News : Cortina’s 50th celebrated on the Beeb

The Ford Cortina celebrated its launch 50 years ago on prime-time TV with a feature on the BBC’s One Show. Presented by comedian and actor Alexei Sayle (above), the feature recalled an hour-long documentary hosted by him on the BBC arts show Arena in 1982 called The Private Life of the Ford Cortina.

The Ford Cortina’s appearance on the BBC’s One Show was prompted by a drive planned by members of the Mk II Cortina Club who set off for Cortina in Italy from Ford Dagenham to mark the 50th anniversary. This month the world’s most popular historic race meeting, the Goodwood Revival, also celebrated the Cortina’s anniversary with a display of Mark I models inside and outside their RAC Earls Court exhibition, in addition to its familiar fleet of Ford Cortina Glamcabs.

Happy Birthday Ford Cortina
Fifty years ago, on September 21, 1962, Ford’s new Cortina was launched. Costing £573 for the standard 1200 saloon, it became an instant best-seller and enjoyed a 20-year career in which 4.3 million were produced. The last Cortina was assembled in July 1982, to be succeeded by the Sierra, by which time the entry-level model was priced at £4515.

The Cortina was so successful and so different from other cars in the industry that in Britain it inspired what became known as ‘the Cortina class’. Along with the parallel success of the Escort from 1968, this helped Ford gain market leadership in Britain, which it has maintained for 35 consecutive years.

In 20 years, four generations of Cortina were launched – each selling more than a million around the world. When originally planned, Ford thought it could sell at least 100,000 Cortina models every year – yet more than 260,000 were sold in the first full sales year, 1963.

Best seller
The Cortina was Britain’s best-selling car for 10 of the 20 years it was on sale: 1967, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981. It was in second place for eight years and in third for the remaining two. UK sales for the Ford Cortina totaled 2,816,639 and its best-selling month of all time was 25,790 in August 1981.

Total Cortina production was 4,279,079, of which 3,155,161 were built at Dagenham. Cortina assembly also took place in Genk (Belgium), Amsterdam, Cork (Ireland) and at Cheshunt (Lotus-Cortina Mk I only).

Cortina – the first fleet car
In Britain, the demand for new cars grew steadily through the 1960s and 1970s. More than 820,000 were sold in 1960, 1,126,824 in 1970 and 1,536,243 followed in 1980. Managers looking after fleets of company-owned vehicles faced many pressures. They had to buy cars appropriate to every task and in many cases they also had to match cars to the status of the staff using them.

The Cortina was ideal for meeting these requirements. Compared with rivals, it was lighter, had more stowage space and was simple and extremely fuel-efficient. It represented exceptional value and it built up an enviable low-cost record in high-mileage use.

As Britain’s market moved steadily towards larger fleets in the 1970s, Ford’s Cortina range evolved accordingly. When the Mk III appeared in 1970 there were no fewer than 32 different versions in a range which included a choice of four engines and no fewer than five different trim/equipment packs. This philosophy ensured the Cortina maintained its appeal to fleets.

Cortina in Motor sport
First in rallying, then in saloon car racing, the Cortina immediately punched above its weight in motorsport. Formula 1 World Champion Jim Clark used a Lotus-Cortina to win the British Saloon Car Championship in 1964 and a team of factory-prepared Cortina GTs also dominated the world’s most demanding rally – the East African Safari – in the same year.

In motor racing the 1,558cc, twin-cam Lotus-Cortina showed that the use of a powerful engine, strong but lightweight construction and driver-friendly handling could be a winning combination. Lotus Cortinas won scores of races – in Britain, Europe and North America – and on the rare occasions when they were beaten it was invariably by 4.7-litre or even 7.0-litre V8-engined cars which also carried a Ford badge.

Even before the Lotus-Cortina arrived on the tracks, the Cortina GT was a race-winning car in Britain (where Jack Sears won the British Championship) and in the prestigious 12 Hour race at Marlboro in the USA. In its first full season, 1964, Jim Clark’s Team Lotus entry won the British Championship and Sir John Whitmore’s Alan Mann Racing example won five events in Europe.

