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Lotus Cortina Mk1: Buying guide and review (1963-1966)

Lotus Cortina Mk1 Lotus Cortina Mk1 Lotus Cortina Mk1 Lotus Cortina Mk1 Lotus Cortina Mk1
The Lotus-Cortina: much loved, surprisingly fast, full of character, and instantly recognisable. Also unreliable sometimes, technically flawed all the time, yet somehow desirable. It was a British ‘first’ in so many ways: the first-ever fast Ford, the first Lotus-badged saloon car, the first twin-cam engined Ford, and the forefather of the entire Ford RS pedigree. It did wonders for Lotus sales and profits, even though Colin Chapman virtually ignored it throughout. 
 
An enigma, right? Although it has reached its 50th anniversary, and we still recall the way that Jim Clark and Sir John Whitmore could drive the race cars, let’s not forget how much trouble early customers had with their A-frame rear suspension. Let’s also remember that Ford’s quality controllers were so appalled by Lotus’s build standards that they threatened to buy Colin Chapman a gift-wrapped torque wrench for Christmas, because they thought he’d never seen one. 
 
If one man should take the credit for inspiring the Lotus-Cortina it’s Walter Hayes, hired as Ford’s PR guru in 1961/62, and later to become the personality who encouraged – invented – Ford’s dash for motor sport glory. Not Lotus’s Colin Chapman, who had a twin-cam engine, but originally only wanted it for the Elan. Nor anyone in Ford’s competition department, which was still based at Lincoln Cars in Brentford, and certainly not by anyone in Ford’s nascent product planning department, who had no motor sport ambitions for their cars at that time.
 
Hayes spoke to Colin Chapman, asking him to build a homologation special with which the Blue Oval could beat all comers. The solution was to take Ford's bullet-proof 1500 Kent engine and fit a twin-cam cylinder head. The cars would be built by Lotus at its plant in Cheshunt, and known as the Lotus Cortina.
 
The most troublesome change was to the rear end, where Chapman refused to keep the standard leaf-spring (and radius arms, these being intended for the still-to-come Cortina GT) layout. Instead, he adapted the Lotus Seven S2 layout, where the axle was sprung on twin coil-over-damper units (placed where the normal Cortina dampers were), located by twin trailing arms and a sizeable bracket that linked the bodyshell with the axle casing itself.
 
Sure enough, the car went on to dominate saloon car racing and rallying, with icons such as Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Sir John Whitmore and Roger Clark all notching up one victory after another. 
 

Which Lotus Cortina to buy?

 
The most valuable cars are the competition ones, many of which were painted red. These were the only Lotus Cortinas to come off the production lines that weren't white with a green stripe, and with just 30 or so cars being built initially, it's no surprise that genuine survivors are extremely rare and valuable. 
 
Whereas most classics are bought according to their condition, with the Lotus Cortina the biggest problem is ensuring that it's not a fake and that it's got all the correct parts fitted before you take on a restoration. Missing bits of trim or mechanical items can be a real nightmare to source, so if there are significant parts missing – and the car is the real deal – you've got to be very careful about buying.
 
The later the car, the easier it is to fake. With their alloy panels and transmission castings it's tricky to create an early copy but as things got toned down it got much easier to turn a Cortina GT into its more desirable Lotus stablemate. With a mint Lotus Cortina worth many times what an equivalent 1200 De Luxe will fetch, it's no wonder there are plenty of fakes.
 
Number plates get swapped around regularly so standard cars become Lotus examples and reshells are common because it's the easiest thing to do when a genuine example is too far gone to restore properly. The only answer is to check with the Lotus Cortina Register before buying a car. Many buyers fail to do even the most basic checks – don’t be one of them. Lotus Cortinas are also commonly targeted by thieves, making insurance costs higher than a lot of classics. 
 

Performance and specs

 
Engine 1558cc, four-cylinder
Power 105bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 108lb ft @ rpm
Top speed 106mph
0-60mph 9.9sec
Fuel consumption 22mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual 
 

Dimensions and weight

 
Wheelbase 2499mm
Length 4275mm
Width 1588mm
Height 1365mm
Weight 905kg
 

Common problems

 
• There were a lot of bodywork alterations to turn the Cortina 1200 De Luxe bodyshell into a Lotus Cortina one. On A-frame cars the spare wheel is bolted to the boot floor instead of sitting in a wheel well and the battery should also be in the boot – make sure it wasn't once on the off-side inner wing. 
 
• The alloy panels were phased out from July 1964, but whatever was handy got fitted, so some later cars got the lightweight units while others didn't. Besides, alloy panels were optional until production ended.
 
• Lotus-prepared Cortinas have a much longer reinforcement panel than standard cars. This is positioned over the top of the rear axle, where the chassis curves over it.
 
• Expect plenty of rot, with the rear wings generally the first areas to go, especially around the wheelarches. Also inspect the suspension turrets from inside the boot as well as from underneath the wheelarch, the jacking points, outriggers and spring hangers. The latter aren’t used on A-frame cars, but still present and important to the strength of the car's structure.
 
• Also check around the headlamps, the trailing edge of each front wing, the front suspension strut tops and A-pillars. Apart from the flange on the wheelarch lip of each front wing being flatter (to accommodate the wider wheels), all the panels are interchangeable across the whole Mk1 Cortina two-door saloon range.
 
• The Lotus twin-cam engine is reliable if looked after. This includes 3,000-mile oil changes. Water pumps fail and replacement entails engine removal. Timing chains wear, but replacement is straightforward. A healthy engine should show 40psi at 3000rpm but just 18-20psi at idle is fine. The Lotus Cortina got a unique radiator and slim-line air filter box.
 
