The cars : Ford Cortina Mk3 development story (1970-1976)

In 1970, the Ford Cortina Mk3 exploded onto the scene and completely reset buyers’ expectations of what would soon become the United Kingdom’s best-selling car.

However, as Keith Adams explains, the Cortina TC was not without its issues – something that an early facelift ended up putting right.


Ford Cortina Mk3: If at first…

Ford Cortina Mk3

As hard as it is to believe given its huge success, the Cortina Mk3 (or TC for ‘Taunus Cortina’) was a massive gamble for its maker. Both the Mk1 and Mk2 were compact cars with their upper models anchored to the booming one-and-a-half litre class, but what Ford decided to do for their replacement was to retain the 1.3-litre entry point, but take the top models up to 2.0-litres, swallowing up the old Corsair range in the process.

It was a cunning plan – because although it was a capable all-rounder, the Corsair had failed to set the sales charts alight, and the opportunity for Ford product planners here was to grab those sales in the 2.0-litre market sector, hoping the Cortina magic would encourage new buyers into the fold. But more than that, the TC was also first Cortina to be co-developed by Ford of Great Britain and Ford in Germany.

And, yes, the Taunus TC, introduced in Germany a month before the Cortina Mk3 was a rather more modest-looking effort than the UK’s alternative. But even a cursory glance at the two cars would reveal that they were very closely related.

The business case for co-operation

In an increasingly pan-European company, the Cortina was a bit of an enigma. Established as a family and fleet favourite, motor sport champion and all-round best-seller in the UK, the Cortina was already a phenomenon. In Mk2 form, it had built upon the success of the original, but the downside was that its German sister car – the Taunus 12M – was hardly setting the sales charts alight in Germany.

However, what really caused angst for the company accountants and planners was that, despite being similar in size and aimed at the same buyers in different markets, they were two completely different cars, with almost no shared parts. To have them effectively compete against each other in certain Western European markets was a luxury Ford’s US management would no longer tolerate.

The two very different models would need to come together under the Ford of Europe banner, as they’d do with the Ford Escort in 1968. In 1967 the decision was made in Dearborn for Germany and the UK to co-develop their next Cortina and Taunus models, with some degree of tailoring to local demand being allowed. The Ford Cortina and Taunus TCs were the result.

How the Cortina Mk3 evolved

Under the skin, the radical new car was a definite change in direction – so much so that there were many within Ford Product Planning who felt it deserved a new name. But the marketeers figured that as the car was such a departure from what came before, retaining the popular Cortina name was a wise move.

They were developed as simpler cars than the Mk2 Cortina (above) or the P6 Taunus (below).  No thought was given to continuing with the German car’s front-wheel-drive set-up or the Cortina’s suspension set-up.

Instead, the UK model’s McPherson struts would be dropped in favour of a simpler double-wishbone set-up, which the engineering leaders would tell the press were chosen to reduce the amount of road noise transmitted into the car. Rear suspension was also changed. The familiar live rear axle set-up remained, but now outer and longer arms ran parallel to the centre of the car.

Ford Taunus P6

New look, familiar engines

In the end, the Cortina Mk3 and Taunus TC would end up sharing most of their components even if the exterior and interior styling were different. The engine range evolved into a combination of the UK ‘Kent’ unit from the Mk2 for the 1.3 and lower-powered 1.6s, while the overhead cam Pinto set-up for the top-end 1.6- and 2.0-litre cars.

The Pinto was a modern engine, and was a step change over the Kent. For a start, it featured a belt-driven camshaft (as did the Vauxhall Victor, with the Austin Maxi competing with a camchain), but wasn’t without subsequent issues in service. The MacPherson strut front suspension was replaced with an independent double A-arm suspension set-up, biased increasingly towards comfort.

The Cortina and Taunus TC were developed under the leadership of Harley Copp, who had made his name running the GT40 development programme before being diverted onto the Pinto in 1968. He ensured that the programme was immaculately costed, and engineered in Europe for the European market – the new model would be simple and rugged, and laser focused on what buyers actually wanted.

Ford Cortina design sketch
Ford Designer Neil Birtley’s new grille proposal for the US-inspired Cortina Mk3

Styling and design

Although the mechanicals were designed to be as straightforward, the looks of the new car were an entirely different matter. As it was planned for regular updates, there was more opportunity to follow the latest design fashions, which in Ford’s case meant looking towards the USA for inspiration.

That was a very different approach. Both the Cortina Mk2 and Taunus P6 were more conventionally handsome, especially in the case of the British car, which had been expertly penned by Roy Haynes and his team.

