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.
I have been waiting for a good treatment of the Cortina and you did not disappoint.
A MkII Cortina estate (wagon) was probably the only British car that I directly experienced as a kid. During my brief time in scouting (1970-71) my scoutmaster was a high school science teacher and owned a 1969 Cortina wagon. These were briefly popular around that time and I really liked that little car a lot – it appealed to my sense of practicality and minimalism.
Sadly, the little Cortina did not stand up to the rigors of US ownership – or maybe it was just the rigors of ownership by Ted. The car seemed to be held together with spit and bailing wire even when it was 2 years old. One wiper arm was snapped off about an inch from its base, as had the gear shifter. He ignored the wiper but clamped a pair of Vice Grip pliers to the shifter nub, which worked for him. The hydraulic clutch fluid leaked so that after sitting at camp for a week he needed to fill it and pump the clutch pedal about 20 times so that he could drive it. His wife’s 66 Dodge Dart suffered from none of those infirmities.
Your description of how the car was developed answered my questions – weight and cost were the targets, not the kind of robust durability that Americans had become spoiled by at that time. Even so, I loved the styling of these and have maintained a soft spot for them all my life. I watched the British movie Get Carter last weekend and loved watching Michael Caine tooling about in the silver MkII Cortina for much of the story.
105E & 1500 Cortina engines dominated FJ – Formula Junior Open.Wheeler GP style racing for many years, most with Triumph Herald front suspension swivel pins, many with VW gearboxes back to front, crownwheel & pinion upside down, used as transaxles for mid engine mounting. Brian Manton, Melbourne, raced a 105E with an enlarged Cortina engine in modifed sedan classes. He had a knack for boring and stroking, e.g. Australian BMC B Series, standard bore 3″, stroke still 3.5″, siamesed casting of 1&2 3&4 cyls in block, 1622cc as in MGA Mk2, Brian bored and stroked to around 1950cc, raced in Aussie BMC uglified Austin Lancer “Elite” (BLASPHEMY!) with a rear reminiscent of Ford Customline. 105E & Cortina had 8 ports, BMC A & B only 5, restrictive. Still, Mini won Bathurst against V8 behemoths, and as Cortina grew, it took off on “the Mountain”. Now Australia builds no mass production cars.
SORRY! Just saw what Spellchecker did. I typed “Brian SAMSON”, the correct name for a great driver, good guy, and Engineering Wizard of his business MOTOR IMPROVEMENTS just south of the Yarra.
This is *great*—a ton of fascinating information here that this Ford guy never knew.
I only rarely saw these in the U.S., mostly just at the local Ford dealership–but they were intriguing, and I’d love to drive one sometime.
Terrific writeup—your hard work appreciated, Roger Carr!
Great timing! I just finished Graham Robson’s book on Cortinas from 1998 or so, so I have Cortinas on the brain. It’s too bad there aren’t more examples in the U.S.; I love the styling of the Mk1. I’ll occasionally see a Lotus-Cortina at the vintage races, lifting a front wheel, and I saw this neat ’64 Cortina GT parked in the lot at that event a few years back.
This Cortina Estate was also at the races about 10 years ago.
Thanks for taking on this long-neglected subject. I started on it a couple of years ago, but lost the momentum.
It makes for a fascinating contrast to the FWD Cardinal/12M. It’s all backwards; one would assume this very pragmatic RWD car was conceived and designed in Dearborn, and the FWD 12M was designed in the UK, to compete with the FWD Issigonis cars. But no…
It also points up a key issue: competing head to head with a similar format car was not always a good idea. Meaning, there were folks who were inherently attracted to the BMC Issigonis cars, and others who wanted something decidedly different. Ford exploited that perfectly with the Cortina, and it became the formula for all European Fords for quite some time.
It’s a bit analogue to Peugeot and Citroen in France, although the Pug was of a higher class and did have certain qualities that were desired by the French (ride, seats). But it was much more pragmatic than the Citroens.
