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
Fuel consumption 22mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• 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.
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