So, the TC ended up being a joint venture between Ford Design Studios in Dearborn, Dunton and Cologne. In charge of the UK team was American Designer Joe Oros, who has been shipped in from Dearborn to take charge of the Dunton design campus, and it was here that the Mk3 took shape. The front-end styling was dictated by then-boss Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen’s wishes, and it would be a prominent feature on both German and British cars.

Planning for growth

The company was confident in its third generation car, so much so that its planned production volumes were higher than the Mk2, which was already one tussling with the BMC 1100/1300 for the position of the UK’s best-selling car. Key to this would be the perceived value for money and high style that came with a Cortina.

For a start, it looked so much bigger than before, which was a case of smoke and mirrors. It had grown significantly in wheelbase from 96 to 100 inches, but there was very little difference in terms of length over from the Mk2, and that helped the Cortina ease into the one-size-fits-all approach demanded by the replacement for the Corsair. The benefits for interior room were obvious.

The model range expanded Ford’s policy of offering something for everyone – model variations spanned Base, L, XL, GT and GXL, and obviously incorporated the widest variety of engine capacities seen in this market sector. It had a more grown up feel that was also aided by the increase in weight – the 1.6-litre car (with 72bhp) was close to being a 1000kg car.

Catching the opposition napping

The new and much larger Mk3 bodyshell lent itself to making a huge estate version.
The new and much larger Mk3 bodyshell lent itself to making a huge estate version

When announced at the London Motor Show in 1970, the Cortina Mk3 took the opposition completely by surprise. Not least British Leyland, which had been developing the Morris Marina as a compact 1.3- to 1.8-litre car to rival the Cortina Mk2 in terms of packaging and was readying it for launch.

Prices of the models range went from £913 for the two-door 1.3-litre base model to £1338 for the range-topping GXL version. It’s interesting to compare this with the starting price for the 1962 Cortina Mk1 of £573. Inflation was a factor during the 1960s as well as the ’70s.

The only hope for the opposition was that Ford had misjudged the market and made the Cortina too big (as BMC had done with the Austin/Morris 1800) – and initially it looked as if the other OEMs were right. In the months following the launch, sales were slower than expected, and disrupted by industrial action, as well as initial problems with the suspension settings and overall levels of noise, vibration and harshness (and Ford thus creating the term NVH), which put buyers off.

Despite these setbacks, the Mk3 proved popular with those who did buy one. Glamorous, easy to drive, relatively comfortable and affordable, it had on-trend styling and showroom appeal, and offered all the space and facilities demanded by the company car drivers it was aimed at. There were two- and four-door saloons and a five-door estate, but no coupé unlike its German cousin.

A continuation of the US-inspired look for the Cortina Mk3 led to a distinctive style

What the road testers said

In its November 1970 first drive of the 2000GXL, Motor Sport magazine could not disguise its disappointment. In terms of performance, it delivered the goods: ‘We found the engine very revvable and torquey, and although the particular model we were driving had covered less than 1000 miles we were able to cruise quite comfortably at an indicated 95mph.’

It wasn’t too impressed by the new interior, though, stating: ‘While the exterior of the car is acceptable and pleasant on the eye, the interior reminded one very much of a Vauxhall Victor, with the overall finish of the car not matching up to the previous high standard set by the 1600E.

‘The mock wood facia was particularly displeasing, and the four instruments situated in a binnacle at the front end of the centre console were very small and hard to read, and the Bakelite-type binnacle itself looked cheap and nasty.’

Ford Cortina vs Hillman Avenger

By the time, CAR magazine twin tested the Cortina 1600 GT against the Hillman Avenger GT in its December 1971 issue, some technical improvements had been rolled out to improve the show. The magazine concluded: ‘Undoubtedly the Cortina is an impressive eyeful of car, especially when turned out in one of the more attractive paint schemes. The Avenger is pretty in its own way but doesn’t have the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ look of the Ford. This reason alone will probably sway many people towards the Cortina.

‘The Ford feels more solid, but it has heavier steering and is more cumbersome to drive fast; it also suffers from a number of chassis creaks and groans and a very lively ride. In contrast the Avenger has much lighter steering, is very chuckable and slightly more economical.

‘Taking a very sensible view, we would go for the Avenger, which is £70 cheaper than the Cortina, but the impressive looks of the Ford could well sway us the other way if we were in a flamboyant mood at the same moment as passing a Ford showroom with the extra amount of money in our pocket.’

