It’s most unlikely that Ford’s designers, engineers and marketing people had the slightest inkling they were creating what would become a much-loved and enduring automotive icon.
In one of life’s ironies, the man who gave the world the distinctive shape of the MkI Cortina, Roy Brown Jnr, also designed the ill-fated Edsel. Following that fiasco, he was banished to Ford UK’s headquarters at Dagenham, where he absolved himself with the classic and ageless Zephyr and Zodiac MkIII, closely followed by the Cortina. He reportedly didn’t see himself as being ‘banished’ – in fact, he described it as a dream opportunity, and he made the most of it.
Apart from its unmistakeable body shape, the first Cortina was completely conventional. It wasn’t exceptional in any respect, but there were no nasty surprises either and one reason it proved so popular was that it did everything well at an extremely reasonable price. The engine was initially a 36.5kW (49bhp) 1198cc pushrod four, soon joined by a 44.8kW (60bhp) 1498cc version, both driving through a four-speed, allsynchromesh gearbox to a live rear axle. There was Ford’s trademark MacPherson strut suspension at the front and semielliptic leaf springs at the back. A columnmounted gear lever and bench front seat, or buckets and a long floor shift lever were options, depending on the model. Initially brakes were drums all round, although front discs soon became standard across the range.
The interior was stark compared to modern cars, but it was good for the time. In theory a bench-seat Cortina was a six-seater but it was really only comfortable for four. Briefly called the Consul Cortina, the new model was available in two-door and four-door saloons and soon after, an Estate. In an attempt to appeal to American buyers, the Estate could be ordered with simulated wood trim on the body sides and tail gate, an option that was seldom chosen and is extremely rare today.
The first model was a 1200 two-door, followed by the 1500 Super four-door, and before long a GT was announced, with two or four doors. Its 1500 engine had stronger internals, a special Cosworth-designed camshaft, bigger cylinder head ports, sports exhaust system and a Weber 28/36 twinchoke carburettor that boosted power to 58kW (78bhp). A stronger clutch, bigger driveshaft and lower, stiffer suspension were part of a properly integrated package. Bucket seats, centre console full instrumentation and a remote gear linkage gave the GT interior a definite sporty character. Finally, there was a race-oriented Lotus Cortina, with its twin-cam engine, special suspension, close-ratio gearbox and aluminium opening body panels. Although it was part of the Cortina range, it was built by Lotus, not Ford.
The Cortina was given a facelift late in 1964, although we didn’t see it here until March 1965. A new grille and an improved dashboard with Aeroflow interior ventilation were the main changes. The grille was attractive and didn’t spoil the unique lines of the Cortina and the Consul name was gone. A MkII model was introduced in October 1966 and released in New Zealand in March 1967. An attractive but less distinctive update that looked slightly like a three-quarter scale American Falcon, the MkII was as conventional as its predecessor, which then became known as the MkI. While it looked bigger, it was the same length as the MkI and about 60mm wider. This combined with curved side windows and interior door panels, made the MkII feel noticeably more spacious.
The smaller engine was enlarged to 1298cc and fitted with five main bearings instead of the earlier three. In October 1967 a new version of the Kent engine arrived, with a cross-flow cylinder head and ‘bowl in piston’ combustion chambers. There were two versions again, in capacities of 1298cc or 1599cc. Performance was noticeably brisker than the previous models and Ford advertised that the Cortina looked the same but disappeared differently. The GT produced 66kW (88bhp) for a top speed of 158kph. Wheels magazine was among those who thought the MkII 1500 GT was a bit lacking and they were pleased that the 1600 had the “snap, crackle and pop top-of-the-morning feeling” that made MkI GTs so popular.
As with the MkI, the MkII ranged from basic to Lotus-modified (this time built by Ford) but, in a clever bit of marketing, Ford added a new model, the 1600E. Its mix of GT running gear, seating and full instrumentation and lower, Lotus-spec, suspension with luxury touches was truly unique and the 1600E was pretty much a classic from the day it was conceived. What made it so clever was that, as Graham Robson wrote in his book, The Ford Cortina – “Here was a car that had cost mere petty cash to develop, but which was definitely a class above other MkII Cortinas, and which because of its selling price made Ford a great deal of money.”
There was a New Zealand-only version of the 1600E, the GTE. It was available only with four doors and was a GT with the 1600E wooden dash, a centre console, modified seats, a vinyl roof, body side stripes, GTE badging and special wheel covers. Some thought it didn’t quite match the 1600E’s ‘special something’, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming highly collectible. A rare MkII variant was the English-assembled GT estate and there are just a handful of these in New Zealand.
There was a dramatic change in October 1970 when the Cortina grew in size and adopted American ‘coke bottle’ styling, although the new MkIII didn’t arrive in New Zealand until April 1971. Interestingly, the MkIII looked much bigger than the MkII, but it was no longer although it was around 50mm wider, nearly 75mm lower, and had a longer wheelbase. Once again, the Cortina was distinctive and couldn’t be mistaken for any other make or model.
