Review and road test of the Ford Cortina (1962 - 1982)
A NATIONAL INSTITUTION
BY ANDREW ENRIGHT
Although many malign the Ford Cortina, history will judge it in a different light. Launched on September 21, 1962, the Cortina cost £573 in standard 1200 saloon guise and became an instant bestseller. It enjoyed a 20-year career in which 4.3-million examples were produced. The last Cortina was assembled in July 1982, and was succeeded by the Sierra, at which time the entry-level model was priced at £4,515.
The Cortina was so successful and so different from other cars in the industry that in Britain it inspired what became known as 'the Cortina class'. Once established, at times one in every six cars being built in the UK was a Cortina. Along with the parallel success of the Escort from 1968, this helped Ford gain market leadership in Britain, which it has now maintained for more than 25 years. In 20 years, four distinctly different generations of Cortina were put on the market - each of them selling more than a million examples around the world.
Although the Cortina is often viewed as something of a figure of fun, it has become an integral and important part of British motoring history and the rarer models are increasingly collectable.
(2dr, 4dr Saloon, 5dr Estate)MK 1 (1962-1966), MK 2 (1966-1970), MK 3 (1970-1976), MK 4 (1976 -1980), MK 5 (1980-1982)
Only 21 months after the original body style had been approved, the first Cortina production car rolled off the new assembly line at Dagenham, in Essex. By the time the Cortina was revealed on September 21, 1962, four different 1.2-litre types were already in the showrooms - two-door and four-door saloons, to Standard and De Luxe specification with a choice of central floor-mounted or steering column gearchange controls. No fewer than 67,050 cars were produced before the end of that year,
Over the next few months, several important derivatives were added to the range. In January 1963 the more completely equipped 1.5-litre Cortina Super was announced, a roomy and practical estate car appeared in March, and in April the sporting 78bhp/1.5-litre Cortina GT was added to the range. In the meantime the specialised Lotus-Cortina - a two-door saloon which not only featured a 105bhp/twin-overhead-camshaft engine, and coil spring rear suspension, but many light-alloy body panels - had already been previewed. Deliveries of this type, which was intended for motorsport use, began during the spring, with the first racing successes following in September.
In the next three years there was continuous change and improvement. 1964 models featured a new instrument panel layout, Borg Warner automatic transmission became optional in 1.5-litre models, then for 1965 the company introduced the important innovation, of Aeroflow (through-flow) cabin ventilation. The sensational Lotus-Cortina was given new-type leaf-spring rear suspension in mid-1965. By the summer of 1966, the Cortina had earned more than £250 million in export sales, and the millionth car was built. Then, in October 1966, a new-shape Cortina, the Mk II, took over. Using the same basic platform and running gear, there was a completely new body style. Two-door and four-door saloons were launched at once, the estate car version followed in February 1967 and a new-type Lotus-Cortina in March.
From October 1967 the Mk II range was further up-rated, not only by the fitment of new cross-flow 1.3-litre and 1.6-litre engines, but by the addition of a luxuriously trimmed 1600E model, which combined 1600GT performance, Lotus-Cortina handling and unique high-specification furnishing. 1969 models were further improved, notably with new manual transmissions, new facias, and the availability of reclining seats on more models in the range. From this point, the Lotus-Cortina officially became the Cortina Twin-Cam, though without mechanical changes. By this time, no fewer than 14 different Cortina types were available.
The Mk II Cortina sold even faster than the original type, with well over one million manufactured in a four-year period. Although the existing engines were carried forward, the Mk III range, introduced in October 1970, was in all other respects entirely new. No longer than before, it nevertheless had a 3.5in. longer wheelbase, being wider and lower than the previous type.
The sweeping new style hid a new family of 'Pinto' overhead-camshaft engines, the largest of which was a 98bhp 2.0-litre which guaranteed a top speed of over 100mph: there was no Lotus derivative. Other innovations included wishbone front suspension and coil spring rear suspension. Although the new car shared its platform with a new model Ford from Germany, the Taunus, the Cortina Mk III had a unique style: as expected, two-door and four-saloons and an estate car shared four engines and five trim/equipment packs. This was a time when Ford offered a wide choice of factory-fit options and accessories, including automatic transmission, and cross-ply or radial ply tyres.
In the early 1970s, the Mk III range was simplified and in 1972 a new type of Ford automatic transmission - the C3 - was made available. Then, in October 1973, the design was refreshed, with new smaller versions of the 'Pinto' engine, new grille styling and a new fascia. At the same time the top-of-the-range 2000E was added to the line up. Although inflation in Britain made it difficult to hold down prices, the Cortina was always a best-seller, made even more attractive in October 1975 by Ford's 'Value for Money' equipment enhancement package. Later, to face up to post-energy crisis fuel economy requirements, a new 'economy' Cortina 1300 was introduced in February 1976. By the summer of 1976, the Mk III had become the best-selling Cortina so far - but a new version was already on the way.
The Mk IV range was introduced in September 1976, with a brand-new and stylishly more angular shape than before, which was built up on the same well-proven platform and running gear as the ultra-successful Mk III. Once again this was a wide range of saloons and estate cars, with engines spanning 50bhp/1.3-litres and 98bhp/2.0-litres at first. In place of the GT versions, there was now a Cortina S, while the most completely trimmed and equipped models were badged Ghia. One year later, in October 1977, a 108bhp/2.3-litre V6 engined version of the car, the flagship of the range, was made available. This was now the most complete Cortina range so far, for at this time there were 20 derivatives, their prices spanning £2,523 (1300 two-door) to £4,795 (2300 Ghia estate). In its first full year on sale, 1977, the Mk IV leapt to the top of British sales charts. Indeed, 1979 was the best year ever for Cortina sales, 193,784 (11.3 per cent of the UK new car market) being sold that year.
