The one to beat…
IN the brave new world of 1960s Britain, there was an admirable back-to-the-wall can-do mentality, it must have seemed that anything was possible. Ford certainly thought so, given that the Cortina project only really came together in 1960, following a three month consultation resulting in the definitive full-sized clay, before going into production a mere 21 months later. If that sounds like a panicked programme that was bound to fail, then you’d be right to think that, given the mixed abilities of similarly hastily-conceived projects, such as the Morris Marina (1968-1971), and Chrysler Sunbeam (1975-1977). However, what separated Ford’s groundbreaking effort, and those of British Leyland and Chrysler UK was that those cars were created in response to a crisis – whereas the Cortina was carefully conceived with a particular market in mind.
But then the story of the Cortina is very much a reflection of the man who would become the driving force behind its creation, Patrick Hennessey. The reason for the Cortina’s – Project Archbishop – conception was as much a politically- as product-led one. Despite its close managerial links with Detroit, Ford of Great Britain was very much an autonomous operation, with little in the way of links of its namesake based in Cologne – so when, on a trip to Detroit in 1960, Hennessey discovered that Detroit had handed over an aborted compact saloon car development programme for Ford of Germany to complete (by way of assisting the war-torn country), the he sat up and took notice. That car, codenamed ‘Cardinal’ looked extremely promising – it was powered by a compact V4-cylinder engine and featured a front-wheel drive transmission system, and would go on to become the Taunus 12M.
Hennessey thought such a car could have potential in the UK. Okay, not so much the car as it was, but certainly a conceptually similar saloon built on a simpler foundation. He convinced Ford in Detroit that Britain needed a car like the Cardinal, but one that was completely engineered on home turf. It looks like the mere notion that the two European divisions of the same company should co-operate on such a programme was not even entertained – or certainly there’s no documentary evidence to say so.
The German programme was scheduled to launch in September 1962, and Hennessey wanted to beat it to the marketplace – it was a matter of national pride. But Cologne had a considerable head-start.
And so, the Irishman returned to the UK to form a plan, which was to become The Red Book, to beat the Cardinal. He placed chief product planner Terry Beckett (later Sir Terence) and executive engineer of Light Cars, Fred Hart, in charge of the development of the all-new rival Archbishop (see the connection?). Beckett would be responsible for budgets and timing for what was initially known as Consul 225 – whereas Hart’s design team in South Ockendon was placed in charge of body design and engineering. But Hart had plenty of experience in the market where the Cortina would be pitched, after having joined Ford as a draughtsman in 1940, he was involved in the development of the original Consul and Zephyr, as well as the 100E Anglia.
However, it was with Hart’s involvement with the Anglia 105E that really put him on the map – and although it was strangely, rather faddishly, styled, is was also possibly Ford’s most groundbreaking Post-War product. To that point. For what it combined was all-British styling, lightweight construction, the high-revving and responsive ‘Kent’ engine, and a slick-shifting four-speed gearbox, to produce what many drivers of the time were hankering for in the budget sector of the market. For the Cortina, his brief was straightforward – after the 105E: to build a family-friendly saloon, and keep the weight below 1700lb (770kg). Aircraft engineering stress technology was used in the body design, a technique overseen by ex-Bristol Aeroplane Company body engineer, Dennis Roberts.
As well as being light, the Cortina needed to be roomy – it was a pre-requisite that the car would have a large boot and class-leading interior room. Exactly what a jobbing sales rep would need. But those requirements weren’t at the cost of lightness, because it needed to be lively on the road for that added driver appeal. The Kent engine, which had proven so successful in the 105E Anglia was used as a base, and in short-block three-bearing form expanded to 1198cc was capable of delivering 49bhp for a 75mph top speed and 22.5-second 0-60mph time. Leisurely now, but more than quick enough for the time.
In terms of suspension design, it was was also a case of simple is best. Ford’s now globally-used MacPherson strut system was used up-front, and a simple live rear axle at the rear – all designed for maximum lightness, and maximum wheel movement. As it happened, the engineers missed the overall weight target by 20lb, but in the circumstances, this was still a very impressive achievement.
