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.
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.
- Concepts and prototypes : Hyundai/Rover Oden (1992) - 9 November 2023
- Opinion : So, maybe the Montego was the best they could do… - 8 November 2023
- The cars : Austin Montego (LM11) development story - 7 November 2023