The MkIII was the result of much closer collaboration between Ford of Britain and Ford of Germany, which had combined to become Ford of Europe. The British Cortina and German Taunus were twins under the skin, although the Taunus looked more European than the American-influenced Cortina. This meant the MkIII abandoned MacPherson struts at the front, in favour of double A-arms, and its live back axle was suspended on coils. While the 1300 and 1600 Kent engines were carried over, the big news was the addition of the 1998cc single-overhead camshaft Pinto engine coupled to a new German-designed gearbox. The Pinto produced 73kW (98bhp) and gave the new Cortina very acceptable performance, including a top speed of just over 160kph.
A facelifted MkIII arrived in 1973. The obvious changes were a new grille and a much-improved dashboard, but the facelift models are widely regarded as significantly better overall. An upmarket 2000E echoed the MkII 1600E, but it was more luxury and less sport, despite replacing the GT. The old Kent engine was finally gone, and the Cortina 1600 now featured an overhead cam engine.
October 1976 saw the announcement of the MkIV Cortina, a much more Europeanlooking model almost identical in outward appearance to its German cousin. Looks aside, almost all of the engineering was carried over from the MkIII. The MkIV was better equipped than its predecessors; it looked more expensive and was more expensive as it moved a bit up-market. A new and luxurious Ghia model replaced the 2000E. Again, there was no GT.
In 1980 the MkV was announced and reached our shores in June that year. It wasn’t a completely new car, but more than a facelift. The most noticeable changes were bigger glass area, grille and taillights for an even more attractive appearance. Performance and fuel economy were improved, and later in the year a plush 2.3-litre Ghia was added to the top of New Zealand’s Cortina range, even though it had been previously available overseas in MkIV guise. It had a German V6, automatic transmission only for our market, and power steering. Somehow it didn’t quite fulfil its promise in the eyes of the market, with good but unexciting performance and slightly disappointing fuel economy. However, it was a luxury car, not a sporty one, and in that respect it filled its role well. Another New Zealand-only model was the 2.0S, a limited-edition run-out model that came with a unique bright and sporty interior, firmer suspension, exterior graphics, sports wheels, a front air dam and a boot spoiler.
The last Cortina came off the Dagenham assembly line on 22 July 1982, to make way for the Sierra. New Zealand assembly continued until June the following year and by then 116,000 had been built at Ford’s assembly plant in Seaview, Lower Hutt.
This brief history looks at the Cortinas that were (mostly) readily available on the New Zealand market and doesn’t cover some of the other variants such as the V6-powered South African Mark Vs and their utes, or the unique Australian models, including those powered by Falcon straight sixes.
So, what’s the secret of the Cortina’s universal appeal? It has transcended its place in the car world to be not just an automotive icon, but also a social icon, a bright and cheerful symbol of happier times. As the early Volkswagen Kombi ‘splittie’ is a symbol of an era and a lifestyle, so the Cortina is a symbol of a simpler age of positivity, a time when anything seemed possible. And like the splittie, the Cortina is truly an intergenerational car, loved by older people who were able to buy a new one, right through to the modern generations born well after Cortina production had ended. It might have started with the MkI that continues to hold a special status, but the Cortina’s irresistible appeal has flowed on to the later models. It would be hard to find a ‘mature’ Kiwi whose life hasn’t been touched by a Cortina, whether they were an owner, or their parents, other family members or friends had them. Although we can’t claim the Cortina as exclusively ours, it’s a New Zealand motoring icon and part of the Kiwi cultural fabric, and that’s not overstating its importance.
Graham Robson summed up the Cortina in all its permutations over its 20-year lifespan by saying in 2002 that, “Nothing could ever replace the Cortina, they said, and they were right. Ford still wishes that it will one day again produce such a trouble-free and universally popular family car.”
“May you stay forever young,” sang Bob Dylan and that’s just about the best thing you could wish anyone. Probably no-one has actually wished that of the Cortina, but it is, and always will be, forever young.
[NZ Classic Driver would like to thank theClassic Cortina Club for its help with this article.]
The first owner of Wayne’s Estate was a Kiwi lady who bought it in England on the tourist delivery scheme and drove it around Britain and Europe for a year before having it shipped home. She kept it until she died, 42 years later. For all of that time she meticulously recorded every time she drove it, every refuel and every service, and calculated the annual cost per mile. Wayne bought it ten years ago through the Classic Cortina Club. Since then, he’s done a little bit of tidying up, fitted an Aquaplane alloy cylinder head and genuine period Dunlop alloy wheels. It’s done a mere 43,000 miles from new.
The Estate is one of three early Cortinas Wayne owns; the other two are both GTs – a two-door being restored and a four door.
Cathy has owned her Cortina twice – once when she was young and carefree, and it was her only car for a while. Later, reduced family responsibilities saw her looking for another Cortina. She found one advertised for sale online in 2012 and could scarcely believe it was her old car.