Cortina on screen
The Ford Cortina has made dozens of film and TV appearances. Carry On Cabby, released in 1963, was an early example and the Mk1 saw out the end of the black and white era in films like The Big Job, The Knack and How To Get It, in which Rita Tushingham, Michael Crawford and Donal Donally hitch a ride on a transporter-load of Cortinas.

The MkII model turned up in productions as diverse as Billion Dollar Brain – driven by Michael Caine who, in reality, didn’t have a driving licence at the time – and The Benny Hill Show. Michael Caine again drove a Cortina in the iconic Get Carter in 1970. Further TV work for the Cortina was in the 1970-71 series Callan and the MkII’s sales in North America also led to the occasional role in Hollywood productions such as Alligator (1980).

The Cortina was especially popular on TV shows such as Bless This House and The Sweeney, in which a 2-litre Cortina GT occasionally appears as a back-up car. Now, in the new Sweeney film premiered this month, a Ford Focus ST has taken the place of Cortinas and Granadas.

The 1980 BBC series The Enigma Files featured a silver Cortina 1600XL and in Shoestring, Trevor Eve, drove a MkIII estate. The MkIV made a memorable appearance in The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moores’ third outing as James Bond, when it crash-lands onto the roof of a log cabin. The MkIV was also seen regularly on TV in The Professionals.

More recently the Cortina has had a starring role in the 2006 BBC series Life on Mars while its film credentials have been brought right up to date with the 2011 British film Made in Dagenham.

It was in 1982 that the Cortina inspired an hour-long BBC Arena documentary, the same year it went out of production. The Private Life of the Ford Cortina was hosted by Alexei Sayle and included an interview with former bank robber John McVicar, who endorsed the Cortina’s credentials as a getaway car. Now Alexei Sayle has come full circle, 30 years later, to celebrate the Cortina’s 50th anniversary on the BBC One Show.


Keith Adams


  1. Everything I know about completely unexpected 4-wheel drifts, I owe to the Cortina.
    The Mark 1 and Mark 2 were good cars, the 3 and 4 execrable.
    But all were a huge commercial success.

  2. A fitting tribute to the Cortina. A car which has played such a big role in British motoring life whether you owned one or drove them as company cars as I did. I’ll always have a soft spot for the MKIII & IV Estates in particular.

    Thanks for a great feature & photos.

  3. Nothing particularly clever about the Cortina, it just gave people exactly what they wanted – in Britain at least. From Mk1 to Mk4/5 it aligned perfectly with what buyers expectations of a car. Ford didnt need to sell it. They just formed an orderly queue! I cant think of another car that has come close to hitting the marketing bulls eye quite how the Cortina did. The fact the competition remained dire throughout the Cortinas life obviously helped.

  4. I’ve owned three over the years, a MKII 1600 Super, a MKIV 2.0Ghia Saloon and a MKIV 2.0GL estate, all of which served me well. The estate I bought for £300, ran for a trouble free 3 years and 40,000 miles and sold for £275 to a man who saw nothing wrong in the word ‘SANYO’ being embossed on the inner sill where I had repaired it using a piece of metal chassis panel from a Betamax video recorder.

  5. A mate of mine in Uni’ had a Mark 2 Cortina painted in matt black blackboard paint. This was handy for chalking messages on the car, e.g. “meet us at the pub”.
    What wasn’t quite so handy was that the previous owner was a getaway driver for bank jobs. He got stopped – a lot.
    Another Mark 2 was abandoned in the college car park, this was a 1200 with a very low axle ratio. The axle was promptly relocated into a mate’s wardrobe – 3 floors up in the halls of residence! He was building a kit car…
    later in life I bought the top half of a tailor’s dummy for work reasons, and decided the best way to get it back to work was to strap it into the passenger seat of the Cortina pool car with the seat belt. This caused some double takes on the M1! “Who’s that dummy in the Cortina”??

  6. Just remembered, a Cortina MK V also appeared in the Sean Connery (James Bond) film “Never Say Never Again”. It ends up getting crashed!

