the low-down punch of that 200 inch six and thinking maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. And suddenly the gear linkage jammed, and I was unable to change out of first gear. I limped it along to the next set of traffic lights (fortunately on red), jumped out, opened the hood and wiggled the gear linkage to unjam it. It seemed to take forever, Fortunately other drivers were patient and understanding – young bloke in an old car with problems, the sort of thing you saw all the time. Eventually I got the car moving again, and on the way home the decision was made: I had wrestled with those gears for the last time. I would buy my first car. Of course it would be a Cortina.

Cortinas were quite common on the road in those days, so there wasn’t too much problem finding what I wanted in a used specimen. Most people seemed to go for the six, though I knew from reading road tests that they were heavy on fuel, much the same ‘economy’ as Dad’s Falcon. So, a four. Colour was negotiable, but bright without being too bright. While I liked orange, I couldn’t see myself in an orange car. Green, perhaps. And I’d decided the base L trim level would be sufficient for me.

Cortina7-Batesford Stable

Scanning the ads, I found one that looked likely – a bronze Cortina L with a grey vinyl roof. A test drive around some local streets and cobblestoned lanes proved the car was sound. I became the proud owner of a ’74 Cortina, IAG 132, with allegedly 105,000km on it. Little did I know how long I’d have that car for.

For the first few months I didn’t use it much. I still caught the tram to work, but the weekends saw me going out much more – and having less money as a result, just like Dad had predicted. I soon learnt to moderate my use of the loud pedal.

A trip to the mechanic showed that my car was built in the last few weeks before model changeover. Some TC parts wouldn’t fit; it needed TD ones. The suspension was a mixture of parts from the two models, and so was the interior. The owner’s manual was for the next model. My car had a rear-window demister which wasn’t listed in any brochure I had seen, yet the switch looked to be factory.

The AM radio/cassette player got a workout. It was an aftermarket unit with large round speakers in the front doors. I had to redo the wiring to the speakers soon after getting the car. Remounting the speakers was a yearly ritual, as they were heavy great things and the masonite backing behind the vinyl had crumbled from the weight. Some sheetmetal reinforcement a few years later fixed that.

Cortina3-One Tree Hill

Holidays came – time for the first long roadtrip! I was visiting my parents’ friends in Adelaide. I’d never been there before, but I had a map, a car and a full tank – how hard could it be? Pretty easy, as it turned out. Frank was there to meet me at the end of the freeway, and I followed him to their house, which was my base for the next two weeks as I explored the Adelaide Hills.

Cortina5-Ballarat trip

On the way back I took my time, exploring north-western Victoria. I followed any road that looked interesting, to any place whose name sounded curious. Like Bringalbert South. I never did find out who Albert was, or why someone wanted to bring him south. I found many towns that had fallen into decline – one storefront in Murtoa still had New Year decorations from eight years earlier! But I enjoyed a time I have never forgotten.

Cortina4- Bringalbert South

One memorable night I parked the Cortina by the side of a lake in the middle of nowhere.. I laid the seat back and went to sleep. I woke to a sliver of light on the horizon. “Beauty”, I thought, “I’ll just sit here and watch the sunrise.” But the view seemed to stay the same for an awfully long time, so I turned on the radio – only to find out it was 1:30. I had woken to the streetlights of a nearby town!

Home again, and back to the mundane. I was working as a pathology laboratory technician, and had regular stints of eight weeks of night shift. The Cortina made the trips to work much more comfortable and safer than late-night tram travel from St. Kilda, though I was often a bit sleepy coming home. And the trip was much quicker.

But problems arose. There was this weird intermittent ignition fault – sometimes the car ran beautifully, other times it had a persistent miss. Eventually it refused to start the night I had taken my fiancée into church to finalise arrangements for our forthcoming wedding. 9pm, inner-city car park, and we were the last to leave. Eventually the RACV man got it going, though I had to keep it above half-throttle to stop it stalling, and it kept missing and backfiring something terrible. Eventually it got me home, though I attracted lots of attention. Next morning it had to be towed. The fault was with the coil – and the mechanic swore there was no way I could have driven it home from the city the night before.

I married Jane. She had been brought up with the principle that ‘If you’re going to drive, you have to know how a car works and how to fix it’. From her father I was soon introduced into practical automotive mechanics, assisting in maintenance and servicing of the family fleet. There were limits – ‘Not the automatic; that’s a job for an expert.’ But as my tool collection grew, sometimes my enthusiasm got the better of me. Like the day her engineer brother found me with the Cortina’s Weber stripped down to the last nut and bolt. ‘Even I wouldn’t do that!’, he said. Maybe that was going too far?

Speaking of Webers, the carby continually gave problems during these early years. A rebuild kit (remember those?) didn’t help, but I soon learned my way around a 32/36 DGAV. The accelerator pump was stuffed. I also got acquainted with the local wrecking yards, trying to find a better carby than my own. Eventually I made one good carby from several junk ones. My brother-in-law was heard muttering that there was nothing wrong with my car that twin DCOEs wouldn’t fix. With my budget, that wasn’t happening.

