I have selected the top ten from the era –  mid 1963 to end 1973. The choice is based on my heartfelt memories of the times … and some may be a surprise… read on.

In our list of early performance cars

1. Ten Collage Lotus Cortina insert 2


A Bolt From The Blue Oval

For those of us who witnessed the giant killing antics from this version of an otherwise ordinary saloon car, it was in open mouthed amazement. Again, think of the era, a few high-end sedans (Jag/Alfa/Merc) had established performance pedigrees and were getting things done on racetracks. These were the benchmarks for fast tin tops. In the same period, ‘Ford’ was a 997cc Anglia  or a Consul 315, family cars needing the proverbial calendar to measure a 0-60 time, no one in their right mind could associate a production (English) Ford at that time with ‘Fast’.

When the Lotus Cortina arrived in the latter half of 1963, the first racing shots were fired at Snetterton with Jim Clark a little over a second slower than the Brabham Galaxie, the big Ford paving the way for its little brother.  Few, if any, could have predicted what was to happen the following year. In 1964 the Cortina blew everything away in class on racetracks in the UK as well as in SA, winning saloon car championships in both countries & often leading the big Galaxies on the shorter tracks. Ominous signs of their dominance in the newly popular European Touring car series also showed, with 1965 resulting in an emphatic championship victory for the Cortina. The writing was on the wall… Ford’s David and Goliath act had come to stay and change the face of saloon car racing… with “David” hauling in most of the major silverwear.

2. Racing Fords 7

The Changing of the Guard  – Mid 1963 Jags no longer on pole, Galaxies in charge and the Cortinas lurking. Graham Hill and Roy Salvadori switching from Jags to the big Fords mid season.

The ‘Old Guard’ leading the charge consisted of those Jaguars in the UK and the 3 litre Mercs in Europe. Both were comfortably positioned and I’m sure never had a single thought at the start of the 1963 season that ‘commoners’ were going to upset their breakfast, lunch and supper. The battle of Saratoga was replayed…with the same result… but this time on British soil and American iron using huge firepower raised their flags of victory at every confrontation in the country. The arrival of the behemoth Galaxies were not welcomed by all, some scribes figured this was not playing cricket… an attack on the Empire as it were. Dan Gurney had arrived from the ‘States in ’61 with a Chevy Impala and ran 1.5 seconds quicker than the Jags in the first outing…only to be banned thereafter. The Fords had done a better job of getting the rules sorted and they stayed the distance. The Galaxies also made the odd trip across the channel to annoy the Germans in 1964 but largely left it to the British commoners in the form of these insanely quick Cortinas to rattle sabres for the rest of the season…the irony of course being that the common-or-garden Ford was being driven by British aristocracy…Sir John Whitmore…a bit of a double-whammy for the Teutons methinks.

3. 63 Contenders


I know I tend to go on a bit about the transition that took place but with all this happening I need to get the point across. We mere petrolhead mortals found it all a bit difficult to digest. One minute things were logical … that was 1962…strange things began to happen in 1963… and in 1964 our understanding of saloon car racing was upended and, to put it in simple terms, lap records by the end of that year had taken a pounding as never before… (not seen since either). A two minute lap at Kyalami in mid-1963 was quick, very quick. In 1964 we were in the low 1:50’s…and this was happening throughout the tin top world. In early 1963 the lap record at Silverstone was also around the two minute mark, later that year Jack Sears poled the Galaxie in a 1:50.4…at least nine seconds in a matter of months. Believe me, every single enthusiast interested in saloon car racing sat up and took notice, because the Lotus Cortinas were right there, often beating the V8’s on the shorter tracks… In 1964 these little twin cam Fords had it all their own way in SA and rewrote not only the record books but had us scratching our heads in wonderment.

4. Koos Swanepoel 1964 2

1964 and the Jags are Gone…Swanepoel SA Champ

5. Jim Clark 64

Jim Clark British Champ…


 The Mark 1 Lotus Cortina was the brainchild of Walter Hayes, a new PR appointee at Ford who before had been in the publication business. Here was a man previously inexperienced in motor company operations, simply given the directive to put some ‘vooma’ into the Ford UK range. Ford, like GM of the early sixties was a (very large) ‘grey’ car company producing masses of solid though somewhat dull family cars. The move to make life more exciting for their customers was a bold one. Things ended up a magnificent mix of purposeful intent and magical circumstance.