  7. Good old Ford, keep calling your replacement model the same name as the 1st one, so you can then say “20 years of the cortina, 40 years of the transit etc”
    Could be saying the same if the 1100, then allegro, then maestro were all the same name – they probably have more in common with each other, they at least all used the same engine.

  8. @7 The ‘tina was always rolled out as a straight-forward RWD 2 and 4 dr saloon, and estate, featuring a range of engines and trims, and the ‘Cortina’ name, until Ford deemed the name and image tired, and replaced it with ‘Sierra’, which promptly flunked! – that it evolved in each series is the very thing that made it such a success, sales-wise, in the same way as the Golf, and the 5-series (so ubiquitous I don’t even need to use the marque name). Perhaps if BL had kept up a similar practice with its own Cortina rival, the Marina, (styled and packaged by the designer of the Mk2 ‘tina remember!) and actually updated it beyond a new set of wheel-trims and bumpers every 3/4 years, it might have enjoyed more success, in the C-segment, which the ‘tina innovated. Incidentally, the Maestro was conceived as a Maxi replacement originally – have a look at the development page – one of the prototypes is badged ‘Maxi’! Oh, and the Sierra was largely Mk5 ‘tina underneath, which was actually the Mk4 ‘tina, with the same engines as used since the Mk3 was launched in 1970, so in effect was also a ‘tina by your system of reckoning…..If that’s the measurement method, then tha ‘tina actually lasted 60 years…..:D

  9. My Dad’s company car allowance was a 1.6L Cortina. He always paid extra and got a Saab 99 instead.. Not doubting the Cortina’s significance but in 1978, say, the Saab was quality, special. The Cortina? Crap by comparison. That said, I always liked them.

  10. And of course, the Princess showed what a primative heap the Cortina really was. But, don’t mean to sound too critical – as a young lad I thought MkIII was cool!

  11. @ No 8 Simon_hodgetts
    Sierra was certainlly not a Cortina underneath.The Sierra was based on the Granada. Some engines were carried over.
    My dad in the 60’s and 70’s had 2 new Austin 1800’s My uncle had a mk2 Cortina compaired to to the Austins the Cortina seemed uber cool to a me as a young boy. no matter how technically primative they were to the Austin.
    I ended up haveing a 1600 E as a 19 Y/O I also had a MK3 2.0 XL i liked the mk2 best It handeled better IMO

  12. “Good old Ford, keep calling your replacement model the same name as the 1st one, so you can then say “20 years of the cortina, 40 years of the transit etc””

    No different than Toyota calling several generations of car, from RWD saloons to FWD hatchbacks and coupes in between, Corolla. Or VW calling several fatter and fatter hatchbacks Golf.

    The Cortina mechanicals were carried on, if not in the Sierra, then in the Hyundai Stellar. Mated to a Mitsubishi engine and an Italdesign body (which could have been a mk6 Cortina?) it wasn’t a huge seller but was marketed to try and capture the Cortina owner who couldn’t stomach a Sierra.

  13. And I like that generational gap picture with the Mondeo. That is what they should’ve been driving in the Sweeney movie, not some Escort- I mean – Focus.

    I wonder what they would use in a generational gap picture with a Granada? A Mondeo again? A KuuuGaaaa? A Smax? Or an empty space?

  14. @11 – The Sierra formed the basis for the Granada Mk3, but I don;t think the Granada formed the basis for the Sierra, IIRC, the Granada Mk2 was based haevily on the Mk4 Cortina…..

  15. @14 – yes the picture of the Cortina 80 next to a recent Mondeo looks good and shows how car designs have evolved in the last 30 years. Having said that, the Cortina still looks damm good to me.

  16. The Sierra only shared Engines with the Mk4/80 Cortina. Front suspension reverted to McPherson struts rather than SLA wisbones and an all new IRS was introduced at the rear instead of the Cortinas live axle. The Mk3 Scorpio/Granada used the same new platform.

  17. I remember back in ’81 my Dad trading in his Mk1V 2.0 Ghia for a nearly new 2.3 V6 Ghia automatic…. bought from the local Ford dealers and totally reliable in 6 years service…. He changed it for a Renault!

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