The history of streetcar-based racecars in large part is populated by stunning looking pieces of automotive art like the 1973 911 RSR and 1963 Ferrari GTO, cars that not only dominated their respective race venues, but looked the part while running away with all the trophies. But not all successful racers like to shout their intentions. Some legendary cars don’t look legendary at all.
Take the Lotus Cortina pictured here, which looks like the kind of cute car one would have used back in its heyday to run errands and commute to work in. But while the Cortina was no doubt used for such mundane tasks as a family hauler and runs to the local grocer, most historic motorsports enthusiasts with an even passing knowledge of international road-racing know that this little two-door English sedan is far more than just a means of getting from here to there.
The Lotus Cortina resulted from a partnership between Ford and Lotus that began in the early 1960s. Lotus was interested in making a twin-cam powerplant based on Ford’s four-cylinder for its upcoming Elan. Ford meanwhile wanted the publicity that comes with having a successful racecar. FoMoCo of Europe’s executives were hardly ignorant of the positive effect that motorsports can have on showroom sales and the Lotus Cortina was the perfect solution.
Once the Cortina shells were made by Ford, they were shipped to Lotus’ factory in Chesunt, England where they were built into machines far more capable than their passenger car roots. Under the hood was the same motor fitted to the Elan, an alloy-headed twin-cam, 1558cc engine based on Ford’s basic, 1.3-liter motor. Fuel delivery was via dual, side-draught Weber 40 DCOE carbs and all told the motor put out 105 horsepower- the latter an odd claim since the concurrent Elan had 15 hp less. The front suspension consisted of shortened MacPherson struts, stiffer springs and a steering rack that was quicker than the normal Cortina GT.
At the rear, there were stiffer and lower springs, an anti-roll and a limited-slip differential. Early Cortinas used a coil and shock located by trailing arms, but this proved to be fragile in competition and was later replaced by a simpler leaf spring suspension. Another change that was made over the Cortina’s production run was the switch from light, alloy body panels on the early versions to normal steel panels.
Almost all Cortina’s left Lotus’ factory in Ermine white with a green stripe down the sides and a handful of tell-tale Lotus badging to leave no doubt of its sporting intentions. Initial road tests of the Lotus Cortina by the motoring press of the day brought rave reviews. “The result is one of the most exhilarating small sedans we have ever driven,” claimed Road & Track in 1964. Though Cortina’s suffered from poor quality control and had numerous mechanical issues that kept Ford’s service department’s busy, there was no arguing with the little sedan’s racetrack success. Shortly after the first ones hit the track, the wins came fast. In 1964, F1-champion Jim Clark won the British Saloon Car Championship in a Lotus Cortina and there was a number of additional wins at races in Europe and in North America. John Whitmore and his Alan Mann race team alone took home five wins in Europe. 1966 was even better. The Cortina won the British Saloon Car Championship once again, while Whitmore took home the European Touring Car Series.
There were also multiple rally wins, one of the most notable of which was the 1965 Welsh Rally, won by Clark. 1966 and 1967 saw more rally wins, such as the Greek Acropolis and British RAC. Road course wins continued in 1966 and later years, but the Cortina was finally pushed off of the winner’s podium by the accomplished Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA. Shortly thereafter, the Cortina was replaced by the equally accomplished Escort.
The owner of our featured Cortina, a 1966 MKI, is Dave Steele of Temecula, California who has had a special place in his heart for this car since he was a high school student in the late 1960s. “I had a friend in high school who drove a Cortina GT Mark II,” recalls Steele. “But the father of my friend’s girlfriend had a Cortina Mark I, which my friend constantly raved about. In fact, my friend told me he dated this girl because her dad drove a Cortina MKI.” The story was certainly food for thought and Steele decided that someday he would try and acquire one. A few years later, Steele graduated from college and started looking around for one. “I was pretty naïve about English cars,” he admits. He was spectating at a vintage race at one point and came across an MKI Cortina for sale in the paddock. When the owner came around Steele started asking questions. Questions like “Does it leak oil?”
“The owner quickly realized that this was not the car for me,” chuckles Steele. Over the years since then, he’s acquired a much more sophisticated understanding of classic cars and has built up an eclectic collection of vintage machinery that includes a Ferrari Dino, Renault R5 Turbo and a DeTomaso Mangusta- to name a small handful.
Steel acquired his 1966 Lotus Cortina in early 2004. “I had been looking on and off over the years, but had been busy getting other cars,” says Steele. An Internet search turned up a Cortina for sale in Florida that was advertised as restored, so Steel made the plunge and purchased it. When it arrived on an open transporter it was in need of more work than Steele had anticipated. “It had major needs,” he recalls. “It didn’t run right and I had to put a stack of hard-back books under the broken driver’s seat to drive it.” Steel contacted his restorer Raffi Najjarian in Northern Californa. “Raffi flew down, looked at the car and told me he was going to start restoring it right away. On the drive back to his shop, it broke down three times. Luckily, Raffi is an ace mechanic, so he made the trip.”