I am struck by the parallels between the Cortina development program and the original Chevy II. Both put a car on the market in a couple of years, the original offerings were quite basic, and both provided a platform that would be improved, dressed up, made more powerful, etc. as time went on. It appears that the Cortina required more R&D as the Chevy II basically just used off the shelf stuff other than the unibody/subframe structure.
Thanks for a fun article.
Excellent dissertation on a subject that ever car person over here knows of but doesn’t know much about. Lots of good reading material to last for days with the contemporary road tests too, thanks!
Good to see the ‘first generation’ Cortinas getting a good write-up, Roger. For the UK the Ford Cortina truly hit the ‘Goldilocks’ spot in the market. Right size, right style and with agility and performance at a competitive price. Weight reduction was defintiely a significant element as this comparison with the obvious rivals in 1962 shows.
All are 4 door, front engine RWD cars of about the same size except for the old Hillman Minx s.IIIc which is a size smaller but shows its age (introduced in 1956) in how heavy it was.
Good writeup on cars that used to be so common, Yes the old Minxs were built like a tank and heavy very tunable cars engines and good handling but the Cortina was lighter which showed up if you that crashed one The Lotus had lots of alloy parts including the diff housing for even less weight and I suspect a few extra spotwelds in the bodyshell, very collectable cars over here but there arent many left they got souped up and thrashed into the ground by my generation and crashed beyond repair in a lot of cases.
Roger, thank you for this. Would you believe I’ve only see one Cortina in my 40-odd years? It isn’t hard to see why these were so successful in the UK.
Which leads me to something you may appreciate. About a month or so ago I stumbled upon a Ford Consul Mark I which happened to be for sale. It was complete, left-hand drive, and was built after the update to the instrument panel that happened in 1953-ish. Any write-up about it will undoubtedly be less thorough than what you have presented here.
This was a great read.
Sadly you rarely see a Cortina in the UK despite the millions built. Like most mass built Brit cars of the era, most have been scrapped, leaving the odd Cortina Lotus (or a copy). Thanks to Harry Potter, the Anglia has a more visible presence whilst the 50s Zodiac remains a common sight.
I don’t recall seeing any Mark I’s on the road in Northern Quebec in the 60’s or ’70’s, with this example spotted in Picton, Ontario, circa 1990.
looking at that buckled steering wheel this was properly scrapped due to a heavy front end smack.
Mark II in the same wrecking yard….none seen on the roads.
Rear view. I recall seeing a few Mark III’s in the early seventies, but their shelf life in the North was about 5 or so years.
It wasn’t unknown to see quite ratty 5 year old cars over here too. Look at this four year old Mk.2 Cortina photographed in late 1971. I think it may well be on its way to the scrappy in the background. (‘E’ reg makes it Jan-July 1967).
No rust .Wonder why they were scraped ?. Most MK 2 looked worst than this after 5 years in England!.
Minor correction – the Lotus-Ford engine had an 8-valve head, it was Cosworth who subsequently built a 16-valve version.
I remember my sister had a boyfriend in the early 60s who was a sales rep for Heinz, and he had a 2-door 1200 Cortina company car. He would pay me to wash it, and I could sit in it too. The only Mk1 I ever drove was a bench-seat column-change model belonging to a Welsh cousin.
The great thing about early Cortinas was how easy it was to make them go faster. Once the Escort came along, the same mods would give you even more go, and the Cortina was side-tracked from a motorsport perspective.
In the late ’70s I had a mechanic working for me who drove an early Lotus Cortina in racing competition. He ended up destroying the engine thru a lot of hard racing. He managed to shoehorn a Ford 289 V8 with a 3 speed automatic into the Cortina, notably by installing the 289’s radiator ahead of the front body radiator support, instead of behind it. That Cortina was almost unbeatable, and with the right pedal pushed to the floor, it would leave long twin ribbons on the road. I should also point out that the Cortina was his daily driver as well.
Great article. Back then in the 70s we had a Anglia rally car with a 1600 crossflow dropped in. Went very well. Then the wife bought a mark 2 1600 for $750. Easy to work on, Webber carb standard with buckets and 4 on floor. Then I got the 2 litre escort in the 80s which was a real rocket. By now I was recognising a lot of the metal pressing and fittings were so similar across these cars which made design sense.
