Subtle isn’t really a word that can be used to describe the Ford Lotus Cortina. Sure, it lacks the complement of hideous spoilers that manufacturers use these days to signal that there’s something a bit hot under the bonnet of an ordinary saloon, but you’re still in no doubt that this is something special. The wide wheels certainly add a dashing touch, but it’s the low stance and that vivid green slash that shout "Out of the way, I’m coming through!" It looks like a race car, probably because that’s what it was. The twin-cam engine, based on Ford’s own four cylinder power unit, was developed for racing. Ford were looking to get into motorsport themselves, and did a deal with Colin Chapman of Lotus to build 1000 quick Cortinas with racing in mind.
To put the twin-cam Lotus engine into perspective, the most powerful Cortina available at the time of the Lotus’s launch was the GT, which had 78bhp. The Lotus developed 105bhp, or 115 in Special Equipment form. In a light car like the Cortina, this makes for formidable performance, with 60mph coming up in a touch less than ten seconds, with the engine finally running out of puff at 107mph.
At launch in 1963, this was a sensation. The suspension was not just dropped but re-engineered at the back, with upright coils replacing the leaf springs and an A-bracket helping locate the rear axle. It was very controversial and Ford quickly lost patience with it, replacing the complex set-up with conventional leaf-springs from 1965.
From the moment you coax the twin-cam Lotus engine into life, you know this isn’t going to be a pedestrian experience. It’s rorty and vocal, revving instantly as you blip the throttle. Moving away, the car at first feels reluctant – almost truculent – negotiating speed humps and traffic lights. Put your foot down below 3000rpm and you begin to wonder whether there’s something seriously wrong. The clutch is also heavy and snatchy. This doesn’t seem like much fun.
Keep your foot down, though, and the engine hits that sweet spot, launching the car down the road. Snatch another gear and the power just keeps on coming. Surely it must be topping the ton? A glance at the speedometer suggests otherwise – a mere 60mph. It’s quite remarkable just how much fun this car is without being outlandishly fast. It’s not so much the power, but the brutal, all-out delivery. Ease off and the engine spits and pops like a proper racer. Bury the throttle and a primeval growl under the bonnet assaults the senses, as the twin Webers greedily suck in air and fuel. In no way is this relaxing. It’s noisy and the gearing is almost ludicrously short, making motorway speeds far from effortless. But this isn’t a motorway car. It begs you to hurl it into the corners and keep your foot down as you head for the next one. Disc brakes up front help bleed the speed back off, and the steering, despite being by recirculating ball, is tight and communicative. It’s surprisingly easy to get the tyresto squeal, but not surprising at all that the car encourages you to drive this way. On public roads, we didn’t try to reach the limits of grip, but the naughty Cortina did make us get closer than we normally might. It’s hugely addictive and the ‘retrograde’ rear suspension doesn’t mute the experience even slightly.
Straight sections of road may be tedious and even uncomfortable at times, but when faced with a series of turns, the Lotus Cortina leaves you begging for more. Few cars plead with you to treat them in such a reckless and cavalier manner, and fewer still have comfortable seating for two adults in the back along with a large boot.
No wonder then that the Lotus Cortina lives on as one of the Blue Oval’s greatest icons.
- In total, 3301 Lotus Cortina Mk1s were built. An old joke goes that of that number only 5000 remain, due to the number of copies.
- The twin-cam engines were first built by JAP and then Villiers. Lotus famously moved to Hethel, Norfolk to have the capacity to build them in-house.