Beckett’s use of the The Red Book was also considered to be ahead of its time. Every aspect of the Cortina range was covered within its pages, and it was strictly adhered to by the design team. It was designed to be available in two- and four-door saloon form, as well as a five-door estate, all of which were to be launched within six months of the arrival of the first car on the market. It also specified that the 1.2-litre Kent engine would be joined by a sportier five-bearing 1498cc version, perfect for the top of the range – and less premeditated – ‘halo’ models.
The programme was an unprecedented success – it needed to be. There was no spare time for anything to go wrong, and luckily nothing did go wrong. Unusually for the time more than 20 prototypes were built (about double the number of 105Es), and an intensive testing programme, based at Boreham racked up many hundreds of thousands of miles across Europe Ford of Great Britain’s board’s confidence in Hennessey had been vindicated – all that was needed was for the car to go on sale, and woo awaiting customers.
But right on cue, the Cortina was ready for production during the summer months of 1962.
The Cortina arrives… and soon develops
Ford worked very hard to ensure that the Cortina would be available for all to see on launch day. So, with the car having been in production for months in the run-up to its launch on the eve of the 1962 London Motor Show at Earls Court, every dealer in the land was to have at least a couple of cars in their showrooms. It was a successful strategy, and when the wraps did finally come off Ford’s new mid-liner, it caused a sensation.
The new moniker was designed to evoke thoughts of glamorous European locations (having been named after the 1960 Winter Olympics resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo), and added to the car’s all-round appeal, but it could have so easily been much less appealing. Throughout its development programme, Project Archbishop was going to be called Consul-225, a clear link with the existing cars in the range, but right at the last moment (and during pre-launch press photography), the decision was made to go with the Italian name – thereby also allowing Ford to make the car more saleable in European markets.
The first thing that struck everyone in the market was that the Cortina was just what they needed, and although the original cars had a starkness about them that Ford would move away from in later years, there was masses of room inside, it was cheap to buy, and looked simple to service. The original 1200 was powered by a 1197cc three-bearing version of the 1-litre Kent engine found under the bonnet of the 105E Anglia. This revvy little number had already proved popular with Anglia owners, and was instrumental in its success, and it was bound to have the same effect on the Cortina market.
Adding to the range’s appeal, the Cortina Super was added to the range in January 1963. The big change was the arrival of the five-bearing 1499cc engine power unit, which developed 60bhp. Performance was significantly increased as a result, and aspirational buyers now had the option of spending more money at their Ford dealership. Following on from that came the Cortina GT – basically a Super with lowered suspension – and a 78bhp engine, arguably the first in a long line of hot Ford saloons that would keep the public entertained for years.
Keeping with Ford’s mantra of continual improvement, a facelifted version of the Cortina was introduced at the London Motor Show in October 1964, and featured a number of notable improvements. The main innovation was its Airflow ventilation system, which might now seem like an odd item to promote at a car launch, but with its ability to refresh the entire interior in under under a minute, it’s made an important contribution to overall driver safety. Beyond that, the car received a new dashboard, instruments and controls, which were engineered to give the car a less stark interior as well as improve ergonomics. Finally, front disc brakes were added – another big improvement. It was in this form that the Mk1 Cortina saw out its days, and in doing so, it threatened to take the top seller’s spot in the UK from the BMC 1100/1300.
Along comes the mark two
After getting off to such a flying start, it’s no surprise that Ford stuck to its winning formula with the second generation Cortina. Although the first car was immaculately engineered and costed, its high-fashion styling dated rather quickly. And as a result, that led it having a short shelf life – something that the company had planned for when putting together Project Archbishop. Once again, the new car’s styling took its cues from the USA, with its design chief Roy Haynes clearly being inspired by the neat minimalism that was sweeping through the Ford empire at the time. So, a mere four years after the Cortina Mk1 rolled out of Dagenham, the Mk2 version followed suit.
But it was a look that worked, and more importantly, this car proved Ford’s undoubted commitment to giving customers exactly what they wanted. And in an expanding market, what they wanted was more space, more performance and more equipment. So, with the advertising strapline, ‘New Cortina is more Cortina’, did exactly what the advertising copywriters asked of it. The new car was wider with a more capacious interior, and had a larger boot (even though engineers on the Mk1 felt that the original’s was already on the generous side of capacious). Driver comfort and ease of use were also factored in, with the increasingly luxurious interior complemented the softer ride and more ‘grown up’ feel of the new car.