Mr Carr! I salute you, what a superbly thorough write up. The Cortina story is one I find fascinating, and with which I have personal connections, as my parents had two Mk II Cortinas, then a III, IV and V, before a Sierra and then a Telstar. They’ve been driving Subaru wagons since the 90s though, as the Mondeos started getting too big.
My parents traded their Mk II Consul on their first Mk II Cortina before I was born. It was a 1300, and they traded that on a 1600 after I was born – I have very clear memories of the dash lights on the 1600, I remember my fingers fitted snuggly inside the little chrome ring around each light. My Grandparents also had a Mk II Cortina – red with white interior, quite a glamorous look for a base model with a tiny engine.
Request: Find Mk III, IV and V Cortinas and complete a magnificent write-up on them too!
Dear Mr S
Re your request:
I hope this finds you well, and, perhaps, seated.
Sir Roger will be allowed to complete a magnificent write on the Mk’s 3 and 4, as that is what he does, but I am afraid he cannot include any reference to the abilities of the aforesaid Objects. Pretty they may be, their sproinging springs, their knees-up lack of room, their unintended 4-wheel steering, forgotten dampers, their engine-in-cabin noise levels, their Wizard-of-Oz tornado wind racket (at 60kmh), their Tasman sea body roll (at 50kmh), vague-o-matic-steering (even when parked, and anyway, just how DID they do that with a rack?), their collander-level of water-ingress resistance and their Lucas electrics mean that they cannot be commented upon as cars, as it is clear that the makers never intended them to be used for transport despite selling them as such in the day. He will be permitted, therefore, to do his usual excellent work but confined to the styling only.
I am sure you will understand.
Mr B of CC
I don’t think you’d find any Lucas electrics in a Cortina – by the mid 60s they’d ditched Lucas parts for their own cheaper (Autolite) copies.
Somehow Cortinas were a much better car on one side of the Tasman Sea than the other (the secret was to assemble the UK version rather than Australianise it). My parents had a Mark IV wagon then upgraded to a 1983 Mark V wagon which they kept well into the 1990s. It did get a bit cramped in the back seat for 3 kids as we got older! My father also had a Mark II Cortina when living in the UK which he drove across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa in the early 70s.
Splendid work Roger. I never knew much about them, so this is very welcome and enlightening.
Unlike the Cortina, I remember the Anglia 105E quite well from my early childhood, mainly because of its appearance. My younger brother and I always smiled when we saw one, it looked funny and clownish (to us, anyway).
The ever popular Ford Cortinny, yes they were light the 1200 was gutless even though it was a feather weight car, the 1500 was a huge improvement and the 1500GT engine had bigger valves which helped it go, Lotus Cortinas ruled the racetracks the entire rear axle housing was alluminium to save weight and there were more spotwelds in the body to help with rigidity, worth absolute gold now for a genuine one, but even the common supers are getting good coin for original examples which are fairly rare here many of them got hotted up and crashed in previous years.
Posted car is a mid 64 onwards facelift model vents on the C pillar identify it as a flothru vent model.
What a great write-up, Sir Rog. Thankyou for it. Have an MBE, on the house.
Two thoughts spring to mind.
The Cortina WAS undistinguished as a design, though it has to be noted that their lightweight structures survived just fine on the boneshaker roads of Australia – clearly some clever innovation there, as you mention (the aircraft input). But their very simplicity made them easy to drive, and fun, in ways the Euro (or BMC fwd stuff) wasn’t. A Pug 404, for example, is a vastly better thing, but in cold truth, a ’62 one is a bit of a faff to drive shopping: heavy parking, weird-burger gearchange, lacking in low-speed torque. The Ford? Super-light steering, whippy gearbox on the floor, good low-speed response. Sure, on a long trip it was tiringly vague, poor-ish seats, undergeared and handling a bit wobbly by 60mph, but how much of one’s driving might that be? That ease-of-use factor, plus much better build, is exactly what endeared Japanese cars to folk later on. And at least in this country, the simple, easier-driving Fords also just gave much less trouble than the fancier FWD BMC’s.