During her first ownership, Cathy completely stripped the car, had it repainted in its original and rare shade of Ambassador Blue and re-assembled it. Ten years after buying it again, it still wears that same paint and looks stunning. Even better, it drives like it looks, as Cathy and her husband Ian have returned it to prime condition. The engine was overhauled a few years ago and given a few modifications, including a camshaft for torque rather than outright power, which is partly why the car is a delight to drive.
This Cortina was Joel’s first car. It looks like a low ‘n’ slow cruiser, with narrow wheels, hubcaps and wide whitewall tyres, but looks can be deceiving. In fact, it’s a thoroughly sorted and highly capable competition car that’s seen several iterations before Joel settled on the current look.
At one stage, wide Minilite replica wheels gave it a racier image and Joel fitted a pair of Dell ‘Orto side-draught carburettors and hot camshaft. The suspension was lowered and modified but is still largely standard. The aim was to be competitive in hill climbs and sprints, and photos and video clips on social media confirm the car is not all show and no go.
The interior is surprisingly standard and one thing that hasn’t changed for years is the stunning colour that needs to be seen to be properly appreciated. The original engine has just been overhauled and fitted with numerous go-faster parts, but the car will see less competition work from now on.
When Ross bought this GT in 2014, it had sat partly dismantled for 40 years after being crashed and repaired. The body was rust-free and he had it repainted in the original Dragoon Red. The engine had been reconditioned and was still in excellent condition, and it was the same with the rest of the running gear and the interior. They were simply re-installed, although the engine now sports a pair of big side-draught carbs. It really is a perfect example of a twodoor MkI GT.
This is one of two GTs Ross owns. The other is an exceptionally rare MkI Estate, although it was a major restoration project and is not completely original. Replica Minilite wheels are obvious, but the big news is under the bonnet, where a Lotus twin-cam sits in place of the original pushrod 1500. Ross seems to know only one standard and the Estate is also in superb condition.
This Lotus was imported into New Zealand from England in 1967. It had been bought by a young New Zealand couple on their Kiwi OE. They signed up to buy a Corsair, but there was a problem with that car, and they chose the Lotus instead. Back home in New Zealand, they sold the car to help with the mortgage on a property. It was bought by a young man who crashed it. By the time Peter bought it, a full restoration was needed. Peter wasn’t in a position to start on it right away and the car was stored for 20 years. Finally, the time came to start the restoration, and the engine was fully reconditioned while the body was stripped back to bare metal, painted in the correct Lotus colours and then re-assembled. The car is now in beautiful original condition and it’s one of the few Lotus Cortinas that’s never been fitted with a roll cage. Peter has every intention of keeping it in its superb condition.
Denys bought this 2000 GT from his local Ford agent in 1973. It was his first new car, and he still has the original invoice and receipt. The purchase price was $4257 plus $28 for front seat belts and $100 for a radio. He wanted Turbine Bronze paint with a Parchment vinyl roof but had to settle for Daytona Yellow.
The car has been completely reliable and needed only routine servicing, a new exhaust system and alternator. Denys has always done minor maintenance himself, including oil and filter changes. He’s always considered it a great car to drive. He married and had a family, and inherited his father’s Commodore, so the Cortina became the second car before being stored. For years it was used rarely, with Denys sometimes taking it to golf, to give it a run. It’s now done just 144,000km. After all those years the yellow paint is still glossy, the interior is in good condition and the car shows just a few marks of age.
Doug is a long-time Cortina enthusiast and, for him, the first is best. His 1963 Estate was so well restored in the UK that the previous owners were invited to display it at the 2011 Goodwood Revival celebration of 100 years of Ford of Britain. Doug acquired it later that year.
Almost art deco on wheels, this ‘woody wagon’ exudes an irresistible charm that brings smiles to faces. To add to the effect, Doug and his partner, Jo, have gathered up several period extras for car shows, including suitcases that sit on an oldschool roof rack. It’s extremely rare – only 40 were made in 1963 and there are eight known survivors. The woody look was designed for the American market, where ‘woodies’ had been popular for decades. While they featured real wood until the 1950s, the Cortina has a modern version to give a similar appearance.
Doug also has a completely original, unrestored 1200 Deluxe and a superb Lotus, both from 1963.
Ian bought his “ultimate Cortina”, a two-door MkII GT, in 1986. It was a good, tidy car and running well, but he wanted a show car. He embarked on a full restoration, determined to carry out as much work as possible himself and learned as he went along.
This car was an American market model and differs in a few details from Commonwealth market cars. Its front indicators and park lights are combined in one orange-lensed light on each side under the bumper, and the rear indicators have red lenses. A knob in the middle of each door interior operates the lock, and it has a wooden dash.
Recently, Ian took the GT off the road to have the engine fully reconditioned. He asked for “a bit more spark” and the engine builder interpreted that as a ‘hot’ engine. The miscommunication ended well, as Ian is delighted that his new engine develops strong, smooth power and is tractable and easy to drive in the city. He went also right through the suspension and steering, to ensure the car drives like a new Cortina GT.
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