Taking the top spot in the UK

Ford had ironed out many of the initial issues that had plagued the launch-spec cars by late 1971. Its mechanicals were simple and durable and, in a decade when competing cars often had various production quality issues, that certainly helped. By 1973, coincidentally the year of the Austin Allegro‘s launch, the Cortina took its place at the head of the UK sales chart, a position it wouldn’t lose until 1982, and the year it was replaced by the Ford Sierra.

The massive jump in sales in 1973 could be pinned down to two factors – running improvements and its major rival dropping the ball. That year’s facelift ushered in the Pinto engine for all 1.6-litre models, a new dashboard that would live on in the Cortina Mk4, and a rejigged model range.

At the top of the range and to recreate some of that old 1600E magic, the 2000E was rolled out to replace the old 2000 GXL – and it did seem to have the desired effect of increasing sales. As for the suspension, it was further tweaked to deliver improvements in both ride and handling, most notably to tame the car’s propensity to bounce on rougher surfaces.

In conclusion: Ford’s gamechanger

The Cortina Mk3 became Britain’s best-selling car, and between 1970 and 1976, it sold 1,126,559 examples. In its first full year on sale in the UK, and up against the Hillman Avenger and new Morris Marina, 102,491 were sold to take 8% of the market. The following year, that jumped to 187,159, for an 11.4% share.

In 1973, and in the wake of the Barber Boom – an ill-fated attempt to boost the UK’s economy by going for growth – the Cortina made 181,616 sales for a 10.92% share of the market. Its closest rival, the Morris Marina, scored 115,041 and 6.9%.

The Mk3 enjoyed a highly profitable six-year run, where its position as the number one fleet- and family-car seemed untenable. BL might have failed to compete with the Cortina head on with the Austin-Morris Princess and Morris Marina, but the Vauxhall Cavalier looked well poised to take the fight to Ford.

In its final full year of UK sales – 1976 – the Mk3 was still a force to be reckoned with. The Morris Marina was its closest rival, and sold 71,288 making 5.54% of the market. As for the Cortina, it sold 126,238 for a 9.81% share of the market. By that time, the new Cavalier was on sale and was well on the way to denting the Cortina’s popularity – except that the Mk3 was about to become the even more successful the Cortina Mk4.

Ford Cortina Mk3 GT

Keith Adams
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30 Comments

  1. The TC, although not a technical tour de force, was the game changer for Ford in the 70s. When the strikes hit UK production in the late 70’s, the restyled Mk4 Cortina looked identical to its German cousin and now had the same engines, meant Ford could continue to supply cars from Ghent and Cologne when Dagenham was closed. This meant Ford seemed reliable to British buyers when strikes at BL were halting supply. They were also cheap to repair if they went wrong, and Ford dealers were only second to BL in their number so they were readily available.

    Its funny now that when we look at the MK3s release, that the early cars were actually seen much like the Sierra a few years later, with distrust and Ford had to sell on price but when the facelift took place (and the vastly nicer interior) the car really started to sell.

  2. Anorak points: Motor Sport could not have driven a 2000E in 1970, that model was only introduced in 1973 with the facelift.
    The Maxi had a chain-driven camshaft, this only changed to belt drive (producing another 4 bhp) with the S series engine circa 1984.
    Cortinas with cross ply tyres had rather narrow 4.5J wheels, those with radial tyres had 5.5Js.

  3. Taunus and Cortina Mk3 had the same interior. The size of the GT/GXL four centre dials was increased for the 1973 model year. In warmer markets such as NZ where the Cortina was a chart topper, the Mk3 ventilation was a weak point with the slit air vents not being a patch on the earlier eyeballs which were put back with the 1974MY facelift but still weak.

  4. When the Mk.3 Cortina arrived on the scene, the Leyland guys developing the Marina [still quite a few months away from launch] must have cried!

    Ford had once again pushed the envelope up a notch (like they did with the Mk.2 Cortina) and left BL with a bunch of duds.

    1800, Maxi, and the runout 1100/1300 [which Ford was now competing against with the Escort] was all they had to offer; dull cars with last-decade styling. And the Marina was their best response?

    My mother had a M-reg 2000E auto Cortina as her company car for a couple of years, in a sort of metallic British Racing Green. It was kinda swanky compare with my aunt’s 1.8 Marina, and faster too!

    • I’m sure those Leyland guys wondered why their For hire Roy Haynes had failed to inform them about Fords Cortina MK3 product plans whilst he was designing a Cortina Mk2 competitor in the form of the Marina. Was he a Ford plant?