Over the next three years, Najjirian performed a full restoration on the Cortina. “Finding all of the parts was a three-year scavenger hunt,” notes Steele. “For as many of these cars as they made in England, parts can be harder to find than Ferrari parts.” Missing or broken components of the car were sourced from numerous channels. There were also repeat visits to E-Bay U.K.
The brakes and suspension were removed and rebuilt along with the driveline. While the Cortina was disassembled, the body underwent some rust repair and was sent out to repainted in its original Ermine White with the striking Sherwood Green striped down the side and around the back. During the reassembly process, every component of the sedan was thoroughly restored before being reinstalled.
Though the restoration was generally painstakingly original, Steele elected to make a few improvements to the Cortina’s performance. “The motor that was in the car was a tall-block, so it was stroked to 1700cc. We ported and polished the crank, installed J/E pistons and put in a hotter sprint cam.” The result is an engine that now makes around 120 hp, as opposed to the original 105 hp. The stock differential was swapped from a 3.91 to a closer ratio 3.55 Quaife LSD.
Since the restoration was completed, Steel has shown the Cortina a few times, but more importantly has been driving the wheels off of it. The first stop was the 2007 Palo Alto Concours, where the Cortina won Best In Class for Sports Coupe that cost under $5,000 when new. After that, the Cortina was invited to be shown at the ultra exclusive event held at the Quail Lodge on the Friday of Monterey Weekend. “That was an honor,” says Steele, who spent the rest of the weekend driving the Cortina around the Monterey Peninsula.
The car was a hit everywhere it went. “A lot of people know what the Cortina is, but they never see them on the street,” he adds. Steele says he’s put nearly 5,000 miles on it since the rebuild. “I drive the hell out of it,” he grins. “It’s such a practical car, with the back seats and the big trunk.” Along the way, he’s become a huge fan the Cortina’s driving experience. “It’s an interesting car to drive. In period racing photos of Cortinas going around corners, they look like they roll so much that they look like sinking ships.” The experience from behind the wheel though is far different. “Once it just take a line around a corner, it just sticks. It’s really phenomenal, and I’m ecstatic about fun it is to drive.” This is coming from a guy who also has two Ferraris and an Acura NSX.
With that endorsement, Steele tosses us the keys to the understated two-door. Once we’re seated in the relatively plush, but un-bolstered Cortina’s driver’s seat, the interior is to an extent a reflection of the understated exterior, which is to say simple and utilitarian. The driving position behind the thin, three-spoke wood-rimmed steering wheel is upright and the commanding view out is helped along considerably by the Cortina’s generous greenhouse. Just past the helm are large black-faced Smiths gauges emblazoned with a retro-looking font and to the right of them four additional gauges for monitoring vital signs, all mounted in an austere metal dash. There’s also a tell-tale badge mounted on the center console that reads “Lotus,” and below that “Indianapolis 500 Winners 1965.”
Once we’re underway, despite the fact that the motor boasts a mere 120 horsepower, the Cortina feels relatively spritely for such a vintage car and has no problems running with modern traffic and staying clear of lumbering SUVs. Steel The Lotus-tuned Ford four-cylinder revs enthusiastically with a muted but thrashy sounding burble spilling from the exhaust. It’s very understated and civilized though, since Steele has left the car entirely stock, which means it’s the kind of classic you could drive over a long distance and not get overly tired. As originally equipped, there is also a large air cleaner going to the side-draft Webers, so there is none of the tell-tale intake snort that usually accompanies this setup. It’s pretty obvious why Steele drives this car so often.
It’s through a series of sweepers taken at a decent rate of speed that the terrific balance of the Cortina comes to light. On initial turn-in the nose pushes wide with a little understeer. Once the chassis takes a set though that push transforms into a slightly tail-out stance. I feel like Jim Clark for a fleeting moment, with the tires keening at the edge of adhesion and a sliver of opposite lock keeping things in control as the Cortina exits the corner.
When we downshift for an upcoming corner, the shift action proves to be delightfully positive and direct. There is very little slop to its action, and in fact the Lotus Elan-sourced gearbox helps the Cortina feel like that much more of a sports car. The brakes offer a decent and progressive bite, and though they aren’t the most spectacular binders around, must be seen in the context of the Cortina’s era. And seen thusly, there just fine. Overall, the Cortina has a simple and utilitarian feel that lacks the finesse and sophistication of rivals such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA. But the fact that this sport sedan never truly hides its roots that sprang from a simple economy car is one of the biggest reasons it is so beguiling. Today’s sedans from companies like BMW and Audi owe much to the Cortina’s legacy. If there were such a thing as an automotive Hall of Fame, this machine would certainly belong among its ranks.