In the book “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell we learn about the real causes of unusual changes in a multitude of things which occur around us. The Lotus Cortina represented that tipping point for saloon cars by morphing into a tyre burning production saloon… and doing so seemingly out of nowhere.

This piece fills in the background to this almost unbelievable turn of events. One could argue that the first mini Cooper or Dauphine Gordini could have been the tipping point. I don’t go along with that because neither were tyre burners… but both did prepare the territory. That first Cooper, although significant, did more for the Mini’s iconic branding than being a proper performance car. Similarly, the Dauphine paved the way for what was to happen in earnest a few years later.  There was one other very commendable effort in late 1961 by Vauxhall…the VX 4/90…the first performance saloon anywhere in the GM world…a good effort…but this was a fast touring car and Vauxhall were not to know that the rules for quick saloons were about to be rewritten completely in 1963.

6. 1071 and R8 Gordini

       1963 Delivered two more real performers – the 1108cc R8 Gordini and the 1071cc Cooper S

In the UK/ European context, the Lotus Cortina, along with the 1071 Mini Cooper S and Renault R8 Gordini were the first saloon cars based on high volume production cars of the time to elicit simple disbelief when confronted with their remarkable performance. These were complete departures from the norm. We will get to the Cooper S and Gordini later in this series but for Ford it all happened because Hayes called his friend Colin Chapman and suggested a performance project be put together on the soon to be released Cortina… the rest as they say is history.

The serendipitous happenings which occurred at the time were significant. Firstly, Ford had just declared that world-wide “Total Performance” campaign mentioned often in these scribbles and secondly the timing of the shortly to be launched Ford-based Twin Cam engine in the Lotus Elan was an ideal virtual ‘bolt in’ heart transplant for the Cortina. Henry Ford, still smarting from his encounter with Enzo, was pushing all the buttons on the performance front. The real issue here though is that having the boss now a bit grumpy and wanting his team to do the ‘fast’ stuff, bled into the system rapidly. Let’s just say that in the 60’s, Ford making the up-front decision to drive performance as the key message in their branding, changed not only the company trajectory but more significantly for us petrolheads, was to change the face of saloon car racing…lock stock and barrel.

I mention this because the shift in policy had far reaching consequences. One of which was Ford redirecting the planned Galaxie 500 Coupe attack on the national American drag racing scene… to circuit racing in Europe…a most unusual turn of events that was to upset the applecart spectacularly.

Another was the immediate relative “freedom” given to engineering folk, loosening the rules a little. This was to cause the Lotus Cortina Mk 1 to be an extremely flawed vehicle. The relationship that existed between the ‘tuning boffins’ and the factory engineers was new and untested territory and, as someone who was part of such activity in later years, can explain that each such ‘union’ could be tested to the full…as this one was.

7. Engine Bay Collage


Before we explore those issues, just a little history on the Cortina bodyshell. This event goes a long way to identifying why it became critical for the Tech boffins on both sides of the ‘go faster’ fence to morph into what we today know as race engineers. Race engineers being those unique folk who have the training & talents of factory engineers as well as the built-in experience and knowledge of racers. People who in today’s world are in my opinion among the smartest tech folk on the planet. 

Back to that bodyshell…The late 50’s and early 60’s introduced a new era of unitary body construction by most manufacturers. The removal of a heavy chassis which was the norm previously, required that some smart tech went into ensuring that the new monocoque body shells could handle the attachment of suspension and drivetrain components directly to the structure and do so durably. The obvious advantage of these new designs would be the significant weight and cost reduction and as we learned later, provided a much more solid feel to cars by removing the ‘wobbly’ bits connecting the old-fashioned chassis arrangement. The Cortina development went a step further and Ford Dagenham had the foresight to employ an experienced aircraft structural engineer specifically tasked with optimising the Cortina bodyshell to arrive at the best combination of strength, rigidity and weight.

It is also little known that in the early 60’s both Ford UK and GM’s Vauxhall were under pressure to adopt front wheel drive packaging…in Ford’s case from the mothership…and a front wheel drive design out of the USA on the cards for the Cortina build slot. VM UK had also completed such a design for the first Viva.. The new FWD designs offered the now well-established advantages of packaging, cost and weight over the conventional rear wheel drive applications. Both companies were dealing with the evolutionary pressure at exactly the same time.*

