In 2022, the Mondeo reached the end of the road and, with it, an unbroken 60-year line of popular Ford saloons which began in 1962.
Ford Mondeo: End of an era
The Ford Mondeo died in 2022, to be replaced by yet another family-sized faux off-roader, pretending to be an SUV. The timing was bitter-sweet, being almost 60 years to the day that its distant ancestor, the Cortina Mk1, was first introduced and a generation of drivers found a new sweetheart, while its undeniable success powered Ford for decades to come.
This might have been a sad end to a line of cars that enjoyed a lasting love affair with the British public, even if there were a few bumps along the way, but it was also an opportunity to celebrate Ford at its brilliant best. From the ruthless brilliance of the first Cortina to the urbane civility of the multi-billion-dollar Mondeo via the starkly aerodynamic Sierra, here’s a whistle-stop tour of them all.
Cortina establishes itself as a winner
The Ford Cortina Mk1 (below) was conceived in 1960 and developed in record time to meet the demands of an emerging class of UK car buyers. Overseen by Ford’s brilliant product man, Patrick Hennessey, it was laid out in Ford’s famous ‘Red Book’, was immaculately costed, beautifully engineered and perfectly judged. Launched in 1962, the Cortina ended up being Ford’s most successful post-War product in the UK.
The MkI established the breed – powered by the revvy 1.2- and 1.5-litre Kent engine, and rowed along by a beautifully slick gearchange, this big-booted saloon soon became the apple of every professional driver’s eye. Fleet managers loved its low running costs, while drivers loved its fashionable style and eager nature.
The 1966 Mk2 (above) was a more square-rigged remix of the original car. Its base engine grew to 1.3-litres and the range expanded to encompass the brilliantly-conceived 1600E. No longer was it a rival to the BMC 1100, and yet these two would fight for the top spot in the UK bestsellers’ chart. Between them, these two Cortinas sold a million-plus copies, and established Ford as the company to beat in the mid-market.
However, the Cortina really found its feet when it evolved into the 1970 Mk3 (below). For a start, it had a considerably wider engine range and longer wheelbase for a roomier interior – and, although the base model remained a 1.3-litre, the range-topper grew to 2.0-litres, replacing the old Corsair in the process. This was the first Cortina developed alongside the German Ford Taunus, bringing the two Design Teams much closer together, after the success of the Escort and Capri.
Its growth and that Coke-bottle style weren’t the only departures – the overhead cam Pinto engines made their Cortina debut, the McPherson strut suspension was dropped, and the fleet-manager model ladder came in. Now you could buy Base, L, XL, GT and GXL models, and buyers lapped it up.
This was the tipping point which saw the Cortina become the undisputed best-selling car in the UK. Early refinement and suspension issues were soon fixed, and it would go on to enjoy a six-year run, where its position as the number one fleet – and family – car seemed unassailable, and more than 1.1 million examples were built.
A steady driver
Driving a base model 1.3-litre today is an interesting experience. The low-set seat and well-positioned pedals and gearstick result in a quite alien driving position compared with today’s car, with a wonderful view over the ridged bonnet. The sparse instrumentation is a letdown for those aspiring for GXL levels of luxury, but it’s a workmanlike driving environment that’s perfect for those spending long days here. Firing it up doesn’t disappoint – the Kent engine is smooth and muted here, while snicking it into first reminds you why you love Ford gearboxes. Pulling away soon exposes this engine’s lack of enough power and torque for the Cortina’s large body.
It’s willing and eager, but just not muscular enough to keep up with the cut and thrust of modern traffic. Instead, just relax, build up speed, and adopt a cruising mindset. The steering is light and precise, but low gearing doesn’t aid quick cornering – which is no bad thing considering the amount of bodyroll when you get to the first bend. Ride quality is acceptable, but it’s no fan of potholes and other surface imperfections. But let’s not be too hard on this one… it was built for a junior-level rep to plough the motorway in, and it’s perfectly up to that task. As a classic, it’s a brilliant experience, as people just stop and stare, while you just float serenely on.
On to the Cortina Mk4
Ford never stands still, though – in 1976, the Cortina Mk4 was unveiled, featuring a familiar platform and engines, but boasting smart new styling that was now shared with the German Ford Taunus. The real significance of this was that this became the first Cortina that could be imported from Germany – a boon in strike-torn Britain.
