Curbside Classic: 1963 Ford Cortina Mk1 – Ford Takes On BMC, And Wins

The story of the British motor industry from the early 1960s can be told through a relatively small number of cars: The ingenuity of the Mini, the spot-on Morris/Austin 1100, the underbaked Austin 1800 Landcrab and Maxi, the slightly complacent Rover 2000 and Triumph 2000, the superb Jaguar E Type and XJ6, the evergreen Land Rover and trend setting Range Rover. All of this was then capped by the creation of BLMC in 1970. While Vauxhall and Rootes played supporting roles, Ford told the rest of the story.

And, arguably, Ford did it with one car, designed in less than two years with a simple configuration and proposition; a car that by 1970 led the sales charts. The Cortina story is essentially simple, but its impact is complex and long reaching. It became the basis for Ford’s dominance of the UK market. This Cortina posted by Benoit at the Cohort ——helps tell that story and fill a CC gap.

Ford in the UK (officially known as Ford of Britain or the Ford Motor Company Limited) was a differently formed creature to the American business. It was only 60% owned by Ford, with 40% publicly traded since its formation in 1928, whereas the American and German businesses were fully held by Ford.

By the 1950s, Ford of Britain was the clear number two to BMC in the UK marke. The company operated the largest car plant in the country, at Dagenham, 10 miles east of central London on the north bank of the Thames estuary, and had spent the previous decade building an infrastructure that could deliver complete locally developed and built vehicles.

The days of scaled down, copied or passed on American designs like the Pilot V8 (left) or the first generation Zephyrs was ending.  Co-operation with other Ford companies in Germany and France was still little to non-existent.

As part of a long term view, Ford had taken over Briggs Bodies’ UK business after Chrysler bought the Briggs US operations, and in 1960 Dearborn bought out the remaining outside investors of Ford of Britain. Armed with a large factory and body building facilities, and backed by Henry Ford II, the scene was set for Ford of Britain to make an aggressive move.

Ford of Britain’s mid-range at the end of the 1950s was actually rather sparse. There was the Ford Anglia 105E, with the distinctive reverse rake rear window and American-inspired styling. This was proving to be a solid competitor to cars such as the Morris Minorl, with over 190,000 produced in 1960.

The larger family car slot was covered by the Consul and the related Zephyr saloons with styling that looked like a 1954 or 1955 US Ford that had been in a hot wash cycle. But the key middle part of the market was proving trickier.

The gap between the Anglia and the Consul was partially plugged with the Consul Classic, a car with styling that proved to be polarising. The Consul Capri coupe was even more so, and both came to the market later than originally intended – 1961 rather than 1958 – and the lack of production capacity over the Anglia maybe wasn’t the only problem.

There was another stimulus – Dearborn had directed Ford of Germany to participate in the development of the Cardinal sub-compact project, from early 1960, and Ford of Britain saw an opportunity. Develop their own car, independent of Dearborn, and get it to the market at least as quickly. What better way to demonstrate to Henry Ford that they could develop a competing car without direct assistance, and that Ford of Britain, which produced perhaps twice the cars of the German business, could and should lead the inevitable future consolidation of Ford in Europe?

As so often, BMC’s odd product planning logic was helping their rivals. BMC had the very compact Mini, and then the dated but popular Morris Minor and the Austin A40 (Farina), both on wheelbases of around 84-86 inches, and then the larger Morris Oxford and Austin Cambridge twins, on a 99 inch wheelbase. It was into this gap that Rootes were selling the Hillman Minx, on a 96 inch wheelbase, but with dating styling and a limited dealer network. Vauxhall’s Viva would eventually be aimed at a similar spot. The open space in the market, with hindsight, looked significant.

Ford of Britain was then under the control of Irishman Patrick Hennessey, a forty year veteran of Ford who did not suffer fools, and who placed the definition of the new car with the head of product planning, Terry Beckett. Beckett was English, and on the fast track in Ford of Britain. The project, in a nod to the Cardinal, was titled Archbishop, not realising that Cardinal was a reference to a bird. Never mind.

More importantly, Beckett established a very tightly costed and controlled programme. From a standing start at the end of 1960, the car was on the market by September 1962, and the project came in under budget. The (maybe apocryphal) tale commonly told is that the steering wheel was re-designed three times to save a few pennies of manufacturing cost. Maybe true, maybe not, but it tells you something about Ford of Britain, Beckett and Hennessey.

Ford had other ideas about cost control, too. If you reduce the quantity of raw material in a car, you can reduce not just the weight but also the cost, and to control the monocoque weight Ford adopted some aircraft techniques for stress engineering, and deliberately employed some aircraft engineers to do it. An all up weight starting at just over 1700lb/787kg was the result – the Minx weighed over 2000lb/900kg.