Thankfully for us enthusiasts and partly as a result of the good work done by the body boffins, the decision went the RWD route for Ford Dagenham, resulting in the Cortina making it to production. The work done on the bodyshell was exemplary and resulted in the original 2 door base model 1200 Cortina weighing in fully built up at around 750 KG. This is significant because the Cortina’s little brother the Anglia came in at a relatively portly 739Kg. It is said that there was ultimately no sheet metal in the Cortina shell not doing its job….   an ideal basis for the Lotus Version…

However… you will recall that comment in the opening piece where I mentioned the two schools of ‘go faster’ thought contributing to these ventures. In this case, Chapman had his own ideas and pushed for changes to the rear suspension of the car to accommodate his ‘A’ frame coil spring design, similar to that used on the Lotus ‘7’. (His original idea was to go to a fully Independent RS but had that plan denied after giving the Ford engineers a collective heart attack) The ‘A’ frame design change required extensive reinforcement of the floorpan and the whole thing added to the weight of the car and torpedoed some of the diligent work done by our aircraft structural engineer in the first place. This was the type of lesson to be learned by the ‘hot rodders’ of the era simply because a rational, properly engineered solution could have happened at the start of this project…if the teams were on the same wavelength and pooling knowledge. As we will cover in this story, it took two years to correct a problem resulting from this design change..

At the start, Lotus Cortinas were equipped with aluminium skinned doors, bootlid and bonnet as well as the lighter dual front bumpers sourced from the rear items on the Anglia panel van.  These parts offset the increased weight of the Lotus version to a degree (extras further included sidedraught carburettors, brake booster and trim changes) over the 2 door 1200 on which the car was based, however … the FIA Lotus Cortina Homologation docs show the original at 850Kg. This was soon paired down to 812 Kg at the start of the 1964 season but strangely the documents do not highlight the detail of this 38Kg diet.

* The VM decision also went to rear wheel drive for the first Viva and in that instance, Vauxhall decided to use the RWD option they had designed in parallel with Opel for the 1962 RWD Kadett)


Further to this and as is normal practise in order to minimise the probability of problems in the field, car manufacturers diligently cross the T’s and dot the I’s as best they can during development of a new product. The Lotus Cortina did not follow that path…this was a pressure cooker project and with 1964 0n the works race horizon, the homologation job had to be done pronto.  Much of the design work was being done by Lotus, the extensive testing of revised designs did not happen as thoroughly as it should have and because the final vehicle build was carried out at Lotus, traditional production standards were not fully applied. The car suffered from a number of significant technical issues. These resulted in problems as basic as rust, as well as that coil sprung ‘A’ frame rear suspension durability problem.

The close ratio Elan gearbox was also an issue – first gear was too tall for puttering around town, with gradeability in 1st gear and clutch wear generating some owner resistance. In hindsight this was hardly surprising given the ethos of a properly geared performance car not being too well understood at the time. The Twin Cam Elan engine destined for the Cortina had also had a difficult gestation and ultimately the Cosworth team had a hand in tidying things up with that revised cylinder head arrangement.      Did all that matter in the final analysis?…. Not at all. Despite the difficulties and a clearly flawed product, the concept just took off. Entrepreneurial spirit triumphed over conservative logic…… that sort of thing could work in the 60’s.

The relationship between Ford and Lotus did however, become strained because of all this and the rear suspension issue caused a rumpus between Ford Engineering and Chapman. … As things play out however, these mistakes eventually resulted in more effective development rules being established between the tech gurus in the respective ‘Hot rod’ and OEM engineering camps.

This is just how things happened in this turbulent but productive period..

So Ford upgraded and fixed as they went along, the rear suspension reverted to leaf springs, but only after back to back track testing showed the change to be OK and a return to that structurally good shell and associated weight savings. The gearbox was changed to that of the new GT ‘box (originally fitted to the Corsair GT) with more widely spaced ratios getting that first gear into a mode more acceptable to Mr Average…. and all was forgiven.

8. A Frame Vs Leaf


9. Lotus Cortina Gearbox ratios

First Gear gradeability improved by 18%

That 105 Bhp twin cam engine did the business and the car performed brilliantly. Road tests simply glowed. This was the first stock 4 cylinder production saloon in the world to crack 10 sec in the 0-60 dash. Maximum speed was a smidgeon away from 110mph in a time where volume production tin tops hovered around the 85Mph mark… that was the open-mouthed amazement I mentioned earlier. (The new gearing had the positive side effect of improving standing start acceleration and trimmed about 0.5 sec off that 0-60 mph time)

The key to it all was the immediate racing prowess. Can you imagine the chaos in Milan, those Italians must have been choking on their ravioli, their newly launched and competent (1962) Giulia Ti Super being recognised as quickest four cylinder sedan around before the arrival of the Cortina.