Second thought is more visceral. Ford simply had a knack for making good-looking little cars, and, from beginning to end, the Cortina was just that. I’ll not attempt to define it, but they caught it. Really, by, say, 1967, are you really going to buy a Rostyled 1600E or a skinny and mouldy old Oxford Farina? No comparison. And not in the ’70’s either – I mean, a Mk3 Ghia or a bloody Ital? – though I must add the stern rider that, for all the good looks, the Mk’s 3 and 4 are absolutely awful as actual cars!
The Cortina was a good-looker of good value that was easy to drive and that had been costed to the last bean, and even that bean had been divided three ways. Ford couldn’t lose – and with market leadership to this day, they sure didn’t.
Great article! Growing up in Ontario, there were lots of Cortinas around, especially the second series. As a teenager the Lotus was idolized by my friends. I was actually considering a Series 2 GT after I finished university, but it did not happen. I expect that the Canadian market did not get the basic models or the small engines. I did not know that they were available with a column shift and a bench seat.
I would never even noticed these cars except for a next door neighbor with a Lotus Cortina that he doted over. This was 1980. He somewhat influenced me to buy a Mk I Fiesta because of the Kent engine.
Vintage.es has a new collection of ‘posters’ from the 1964 Earls Court Motor Show. BMC, Ford, etc, plus Skoda and Wartburg.
Fine article and well done! It made me a bit nostalgic for the several years I spent with an early 1967 Cortina Mk II GT. I bought it from my former father in law about ’79. It was a bit of second or third car for that family for some years. It was rumored to have had a former owner that did a little gymkhana and hill climb. Early in the ’67 production year they were still using the non crossflow 1500 engine before switching to the crossflow 1600 Kent. It had a factory tubular exhaust and weber carb ( 32/36 dcd?) The engine compression had surely been increased and had very short rear axle gearing. Rumored to be from a Lotus Cortina. Koni shocks. 97 US pump octane was what it demanded. Quite a quick little car for a 1.5 ohv.
I seem to remember that Mercury dealers sold the Cortina in the US. Many parts were immediately in short supply after Ford stopped importing them to the US about ’71. There was a class action lawsuit against Ford for failing to stock parts. I never heard if anything ever came out of that. Some things were easy, like ignition points, since Ford used the 1.6 Kent in the early Pinto. I once successfully ordered a full exhaust system, header back, from the Montgomery Ward’s auto parts catalog. Two months later it showed up having been shipped from Canada. Ford oem and price was very cheap. As for other parts I was occasionally at the mercy of a midwestern Lotus dealer who had seemingly cornered all Cortina body parts and much else. The cost of a taillight lens made my eyes bleed in the early 80’s. Cortina parts at Lotus prices.
On a off-topic sidenote, A “car star” who’s not a Cortina Mk1 or Mk2 but a Mk3 like the one I saw from this clip where a Cortina Mk3 chased a Capri exterpted from an episode of Life on Mars (the original, not the American remake). From what I read on Wikipedia, Ford wanted to use another name than Cortina for the Mk3.
I’m probably mistaken but when I look at these early Cortina’s I see a small distorted Flair Bird. From the headlight and grill treatment to the roof line and rear end detailing.
On 680 north bound past Treat Blvd. October 2021. The first and only Cortina I can ever recall seeing it. Among the sea of cars this was about 100 yards ahead but immediately caught my attention among the sea of similar cars.
I can’t remember ever seeing a Mark I growing up, but I do remember a few Mark IIs, which I thought looked very sharp.
Ford won the product-packaging game in the 60s, especially with engine ranges, which completely upset the +/-1, 1.5, 3.0 litre formula for British small, mid-sized ‘family’, and large/executive cars. Contrast with BMC’s inability to solve for the vital family car market, misfiring with the 1800 and later Maxi, and leaving the Farina sedans to wither on the vine as a result.