Then the vacuum advance unit came loose from the body of the Lucas distributor, which created infinitely-variable spark timing. Not recommended! A trip to a local race shop resulted in a rebuilt Bosch competition unit for less. Sounded cool when I hit the loud pedal, too.

Tyres were next. I was assured that Kelly-Springfield 185/70R13s were the go for Cortinas, and that they’d fit on the standard rims. They did, and made a huge improvement. An update to Monroe Gas shocks followed, which cured the car’s habit of needing new shocks every year or so. Dad wondered how I wore them out so fast. They also gave much-improved roadholding. Ride? Don’t ask. One out of two ain’t bad!

Cortina2-Great Western

After seven years at the hospital, I heard the call to the ministry. The next three years had me attending classes at the nearby college, and ferrying other students to and fro. The Cortina coped faultlessly with the daily 20km commute during these years, even if it was one of the oldest vehicles in the car park. It also took us on periodical long trips to distant churches that needed a preacher.

During these years our two children arrived. Sometimes it was a bit awkward getting them buckled into the back seat due to the swoopy curve of the window frame, but the Cortina coped well as our second car – and main car once Jane’s Corona died in my final year.

Then we were off to the country. Kerang was in the north of the state, not far from the Murray River, and a five hour drive from our previous home. Not a major tourist destination by any means. The Cortina made the trip faultlessly, and fitted in to the town’s vehicle-scape well. In fact, it looked just like a car one local family had scrapped not long before. I had a few strangers come up and say “I see you got Lorraine’s old car.” I had to say “No, this one’s up from Melbourne.”

It coped well with the long-distance cruising between towns in the north-west, and the occasional visit to Mildura, some four hours downriver. Sometimes, when it reached 40C I wished it had air-conditioning. It was a dry heat though, so I just cruised with the windows and vents open and the fan on flat out. With frequent stops for cool drinks.

Tram2

After a few years we moved to Horsham, further south. Once again long trips took me around the local towns, and there were monthly trips to Melbourne as well. It’s funny how city traffic seems so much worse than you remember after a couple of years away. It was here that I had the driver’s side front floorpan replaced, due to rust-through, and had a stainless-steel exhaust system fitted after the local supplier had trouble sourcing the section needed.

By now the car had racked up some 300,000km, much of it constant speed on country roads. Another move took us to Batesford, a small village outside Geelong. It was by far the smallest place we had lived in, not even having a shop. And our house was at the bottom of a steep-sided river valley, in an 80km/h zone. This was murder on a cold old engine.

Cortina6-Valves

Not long after moving there, several burnt valves led to a reconditioned head, which I had converted to unleaded petrol. The garage scooped metal out of the combustion chambers to lower the compression, then did a port and polish job to restore the performance some. It was great to be able to fill up on the cheaper petrol, and I found that if I filled it with Super, the old girl really flew! Call me a very happy customer.

One memorable day I was taking some other ministers to a meeting in a town an hour away. At one point the road was about to narrow from four lanes to two, and my navigator pointed to the car ahead and said, “Get ahead of him if you can.” Right: back to second gear, floor the accelerator, and we shot past the slowcoach. Graham turned to me and queried, “Is this one a four or a six?” I replied with a smile, “It’s a four, but not as Henry made it.”

By now my Cortina was getting a bit worn. The twenty-year-old respray was starting to fade, and rust was beginning to rear its ugly head in some areas I couldn’t fix. Repair parts were getting harder to source. Once I was asked by a mechanic at Ford just how long I was going to keep this car for. I asked him how a modern FWD small car would handle the rough bush tracks where some of my parishioners lived. He said it wouldn’t cope. “Okay then”, I said, “Keep this one going”.

Then I came down with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and had to give up work at forty. My driving was limited to meeting the kids at the school bus at the end of the street. We moved to Bannockburn, to be in a larger town without the traffic of the city, and closer to the doctor. As my condition improved the kids and I went on ‘road rummages’, exploring the local back roads and fire trails for miles around.

interior

The children grew up, and needed to learn to drive. We needed a manual car to teach them in. This led to the purchase of my second car (COAL forthcoming), which meant the Cortina was mostly retired to the shed. Although she still ran fine, rust was starting to take hold at the base of the passenger-side A-pillar, which was an instant roadworthy fail. Along with various other problems I’d never noticed, until they were pointed out. It’s amazing what you get used to.

I discovered that nobody wanted an old Cortina – not a four, anyway, and certainly not one with 450,000km on the clock. Despite ads in several old car magazines, she remained unsold for several years. Finally she was given away to my son’s friend who needed money to get through college. He got her up and running again (if a bit noisily), and passed her on to a buyer from Bendigo who was going to restore her to her former glory.

Maybe one day I’ll see her again.