Chapman was clearly a man who realised that the key to winning was getting the production spec correctly homologated for racing, so the car eventually ending up being registered (with some poetic licence) at around 760KG, alternative final drive ratios were made available and those gearbox ratios so ‘troublesome’ on the road were perfect for racing. Aluminium Gearbox and ‘Diff’ housing bits had been introduced. The car had the Chapman stamp in more ways than one. Engine power for the track started in the 145 Bhp ** range in Group two form which was enough to see off most and give the 400+Bhp Galaxies a run for their money. Those Jag drivers who had sharpened up their steeds for the 1964 UK championship were in serious trouble, 1964 was a Cortina whitewash. 1965 saw the car win the European touring car title outright, power outputs quickly grew well north of 160Bhp and further homologations reduced racing weights (to that 760Kg mark). Alfa Romeo now had to respond to the challenge from this upstart and the very, very competent GTA arrived to counter the threat in 1966.. Having Jim Clark from the Factory Lotus F1 team driving the works saloons did absolutely no harm either and the characteristic three wheel cornering stance of the Lotus Cortina became an Iconic racing Dagenham Ford trademark….but there was something else happening:

Ford’s total performance approach in 1963 had made factory-based racing product, parts, and support available immediately to waiting enthusiasts and racing fraternity. In what seemed to be a flash, the Cortinas not only became front line saloon car racers but the introduction of Galaxies into the racing mix at the same time, with Mustangs and Falcons soon after, (hugely competitive in their own right) lifted the Cortina to Giant Killer status.

There are some telling stats on power to weight ratios:

Galaxie:                       8.5 Lbs/Bhp              3500Lbs/420Bhp
Jag Mk 2:                  10.7 Lbs/Bhp              3200Lbs/300Bhp
Lotus Cortina:           11.4 Lbs/Bhp              1650Lbs/145Bhp

Given that power to weight ratios are the primary determinants in acceleration, the Galaxies were undoubtedly the fastest in a straight line and the Jags and Cortinas almost on par. The new message being delivered in saloon car racing was that at roughly half the weight of the big cars, the smaller, more nimble Cortinas would easily outpace the Jags and in many cases match the big Ford through better braking and corner speeds.

Over the next few years in the UK and SA, Ford was mostly competing with themselves and the Cortinas frequently stuck it to the big engined cars. Even with the V8’s quicker, the giant killer status simply grew…the track stuff soon spilled over onto the street where Ford and the bourgeoning Tuning business were ready and waiting with wagon loads of special bits available for Anglias, Cortinas, Corsairs and later Capris.

In its first full year on the track in 1964… Just some of the accolades and silverwear in the trophy cabinet for the Cortina: Saloon car champions UK, South Africa and Austria

  • 1st Marlboro 12 hour
  • 1st and 2nd brands Hatch 6 Hour
  • 6 First overall places in European touring cars Including 9 podiums.
  • Winner Bathurst 500 Cortina GT 500*
  • 21st overall in the Sebring 12 Hour Sports car race. Out of a field of 68 starters the only saloon to compete amongst the world’s established sports racing cars.
10. Racing Fords 5

1965/66 Ford Vs Ford vs Ford This was the norm…Blue Oval product dominating and the Cortinas always ‘there’… taking class wins every time out. This is Jim Clark Chasing Brian Muir and Jack Brabham at Snetterton.

Let’s talk about that Twin Cam engine. In the early sixties, overhead cams were the domain of Ferrari, Jag, Alfa and Aston, not British Fords

11. Lotus-Twin-Cam-Engine


Using a standard pushrod production engine bottom end to create a sophisticated Hemi chambered Twin OHC package had not been done for/by a large manufacturer before and the significance of this has to do with the times. The growth of specialist operations in the car business was exponential in the 60’s and the ‘can do’ attitude pervading the air is what is being written about in these stories. These were not the engineers of today able to do complex computer-generated strength, fatigue and performance analyses on everything from a piston to a crankshaft with known performance limits. This was ground-breaking stuff in which richly talented individuals used their passion for what they were doing to test the boundaries of what was possible. The initial designs for Lotus were by Harry Mundy who had been contracted by Chapman to create a Twin Cam cylinder head for the small Ford. Initial testing was carried out on three main bearing Kent engine blocks prior to the arrival of the 5 bearing subs. Early issues had to do with cylinder head to block sealing. ‘Head gasket failure was pretty common and this was eventually sorted by the involvement of Keith Duckworth who increased cylinder head rigidity as well as tidying up the port arrangement.