The model range was a familiar mix – base, L, GL, S and Ghia – with the addition of a new 2.3-litre V6 range topper. All the Cortina qualities were present and correct – a slick gearchange, big boot, comfortable ride and excellent motorway presence.
The final facelift came just three years later, when the Cortina 80 was rolled out. A new roofline, improved seats and a larger glass area were the main areas of improvement. It was a useful update that proved more than enough to see the end of the Cortina’s days in 1982 riding high in the charts. When it went out of production, with another 1.1 million copies built, a nation literally mourned, as the car that charted the rise in living standards in the 1960s and ‘70s was finally put out to pasture.
Sierra – the slow starter that came good
The Cortina was a winning machine, and it would take a brave soul to change its formula. Bob Lutz was that man, and in 1978 Project Toni was conceived to replace the boxy Cortina. He wanted something advanced and aerodynamic and to really move the company into the 1980s with a bang. The styling was overseen by Uwe Bahnsen, who admired fastback designs, and so after a $1.2 billion development programme, the Ford Sierra was launched in September 1982.
The styling was a startling departure from what came before, and at the time it burst onto the scene, it rivalled the sleekest designs from Citroën aerodynamically. It was offered as a hatchback – in this most conservative of market sectors – and an estate car, with no saloon alternative. Inside, the driver was greeted by a super-modern dashboard that was ergonomically designed like a BMW, which in some models featured a trip computer. But would buyers relate to it in the same way as they had the Cortina?
The real surprise was what lay under the skin, because the Sierra didn’t make the transition to front-wheel drive at that point, contrary the widespread industry moves in this direction. Despite its avant garde styling, the rear-wheel-drive Sierra retained the Cortina’s engine line-up, with the suspension updated to McPherson struts at the front and a coil-sprung independent set-up at the rear, just like a Granada.
So, it looked the part, and sold very well indeed. In Europe at least. Over the channel, the Sierra outsold its predecessor four-to-one. However, in the UK, everyone still loved the Cortina too much – so much so that its radical-looking replacement failed to ignite the public’s imagination, and it soon earned the nickname ‘jellymould’. In 1982 and ’83, the Ford Escort took the mantle of the country’s best-selling car and, worse still, the conservatively-styled Vauxhall Cavalier began to outsell the Sierra!
From the days of Ford’s domination of the fleet market, this was a disaster. The firm continually updated the model range, losing the odd-looking entry-level models with their slotted grille, and adding aerodynamic tweaks designed to improve the car’s crosswind instability. A tax-friendly 1.8-litre engine was launched, four-wheel drive added to the mix, and sporting models came and went, including the legendary RS Cosworth.
In the background, Ford pressed ahead with a facelift to answer buyers’ criticisms. In 1987, the second-generation Sierra arrived – at a cost of a cool £228 million – ushering a less stark-looking front-end design and, by popular demand, introducing a saloon version, dubbed the Sierra Sapphire. As facelifts go, this one was masterful, turning around the car’s fortunes brilliantly. The sales slump was reversed, and thanks to a programme of continuous improvements right through to the end of the line in 1993, it went toe-to-toe with – and ultimately beat – the Vauxhall Cavalier. The Sierra had truly come of age after its most shaky of starts.
Sierra on the road
Driving a Sierra today serves to show the differences – and similarities – with the Cortina. But fire it up, and the similarities begin to come to the fore – and although the 1.8-litre CVH engine under the bonnet of this one shares nothing with the Cortina’s Kent unit, there’s the same sense of quiet calm, the same excellent driving position, and a desire to get to the motorway and take residence in the outside lane.
Acceleration is much more purposeful, even if the initial feeling of refinement soon wears off as the revs rise. But it’s on the run to the motorway where the Sierra wins you over. The steering is similarly light and full of road feel, and the gearchange is direct and positive, even if a little less mechanical feeling than the Cortina. It’s in corners, where the Sierra really comes alive, combining decent levels of grip and excellent body control, with a soft and well-damped ride. Brakes, too, feel more than capable of keeping things in check.
