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Lotus Cortina

Lotus Cortina Published: 14th Jul 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Cortina

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Pre-Aeroflow
  • Worst model: Anything dodgy or faked
  • Budget buy: Mk2
  • OK for unleaded?: Needs additive
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L4275mm x W1590 (Mk1)
  • DIY ease?: It’s an old Ford...
  • Club support: Excellent
  • Appreciating asset?: Mk1s are through the roof
  • Good buy or good-bye?: More than just a hotted up Cortina…
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The original Q Car combining sports car pace and thrills yet with saloon car practicality, the famous Lotus badge for prestige but Ford hardware for fair ease of running. A classic that’s forever gaining in value, especially Mk1 but Mk2 is arguably the better car. Fakes abound so buy with extreme care

Mix a Ford Cortina, with Lotus Elan in a giant automotive melting pot and you have the Lotus Cortina – an icon car made in classic car heaven even if it was hell for its owners when new. Now nearly 55 years on, this connoisseur Cortina is as much a blue chip classic and wise investment as any Aston and prices aren’t going to get any cheaper so buy now but beware of fakes!

History

1962 It’s been argued for over 50 years just who approached who with the idea of the Lotus-powered Cortina. Some say it was the street-wise and savvy Colin Chapman, who knew about the Cortina long before its launch, while others believe it was Ford who saw Chapman’s efforts with the Lotus Elan (which used a Fordbased engine, steering and transmission) as a way of giving the new family saloon a halo effect and become a formidable competition car just like John Cooper had turned the little Mini into.

Whatever, Type 28 in Lotus-speak and 125E in Ford’s book, was born. 1963 Announced that January, launched during the summer, the Cortina Lotus (its correct but rarely used title) was effectively a 1200 two-door De Luxe gutted and fitted with Elan hardware although the biggest talking point was the unique Seven-like rear suspension (‘A’ bracket axle location with rear coil springs) that did away with the agricultural standard leaf spring set up.

Chapman was a staunch advocate of saving weight wherever possible and so the Lotus Cortina was skinned alive by employing as much aluminium body panels as feasible and this included pricey alloy transmission parts, all of which meant the Chapman’s Cortina tipped the scales at 775kg, some 20kg less than the base Ford version. This was no mean feat but there again at £1100 the Lotus was twice the price of the base 1200…

1964 The Lotus version, part made by Ford remember, also gained the same revisions the lesser versions benefited from such as a tidied up frontal, a much neater interior and the famous aeroflow ventilation system, identified by the rear pillar vents. A less racier set of gear ratios were employed (70mph in second with the original cluster!) that July along with sturdier cast iron differential parts while steadily the car swapped its alloy panels for the hardier steel type come October.

1965 A Special Equipment variant was announced boasting almost 115bhp or 140bhp in racing tune. Despite being a big success on the tracks in the talented hands of Clark and Stewart, the car’s lamentable reliability on the road and build quality caused Ford’s patience to finally snap.

One engineer upon returning to Dagenham was rumoured to have said he doubted if those at Lotus had ever heard of a torque wrench! After too many rear axle failures, and Ford’s reputation on the line, the simpler, sturdier conventional GT set up was fitted, albeit with a lower ride height in June along with the now celebrated ‘2000E’ gearbox four months later.

1966 As Mk1 Cortina was being phased out to make way for the Mk2, this meant big changes to the Lotus model, not least because all were now to be made entirely by Ford at the factory in a bid to keep quality control in check.

1967 In March, the new Cortina Lotus is launched in the larger, boxier Mk2 body. To counter the added weight, the fast family Ford is now fitted with the 109bhp SE tune engine along with the famous Corsair ‘2000E’ gearbox which was carried over from the very last Mk1s, but coupled to a higher 3.77:1 axle ratio. By the year’s end the iconic Lotus ‘roundels’ were replaced by Twin Cam badging so the car fell in with the soon to be launched Escort Twin Cam.

1968 Changes to the Cortina GT also filtered through including a revised dashboard, centre located floor handbrake and detail trim alternations.