It was the same story with the power units – the 1.2-litre engine may have been the entry level for the original car, but for the UK market, that was upped to 1.3-litres, moving the new car away from BMC’s all conquering ADO16. The smaller 1.2-litre engine was offered in export markets, but for the UK market, this was not offered, as the higher engine capacity equated to a higher price in a buoyant market, where confidence was riding at an all-time high. The larger entry level model didn’t initially lead to an increase in size of the range-topper (which stayed at 1.5-litres), but it was only a matter of time, as Ford engineers were beavering away at a 1.6-litre crossflow version of its Kent four-cylinder.
As before, the Cortina was offered in two- and four-door saloon form, as well as a capacious five-door estate, and it was the latter that proved to be a massive hit for the company, following the slow start of its wood-clad predecessor.
The new crossflow heads were introduced in 1967, and saw a corresponding expansion of the range. The most iconic of them all was the 1600E, which now topped an expanding range that comprised of base, Deluxe, Super, GT and 1600E. It was the Cortina 1600E that truly captured the public’s imagination, when it was unveiled at the 1967 Paris Motor Show. The exterior was treated to a number of well judged modifications, such as Rostyle wheels, a black rear panel and vinyl roof – but it went as well as it looked, thanks to being powered by the 1600GT’s uprated Kent engine and uprated suspension. Inside, the 1600E was rather special, too, featuring a burr walnut woodgrain-trimmed dashboard and door cappings, bucket seats, that all-important sports steering wheel, and full six-pack instrumentation.
Once again, the Cortina proved a massive success, and cemented its position as the prime player in the UK’s fleet market. It was here that BMC had been really struggling thanks to the ADO16’s complexity and less than exemplary reliability record, although private buyers remained loyal to the advanced front driver, allowing it to remain ahead of Dagenham’s best-seller throughout its life. In order to increase the Cortina’s appeal, Ford would need to think more radically – and so, in 1970, it moved the goalposts leaving the opposition little choice but to follow suit as hastily as possible…
Change in direction
As hard as it is to believe now, 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 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-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 two-litre market sector, hoping the Cortina magic would encourage new buyers into the fold.
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. 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 of the UK’s best-selling cars – but unlike the two previous generations of Cortinas, this one shared rather a lot with the German Taunus. In fact, the TC project was an Anglo-German effort that was engineered under the auspices of Harley Copp as Vice President Engineering and head of Brentwood, and incorporated rather a lot of US thinking – and not just in terms of its distinctive ‘Coke bottle’ styling.
Although the Cortina Mk3 retained the 1.3-litre Kent engine for its entry level model, the 1.6- and 2-litre versions were powered by the new overhead cam Pinto engine, which first saw service in the car of the same name Stateside. Just to confuse matters, the 1.6-litre Kent hung around for a while longer, powering the more humble model variations – with the overhead cam being reserved for the GT and GXL. The Pinto was a huge step technologically over its predecessor, not least because of its belt-driven camshaft (still a novelty in the mid-’70s), 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. At the rear, the familiar live real axle set-up remained.
Given that the Mk3 had been conceived to replace the Corsair, it’s no surprise that it had grown significantly from the Mk2. The biggest change was in the wheelbase, which moved up to a full 100in (and that put it 4in ahead of its immediate rivals), giving the Cortina a much more commodious interior and ‘grown up’ feel that Corsair drivers took for granted. In the showroom, the Cortina also continued Ford’s policy of offering something for everyone – model variations spanned Base, L, XL, GT and GXL, and obviously spanned the widest variety of engine capacities yet. That grown up feel was no doubt also aided and abetted by the increase in weight – the 1.6-litre car (with 72bhp) was close to being a 1000kg car.