• Gearboxes are very tough but the synchromesh wears eventually. You can learn to live with it or invest in a rebuild.
 
• Pre-July 1964 cars got an alloy diff casing, clutch housing and gearbox tailshaft, but steel replacements may be fitted. 

• The suspension doesn't give problems, and it's possible to rebuild or replace everything. But if the car is a genuine A-frame example and the A-frame is damaged, replacements are costly. 
 
• The braking system was shared with the Cortina GT, but with a Girling brake servo. Servo seals fail and rebuild kits are scarce.
 
• Make sure all the correct trim parts are fitted, or the car may be a fake – quarter bumpers at the front, an umbrella-style handbrake and bucket seats along with a blacked out grille and badging on the rear quarter panels. Post-October 1965 cars got a 1500 GT interior in place of the earlier bespoke item. Dashboard, instrumentation and switchgear is standard but the dials are specific to the Lotus Cortina.
 

Model history

 
1963: The first road cars are built with an aluminium bonnet, bootlid and doorskins, a different dash from standard, a Lotus steering wheel and better seats. Compared with regular Cortinas there’s also a higher first gear, a close-ratio gearbox while the tailshaft housing, bellhousing and diff casing are made of alloy.

1964: The alloy body panels start to be superseded by steel ones, the gear ratios are changed and refinement is improved by fitting a two-piece propshaft. In October a full-width grille is introduced and a new ventilation system badged Aeroflow makes the cabin more comfortable. Aeroflow cars have fixed rear side windows, whereas the earlier units were hinged.

1965: The bespoke Lotus suspension is replaced by a standard Cortina GT set up for improved reliability. Dynamics aren't affected especially but the ride is improved. From September the quarterlights are fixed instead of openable.

1966: In September the final cars roll off the production line, after around 3000 had been built – accurate figures are hard to come by as proper records weren't kept after mid-1965.
 

Owners clubs, forums and websites

 
• www.lotuscortina.net – The Lotus Cortina Register, with owners club forum
• www.lotuscortinainfo.com – Detailed reference source for all Lotus Cortina models
• www.mk1cortina.com – Mk1 Ford Cortina Owners Club, with spares shop
 

Summary and prices

 
It can be difficult to put an accurate price on a Lotus Cortina, as there is often so much to take into consideration. As a rule of thumb, a top condition car with perfect history could cost somewhere considerably north of £50,000 to the right buyer, although the red and gold competition cars are even more highly prized.
 
Projects can still be picked up from £10-15k, but it is vital that you can verify the car’s history. Search around the £25,000 mark for a road car in decent and usable condition. 
 
Words: Richard Dredge
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Last updated: 30th Nov 2016
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Lotus Cortina cars for sale

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Lotus Cortina
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  • Lotus Cortina Mk1 Race Car

    £79,995 £79,995

    The Cortina is equipped with the original 1558cc DOHC inline 4 power plant. This Lotus/Ford engine is equipped with twin Weber carburettors, electrical fuel pump, and a wet sump. The four-speed synchromesh gearbox feels tight and precise to operate throughout the gears and rev range.

    • Year: 1965
    • Mileage: 1010 mi
    For sale
    4 Star Classics
    01483 274347 VIEW CONTACT NUMBER
  • Lotus Cortina MK1 Alan Mann Racing

    POA POA

    Mayfair 020 7125 1400 | Maldon 01621 879579 This Mk1 Lotus Cortina is non-other than the 1965 European Touring Car Championship winning car driven by Sir John Whitmore himself. Built in February of 1965, KPU392C was carefully prepared by Alan Mann Racing Ltd to full race specification while conforming to Appendix J, Group 2 Regulations. As recorded by a contemporary Autosport article the engine was a BRM-modified phase 2 Lotus twin-cam unit bored out to the maximum permissible 1,595cc and fitted with steel con rods and special pistons. The combustion ratio was raised to 9.8:1 and power was recorded as 150b.h.p at 7,800 r.p.m. Two Weber 40DCOE carburettors were fitted to an alloy inlet manifold and integral cylinder-head. The mechanical fuel pump was replaced by a high pressure unit and the transmission was improved with close ratio gearbox, limited slip differential and carefully balanced two-piece prop shaft. The rear suspension was the revised leaf spring arrangement, which was homologated early in the 1965 season. The back end was softened by removing some of the leaves and relocating the spring attachments which effectively lowered the car. The front was stiffened with shorter

    • Year: 1965
    For sale
  • Lotus Cortina Group 5 Works Competition Car

    POA POA

    Mayfair 020 7125 1400 | Maldon 01621 879579 The Lotus Cortina offered here is one of only two Group 5 works cars that were built by Lotus for the 1966 British Saloon Car Championship. Car number E14 LS was constructed in March 1966, registered PHK614D and immediately assigned to Jim Clark for use at Oulton Park on 2 nd April, although the meeting was disrupted by poor weather. The next outing was at Snetterton a week later where fellow Formula 1 driver Peter Arundell took the car to a 2 nd in class and 5 th overall finish in the Archie Scott Brown Memorial Trophy. Over the course of the next month two more 2 nd in class results would be achieved at Goodwood and Silverstone with Arundell and Jacky Ickx driving. In May the car was used as a spare car at Crystal Palace and in June the engine was converted to fuel injection by BRM. The first race with the new engine was the Grand Prix support race at Brands Hatch on 16 th July where Sir John Whitmore achieved a 1 st in class victory and 4 th overall finish. The car was back at Brands Hatch in August for the Guards International meeting and on this occasion Peter Arundell placed 3 rd overall and 2 nd in class. Arundell was the driver fo

    • Year: 1966
    For sale
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