1970 After only 194 cars were made that year, the Lotus Cortina was phased out. For the record 2894 Mk1s were made, 1100 with the earlier suspension, although many were changed in service. Despite it not being seen as a ‘real’ Lotus Cortina, the Mk2 sold better, a creditable 4032 cars. With news that Lotus may yet again be sold, it is still mystery why Ford continues to ignore Chapman’s lasting legacy after both parties enjoyed so much success together…

Driving and press comments

What’s all the fuss about some ask? True, 55 years, on it’s easy to dismiss the Lotus as a performance car (0-60, 9.9 seconds) but in its day it was a sensation and, like the Cooper S, the fastest way to get around.

Coil or leaf sprung? Well despite its superior design, not only did converting back to leaf rear springs cure reliability issues (the A frame used to allow the rear diff to wriggle about and work loose, spewing out its oil as a result. Autocar’s long term car went through six axles in 29,000 miles!) n the track they slashed lap times and they made drivers happier, more confident when on the limit.

However, many testers thought that when it was actually working right, the A-frame glued the rear end down better and later cars are more tail happy. Who better to settle the argument than the ’65 European Touring Car Champion Sir John Whitmore (who sadly died in late April) who spoke exclusively to Classic Motoring on the subject. He said that Alan Mann’s famous racing team soon reverted to the leaf spring arrangement and found it better and faster, although the ultimate set up was the fully independent design which mimicked the Elan. It was brilliant by all accounts but only one car was ever made by Lotus.

Mk1 or Mk2? Now that’s the question! The Mk2 has always lived in the shadows of the original and perhaps that’s due to the car losing its Lotus identity and character (if you call that old Chapman acronym L.O.T.U.S. a plus point). It’s as well to bear in mind that Chapman had little ever to do with the Cortina’s development as he thought a saloon car was now beneath him by this stage in his life…

Ignoring the Lotus attraction, the rest is pure Cortina, a working class car feeling a bit tinny but with decent room, practicality and user friendliness, even if the cheapskate quirky seat runners Ford employed right up to the Mk3 Cortina spoil a good driving position. Low gearing (17.6mph/1000rpm) means all Lotus Cortinas will sound fussy at speed and you’ll be reaching for a fifth gear that isn’t there (Sierra Type 9 ’box fits but, of course, it spoils the originality).

The press took to the first fast Ford as you’d expect. In its 1964 road test, Autocar praised the car for its vigorous performance and exploitable handling as well as its subdued appearance (those green side stripes were extra but nearly always fitted).

“The neighbours would hardly be impressed but the driver who knows his car can gain real satisfaction from driving it.” Amazingly, Practical Motorist of all people got hold of one (was it sent by mistake?-ed) for the February 1965 issue.

Testers greatly approved of the friendlier gear ratios and screamed it to 60mph in 9.2 seconds. “There’s a little bit of Formula 1 buried in this car”, it remarked, adding that the handling is “Excellent – once you get used to it”. Amazingly, the magazine rounded up the test by saying this Cortina was an ‘old man’s car’. “No young man could afford the insurance”. Not much has changed in nearly 55 years then so thank goodness for classic car insurance…

A re-test by Motor just before the Mk2 came on stream was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand it largely approved of the three years of development (more durable, conventional rear suspension, stronger body panels) and the more usable gear ratios, but on the other, was left wanting due to those said suspension changes because “The car handles almost like any other Cortina [skittish]”. This still missed weekly continued: “There’s not many cars into which we can jump into and drive fast with complete confidence… but the Lotus Cortina is rather different”. However, it bemoaned the harder ride, afforded by the Cortina GT set up, as Chapman was a firm believer in not over-firm suspensions.

“There’s tinge of regret that handling has changed so much,somewhere in-between the previous and present models would have been an ideal… The original Lotus touch is gone,” it remarked.

Certainly, the Mk1 (marketed by Ford initially as ‘the Consul Cortina developed by Lotus) has a flavour of its very own that will appeal to the purist, while the more pragmatic will see the Mk2 as the more rounded, reliable and better for touring.

In short, the Mk1 feels like its a racing car detuned for the road where as the Mk2 feels like a Cortina GT but Lotus powered. It’s as quick as the Mk1 mind; Motor’s ’67 road test showed it was even-stevens to 60mph then the Mk2 pulled ahead hitting 90 almost four ticks before the Mk1 although had a slightly lower top speed.