By the time we hit the motorway, it’s clear that the Sierra is an excellent all-round proposition. Quick enough to be useful, possessing excellent handling, and capable of covering distances in a quiet and comfortable way – just like the Cortina before it. These days, the Sierra’s rarity means that it turns heads, but it took a lot longer to reach classic status than the Cortina did. You can put that down to aerodynamic styling that was years ahead of its time, and still looked contemporary well into the 1990s. It’s a shame that, by the time this was recognised by enthusiasts, most had long since shuffled off this mortal coil.
Mondeo: the not-so-brave-new world
The Sierra’s failure to continue the Cortina’s domination of the UK charts was a big deal for Ford, prompting a management shake-up and a new attitude across the company. As early as 1985, plans for its replacement were taking shape under the codename CDW27 – and, unlike the European Sierra and the British Cortina before it, this would be a world car, designed to be sold in all of Ford’s territories. The new car would embrace advanced engineering under the skin, including front-wheel drive and, following the Sierra’s sales wobbles, it would feature much more conservative interior and exterior design.
Ford’s Design Studios in California, Cologne, Dearborn and Turin were tasked with creating the best design, but it was the German design that won out. By 1989, the programme was at full speed, with a new generation of 16-valve engines designed to power it, and a thorough test and development programme ensued to ensure that Ford’s new $4 billion model range would be nothing other than the best in class.
When it was launched in April 1993, there would be no shock and awe as there was a decade earlier. Instead, the Mondeo was criticised for its conservative styling. The range was all there though, with saloon, hatchback and estates all available from the outset. All were powered by the new Zetec family of 1.6-, 1.8- and 2.0-litre petrol engines as well as the 1.8-litre turbodiesel. For those who wanted a sporting version, a warm 2.0Si would have to do – at least until the V6 turned up in 1995.
Once drivers got behind the wheel, it was clear that the Mondeo was something special. Stung by criticism of the 1990 Escort, Ford had pulled out all the stops to ensure that the Mondeo would be a dynamic masterpiece – and, thanks to the leadership of Richard Parry Jones, this goal was met. Little did we know, the company car era as we knew it was drawing to a close just as the Mondeo began to hit its stride in the mid-1990s.
Mondeo – a dynamic masterclass
Driving a Mondeo after the Sierra, and the progress has slowed down over that car’s leap from the Cortina. It’s organic to the point of anonymity on the outside, but manages to be lifted by its bright colour and aggressive bodykit – while on the inside, comprehensive instrumentation and figure-hugging seats firmly plant this as a drivers’ car. The driving position and visibility are both good, although it lacks the Sierra’s airiness.
Fire it up and within metres of pulling away, the Mondeo marks itself out as a proper driver’s car, and you can see where Ford’s £3bn development budget was spent. The gearchange is sublime in its smoothness and, although its less mechanically precise than the Cortina’s, it’s better than the once-lauded Sierra.
The steering, too, is wonderful – beautifully weighted, full of feel and direct. Acceleration is punchy, although it needs revs to get its best, with 4000rpm being where the wake-up call happens. A shame it sounds so dull…
Cornering is sublime. It’s a comfortable, well-damped ride, but doesn’t heel over in bends, with very little bodyroll to complain about. Basically, it feels like a modern car – all taut and tightly controlled – probably not what you want in a classic, but certainly impressive. It’s hard not to admire what Ford’s recently-deceased suspension guru Richard Parry-Jones achieved here, and it’s a shame that this most groundbreaking of Fords has been saddled with such forgettable styling.
Seismic shifts in the marketplace
Fleet managers widened their approved car lists, before switching to cash allowances, ushering in the era of the ‘user chooser’. Where once they’d be told they could have a Cortina and like it, now drivers could have Audis, BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. As brilliant as it was, the Mondeo couldn’t compete.
Even as Tony Blair hailed ‘Mondeo Man’ as New Labour swept into power in 1997, the model had passed its peak. Receiving its first facelift the previous year, it gained the famous ‘Dame Edna’ front-end style that proved challenging for some. But its best years were now behind it. Times were changing fast, and Ford responded by offering bigger and better Mondeos in 2001, 2007 and 2014 after a series of delays. But sales continued to dwindle: in 2020, fewer than 2000 Mondeos were sold in the UK – someway short of the Cortina’s best year (1979), where it sold 194,000.
The writing had been on the wall since the mid-2000s, but it had been mortally wounded by the rise of the SUV as the large family car of choice. And with that – after a run of almost 60 years, Ford’s unbroken line of company car champions had come to an end.