Some call it the first fast Ford. Magazines of the time dubbed it a tin-top Lotus 7. It may be the earliest homologation sedan, but we'll call it beautiful.
The Lotus Cortina resulted from an engine partnership between Ford of England and Colin Chapman of Lotus. The Blue Oval contracted Lotus to build a racing version of its four-cylinder engine-a 1,340cc unit that powered run-of-the-mill Ford sedans. The engine was first raced in the Lotus Elan and Ford later asked Lotus to build 1,000 Cortinas with this engine to compete in Group 2 saloon competition. Displacement was raised to 1,558cc to take advantage of the 1.6-liter maximum in the racing class. Production began in September 1963 at Lotus's Cheshunt factory, just north of London. That same month, the Cortina found its first success, finishing third and fourth behind two more powerful Fords, but still beating the 3.8-liter Jaguars.
The car here is a spectacular example of a 1966 Lotus Cortina. Owned and restored by Dave Steel, it could just as easily be mistaken for Jackie Stewart's own racecar. The traditional white with green stripe was all that was offered on the Mark I, giving the car a purposeful look that the standard car never had. The Lotus livery, combined with the lowered ride height, left no dispute as to this machine's sporting intentions.
Steel located the car in Florida at a classic car dealer and bought it over the phone, sight unseen. He knew he wanted a complete restoration, so the car's condition wasn't that important-other than being straight and mostly complete. In 1966, Lotus only built 991 examples with very few being left-hand-drive. Given the rarity, being overly picky wasn't an option.
Once received, it took roughly three years to complete a full restoration. The body looks amazing; they were originally based on the standard Cortinas, built by Ford then shipped to Lotus for strengthening and final assembly. The early versions were equipped with alloy doors, hoods and roofs. Later models came with standard Cortina steel components to cut costs. Lotus stiffened the rear end for the modified rear suspension.
Steel's car looks as if it just rolled off the assembly line with glimmering Ermine White paint with the deep Sherwood Green accent. The interior was restored to the purposefulness of the original car. Gauges set into a bare metal panel add to the hard edge of the car's competitive nature. The center console was unique to the Lotus Cortina due to its bespoke shifter. This car is an airflow model, which refers to the upgraded dash ventilation and outlets in the C-pillars.
However, Steel decided not to be so reverential with the engine. He felt that, although the original four-potter was a thing of beauty and really the genesis of the car, stock displacement wasn't going to cut it. The same basic architecture stays true to Chapman's vision: an eight-valve, dohc, cross-flow, alloy cylinder head sits on top of a five-bearing block. The intake manifold is integral with the head and two Weber 40DCOE carburetors hang horizontally off the side. Steel has improved upon it with JE Pistons, stroker crank and a ported and polished head. Displacement is now up to 1,775cc and power is pushing 120 hp. The original car was rated at 105 hp, which many people feel was rather generous since the identical engine in the Elan was rated at 90 hp.
The transmission also came straight out of the Elan; a close-ratio manual with synchros on all four forward gears. Lotus went through three different ratio sets during its production run in an attempt to find the best compromise between street and track use. Steel decided that the optimum for his purposes had still not been found. So when he rebuilt the rear end, he went from a 3.91 to a 3.55 final drive. While he was in there, he figured a Quaife limited-slip differential would help put the extra power to the ground. Revs at 80 mph are now down from a raucous 5000-plus rpm down to more reasonable 4000 rpm.
As any Lotus fan will tell you, if there's one thing Chapman knew better than anything, it was handling. The first run of Lotus Cortinas received a rear suspension system consisting of a floating rear axle located by trailing A-arms, and deployed coil springs and dampers. This design proved unreliable and the leaf spring arrangement from the standard Cortina was adopted. The front utilized MacPherson struts with an anti-roll bar. The cars were known for their cornering attitude on the track. Vintage race fans giggle with pure automotive glee at the thought of Jim Clark slicing through a turn with the inside front wheel in the air. Steel is no different and restored the suspension to stock specs to preserve everything the original car was about.
Being a homologation special, the car came from the factory with what was cutting-edge braking technology at the time. Girling calipers grip 9.5-inch rotors up front, while nine-inch drums handle stopping duty in the rear. The Lotus Cortinas were equipped with a vacuum booster, considered unique on a racecar of that vintage. The combination worked well, especially considering the car's 1,900-pound curb weight.
The vehicle is not quite 14 feet long and can easily carry four people in comfort. This really is the precursor to GT cars like the M3 and Audi S4; a useful saloon for the week that can be raced on the weekends. The Lotus Cortina could be considered far ahead of its time or maybe just in time for enthusiasts. Apparently, Lotus has test mules running around Europe of another new four-seater GT. You may see Dave Steel standing in line for one, but you can bet his Cortina won't be traded in for it.
1966 Lotus Cortina Mark I, Series II
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
1775cc inline four-cylinder, DOHC, eight-valve, JE pistons, Sprint cam, ported and polished head, two Weber 40DCOE carburetors
Four-speed synchromesh manual, 3.55 final drive
MacPherson strut (f), floating axle (r)
*Wheels And Tires
13x5.5 XAS Michelin Reproduction 175/13
Girling calipers w/9.5-inch rotors, nine-inch drums
Peak Power: 120 hp