However, there isn’t that sense of occasion as with the side-striped Mk1s; indeed, shorn of its Lotus addenda and even a sports steering the Mk2 is more the Q Car. “What it has lost in character has been made up on other ways… a far better all rounder than it ever was before,” hailed the July 1967 road test.

Values and marketplace

As we were compiling this buying guide, we stumbled across a 30 year old copy of the lamented Supercar Classics magazine with its coverline ‘Affordable Fun In A Lotus Cortina’. We had to laugh, because as with any old school Ford, that’s distant history now according the official club, Lotus Cortina Register (Lotuscortina.net). It says values have soared by 30 per cent in the past five years alone and shows no sign of abating.

Five figures are now commonly bandied about, although in the real world £65,000 upwards is going currency for an exceptional original Mk1, which the club splits up into Pre-Aeroflow (that’s Ford’s famous ventilation system, now wrongly described as ‘airflow-ed’), 1964 Lotus A frame models (which by now dropped the ‘Consul’ badge) and then post July ’65 versions which were more, all steel, Cortina GT in make up – except they weren’t says the club and still subtle differences lie – in terms of prices.

As much half the LC’s value lies in the unique bodyshell, both in condition and authenticity, which is why you don’t see any two-door GTs around anymore, says the Register… Even a box bits is liable to attract in excess of 20 grand. Other factors which influence values include previous owners, any track record in motorsport and whether any period tuning gear (BRM, Ian Walker, Superspeed, Jeff Uren (Raceproven, etc) etc. In the main, £40,000 will get you a nice usable Mk1 and the best of Mk2s, unless it’s one of the Crayford Convertibles or four-door ex-police cars, that is.

By and large, Mk2s sell for half the price of a Mk1 so think of budgeting £25-£30,000, and it’s interesting to note that this once overlooked Lotus Cortina now matches values for the Twin Cam Escort and the later RS1600.

With this humble hotted up Cortina such hot property, fakes are rife and the club says it has had to disappoint too many owners with the stark truth on what they’ve unwittingly bought and why it’s well worth joining the Register before a search begins (although as you long as know what you’re getting, and price reflects this, don’t automatically turn one down).

Once you’ve bought one – secure it well as old school Ford thefts are the on the rise and old school Ford door locks were as good as useless when new!

Improvements

The Twin Cam is well served by specialists and parts supply is very good. However, it’s costly, and if you need a new block or cylinder head you are looking at around £1700 for the former and £4000 for the latter. An alternative is to use a conventional (711M) ‘Crossflow’ block; more freely available and cheaper plus it allows an easy 1700cc rebore. Burton Power says a reliable 140bhp is attainable for road use, by way of uprated camshafts, improved heads and re-jetting the original Weber DCOE carbs.

Fitting a Big Valve top-end (head and cams) is a sensible step for 126bhp, although the pistons also need to be changed to suit. Throttle bodies and engine mapping is also possible but sullies character and originality. It’s always best to fit ‘breaker-less’ electronic ignition to any Lotus Twin Cam engine.

The Type 9 five-speed Sierra unit means the unique transmission tunnel has to be spoiled. For more acceleration off the line, Burton Power offers a revised first gear ratio alternative for over £800. The general opinion is that the less advanced leaf arrangement is better, especially for road cars carrying passengers. Capri 2.8i-style brakes are favoured, but uprated discs and pads from Burton may be all you require.

What To Look For

Authenticity

  • There’s tons of detail differences to a normal Mk1 GT such as special body and underfloor panels, reinforced strut top mounts, boot mounted battery, special rear radius axle arms, unique Smith instruments and so on. Pre-Aeroflow Mk1s had unique trim and switchgear – the original steering wheel alone (three types were made) now sell for £500!
  • Rear radius arms were dropped by Ford on the Mk2 by 1968 on all bar the Lotus version and the 1600E which used the Lotus set up, including lower springs.