Only three years after the Mk IV had been introduced, in September 1979, a significantly revised version of the range, officially to be known as the Cortina 80, was unveiled. Although it was never officially called the Mk V, this title was adopted by many Cortina enthusiasts and customers, and was the type that carried the Cortina range successfully to the end of its career in mid-1982. Although based closely on the Mk IV, the style and specification of the Cortina 80 was improved, not least with more glass area in the cabin, a lightened shell and subtle changes to the grille, tail lamps and many of the skin panels.
The engines had all been improved, to make them at once more powerful and more economical. Now there was a choice of five different power units, which spanned 61bhp/1.3-litres to 116bhp/2.3-litres, there were Base, L, GL and Ghia equipment packs, saloon and estate car types, totalling no fewer than 20 derivatives. It was then also possible to specify an S (for 'Sporting' wheel/suspension package), or a 'Heavy Duty Pack' which made the cars even more suitable for poor surfaces and high-load-carrying duties. This ensured that the Cortina 80 sold as well as any of its predecessors, especially in 1981 and 1982 when two popular special editions, the Carousel and the Crusader, were made available and after a final facia/equipment up-grade was made to all models in September 1981.
Finally, after a wonderful career which had spanned 20 years, in which more than 4.3 million cars had been produced, the very last British-built Cortina was completed at the Dagenham plant in Essex on July 22, 1982. It was immediately replaced by the Sierra, which soon built up its own best-selling reputation.
What You Get
The Cortina has always represented no-nonsense family transport. The MkI and Mk II models, like Wagon Wheels, may well be smaller than you remember them, their interior space being put to shame by a current Fiesta. The 109bhp Lotus Cortina still has the capacity to entertain and the 1600E is a handsome devil. The Mk III's American influence is apparent in its soft suspension and lazy power delivery, the 2.3-litre engine generating just 113bhp but a decent amount of torque. Opt for a Mk IV or preferably a Mk V - also known amongst Cortinaphiles as the Cortina 80 - and understandably you'll get a closer approximation of modern motoring. Whilst some would say they give a closer approximation of what a big step forward the Sierra represented, the later Cortinas are still spacious and good looking in a set squared eighties fashion.
What to Look For
As with most cars over twenty years old, corrosion is always going to be an issue. Mk I and Mk II cars are comparatively less rigorously rustproofed than the later models and a sure way of seeing if suspension mounts have corroded is to take a good look at the bonnet. If the bonnet panel doesn't sit straight, either the car has been accident damaged or (even more likely) the front suspension mountings have been patched over. The chrome parts such as light bezels and bumpers are prone to corrosion and are very difficult to replace. The alloy wheels fitted to sportier Mk IV and V models also suffer notable corrosion.
The vinyl interiors found in most Cortinas are prone to cracking and fading, whilst the plusher velour trims found on later Ghia models hasn't proved particularly hardwearing either. Having said that, bodywork really is the key consideration with Cortinas. Engines can be repaired or replaced fairly cheaply but a set of quality panels are increasingly rare and valued. The only genuinely troublesome engine was the initial 1.2 which had a reputation for gearbox seize ups which in turn put the engine's main bearings out of kilter, sending the con rods punching through the block. This can spoil your day. Fortunately this problem was largely ironed out when the engine was massaged out to 1.3-litres in the Mk II.
Finally a word of warning regarding 'King Cortina', the Mk I Lotus Cortina. This is one of those cars of which a good few more examples seem to exist now than when they were made. When you pause to consider the premium Lotus models make over regular cars this is understandable. Check the chassis plates and registration details, and look for the bulge in the boot floor that denotes the lowered suspension. There should be additional reinforcement on a bona fide Lotus Cortina too. Anybody trying to pass off a four-door model as a Lotus Cortina should probably be reported to Trading Standards. There was never any such thing. If in doubt, the good folks at the Lotus-Cortina Register may well be able to help.
Join a club, trawl the internet and scour the breaker's yards for Cortina spares. You'll soon work out what is interchangeable with what in order to keep your Cortina on the road.
On the Road
Aside from the early Lotus and 1600E models the Cortina never had much of a reputation as a driver's car. Those expecting creature comforts may be a little shocked at quite how Spartan our motoring pleasures were in the early Seventies. The Mk III models are a little plusher and consequently a little barge like, but find an automatic version and it's possible to waft about enjoyably. The later Mk IV and Mk V versions, despite selling in huge numbers, really represent the glory days of the fleet purchasing bloc and in all but the Ghia versions feel very much built down to a price. They are surprisingly nimble, however, due in no small part to their relatively light weight and the estate versions still make perfectly serviceable workhorses able to swallow cavernous loads. Diesel engined cars are particularly unlovely.
The Cortina represents a snapshot of what life represented for the British man in the street form the late sixties through to the early eighties. The values, the economic conditions and the fashions of the day are all preserved faithfully. Find a good one and wallow in the nostalgia. Prices can only go in one direction and a decent car may represent a canny investment as well as an enjoyable ownership experience.
Ford Cortina (1962 - 1982) review by ANDREW ENRIGHT