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Roots - 1965 Ford/ Lotus Cortina MK1

By James Tate, Photography by E. John Thawley III

Most of us are perfectly content with the assumption that the first "sport-compact car" was the Honda Civic Si, and the first car to be dubbed a "giant beater" was the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. But those who aren't so wet behind the ears might chuckle at such ignorance, knowing that it was Ford who wrote the book forty years ago, with the help of a little company called Lotus. The Lotus/Ford Cortina became available to the public in 1963 because in order to compete in group-2 racing, 1000 cars had to be produced for use on the street. The result of this requirement was that racing aficionados the world over had access to what was essentially a race-ready car with a few amenities tacked on for good measure.

When the diminutive Lotus/Ford Cortina Mk I reached our shores in 1965, it was as unconventional as its four-wheel independent suspension; weighing in at just under 1900 pounds and sporting a dual overhead cam inline-four built by Lotus. The car hit American racetracks at a time when pushrod-V8 goliaths muscled around corners in heroic four-wheel drifts and blasted down straightaways in a fury of raw torque. Regardless, the nimble Lotus Cortina began to dominate on the track, making up for what it lacked in horsepower with handling competence and late braking ability. Since that day, and for those reasons, the Lotus Cortina has remained a collector's item in the eyes of those that know of its legacy. CJ Bonura bought this Ferrari red example as a partially built racing car in 1997 as a cheap entrance into a passion that had long grabbed him: vintage racing.

The reality of owning a racing car in lieu of a street-driven car set in quickly, however. From the never-ending list of parts needing constant replacement to the need for high-dollar modifications in order to stay competitive, CJ soon knew that it would take a lot more than the $15,000 he paid for the car to realize his vintage racing dream. Nevertheless, he was determined to make that dream a reality. A host of modifications were performed in an effort to both increase performance and to make the car more durable for the rough lapping it was subjected to on a regular basis.

First to be beefed up was the engine, which thanks to the help of Tony Ingram of G.B. Components received a bump in displacement, from 1.5 liters to almost 1.8 liters, along with a dry-sump oiling system to keep things greasy under high-rpm conditions. The bottom end went together with a fully balanced and forged steel crankshaft, Carrillo rods and Cosworth 12.5:1 compression pistons, while the aluminum head received an oversized valvetrain to match the custom-ground camshafts.

To help put the extra twist coming from the Lotus crankshaft to the ground, the transmission was replaced with a close-ratio 4-speed dog-ring crash-box from Quaife. CJ keeps four different final-drive gears handy to suit each circuit, ranging from 4.11:1 to 4.9:1. The high-pitched whine that fills the cockpit confirms that there is something undeniably bad ass about rowing through a straight-cut gearbox, and a Tilton twin-plate clutch ensures that torque is turned into forward motion with a militaristic shove upon each 8800-rpm upshift.

By James Tate
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