Engine

  • The Twin Cam engine is better served now than for many years and you can build a good reliable unit for around £5000 – a head alone costs some £2000.
  • They drink and leak oil and you’re likely to see a normal puff of smoke on the overrun. Just ensure that the oil pressure (the pump is externally-mounted so easily replaced if worn) is at least 40lbft at operating temp and under load.
  • Timing chains become slack and noisy as well as expensive to replace. A good indicator is to see how far the adjustment nut remains; half an inch of studding is okay but any less and replacement looms.
  • Water pumps were another pain as their frequent failure (grasp the pulley to check for end float) meant that the cylinder head had to come off to remove the pump, which costing at under £100 is bearable. However, Burton Power has developed a special kit so if the pump fails again, the head can remain in situ.
  • The Weber DCOEs, which must move a bit on their O ring mountings, are dear (£600 plus) to overhaul and so likely to be out of tune accounting for poor running. Exhaust manifolds are known to fracture and a good excuse to fit a freer flowing alternative.
  • What’s the cambox colour as it means a lot? Kingfisher blue signified SE tune (standard on Mk2s), Red signified Cosworth and Orange BRM tuned – if genuine, that is… A ribbed cam cover or the head stamped L means the Elan Big Valve Head has been substituted – hopefully, so check.

Body and chassis

  • All are Dagenham dustbins so check for rot – tops of the front struts, bulkheads, inner wings, floor A posts, rear suspension pick up points, bonnet and boot slam panels, valances, cross-members, jacking points, arches tops of wings, boot floor and so on.
  • Replacement Cortina panels are available (metal) from the likes of Ex-pressed Steel Panels Ltd and LMC Hadrian although obtaining the rare aluminium body panels is difficult and extremely expensive. Trying to restore a pre-’65 car back to originality means a healthy bank balance and patience to find the parts.

Running gear

  • Gearbox is strong but can jump out of gear and become noisy. Gear lever ‘sizzle’ is a cheap worn bush. Rear axles are robust but have a hard time. Lotus did make a limited slip diff available; pricey to rebuild.
  • Bear in mind that the cars may have been fitted with other Ford bits over the years such as the 2000E box instead of the original on pre ’64 cars. A variety of axle ratios and gear sets for competition were available, as well.
  • Fakes! Proper Mk1s featured an special steering box, thicker .094 inch front anti roll bar, unique track control arms and special springs, softer than normal GT ones – have they been substituted? Also the Lotus featured eight inch drum brake at the stern taken from the Ford Classic.
  • In terms of wear, it’s normal Cortina such as sloppy steering (box can be re-shimmed), worn dampers and springs, failed self adjusting rear drum brakes.

Three Of A Kind

Ford Sierra Cosworth
Ford Sierra Cosworth
In terms of value, there’s no comparison. For a fraction of what you can pay for a Lotus Cortina, the RS Sierra offers much more performance, usability and entertainment (especially Rwd versions!) and almost the same kudos, thanks to that iconic RS badge. Genuine 150mph performance and on later saloons 4x4 Audi Quattro-like security with Scorpio-like luxury come as standard. Values are on the up but you can still buy a saloon for the price of so-so Stag.
Lotus Sunbeam
Lotus Sunbeam
This was the car that Chapman openly said was the spiritual successor to his Lotus Cortina. Powered by the Esprit 2-litre engine, sat in a chunky hatchback body based upon simple but well sorted Hillman Avenger underpinnings, it was just as sensational as the Lotus two decades on, and won the 1981 World Rally Championship – beating the Quattro! Like the Cosworth, values remain affordable for the last saloon car Chapman lent a – distant – hand in.
Ford Escorts
Ford Escorts
Hot Ford Escorts go for similar hot money, particularly the LC replacement, the Lotus-powered Twin Cam and the later RS1600/1800, and – just like the Cortinas – fakes are rife so check what you are buying with extreme care. Top Twin Cams can sell for £60,000 with the RS catching up; later RS1800 is a bit Mk2 Lotus Cortina in character where refinement overtook raw thrills. RS2000s are much cheaper and provide similar performance but without any temperament…

Verdict

Even the car’s most ardent fans admit that prices have gone crazy for what is, on the face of it, a souped up Cortina, although there’s more to this road racer that started the fast Ford family than that. Buy with extreme care and not before speaking to the register first because this is a classic that you get what you pay for.



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