Lotus Cortina - Classic Compact

The Lotus Cortina Was England's Answer To The Shelby Mustang

Some of you youngsters may have to brush up on your olde timey vocabulary for this one. Like "carburetor." And "distributor." Better add "live axle."

Throw all these weird words into a perky little white sedan with green side flashes, stir in more modern-sounding ingredients like twin cams, trick suspension and aluminum body parts, and what you cook up is this tasty little steak-and-kidney pie from the land and times of the Beatles.

It's a Lotus Cortina from the 1960s, and it's highly revered today by a small but dynamic group of cultists determined to keep the works of the great racecar designer Colin Chapman laying rubber forever.

Our story begins long ago in a united kingdom far across the sea. A gifted young engineer and racecar driver named Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman built himself a tidy, lightweight sports special and called it a Lotus. It was so good that other people wanted one, and suddenly Chapman was a leading car constructor. Lotus Cars went on to many triumphs in racing, especially in Formula One, and even won the Indy 500.

Enter Ford Motor Company and Total Performance. That was Dearborn's early-'60s marketing campaign, which led to all sorts of wonderful things like Shelby Cobras and GT350 Mustangs cutting up sports car tracks, GT40s winning Le Mans, Ford powerplants dominating F1 and Indycar, and much more.

Ford of Britain quivered to the parent company's excitement. In 1962 its imaginative P.R. director, Walter Hayes, popped 'round to see Colin Chapman and (we're guessing here) bought him a drink. At the time, Lotus was launching a tiny, two-seat road car named the Elan. It would use the engine from the English Ford Cortina sedan, aka "saloon," but would be bored out and hopped up with a special Lotus cylinder head.

"I say, Colin, old boy," we can imagine Walter murmuring there in some oak-paneled pub. "Wouldn't it be a good idea to plop your lump into our saloon? I know-we'll call it a Lotus Cortina! Do us both a world of good ... "

Well, no moss grew on Chapman's business instincts, and so the plot was hatched. Unveiled in January of 1963, the car was really an appealing piece. Think English Shelby Mustang. It started out with a not-quite-finished Cortina two-door sedan taken from the Ford assembly line and shipped to Lotus for installation of Chapman's magic parts.

Foremost among these was the engine. Its standard iron, four-cylinder block was bored out from 1498cc to 1588cc, and the regular pushrod cylinder head was replaced by the twin-cam, two-valve aluminum Lotus item. (The original camshaft remained in the block to drive the oil pump and ignition distributor, but did nothing for the valves, still, technically, this was a triple-cam engine.) Equipped with Italy's famous Weber twin-barrel carbs-two of them-the 1.6-liter Lotus pumped out a claimed 105 hp at 5500 rpm and 108 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.

Remember, it was 1963. Those were pretty good numbers back then. Anyway, that power was nearly twice what the standard Cortina could boast.

Bolted to the engine was a heavy-duty clutch and a highly modified, four-speed manual gearbox with closer ratios than normal. In back came the live axle. Chapman really went to town back there, tearing off the original leaf springs in favor of coils. That meant he had to add a pair of trailing arms, plus a central, A-shaped link pivoting on a special aluminum differential case to control the axle's movement. Here's where he went wrong. But we'll get back to that.

You can spot a genuine early Lotus Cortina today by checking inside the trunk. You'll see tubular braces for that axle A-arm. Also, the battery will be here instead of up front, and the spare tire will be laying flat, rather than standing to one side. Both of those changes were in the interests of weight distribution. Chapman was a bug on weight.

Other mods that made a dull English Ford family sedan into a bright, sparkling Lotus Cortina included a lower and stiffer suspension (the front remained a strut type) with bigger tires. Inside were sporty seats, steering wheel and gearshifter, plus special instruments. The hood, trunk lid and both doors, normally steel, were replaced with aluminum ones. To save more weight, underbody rust protection wasn't applied.

Every car came painted the same: Ermine white with Sherwood green side accents and tail panel. The grille was black, and Lotus badges were on it as well as on both rear fenders.

Contemporary reviews raved about the Lotus Cortina's brisk performance of 0-60 in about 10 seconds and top speed of around 105 mph. Handling was considered excellent, agile yet stable and with high-cornering grip. Tail out to the exit was the norm.

Even British bobbies liked it: some Lotus Cortinas became Motorway patrol cars.

Ford's Walter Hayes took care to capitalize on his investment by putting Chapman's hot rod on the race tracks, and on the rally roads too. Competition models with stripped interiors and plastic windows, tighter suspensions and as much as 145 hp soon began winning major events all around the world.

Lotus' top factory driver in those days, the quiet but brilliant Jim Clark from Scotland (a two-time world champion), stepped out of his F1 car long enough to pick up the British Saloon Car Championship in a Lotus Cortina. Another Scot and future three-time F1 champ, Wee Jackie Stewart, showed off the LoCort to Americans by co-driving one to victory in a 12-hour race at Marlboro, Md.

Pushed to the limit by such aces, this was one spectacular car to watch. Stiff front springs meant the inside front wheel would fly all around every turn.

But, in extended use, on the highway and on the race track, the Lotus Cortina showed a few minor flaws, like the diff opening up and losing its oil, and the rear suspension falling apart. Clanking and banging noises back there when the car was driven hard suggested Chapman might not have gotten his geometries right. Private owners as well as race teams, and especially rallyists, had to stay on top of their maintenance to keep the car going.

Various minor fixes were attempted, but Ford, rightly concerned for its corporate reputation, finally told Chapman to go back to the tried-and-true leaf spring suspension. That took effect in June 1965.

By this time, other changes had begun to dilute the Lotus Cortina's original, performance-is-everything character. The aluminum differential and body parts were declared optional in 1964. Gearbox problems led to less and less Lotus content. Everyday drivers were beginning to admit that, fun though it was to play Jim Clark when the roads were right, the stiff, rev-happy LoCort was a little tiresome in traffic.

The end came early in 1967. Ford redesigned the Cortina's body and took the opportunity to announce that, while there would still be a Lotus version, this Mark II model would come off the regular Ford production line. A gain in reliability, a loss in cachet. Also, the new car was bigger, heavier and uglier. Though the Lotus engine's horsepower was bumped a bit to 109, it wouldn't be enough to compensate for the new car's lack of charm. And color combos other than white-and-green were available. The reborn LoCort just wasn't the same.

That's why today, despite all its foibles, the Mark I, like Mike Schaffer's unrestored and unmolested 1966 example, is the one to want.

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