Carshow Classic: 1975 Ford Cortina 1600XL – The Swiss Army Knife Car

 1975 Ford Cortina XL_1

(first posted 2/1/2014)    The Ford Cortina Mk3 enjoyed a high profile. It was a commercial success with a strong following across a huge range of buyers. It was the automotive Swiss Army knife: there was something in the Cortina’s armoury for every purpose.

Need a car to carry a family of four or five on holiday? Try a 1600L saloon.

Ford UK Cortina Mk3 estate

Need some space for kids and dogs and everything else–look at a 1600L estate.

A car to run three or four growing kids to school and all the other day-to-day stuff? A 1300 saloon should do, and it’ll be able to get you to Grandma’s at the weekend too, no problem.

A rising profile in sales and marketing for widgets? A 1600XL saloon should be offered. Big widgets you say? Then a 1600XL estate. Heavy widgets? A 2000L estate.

 1975 FordCortina XL_6

Need to show you’re at the edge of style and fashion, that you know where taste is going? 1600XL saloon, perhaps with metallic paint or in a 1970s bright colour?

Had enough of the same old from BMC? Well, a 1600L saloon is what your Morris Oxford should have been by now.

Had enough of BMC’s quality issues? Try a 2000XL, with the unstressed engine.

Small children? Well, they don’t mix that well with rear doors but they’ll always bend as necessary–a 1300 2-door saloon sounds ideal.

A sports profile but you need a decent boot space or space for the kids at the weekend? A 2000GT saloon, 2 or 4 door would do–think of it as a Capri with a decent back seat.

Just made it to senior management level? A 2000GXL saloon with every luxury offered by a Triumph 2000 or Rover 2000 but with a big cost saving.

Ford Escort now too small for you and yours? A 1300L saloon will tell the neighbours you’re doing OK as well.

Want to move down from the dated and heavy Zodiac or Austin Westminster? Again, 2000GXL will have all you’re used to, and you’ll save a lot of fuel.

1975 FordCortina XL_3

Running a taxi business with airport runs? Need a lot of space and capacity for people? A 2000 estate with taxi pack and strengthened rear suspension.

Police car, capable of taking some stick from the Bobbies and their passengers? 2000 saloon, with police kit.

Undercover policeman? Nothing is more anonymous than Britain’s best selling car in a discreet colour.

Cortina ad 1971

Hire car business? Well, no one is going to go away because they’re cautious of driving a Cortina, or unsure of the impression they’ll make. It’s not a Renault 16, after all.

Want something a bit different to everyone else? Check out the option packs–vinyl roof, wheels, fog lights, a radio, a better radio, an eight track stereo, metallic paint.

Even more distinction? Look into the specialist Ford X-pack range? Upgrade your brakes, suspension, wheels, engine (in that order, I suggest).

You like your car but can afford a bit more this time – trade it up for 1600 or a 2000, L to XL, XL to GXL, the Mk4 will have a V6 option soon

A failed computer expert who is hired as a local radio station’s crime investigator? A red 1600L estate is the obvious choice

OK, a little bit of fun there, but I think you get the idea.


The Cortina originally appeared in 1962 at the same time as the Morris 1100 (ADO16), and although it was not a direct response to the ADO16, the two can be looked at together. The Ford was a little larger, had a bigger boot, a range of engine options (1200 and 1500 cc) and body styles (2 door, 4 door and an estate). It was as conventional as the Morris was unconventional, with four-cylinder OHV engines, four speed gearbox, leaf sprung rear suspension and contemporary style by Roy Brown, of Edsel fame (or infamy).

The Morris had, of course, the BMC/Issigonis transverse engine, front wheel drive, hydrolastic suspension and Pininfarina styling. Partly it was a choice between front wheel or rear wheel drive, modern or conventional, comfort or a big boot. Fleet buyers preferred the Cortina, partly because of the perception of increased maintenance costs for the Morris.

 Ford Cortina Mk 1 estate

The product planning and costing of the Cortina was completed meticulously, by a team led by product planner Terry Beckett, which highlights another difference between Ford and BMC. Legend has it that the steering wheel was redesigned three times to reduce manufacturing costs by a few pennies. Beckett also led the team that tore down and discovered that the Mini cost £50 (or 10%) more than BMC were charging for it. Cortina production was at Ford’s historic Dagenham plant.


Ford struck lucky with a certain Colin Chapman, who was looking for an engine to power his own lightweight sports car, and asked Harry Mundy of Autocar to design a twin-cam version of the Ford Kent engine, used in the first Cortinas. The car was the Lotus 23, raced by Jim Clark (it gets no better than that, a fact!) and the engine soon appeared also in the Lotus Elan. Ford perked their ears up, realised what had happened, and put 1000 of the engines into Cortinas. The Lotus Cortina was born, and with it the start of 50 years, and counting, of class leading fast Fords, right up to the Fiesta and Focus ST models of today. Nothing else offered in the UK for the money could match the performance or the image.

 1968 Ford Cosair

The Cortina range was supported by the Ford Corsair from 1964–sold above the Cortina with 1500–and by 1966, was aided by 1600cc, and 2000cc engines, and attractive but unusual styling, allegedly based on the Ford Thunderbird. The V4 engines used in the 1600 and 2000 versions were British Ford engines and not the same as the German Ford V4s used in the Ford Taunus. The British engine was related to the 3-litre Essex V6 used in the Ford Zodiac and later the European Granada, and was also used for various other British Fords, including the first Transit vans. The Corsair was offered as a 2-door, a 4-door and as an estate, albeit with an emphasis on style rather than space.

