Jay Leno’s Garage Gives Some Love to the 1966 Lotus (Ford) Cortina
One of the first homologation specialsby Michael Fira, on
The Lotus Cortina, or Ford Cortina Lotus as it has also become known, is the street-going version of the Group 2 touring car that became one of the most famous and successful models of its kind in the ’60s, routinely hitting above its weight and beating Mustangs, Falcons and even the odd Ford Galaxie in the British Saloon Car Championship, the European Touring Car Championship and beyond. Originally, only 1,000 Cortinas were built to meet homologation needs, and the car in the video is a genuine one.
The original Lotus Cortina, based on the Mark 1 Consul Cortina, was launched in 1963 and received comprehensive modifications by Lotus with its beating heart being a 1.5-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine designed by Harry Mundy. The example shown in this episode of Jay Leno’s Garage has been painstakingly restored to better-than-new condition by Jim Hall, Leno’s chief fabricator, after spending three decades neglected at the mercy of the elements.
The Cortina Lotus, Ford’s ’Goliath slayer’ in the touring car world
For many of us car people the Mark 1 Lotus Cortina is a holy grail. One of the first road cars built specifically with the aim of homologating the Group 2 racing sedan, it was a true sleeper of the ’60s, built on the underpinnings of the European equivalent of the Ford Falcon.
It received a twin-cam engine and all the chassis and suspension wizardry from Lotus which helped it keep up on the road with the much more powerful 3.8-liter Jaguar Mark 2, for instance.
The Lotus Cortina was a product of necessity. In short, Ford of Britain needed to show its worth in motorsport. Lotus was the outfit chosen to help them achieve this goal in 1960, at a time when the company established by Colin Chapman was barely getting its feet wet in Formula 1. The two companies shared knowledge while the Elan project was ongoing. Earlier, Ron Hickman, an ex-Ford designer who’d drawn up an Anglia-based sports car for Ford, jumped ship to Lotus and lent a hand in the creation of the Elite. He was then tasked with designing the Elan which, originally, should’ve been sold the world over through Ford’s dealer network. While this idea fell through, the two companies grew closer together.
That’s why Chapman decided to switch to Ford power for its new two-door, two-seater sports car as the Coventry-Climax engines were expensive. The new unit was based on an Anglia block, the 109E, which was overbored and featured a twin-cam arrangement. The original design is attributed to Harry Mundy, drafted by Lotus directly from Climax, although Mike Costin (of Cosworth), Lotus’ own technical director, and Harry Weslake helped refine the engine.
Later on, this 1.3-liter unit was abandoned as Ford launched the 122E 1.5-liter engine in 1962.
It quickly received the twin-cams and was laid in the middle of the Lotus 23 sports car. With that particular car, Jim Clark led effortlessly in the 1962 Nurburgring 1,000-kilometer race before the exhaust broke and fumes started nauseating Clark. He crashed out in the 12th lap, but the test was deemed a success since the little sports car outshone in front of the big 3.0-liter Aston-Martins and Ferraris entered that day.
Still, the engine needed a lot more fiddling, as did the Elan as a whole. This didn’t mean that Chapman thought for a moment about turning down Ford’s offer to modify their Consul Cortina into a quick road car and an even quicker race car. In the end, Lotus needed money to keep working on the Elan, and so the deal was sealed around the same time that the 23 ran at the ’Ring. A silver Cortina was used as the test mule but the color was quickly changed to the combination we know and love today: Ermine White with Sherwood Green striping on either side.
Jim Clark first tried out the Cortina with the 1.5-liter 102-horsepower twin-cam engine in October of 1962 at Snetterton. He later confessed in the February 1963 issue of Ford Times that driving the car "gave me the same exhilaration as driving a Formula 1 car on the road." He went on to applaud the car’s acceleration, which felt "as if someone had picked the car up and just thrown it past the car in front," and stopping power.
It became evident that the Cortina was good when, soon after, it lapped Silverstone on a sunny day in just 1:56 seconds, two seconds shy off Graham Hill's record in a 3.8-liter Jaguar.
The road-going Cortina Lotus was finally unveiled at the London Racing Car Show in late January of 1963. The car received FIA Group 2 homologation by September of that same year as it took a few months for everything to get off the ground and going. Basically, the bodies left from Ford and were completed at Lotus, who also outfitted the sporty Cortina with lighter body panels, namely the doors, hood, and trunk.
The engine, in its final iteration and with a capacity of almost 1.6-liters made only 106 horsepower with a compression ratio of 9.5:1 and fed via two side-draft Weber 40DCOE carburetors. The sound, though, was magnificent - and remains to this day! - With a linear delivery of power although torque was poor, as you’d expect. It had Girling 9.5-inch disc brakes up front, and the suspension was altered significantly, which is noticeable as the Cortina Lotus sits lower than the standard Cortina Deluxe or GT. Indeed, it had shorter struts, forged control arms, and a hefty sway bar up front, but the rear arrangement was even more radical with "vertical coil springs and dampers and two trailing arms with an A-bracket (which connected to the differential housing and brackets near the trailing arm pivots) locating the axle," as Hemmings notes. Originally, the Cortina came with leaf springs at the back.
The Cortina that graces this 40-minute video is Jim Hall’s own. He’s put some 4,000 man hours to get it to look and go better than it did back in the mid-’60s when it was surpassing much bigger muscle on the road and on the track. As you’ll notice, Jay is properly fascinated by the car which, for someone that’s not into cars, is just a mundane ’60s two-door sedan that received some tacky green stripes on the sides. But because we know what the deal is behind this car, we thank Hall for saving this car from its fate as a "basket case" that was rusting away in a Manhattan Beach garage.
The story of the Mark 1 Cortina Lotus is much more intricate and it involves some of the all-time automotive greats of the '60s, both behind the scenes as engineers and behind the wheel as drivers.
That’s why the video is so long and that’s why it’s worth watching all the way through. It’s also a rare car with barely 200 having been sold in period in the U.S. during its only model year, mainly due to its $3,420 MSRP. That was about as much as two standard 1.5-liter Cortinas back in 1966. In total, Lotus built 2,894 Lotus Cortinas before the Mark 2 Lotus Cortina rolled out in 1967.
Read our full review on the 1963 Ford Cortina ’Green Goddess’