      • Well the Marina certainly wasn’t a BMC type design as it lacked Hygragas suspension and fwd, and owed more to the Cortina and Hillman Hunter. I think Haynes was brought in to develop a conventional car tbat would sell to the fleets as the ADO17 was too big and expensive and the Maxi’s early sales were well below expectations. The Marina was a totally conventional car that sold very well in the early seventies, probably to the relief of Leyland, but it dated quickly and when the Cavalier and Mark 4 Cortina arrived, the Marina fell way behind.
        I don’t think Haynes was a Ford plant as such, just he was appointed to produce a conventionally engineered car that get Leyland out of a crisis with its family cars and it worked for a few years. Also, the Marina was intended as a stopgap and it was planned to be replaced by a totally new design by 1975, but the funds dried up.

  5. The Mark 3 Cortina was a good car once the early problems with NVH and the suspension were sorted out. Fitting the OHC Pinto engine to all 1.6 models made the cars powerful and refined for the time, important as the majority of 1.6 Cortinas were company cars used on long journeys. Bringing back the E badge on the m top of the range Cortina was another win for Fprd, as the car had luxuries executive car owners were demanding by the mid seventies like a fitted radio, cloth seats and full instrumentation.
    The Cortina wasn’t perfect: early ones weren’t very well made and could rust badly and the Pinto engine could suffer from camshaft wear with heavy use, but on the whole, the Mark 3 Cortina was a decent enough car for its time and was the best British car in its class. Hundreds of thousands were seen well into the eighties as it became a cheap family car that was easy to maintain and the 2000 E had a following with people wanting an upmarket banger.

  6. I spent many years of my early career driving MKIII Company Cortina 1.6L Estates and have good memories of them, especially cruising on Motorways. Yes they had many foibles & faults compared to todays cars but that was how it was… The MKIV was a further improvement – especially the Ghia

  7. People say the Pinto engine had camshaft problems; I never came across this in reality.

    OK, if you skip oil-changes or used cheap supermarket £3.99-per-gallon oil and crap filters, _any_ engine could show issues – but if you’ve got a company car and depend on it for earning a living [and servicing at the local Ford dealer comes as part of the package] you won’t have problems during the 3 years/40,000 miles you have the car, nor will you need to worry about rust.

    Practically, for me the most worrying issue with the Pinto engines was the way the Weber autochoke worked.

    Cold-start: pump the throttle twice then crank the engine – which would then run up to 3000RPM as soon as it fired. Blip the throttle after ten seconds as described in the book and it would then settle down to 1500RPM fast-idle. Seemed a bit extreme to me, but I have to say we never had any bearing-issues or cam wear problems on the Cortinas/Sierras/Transits I worked with.

    • The ready supply of camshaft replacement kits with all the bits from your local spares shop would suggest the camshafts were a ‘known problem’. Probably not known by the company car driver who’d get a new car every 3 years/40000 miles but definitely known about by the next and subsequent owners.

      One other feature was the welded-on UJs on the propshaft. So unlike other rear-wheel-drive cars where you could easily and cheaply replace worn UJs, Ford made you buy the complete propshaft !

    • The Pinto camshaft problem only affected engines in the mid to late 70s – coinciding with the launch of the MK4 Cortina. Ford changed the material specification for the camshaft to save a few pence off manufacturing costs introducing sofet metal on the can lobes that caused the problem. Bob Lutz in his memoirs recalls inheriting the problem when he took over the reins at Ford of Europe. Thinking inside the company was that it was cheaper to keep replacing camshafts under warranty than sorting the problem. He soon kicked backsides to get the problem sorted and get customers back on side.

  8. The Cortina was a simple car to own and if anything went wrong, it was very easy and cheap to fix. That’s why they were so popular used, along with the huge range of models from the 1.3 poverty spec models to the very nice 2.3 Ghia on later models. I’d imagine someone who merely needed a cheap used family car would find a base model Cortina ideal, while someone with more money who wanted to feel special would buy a second hand Ghia.

  9. Maybe worthy of mention is that Ford Australia developed a (straight) six cylinder version with 3.3 or 4.1 litre engines from the larger Falcon. The front was extended a few inches resulting in a longer bonnet, but not sure about any wheel-base increase.
    It sold relatively well but was known for serious understeer when pushed. Chassis and suspension problems arose when used on rough roads after a while.
    Mk 4 Cortina’s were also sold in this format. Cortina’s in Australia were replaced by the Telstar, a Ford badged version of the Mazda 626 in about 1982.

    • It seemed common for Australian market spec cars to have larger engines, even some EWD Japanese cars had a stretched nose so they could take a bigger block.

      Instead of the Mk3 Escort, Ford Australia sold a badge engineered Mazda 323.

