Ford’s new car for 1962 was the Consul 325 and took aim at the inexpensive family car market with a brilliantly engineered package. Confused as to what this car is? Stuart Grant is talking about the Cortina and gets behind the wheel of the often neglected Mk2 version, which if you exclude the pricey Lotus version has to be one of the most family-friendly classics around.
Soon into its life, the Consul 325 swapped out its numbers for the name inspired by the Italian ski resort Cortina d’Ampezzo, where the 1956 Winter Olympics had been held. It was a match made in heaven (ironic, for it was codenamed ‘Project Archbishop’) and the car, first badged Consul Cortina and then Ford Cortina, took the sales charts by storm. If there was a downside to the Mk1 Cortina it was its very fashionable styling. Like all trends, the look dated quickly and Ford hurried into launching the Mk2 version four years later. Ford’s Mk2 tagline read ‘New Cortina is More Cortina!’ and claimed more space, more power, more comfort, more luxury. It worked, with more sales.
Yes, that’s right – while the Mk1 Cortina is the one most fondly remembered, the Mk2 actually outsold its older sibling.
With design boss Roy Haynes taking a page out of Ford America’s book, the Mk2 went with a boxy-minimalistic aesthetic. For the most part, the copywriters told the truth – there was more… more overall width, more cabin room, more boot space, more occupant comfort and ergonomics, more luxury and a more plush ride. So with all this ‘more’ we’ll ignore the fact that they forgot to mention it was a touch shorter than the original – the Mk1 measured in at 4 274mm and the Mk2 at 4 267mm.
Other aspects where the Mk2 outshone the Mk1 were a smaller turning circle, softer suspension and self-adjusting brakes and clutch. And then there was the engine. Very early cars carried over the Mk1 engine offerings but from 1967 the legendary cross-flow Kent was offered in both 1300cc and 1600cc guise in the UK. Despite the Cortina selling in South Africa during ’67 we had to wait a further year for the cross-flow power units, but from the outset were granted it in two-door, four-door and, for those wanting even more, station wagon format. In 1968 a wagon would set you back R1 939, the 1600 GT R1 984, 1600 Super R1 859 and the 1300 R1 677.
This year wasn’t all about the engine though as the Cortina, which featured a four-speed manual gearbox as the norm, also offered buyers a three-speed automatic. For the luxury of what road testers referred to as a ‘restless feel’ (because of over-responsiveness) and ‘only adequate on the open road’ performance, auto buyers had to cough up R2 059 for the pleasure.
Motorsport had played a huge role in the Mk1’s sales success – especially with the likes of Jim Clarke three-wheeling the Lotus version to touring car victories through the UK. Locally it was much the same with legends like Koos Swanepoel, Bob Olthoff and Basil van Rooyen enjoying success in both Lotus and GT variants. So it was no surprise to see the Mk2 hit the track as soon as it launched. For South Africa the Mk2 race programme kicked off at the end of 1967 when Peter Gough collected a 1300 two-door body from the Plant in Port Elizabeth and delivered it to race-and-tuning ace Willie Meissner in Cape Town. Here the car was stripped and then rebuilt with Cosworth FVA power and it became the first Mk2 to race in the world when it debuted just days before the UK-based Alan Mann Racing Mk2. Decked out in the number Y151, Gough’s Cortina enjoyed some success but its lifespan was short-lived with the arrival of the lighter Ford Escort as the firm’s saloon car racing vehicle of choice.
What the Escort took away from the Cortina on track was echoed to a certain degree on the sales charts. The Escort was the 105E Anglia replacement launched locally in 1968 and despite being a step down from the Cortina on the hierarchy, the level of practicality and pricing saw the 1100 and 1300 format stealing some market share from the Mk2 Cortina. In its arrival year, an 1100 Escort would hit the pocket at R1 356, while a range-topping 1300GT cost R1 729.