Otherwise the Cortina was as conservative as you’d expect from a 1950s or 1960s Ford. Built around a wheelbase of 98 inches, so slightly longer than the Minx but less than the BMC Farina and Vauxhall Victor, the Cortina had MacPherson struts at the front and semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear. Driving the rear wheels  through a four speed transmission was an 1198cc version of the long running Kent four cylinder OHV engine, familiar from the Anglia (997cc) and Consul Classic (1340cc and 1500cc). Power was around 48 bhp, and 0-60 was 22 seconds. Not exciting now, but reasonably competitive then.

The Cortina had three other weapons in its armoury. For the price, it was very spacious internally and for luggage, easily matching the nominally larger BMC Farina or Vauxhall Victor. It was terrific value for money, selling in base form for under £600, around £13000 now, and it had up to the minute, style conscious, American influenced styling that didn’t, unlike the Classic and Anglia for example, go too far and jar with the more conservative British tastes.

The Cortina’s styling was by Roy Brown, of Edsel fame, who had been banished to Ford of Britain after the Edsel fiasco. There are traces of the Falcon and other North American Fords, but also a hint of European style as well. New, fresh, contemporary, not polarising, and with some distinctive details such as the side flash and pizza slice rear lights.

I’m not so sure about the Di-noc wood substitute available on the estate though, but maybe that’s just me. Or maybe not.

Inside, the key part of the story was space rather than features. This was a practical family car, designed for the practical uses of such vehicles, by families, travelling sales people, hire firms and dozens of other mundane daily uses, not a car with a wood’n’leather British interior. This added another contrast to the Austin and Morris offers, which had a very conservative presentation. And isn’t Cortina a more glamourous place than Oxford or Cambridge?

1962 was a big year for the British industry. In August, just a few weeks before the Cortina arrived, BMC presented perhaps the best compact car BMC or BLMC ever had – the Morris 1100 (ADO16), seen here with the man whose name was on the front of it.. This was close to two feet shorter than the Cortina, but with comparable interior space albeit a smaller boot. Ride and handling of the Morris were a step ahead too, thanks to the compact transverse engine layout and advanced Hydrolastic suspension. And all this was clothed in a Pininfarina body that may not have had the excitement of the Cortina but had an elegance and aged well over the next 12 years.

I have called it Issigonis’s masterpiece, and while he had his traits and characteristics, I stand by that and by his ingenuity, and the suggestion that this was one of the two or three most technically influential compact cars of the post war years.

Photo from

These two cars went head-to-head in the British market, and many accounts will report that the Morris (with its later Austin twin and other variants) emerged as the winner, being the national best seller for most of its life and at times taking 14% of the market with just one model. Whilst the claim for the ADO16 being a success is undoubtedly correct, we’ll see shortly how this can read a different way.

Photo from

Ford, being Ford, made a better job of the launch of the Cortina than BMC had with the ADO16. Apart from not doing it when most people were thinking about their summer holidays, every Ford dealer in the UK had at least two examples in their showroom. By the new year, over 60,000 had been sold and within a year it was around 250,000, including exports.

In January 1963, Ford stole an even bigger march on BMC. The Cortina Super – a higher trim level that even then was something that Ford were expert at – and the Cortina 1500. The Super built on the rather spartan interior of the original car and the even more spartan Fleet model, and the 1500 Super with 60bhp was a significant step up from the basic 1200. And you just know that many people went shopping for a deluxe and bought a Super, or a 1200 and bought a 1500.  Ford was showing what value for money really looked like.

BMC could offer you an MG 1100, a Riley Kestrel or a Wolseley 1100; none of these had a 1500cc engine or an all-synchromesh gearbox. The Cortina 1500 Super could probably be had for less.

All of these were comprehensively out gunned by the Cortina GT, with 78 bhp and lowered suspension.  It might not have driven quite like an Alfa Romeo Giulia or a BMW 1600, but it was the first of many affordable and very capable fast Fords. This lineage of Fords had a large following, strong image and big impact in Europe, especially the UK, for over 50 years – cars that run from the Escort RS1600, Fiesta XR2, Escort XR3 to the current Fiesta and Focus ST models.  Britain would be a duller place without fast Fords.

Then Colin Chapman of Lotus had an idea. Chapman commissioned Harry Mundy of Coventry Climax fame to develop a version of the Kent engine with a chain driven twin cam 16 valve cylinder head, initially for the Lotus Elan.  Walter Hayes, Ford’s PR chief, persuaded Chapman to build 1000 examples for homologation in the Cortina.

The Lotus Cortina was fitted with aluminium doors, boot lids and bonnets, quarter bumpers, a new coil spring based rear suspension,  a bespoke interior and that timeless white and green paint job. Over the next few years, the car notched up many individual and class wins, and championships in saloon racing. It did a lot for Ford’s image, and not just in Britain. Lotus Cortina still has a cachet, even now, all out of all proportion to 3300 cars.

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