When announced at the London Motor Show in 1970, the Cortina Mk3 took the opposition completely by surprise. Not least British Leyland, who has been developing the Morris Marina as a compact 1.3- to 1.8-litre car to rival the Mk2 in terms of packaging. 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 1800) – and initially it looked as if they were right. In the months following the launch, sales were slow, and disrupted by industrial action, as well as initial problems with the suspension settings and overall levels of noise, vibration and harshness (or NVH as Ford termed it), which put buyers off.
But Ford quickly reacted, sorting out the suspension issues during 1971, and the car soon bounced back. 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 of its demise. During 1973, and a massive jump in sales. the Cortina Mk3 received a major facelift, which saw the universal adoption of the Pinto engine for the 1.6-litre models, and trim upgrades. To recreate some of that 1600E magic, a 2000E version of the Mk3 was introduced to replace the 2000GXL – 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.
With the early wobbles behind it, the Mk3 went on to enjoy a 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 Marina and Princess, but Vauxhall’s Cavalier looked well poised to take the fight to Ford. Except that by the time the new Griffin was launched, it was well on the way to taking another step forward with the Cortina…
The Teutonic order
The biggest step forward for the fourth-generation Cortina was a that it finally saw the convergence of the German Taunus and the British Cortina. No longer were these two separate ranges, but merely the same cars carrying different badges. The arrival of the Mk4 was also significant because it meant that UK Ford dealers would now be able to sell Cortinas built overseas – a consideration that would take on considerable significance as Dagenham became increasingly blighted by industrial unrest during the mid-’70s.
As for the car itself, although the Mk4 was a much more more conventional design than its predecessor, and in terms of technology amounted to little more than a rebody of the outgoing Mk3 – so that meant a retention of that car’s running gear and suspension layout, and a retention of the final model’s dashboard and revised seating position. So, for existing Cortina owners, driving a Mk4 would feel very familiar indeed, albeit with a much nicer view out, thanks to a 15 per cent greater glass area. On the outside, Uwe Bahnsen’s smart new clothes were very much of the moment, and rendered the Mk3 Coke bottle immediately redundant – a familiar phenomenon in short life span cars.
Interestingly, although the ’76 Taunus hit the marketplace in February of that year, it wasn’t until September before the Cortina Mk4 made it to the UK showrooms. The main innovation for this model was the arrival of the Cologne V6 in 2.3-litre form, further pushing the Cortina upmarket. Although it was incredibly smooth and refined the Cortina 2.3 wasn’t a huge success, as with 114bhp on tap is wasn’t significantly quicker than the 2.0-litre car in ‘S’ form – and it was far less economical. As before, the Cortina was offered in a wide variety of trim levels – base, L, GL, S and Ghia. The new top model was a nod to Ford’s outright purchase of the Italian design house, and within a couple of years, the wood ‘n’ velour model would be rolled out across the entire range.
In September 1979, the final Cortina incarnation was released – and although it’s hard to classify it as a facelift or a rebody (as it was a bit of both), the Cortina 80 represented a useful improvement over the car it replaced. The improvements were plentiful – revised head- and tail lamps, wraparound indicators and an aerofoil grille were the main points of interest on the outside. But the new roof with larger windows – although subtle to look at – really made the interior an airier place to spend time. Inside, trim and equipment levels were improved, as was the ride quality. Most importantly, though, for future Cortina fans, these were properly rustproofed…
These final cars could be described as the ultimate Cortina variations, and were a true proponent of Ford’s model policy of short production runs and regular updates. And even though the opposition had caught up and overtaken the Cortina – most notably the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 – it remained a fleet and family car favourite, and firmly ensconced in the hearts of British car buyers. The final Crusader special edition proved hugely popular, and with its two-tone paint and Ghia style trim, it was the one that buyers wanted in the run up to the introduction of the radical new Sierra.
In the end, and in the UK, the Cortina topped the charts in 1967, and then from 1972 to 1981, which is a remarkable achievement, and testament to the marketing skills of its maker. But that is not to downplay the Cortina’s role in the car market – although it was rarely a technical pioneer, it gave the public what it wanted and didn’t break the bank in the process. You only need to read the table below to see that.
FORD CORTINA PRODUCTION
|Version||Years in production||Total production|
|MK4 and ’80||1976-1982||1,131,850|
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.