Forecasting this conundrum, Ford Britain set about raising the Cortina status by unveiling the 1600E version at the ’67 Paris Motor Show. Upgrades included Rostyle wheels, a black rear panel and vinyl roof, uprated Kent engine (bigger valves, re-profiled camshaft and twin-choke Weber carb), more sporting suspension, a Burr Walnut woodgrain-trimmed dashboard and door cappings, bucket seats, race car-like steering wheel and additional instrumentation. It worked a charm and became the family Ford to have.
Ford South Africa looked into the 1600E and a few test units made their way to PE. But it was not to be though, with our executives opting to cosmetically doll-up a GT and call it an XL instead. Additional long-range driving lights, chrome wheel arch and rocker panel mouldings, four moulded individual seats and full-width dash fascia panel were the parts that distinguished the XL from the rest of the range but despite the addition of 24kg over the GT, performance between the two was on a par.
At sea level the GT/XL delivered a zero to 60mph (96.5km/h) sprint of 12 seconds flat and could keep trucking up to the 150km/h mark. While these figures were more than comparable with the competition, Ford South Africa had another tricks up its sleeve to get the Mk2 to the top of the performance pile – enter Basil Green of Perana fame.
Ford believed in motorsport as a marketing tool, but when it realised its main man Olthoff wouldn’t have a competitive car for the ’68 season, the powers that be turned to Green. I suppose Ford could have looked into the Mk2 Lotus Cortina (the likes of Clark and Graham Hill were racing these overseas) but it’s likely that the cost implications were too great and Ford feared that, in regular road-use the twin-cam motor might prove problematic 6 000 feet above sea level on the Highveld.
The Green solution seemed simple enough. Take the firm’s Essex 3-litre V6 and slot it into a Mk2 Cortina GT. Then make 100 for homologation purposes. Go racing. It was a match made in heaven; not only did the Gunston-liveried Perana Cortina V6 becoming an instant racing legend but the quality of the work saw the road-going Peranas given full Ford warranties and sold via the Grosvenor Ford group for R2 950.
Meissner too had a solution for customers wanting a bit more Mk2 GT performance. Like the Perana, the price increase was close on 30% but instead of shoe-horning a bigger lump in under the hood, the engineering genius offered an overhead-valve conversion sold as the Power Plus kit. It basically removed the need for pushrods, rockers and rockershafts by fitting a camshaft in a box above the valves and driving it by means of a belt. With twin side-draught carbs, high compression pistons, a new cylinder head with double valve springs, oil cooler and performance exhaust fitted, converted cars were said to be good for 130 horses, able to rev to 7500rpm, hit 60mph in 8.7 seconds and go to a top speed just shy of 180km/h. Unfortunately it suffered reliability problems, with getting oil to the cam box an issue which often resulted in the camshaft wearing out.
Sure, the Perana, Meissner or imported Mk2 might have been the big fish models that the Ford lobbyists bragged about, but the 1300 and 1600 factory cars were the ones that filled the roads and actually continued the real Cortina legacy started by the Mk1 – that of a brilliantly engineered and well-priced family sedan.
Four years after the first Mk1 rolled off the line, an all-new Cortina Mk3 ‘coke-bottle’ shape was unveiled. Again it offered more and soon took over the mantle as the Cortina to have, relegating the Mk2 to the history books. Although more sold and the production lifespan was of the same length as the Mk1, the Mk2 somehow never enjoyed the same cult following as the Mk1 – maybe it was the dominant racing and rally history that can take the credit for this? Or that in the age where clever bank robbers seem to become heroes, the Mk1 Lotus Cortina was the chosen getaway car? Who knows? Whatever the reason, the result was that many a Mk2 was hacked about, taken far from original and many ended up in the scrapyard.
Finding a good one today is no easy task but when you do it is well worth snapping it up. A preserved Mk2 Cortina is still a leading 1960s saloon, delivering practicality and performance for the whole family.