    • I had relatives in Australia who had the traditional full size Holdens with V8 engines until the 1979 energy crisis, when they switched to Japanese cars as they used less than half the amount of petrol and were cheaper to buy. Most Aussies, particularly families and better off people, liked the American based full size cars as they were spacious, quiet and powerful, and were ideal for covering long distances in comfort. Like America, though, two energy crises and recessions saw the Japanese invade the market with their fuel sipping, reliable small cars.

  10. If both the Cortina Mk3 and Mk1 Granada were related based on both using double wishbone suspension at the front, was it really impossible for Ford to retain the previous Cortina’s MacPherson layout and would the Granada have in turn benefited from it?

  11. The Mk.3 Cortina and Mk.1 Granada had the engine/suspension mounted on a rather substantial subframe that was in turn attached to the body via rubber bushes; this was all part of the NVH thing back then.

    With the coming of the Sierra and Nk.3 Granada, the subframe was done away with.

    One advantage of McPherson struts is that the loads are fed into more widely-spaced parts of the shell, which can also be beneficial in making a vehicle more crumpleable and crash-friendly [you can have more controlled deformation than with a really beefy subframe to which the engine and suspension is attached] but there is still the NVH issue associated with insulating the upper-mount-to-bodyshell bearing.

  12. The bulkhead had a small recess & the slam panel similar to accommodate the straight six in the Aussie versions the tunnel had a slightly bigger bell housing shape too.
    The mk3’s had a short bonnet bulge (similar to the MK2/3 Capri) to clear the rocker cover/air filter.
    They had a falcon based Borg Warner rear axle.
    A frt bench seat was available across the range ( no column change though) the UK offered a bench seat option only in 71 on ohv manual cars ( using the mk2’s long gear stick type gbox) it was are rare fitment even then & I believe only one is known to survive.
    A pick up version was available for the south African market the full range was also available with Essex V4 & 6 engines.
    One oddity was that all models had the Bonnet with a raised centre section except the 1.6 pickup which used the normal type bonnet.
    The pickup was rated at 3/4 tonne & was the same length as the cars unlike the Mk5 P100 sold in the UK in lwb form.
    The 1.6 ohc was new sold in sa the ohv was retained even in the sierra along with the Essex V6, the Essex V4 was replaced with the 2.0 ohc when the MK4 cortina was intro duced in 77 as they where roughly 6 months behind the UK.
    Post MK2 SA & Australia didn’t get 2 Dr cortinas (were as NZ did).
    Other later cortina oddities were the diesel Mk5 pickup ( Peugeot engines & prone to overheating) & a popular 4wd conversion on diesel & V6 Mk5 pickups ( some Mk5 wagons where converted too ! The communist being the “muscle” conversion.

  13. Fascinating about the Aussie Honda connection!

    One question: were the Aussie Cortinas fitted with 4- or 5-stud hubs? UK/European Mk.3 and Mk.4 Cortinas had 4-stud hubs and 13-inch wheels which was annoying because it limited the size of brakes you could fit. I did start reworking the front hubs of a Cortina to take 5-stud Granada hubs and 14-inch wheels but never completed the project.

  14. My father replaced his 1967 Austin 1800 with a Cortina 2.0 GXL in 1972. (He did toy with getting a 2.5 Consul/Granada but thought it too big: a shame, as it was so much better enginered.) Not long after buying it, we were driving round the Hammersmith gyratory at only a moderate speed when it developed massive axle tramp. He never really trusted it after that and traded it in for a VW Passat a couple of years later.

  15. The Mark 3 Cortina was everywhere in the seventies and well into the eighties, not surprising as it had a market share of 10-11% for most of its life. Since most people, particularly fleets, bought British during the Mark 3’s career, it seemed to be the go to family car as British Leyland’s offerings weren’t good enough: the Marina was a poor car to drive and had an engine no bigger than a 1.8, the Maxi’s radical hatchback styling and poor driving experience turned fleets away, and the ADO16 was too big and becoming old fashioned. The Cortina, particularly with the 1973 updates, became a good all rounder with a car to suit every price range and the 2000E arrived just in time for the energy crisis when many buyers had to downsize their bigger executive cars.

  16. Back in the 70s…
    We had a face-lift 1.6XL which was very smooth, slick but extremely rusty. Void bushes were a common fault which would see them wiggle around tight, low speed corners and horrendous diff noises were common. Local cabbies could be heard coming up to collect with cam rattles. Ours Was traded in for a Marina LE in 79 which latest 13 years.
    At the same time a mates Dad owned a roaring Marina TC flying which sounded lush! Something I do own today….and a Mk5 Cortina under restoration.
    T

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