BACK IN THE early 1960s a marriage of convenience took place between Ford and Lotus when Ford of Britain’s public affairs chief Walter Hayes hit on the idea of going Group 2 saloon car racing with the just-launched Cortina. Group 2 regulations permitted modifications to the engine, steering and suspension, but an homologation requirement was that 1000 examples had to be built, so rather than go it alone, Hayes struck a deal with his friend and Lotus boss Colin Chapman whereby to avoid interrupting the fast-selling Cortina’s production line, cars were shipped to the Lotus factory in Cheshunt to be converted into what was to become a somewhat finicky but ultimately iconic performance saloon the Lotus 28, better known as the Ford Lotus-Cortina.
The car was based on the two-door Cortina GT bodyshell but in the quest to save weight, the steel doors, bonnet and boot lid were replaced with lightweight aluminium panels (these were later to become optional), and rust-proofing coatings were omitted. Quarter-bumpers were fitted up front. Tubular bracing was added to the boot area, the floor of which received a small hump to accommodate the differential that was part of a revised suspension set-up. To help improve weight distribution, the battery was relocated to the boot and the spare wheel mounted on the floor, and the car tipped the scales at 800kg.
Harry Mundy, renowned engineer and technical editor of The Autocar, was commissioned to develop an engine for the Lotus-Cortina and upcoming Lotus Elan and he used Ford’s 116E five-bearing 1,5-litre block as the base, which was bored out to 1558cc to suit the 1600cc Group 2 competition class limit. The crankshaft, con-rods and pistons were retained but it was the Lotus-designed single roller chain camshaft drive and aluminium crossflow, twin-cam cylinder head assembly that made the difference. (Anorak note: the engine then carried three camshafts because the original in-block cam was kept to drive the oil pump and hard-to-reach distributor.) The two-valves-per-cylinder were operated directly from the cam lobes by inverted bucket tappets enclosing coil springs.
A pair of twin-choke Weber 40DCOE carburettors was employed and a rev limit of 6500 imposed to preserve the bottom-end components. The official peak output figures were 78kW at 5500rpm and 146Nm of torque at 4000rpm, which may have been a tad optimistic (67kW was quoted for the Elan) but nevertheless, the Lotus-Cortina was noted for its thrust. Performance was given as 0-96kph in just under 10 seconds with nearly 80kph reached in first, 112 in second, 144 in third and a top speed of 168kph.
The drivetrain was based on stock Ford items using a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox and hypoid-bevel rear axle. Early boxes featured an alloy casing and bell-housing, a diaphragm spring clutch and a close-ratio gear set chosen with rallying in mind. In mid-1964, the lightweight casings became optional and the GT’s gearbox with its higher second gear was fitted, which was superseded in October 1965 by the Corsair 2000E box.
The first Lotus-Cortinas had a single-piece prop shaft with the back axle suspended on spring-struts and located by radius arms plus an A-bracket linked to the light alloy differential. This set-up placed a heavy load on the diff housing, which made the retaining bolts work loose that, in turn, caused oil to drain out of the axle, destroying the diff. Leaking oil affected the suspension bushes too, often leading to failure. The light alloy diff housing soon became optional, and a two-piece prop shaft was introduced. But in June ’65 the entire rear suspension reverted to the standard car’s twin radius arms and half-elliptic leaf springs, which proved far less problematic with little or no effect on handling. Oh, and the boot floor lost its pimple.
Up front, a simple McPherson strut and anti-roll bar did duty, and the ride height was lowered all-round. The Cortina’s standard recirculating ball steering was carried over and the Lotus-Cortina rolled on GT-like 13×5.5-inch steel wheels with plain hub caps. Brakes were vacuum boosted with Girling 240mm discs up front and 228mm drums at the rear.
Lotus-Cortina cabins were minimalist and the facia carried only basic instrumentation but with the addition of a tachometer. A floor console was fitted to house the remote gear shift, a Lotus wood-rimmed steering wheel was used, and all of the trim was black. In October 1964, all Cortinas received an upgrade including a new, wider grille and, inside, a different facia featuring more comprehensive instrumentation and vents for Ford’s innovative Aeroflow through-flow ventilation system. Seats and door trim were also upgraded.
Ford wanted to continue in competition but Lotus was moving to a new facility in Hethel and was unable to continue with contract production, so the motor giant decided to build the Mk.2 alongside other Cortinas on its Dagenham production line, hoping to improve the model’s reliability issues as a result. The Mk.2 appeared in 1967 and was now called a Ford Cortina Lotus. It was offered in a choice of colours although the traditional stripe was an option. The Lotus fender badges were retained, another was affixed next to the rear number plate while the grille badge was an option at first. Left-hand drive versions of the Mk.1 were built only late in the model’s life whereas the Mk2 was available as a leftie from the beginning.
The Mk.2 received a power increase to 81kW (Elan SE spec) and under the bonnet the air cleaner was now mounted on the top rather than the side of the engine. Gearbox ratios remained the same but the diff ratio was raised from 3.9:1 to 3.77:1. The Mk.2 Cortina was a wider car than its predecessor so, although they looked the same, the steel wheels had a different offset so as not to upset the track dimensions, and radial tyres were now standard. The fuel tank was bigger and the spare was now mounted in its well. Inside, the Lotus was practically identical to the GT.
Only a few months after production began, the Lotus fender badges were replaced with a new TwinCam badge under the Cortina script on the boot lid. Inside, a single-rail gearshift mechanism was adopted enclosed by a new floor console, and a facia-top pod carried a quartet of supplementary gauges. A conventional handbrake replaced the Mk1’s umbrella type, and a remote bonnet release was introduced. The Mk.2 continued the Mk.1’s competition success but was replaced in 1970 by the Escort TwinCam.
Richie Jute Mr Camshaft has a Mk.1 and a Mk.2 tucked away in his workshop in George. The Mk.1 is a 1966 model and was brought into the country from the then Rhodesia some 20 years ago before eventually landing in Cape Town, where Richie found the car and bought it five years ago. Most of the powertrain was in the boot and in poor condition, and the floorpan was badly dented, probably from rally use. A four-year full restoration is now all but complete.
The 1970 Mk.2 is left-hand drive (one of the last to be built), brought into SA from Portugal about 18 years ago. Richie discovered the car in Sasolburg, stored under a cover with no engine and gearbox, but these were being kept in a nearby garage. Richie bought and reunited the parts and in 2010 started a ground-up restoration that, again, is almost finished.
Richie’s passion for the cars is deep and knowledgeable and both examples are genuine and immaculately maintained. The cars are often put on show and given regular airings over weekend runs with fellow classic car enthusiasts. For me, it was a great thrill to get behind the wheel of a 50-year-old family saloon with such a wonderful motor sport pedigree, imagining the likes of Jim Clark wheel-dangling around historic race circuits and capturing the adoration of race fans everywhere. Inspiring to say the least, yet its family-car interior belies the sporty dynamics firm pedals, responsive throttle, crisp gear shift, taut handling. No frills, no fuss but what a highly effective combination. Certainly a drive to savour.