In 1945, young Henry Ford II was handed the keys to the empire that his grandfather built (and nearly ran out of business, twice). With the help of a handful of Ivy Leaguers known as the “Whiz Kids,” Henry the Deuce spent the better part of the 1950s restoring the rickety Ford Motor Company to health. But as the 1960s began, he was seeking to expand its footprint by moving the once staid family business into the glamorous world of international motorsports. While muscle would largely define Ford’s efforts in America, among the unlikely confections that would spring from its “Total Performance” marketing directive was a landmark machine launched by Ford of England: the 1963 Cortina-Lotus.
The car that Jim Clark (and others) made famous on the circuits of Europe was one of the first great “race on Sunday, commute on Monday” factory specials. The search for performance inevitably brought Henry II, a long-standing Anglophile, to England, where some of the great racing cars of the day were being engineered and built. There, in 1962, he hired Walter Hayes, a Fleet Street journalist, to help lead the charge. Hayes knew Lotus founder Colin Chapman, and he knew that Lotus was getting ready to introduce its groundbreaking Elan. Ford’s new Kent four-cylinder was slated for that car, complete with an exciting twin-cam head designed by engineer Harry Mundy, technical editor of Autocar.
Although there was already a GT version on the boards, Hayes had an idea. By hasty agreement with Chapman, the new Lotus/Ford engine would also be offered in Ford of England’s new mass-market offering, the Consul Cortina (the Consul name would soon be dropped), as an even higher-performance variant than the GT. Born after just six months’ gestation, the 1820-pound Cortina-Lotus (or Lotus Cortina, as it became known) handled brilliantly and delivered unheard-of acceleration from a mere 1558 cubic centimeters: 60 mph arrived from rest in less than ten seconds. Hayes had it in mind that 1000 examples of the car would be built to enable Group 2 touring car homologation. Being an accomplished rule-bender, Chapman overcame this legal hurdle before Lotus had even built one-fourth of the required cars. A grand total of 2894 examples were completed before the dawn of the 1967 model year.
Much the way it managed its contemporaneous relationship with Carroll Shelby, Ford initially had Lotus assemble its sporting Cortina remotely. Strengthened two-door body shells were delivered to Lotus and were then treated to the DOHC engine and an extraordinarily deep massage: hood, trunk, and door panels rendered in aluminum; lowered front and Chapman-designed rear suspensions; upgraded braking systems, instrumentation, and close-ratio transmissions; wider wheels; and wooden steering wheels were all standard. Save for a few racing cars finished in red, each was white with a green flash on either side.
In 1965, the Lotus Cortina lost its coil-sprung rear suspension in favor of the Cortina GT‘s conventional leaf-spring arrangement, which was cheaper, quieter, and substantially more robust. That change notwithstanding, the little Ford continued gobbling up the silver, winning touring car championships left and right, to become the dominant racing sedan of the 1960s until the Alfa Romeo GTA came along.
The 1963 Lotus Cortina that I imported from England (Mark I Lotus Cortinas were officially sold in the United States only in 1966) is an early production example that retains all of the Chapmanian oddities, including the live-axle, coil-sprung rear suspension, which is indeed noisy and scary to contemplate (they were not above failing spectacularly in competition use). But they certainly give this road car a racy feel.
In absolute terms, and especially when compared with the Mark II Lotus Cortina that I also own, this is an intense machine whose racing mission is always evident. It feels only half a step removed from a purpose-built competition machine, despite the provision of luxuries like a heater/defroster and rubber floor coverings. It corners flatter than anything you’ll have driven on the road, with lightning-quick turn-in. The gearing is low, and the sound of thirsty Webers sucking air and fuel competes with tire, engine, gear, suspension, and wind noise to cacophonous effect. But on the right road it’s as good a thing as there ever was, a car that demands to be revved hard and chucked into bends with gusto. It willingly lifts a front wheel when cornering in extremis – just like the old pictures show – and it looks great, even when it’s standing still. A big trunk, upright seating for four, and a panoramic outward view mean that it makes more practical transportation than many of the more overtly sporting machines it can often outrun.
As much a Lotus as it is a Ford, the Cortina suitably carries a bit of baggage: it’s not a question of “if” an early Cortina-Lotus is going to break but rather “when.” Yet the granddaddy of the and the Evolution has no apologizing to do. Total performance is a total defense.
Years produced 1963-1966
Number produced 2894
Original price $3420 (1966, U.S. market)
Value today $20,000-$150,000 (road cars)
Sporting bona fides are substantial, a finite number were built, and the prices of original cars with provenance or, better still, period racing history are increasing at a giddy clip. They aren’t cheap anymore, but they’re not going to get any cheaper. Be careful, as the reward for building a Lotus Cortina replica out of lesser Cortinas is more attractive than ever (and not such a bad idea if you’re on a budget and remember to be honest about it).