A Left Hand Drive Anglia test mule was used to run the engines on the road, getting critical in-car testing done in 1962/63 prior to the launch of the Cortina.   The inevitable happened with Jim Clark getting wind of this development on his visits to Lotus and the stories of Clark scaring Jag and Aston Martin drivers on the street with a 115 mph Anglia are the stuff of legend.

The engine was originally planned as a 1498cc unit and that was to be for both the Elan and Cortina. During 1962 the racing engine capacity class limit was lifted by the FIA to 1600cc and Lotus with the help of Ford responded, enlarging the engine size to 1558cc by increasing bore size before full production commenced. This rather odd capacity resulted from the need to use specially selected standard cylinder blocks having thicker wall castings, achieving the moderate increase in bore diameter without compromising bore wall rigidity. These would also allow overbore to a full 1600cc for racing.

In racing, the Ford TC was going to go straight up against the very well established Alfa Romeo Twin Cam as fitted to the new Giulia . Both engines were rated at 105Bhp in stock form and the game was on. A betting man would have given the benefit of the doubt to Alfa simply because they were old hands at this racing game and knew how to get race power from their Twin Cam. ‘Alfas’ also had pretty sophisticated suspension arrangements, so the Italians had the upper hand.  Our friend Chapman thought differently & the expertise from the Cosworth camp had the engine producing adequate race Bhp through earlier use in 1963 Formula race cars.…. in the end it was not even a scrap…when the two met in the 1964 European touring car rounds the Cortina won that fight hands down. The Ford Twin Cam had come of age in saloon car racing, straight out of the box.

The history of how this engine progressed in the world of Ford over the next ten years is adequately covered in many excellent online articles but the finest achievement by the TC engine happened in South Africa in 1969. We will cover this ground-breaking engine development in some detail in the section covering Y151, the most iconic Mk 1 Escort ever. Suffice to say that 210Bhp from a 2 litre locally developed version of the Twin Cam running the first ever 90mm bores in a Kent engine block is remarkable. This was the only TC powered racing Escort in the world which could easily outrun the potent 1750 Alfa GTVs of the period…period.

Eventually the shotgun blast that was the Mark 1 Lotus Cortina changed to a properly engineered and far better assembled Mark 2 “Cortina Lotus” in 1967. Built by Ford this time around, the car was vastly more refined and whilst it lost a bit in the performance stakes due to increased girth, Ford had pummelled a performance stake into the ground with the original… Hayes could consider his Job well done… and went on to even greater things by motivating the F1 DFV V8 engine with Chapman and Cosworth in ‘66

12. Cortina Lotus Mk 2

The Mk 2 Cortina Lotus an altogether more refined package and with no compelling need to be the front-line racer for Ford… by 1968 racing versions of this car made way for the Escort TC taking over Ford’s track duties.

In Summary with the Lotus Cortina leading the charge, Ford in collaboration with Lotus, played a massive role in cementing a new standard of saloon car racing worldwide.  It’s important to note that the Lotus Cortina onslaught was helped tremendously by the Cortina GT in 1963. Here was a car that lived in the shadow of the Lotus version but achieved similar Giant killer status in that year. In Australia the GT won Bathurst three years in a row ’63 to ’65 and of course Basil van Rooyen’s exploits in a Cortina GT during the South African season in 1963 reset the compass in what we could expect from 4 cylinder race saloons.

Without question the Lotus Cortina is the number one choice in this series. As a technical accomplishment in the prevailing times…absolutely first class…but here is the car that created a whole new discipline in the world of circuit racing saloons, the art of homologation. The legacy of this turn of events was to lay down a marker for the rest of the industry…  to win on racetracks in the future, all manufacturers would have to activate those homologation pens.

But that’s not all…this machine had a real life James Bond type exposure to cap things off..  An early production Mark One played one other (in)famous part very early in the life of this Lotus based beast …as the car used in the planning of the great train robbery (Aug 8th 1963). Purchased by Bruce Reynolds the leader of the gang who wanted a fast car ‘that would not raise any attention’, … I say no more… this video below tells the story.

Next Week… GM’s Pontiac GTO…We move from a hard-core racer setting tracks alight to an altogether different method of mesmerising enthusiasts…this one, although spectacular, taught us how the new world of smoke and mirrors could be just as captivating…