Why you’d want a Lotus Cortina Mk1
When it was first announced in The Motor in January 1963 as ‘A ravening wolf in slightly sheepish clothing’, the Lotus-modified Ford Cortina was to be sold through Ford dealers as ‘The Consul Cortina Sports Special’.
Walter Hayes at Ford saw the potential sales benefits in a successful British Saloon Car Championship campaign, and Lotus could see the race potential in Ford’s everyman saloon, with its light, stiff monocoque shell, MacPherson strut front suspension and highly tunable oversquare engine.
Lotus and Cosworth had made the Anglia 105E motor dominant in Formula Junior, and Lotus had commissioned Harry Mundy to design a twin-cam head for the Consul Classic engine (which Ford conveniently enlarged to 1498cc just in time for the new Lotus Elan): it was a marriage made in heaven.
The Lotus Cortina was assembled by Lotus and was an instant success, resulting in Jim Clark (who had played an important role in developing and testing the car) winning the British Saloon Car Championship in 1964; Ford couldn’t have hoped for more.
Unsurprisingly, as a production road car it had its share of quality issues, especially the alloy diff housing coming away from the axle casing due to the cornering loads inflicted by the Lotus A-frame location.
From June 1964, once 1000 (or so) had been built for homologation, the aluminium parts were swapped for Ford production items and the price was reduced from £1100 to £992 – so the earliest examples are now more desirable, even if they were not the most reliable when new.
With so many raced, crashed, rotten and reshelled, and replicas created from no more than a logbook and a two-door shell, buying a Lotus Cortina is a minefield that should be negotiated with great caution.
Join the Lotus Cortina Register and get help to check provenance before buying: a reshelled car or a replica, if done properly, is every bit as fun (and less of a tragedy if raced and crashed), but is worth substantially less than an original car with full history.
Details such as boot mountings for the spare wheel and battery, servo mounting in the engine bay or braces for the rear suspension are check points, but you need to know how Ford/Lotus built the originals to confidently identify one: www.lotuscortinainfo.com is a big help.
Images: Will Williams
Lotus Cortina Mk1: what to look for
Charmingly described in The Motor as ‘a good compromise for a keen driver who has to remember that the family must sit somewhere’, the Lotus Cortina is still an exhilarating drive, with torquey, lively acceleration, firm handling, adequate brakes, excellent visibility and, in Aeroflow form, good ventilation.
See above for trouble spots
The Twin Cam is an excellent engine, but needs careful setting up and thorough maintenance. Check for oil in the water and vice versa, for leaks from the water pump, oil leaks, excessive breathing, a rattly timing chain or knocks from the bottom end. Oil pressure hot should be 10-15psi at tickover, 40-plus at speed.
Lower front suspension shared few parts with standard cars, with stiffer springs/dampers, longer forged track-control arms and thicker anti-roll bar.
Gearbox ratios changed three times in production, and few are original. Check that the synchromesh still functions and bearings aren’t growling.
Lotus designed improved front seats, while the steering wheel, dashboard, instruments and centre console were special, too: original parts are rare.
The chassis number was stamped into the MacPherson strut top (here on a different car), though most will have been cut out or plated over.
Lotus Cortina Mk1: on the road
With a five-bearing crank and oversquare dimensions, the Twin Cam is long-lived if well maintained. The water pump is a weak point (rock the pulley, there should be no play) and if it’s been run dry after water-pump failure, the head may be warped. Corrosion damage also wreaks havoc with heads.
Super unleaded fuel is needed to avoid pinking: if it still pinks, the head may have been skimmed too far. If the timing-chain adjuster is screwed almost fully in, a new chain is needed.
Webers are reliable once set up: the original airbox is rare and sought after. The close-ratio Elan gearbox fitted until late 1964 was great for racing, but not so good for normal road use where a wider spread of gears is desirable. All had a slick change and synchromesh on all four ratios, so check that the synchros are good and that the bearings aren’t getting noisy (dip the clutch in neutral to see if there is a noise that goes away).
