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Celebrating 60 years of the much-loved Ford Cortina

07 July 2022 - 13:05 By Stuart Johnston
A line-up of Mk V XR6 Cortinas in Ford Motorsport colours. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON
A line-up of Mk V XR6 Cortinas in Ford Motorsport colours. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON

Cortina Mk I, late 1962 to 1966

This year is the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Ford Cortina, one of the blue oval’s most popular cars in SA.

The timing of Ford’s introduction of the first Cortina in 1962 couldn’t have been better. Not only did the Cortina shift the affordable car paradigm from small and cramped to enough space (just) for five adults, but it was launched at a time when Ford’s global marketing strategy was undergoing a big rethink.

While the Mini had revolutionised the small car end of the market three years earlier with its tiny overall size and radical transverse engine and front wheel-drive layout, the Cortina’s design was unremarkable, with a north-south engine installation, Macpherson strut front suspension and a solid axle at the rear located by leaf springs. But coming in at a kerb weight of well under 800kg, while still providing fair body rigidity, it was light enough to give decent performance from the base 1,200cc engine. And it had a huge boot by comparison to just about everything else on the market back then.

Initially the car was badged as a Ford Consul Cortina, as the Consul was previously the affordable medium-sized car in the line-up, but soon afterwards that part of the name was dropped.

Just three months after the launch of the Cortina 1200, the four-door Cortina Super made its debut with a 1,500cc engine. And then, a few short months after that, the game really changed.

It is difficult to imagine now the effect of the Cortina GT on the SA motoring public in late 1963. Until this point in time, the letters G T stood for Gran Turismo, and applied to cars of the level issued in miserly numbers by the likes of Maserati and Ferrari. Now here was upstart Ford Motor Company, with none of the pedigree of Europe’s finest carmakers, claiming that a five-seater family car with a slightly breathed-upon engine was worthy of the haloed GT moniker.

What most outraged purists were unaware of was that Ford was already preparing its famous GT40 racer, a 300km/h-plus prototype that would first challenge, and then go on to beat Ferrari at Le Mans three years later. It was all part of a global marketing strategy that Ford had embarked upon called “Total Performance”.

A 1964 Cortina 1200 two-door. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON
A 1964 Cortina 1200 two-door. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON

In 1964 Ford SA imported two Lotus Cortina models which had just been introduced in the UK to be raced by Basil van Rooyen and Koos Swanepoel. The pair had fantastic dices at circuits all over the country. Swanepoel took the ’64 SA Saloon Car Championship, and the rest, as they say, was history.

From then on Cortinas were associated with high performance, and though the twin-cam engined British-built Lotus models were never on sale in SA, the Colin Chapman halo reflected brightly on the GT model here. Indeed, many local GT owners took to making their pushrod-engined models look like Lotus versions, by blacking out the radiator grille, fitting wider steel rims, and painting side flashes between the side chrome strips in contrasting colours.

Cortina Mk Is were sold here in 1200 form in two-door and four-door versions, while the four-door Super had a 44kW 1,500cc engine, as did the station wagon. For the record, our GT versions were rated at 61.8kW.

Cortina Mk II 1967 to mid-1971

By the end of 1966 the Ford Cortina was vying for the top sales spot in SA with the Valiant and the Volkswagen Beetle. In early 1967 the restyled Mk II Cortina was introduced, with 1,300cc and 1,500cc engines, the latter soon giving way to the famous 1600 Kent cross flow engine.

A 1968 Mk II Perana V6, with an XR6 Mk V in the background. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON
A 1968 Mk II Perana V6, with an XR6 Mk V in the background. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON

Sales-wise, the 1967 Cortina hung in just behind the Valiant in competing for the top SA spot, with the Beetle still in third place.

Though the Mk II was slightly slower than the original in GT form, by 1968 you could buy a special Cortina Perana, the first of Basil Green’s famous creations built in Johannesburg. It had a 3.0l V6 engine and offered a sub-9.0 second 0-100 km/h time and a top speed of more than 180km/h.

Cortina Mk III July 1971 to March 1977

The Mk III Cortina was strikingly different with its “coke bottle” curves along the flanks and more of a coupé look compared with the squared-off Mk II. The big breakthrough, performance-wise, was the adaptation for the GT model of the Essex 3.0l V6 to the Cortina, ushering the dawn of the “Big Six Cortina”.

A Mk III Cortina showing off its 2.5-litre V6 engine and coke-bottle curves. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON
A Mk III Cortina showing off its 2.5-litre V6 engine and coke-bottle curves. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON

This car, in GT form, sprinted to 100 in 8.5 seconds and had a top speed of more than 180km/h. Despite the 1973 fuel crises, which brought a switch to lighter and smaller cars, the Cortina still held a top-three sales position.

Cortina Mk IV 1977 to 1980

The fourth-generation car was a return to a knife-edged, clean-cut shape, while mechanically the Cortina was largely unchanged with the 1,600cc four-cylinder and V6 engines carried over, along with the four-speed manual and three-speed automatic transmissions. This model also heralded the return of the overhead cam 2.0l four-cylinder motor, which became  the top seller in the range.

By now the Cortina was a medium-sized car, having grown once again in width and weight. Despite strong competition from smaller and more economical cars such as the Mazda 323 and Datsun Y series, the Cortina was the top-selling model in SA in 1977 and 1978.

Cortina Mk V 1980 to 1983

The final rendition of the Ford Cortina saw the advent of the most charismatic name for the car since the original GT.  The new top-of-the-range performance model was called the XR6. It featured matt black bumpers and grille, a rear boot-lid spoiler, special styled steel wheels, Scheel rally seats and blacked-out lower panels.

It was barely quicker than the first V6-engined GT had been back in the early 1970s, but in a fuel-economy-conscious environment littered with a boring selection of cars on the SA market, the XR6 cut a dash.

A Mk V Cortina XR6, with aftermarket wheels. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON
A Mk V Cortina XR6, with aftermarket wheels. Picture: STUART JOHNSTON

Ford SA was proud of its locally developed five-link rear suspension. And in the next few years after launch, special motorsport versions such as the XR6 TF and the homologation-special XR6 Interceptor added real excitement. The Interceptor featured three twin-choke Weber carburettors, and hot XR6s were raced by Sarel van der Merwe and Geoff Mortimer at the sharp end of the Group 1 racing series. It was a welcome return to Ford-backed motorsport action for the Cortina after an absence of about 14 years.

Such was the swathe that the Interceptor cut through our national consciousness, that even noted bank robber Andre Stander was famed for “only using XR6 Interceptors” as his getaway car of choice.

By the time the Sierra replaced the Cortina in July 1983, the cumulative sales of the five generations had topped the 300,000 mark, a SA record for the time. The Sierra never lived up to the Cortina’s legacy, which centred on the fact that the big-little-medium car launched in 1962 was simply the right car for the right time in motoring history.


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