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


There was one major facelift of the Cortina Mk1, in 1964. The most significant changes were a new interior with a decent ventilation system, a first for a family car in Europe pretty much, and front disc brakes, which matched the Morris 1100. BMC could not match this pace – it was 1966 before an ADO16 estate was available, 1967 before the two door was available on the mass market brands in the home market and 1968 before it got an all-synchromesh gearbox. I suggest you can thank Alec Issisgonis.

From 1963, Ford of Britain also had the Corsair saloon and estate. If the angular style of the Cortina, with its perhaps dating American references didn’t appeal or wasn’t enough for you, the Vauxhall Victor and Hillman Super Minx were not for you either, perhaps for being a bit of style over substance and the Oxford and Cambridge as just dull and conservative, here was an option that looked modern, not too brash and was definitely a step up from the Cortina.

Given it was effectively, a long wheelbase Cortina, sharing much of the monocoque including the front bulkhead, screen, door frames and (my personal hunch) the rear screen, but with a distinctive and toned interpretation of the bullet Thunderbird’s styling, here was car that captured the glamour part of the 1960s and moved away from the choice between slightly dreary and dated BMC twins, the hard to like Landcrab and less subtle Rootes and Vauxhall products.

The wheelbase was 3 inches longer than the Cortina, and the interior, now significantly spacious, carried through the modern theme. The engines were the 1500cc Kent or, from 1965, a 1553cc 60 degree V4 derived from the Ford of Britain Essex V6 from the Zephyr and later still a 1996cc V4. These V4’s were not great engines, and notably not as smooth as this may suggest, but did you buy a Landcrab or a Super Minx for the engine?

Effectively, Ford through astute product planning, had covered any competition from BMC in the 1200 to 2000 market with two apparently separate cars, which shared a lot under the skin, and which both good volume. The Cortina itself was close to the ADO16 in volume; the Corsair added another 300,000 cars over seven years. perhaps marketing with this guy helped?

What Ford had successfully done was to get a foothold and then prepare to dominate the UK fleet market. This covered not just the daily hire (rental) fleet and utility service fleets, but crucially also the large company fleet and the special British thing of the company car, a car presented to an employee for his (usually in 1966) business use and for weekend duties as well.

There were several factors – it was a conservative market, favouring familiar simplicity over BMC‘s perceived front wheel drive complexity and higher maintenance costs, carrying capacity for the sales guys’ samples was important, being British still counted, and perhaps the point Ford got more than any competitor was clear and accessible hierarchy of options and trim levels. There were trim levels on a Farina or Super Minx, unless you opted for another brand name, nor engine options. A Cortina 1500 Super was clearly ahead of a Cortina 1200 deluxe, but a purchasing and maintenance deal could still be done, and backed by decent resale credibility. The area manager could have a Corsair, the director a Zephyr and the Chairman a Zodiac.

This pattern continued for perhaps 40 years, before tightening taxation rules, wider choice in a growing market and increasing user choice eroded the dominance. Cars like the Morris Marina, Hillman Avenger (Plymouth Cricket), Austin Montego, Rover 800, Vauxhall Cavalier and Astra and, increasingly, imported brands all targeted this sector, which accounted for perhaps half the market at its peak.

Sales wise, the ADO16 might have edged the Cortina in the home market, but by production volume Ford were pulling ahead, and starting to stretch ahead of BMC.

1966 made this emphatic with the Cortina Mk2. This was not just a gentle facelift or new interior – this was a complete reskin but a very accomplished one, keeping a fashionable, contemporary shape with some North American influences, but also adding some extra width for more space, larger entry level engines (1300 instead of 1200), an extensive range of trim levels and two or four door options, or an estate. All this in an area of the market where all BMC could offer was the larger, heavier, more expensive Landcrab or the very dated Farina saloon. In 1968, BLMC added the Austin Maxi to their range, with limited success.

The Cortina Mk2 also marked the entry of the cross-flow version of the overhead valve pushrod Kent engine. The Kent, so named as it is the county across the River Thames from Dagenham in Essex, originally had the inlet and exhaust side by side but the 1967 development saw a Heron type cylinder head with the combustion chambers in the piston bowls, and power was now up to 88bhp. This engine was also used on some entry level versions of the Ford Pinto in 1971-3.

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