 1968 Ford Cortina Mk2

Ford replaced the Mk1 Cortina with the related but completely restyled Mk2 in 1966.  Again, it was offered with 1200cc, 1300cc and 1600cc engines, contemporary styling (very similar to the 1966 Hillman Minx incidentally) and a range of engines, body styles and options.

Ford Cortina 1600E

One key image building variant was the Cortina 1600E from 1967 – it combined the lowered suspension of the Lotus Cortina, visually very effective in its own right, with extra trim including burr walnut wood effect dash and doors, additional instrumentation, fog lights and Rostyle wheels (which deserve a CC of their own). In hindsight, this was the first inkling that the Cortina and Corsair were on path of convergence.

1975 FordCortina XL_4

The 1970 Mk3 Cortina was a step up from here, though. Not only was it larger than the Mk2, it offered 2 litre engines, four-link coil sprung rear suspension, the full-on 1970 Coke-bottle style, and was clearly aimed at a market above where the ADO16, the Cortina’s initial rival, had sit. The ADO16 was in exactly the same place it had always been, as the only development it had had in eight years was a 1300cc engine, more badge engineering, and an all-synchromesh gearbox in 1968. But it was still Britain’s best selling car.

Ford Taunus L, "Knudsen", 1970-1976

In the background, Ford was consolidating its European operations, a single entity with a single range of cars and vans. By 1970, we already had the Transit van, the first Escort and the Capri, and quietly we had now a pan-European mid-range car. The Cortina shared much under the skin with the German Ford Taunus (above), with a common floor pan and drive train as well as a clear visual relationship, although the Taunus had less of the American-influenced Coke-bottle hips. It doesn’t take long to look at the cars and see common key features, such as the windscreen.

Taunus TC Coupe

The Taunus was also available as a Coupe, unlike the Cortina. Engines were a mixture of older British Ford OHV and European versions of the Pinto OHC four cylinder. At fourteen feet, it was no longer than the MK2, but it was four inches wider, with a 101 inch wheelbase–making it the largest in its class on the Continent.

1975 FordCortina XL_7

Ford did something else to position the new Cortina in the market–not only did it replace the Cortina Mk2 but it also replaced the Corsair range entirely. All these moves assisted Ford in many complimentary ways: pan European volumes of scale on the engine and structure, the consolidation of UK production in just one plant, Dagenham, whereas the Corsair had been built at Halewood in Liverpool, and the ability to entice the prospective buyer of a Cortina 1600L with an XL package, a GT, a 2-litre engine or an options package.

1973 Ford Cortina L 

 All these paid off for Ford. After production and labour issues in early 1971 cost sales, the car was the UK’s best seller from 1972 to 1976. A facelift with a new interior, the usual trim and grille changes and some new model designations came in 1973.

Ford Cortina mk4

The feature coke bottle styling remained until 1976, when Ford offered the Cortina Mk4, this time a direct twin with the Taunus, with strong contemporary style and huge range of models, engines and options, including for the first time, the Ghia badge and the Cologne 2.3 litre V6.

 1980 Ford Cortna Ghia

There was another re-skin in1979, to create the Cortina 80, or Mk5 as most people refer to it, again matching the Taunus. Bigger windows, a higher roof line, new front and rear lights, and another dusting of equipment kept the Cortina at the top. By the early 80s, though, the Cortina was now feeling some heat, from the Vauxhall Cavalier, particularly the 1981 J-car Mk2, and the Japanese competition for private buyers. So in 1982, the Cortina was finally succeeded by the European-wide Ford Sierra. But, from 1966 to 1982, the Cortina was Britain’s best or second best selling car.

The key fact to take away from the Cortina story is not a pure car fact, but a fact about consumer goods generally. Success can be achieved not by providing what the market can afford and buys now, but by offering what the market aspires to afford. In 1967, many private owners wanted a Triumph 2000 or Rover 2000 but couldn’t afford one. Company car drivers got what they were given, but still wanted difference and recognition. A Cortina 1600E was a pretty good answer to both needs and in 1973, there was a 2000E to upgrade to.

So, to come full circle, the Cortina Mk1 was a product planning response to the aspirations of the early 1960s; customers stuck with it as it moved upmarket through the 1960s and 1970s to the end of nameplate in 1982, by which time having a Cortina 2000 Ghia on the drive, whether you paid for it or your employer paid it, marked you as an achiever. A bit like a Rover 2000 would have done in 1964. No wonder that by 1978, Sir Terence Beckett KBE, was both Chairman of Ford of Britain and Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry.

Ford Cortina 2000E advert

As an aside, product planning to this level was something few, if any, of Ford’s European competitors achieved. For example, in 1967, BMC enticed Roy Haynes, the lead designer on the Cortina Mk2 to join them to lead the development of a Cortina competitor. The resulting Morris Marina of 1971 was an almost direct competitor to the Cortina Mk2, not the wider, longer wheelbase, 1300 to 2000cc Cortina Mk3. Similarly, the Vauxhall Cavalier/Opel Ascona B of 1975 had a shorter wheelbase than the Cortina and Taunus. It was as if Ford’s success deterred competitors from fully competing, instead choosing to find a niche between the Escort and Cortina, or Cortina and Capri. In terms of volume, they all lost.