Early cars featured aluminium doors, bonnet, bootlid, diff housing, gearbox extension, remote control and bellhousing, plus coil-sprung rear suspension with A-frame location, and shorter steering arms combined with a quick steering box. With the Lotus Cortina’s value today, most have been reproduced but sourcing original factory parts, if preferred, is hugely expensive. Later examples lost these unique components so are cheaper to restore, but a little heavier and less nimble – and significantly less valuable, despite being better suited to normal road use.
Lotus Cortina Mk1 price guide
- Show: £75,000
- Average: £50,000
- Restoration: £30,000
- Show: £55,000
- Average: £37,500
- Restoration: £25,000
NB: cars with significant history fetch much more
Lotus Cortina Mk1 history
1962 Sep Consul Cortina introduced
1963 Jan Lotus Cortina launched Dec Lotus offers 30 stripped-out, stiffened, race-tuned Group 2 cars to private customers: 140bhp from 1594cc, lsd, Perspex windows, 128mph; 51 built
1964 Jan S/E option: 115bhp, green-painted cam covers (usually blue), adjustable rear dampers Jun Phasing out of alloy panels/transmission parts begins; split prop reduces vibration; poly bushes replace threaded bearing in A-frame
1964 Oct Aeroflow ventilation, new grille and sidelights, revised dash and steering
1964 Nov Close-ratio gearbox dropped
1965 Jul A-frame rear suspension replaced with GT leaf springs/radius arms plus anti-tramp bars
1965 Oct GT front calipers, self-adjusting rear brakes, seats/trim and closer (2000E) gear ratios
1966 Left-hand drive available
1966 Oct Mk2 Cortina replaces Mk1
The owner’s view
Will Payton bought his first Lotus Cortina, a Mk2, in the mid-1970s: “I always thought the Mk1 was prettier and in the ’80s I bought one that had been rolled, then repaired it. After that, business took over until, in ’09, I had space and started buying. I have five now, including Jim Clark’s own car, a prototype that Ford refused to put into production on cost grounds. It has Elan independent rear suspension and rear discs.
“I buy them bodily good, but do a lot of restoration work myself – my aim is to make them all drive properly, which very few Lotus Cortinas do. I don’t know why I have so many – I just like having something I know about, and I know what to look for. There are a lot of fakes, and many have been messed around with or built from logbooks; provenance is what it’s all about.”
MINI COOPER ‘S’
Available with 970cc, 1071cc or 1275cc, the giant-killing Cooper ‘S’ always pestered the Lotus on track, albeit not as quick in standard form. Originality is key.
Sold 1963-’71 • No. built 45,629 • Price now £12-40k
ALFA GIULIA TI
With its sweet 1570cc twin-cam, the 998kg Alfa was slower than the Lotus as standard, but in rare Super form for ETCC homologation had the legs of the Cortina S/E.
Sold 1962-’72 • No. built c500 Supers • Price now £15-70k
Lotus Cortina Mk1: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
With an enviable pedigree and low production numbers, the Mk1 Lotus Cortina is now hugely sought after, but the majority have suffered from neglect, rot, crashes and major repairs or even been reshelled over the years.
As a result, buying well can be a challenge and you’ll need help to get the right car. But when you do, the chances are you’ll want to keep it for ever.
Great performance, serious street cred, excellent club/specialist support and room for a family
A boy-racer special for decades, so most have been modified, lost rare parts and been poorly repaired; putting that right can be costly
Lotus Cortina Mk1 specifications
- Sold/number built 1963-’66/c3300
- Construction steel monocoque, with some aluminium panels
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1558cc ‘four’, twin Weber 40DCOE carbs
- Max power 105bhp @ 5500rpm to 115bhp @ 6000rpm Max torque 108lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear live axle, telescopic dampers, coil springs, trailing arms and A-bracket (later semi-elliptic springs, radius arms, anti-tramp bars)
- Steering Burman recirculating ball
- Brakes 93/4in (248mm) discs front, 9in (229mm) drums rear, with servo
- Length 14ft 1/4in (4275mm)
- Width 5ft 21/2in (1588mm)
- Height 4ft 51/2in (1356mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 21/2in (2502mm)
- Weight 1820-1949lb (827-886kg)
- 0-60mph 9.7-10.4 secs
- Top speed 107mph
- Mpg 19-26
- Price new £992 (1965)