by Bob Hagin
A couple of weeks ago, I was driving from the parking lot of our local parts house and just ahead of me, waiting for the light to change, I saw a familiar face - or maybe I should say, a familiar trunk. Refrigerator-white and encircled by a forest green strip, the car was modern enough to be Japanese from the late '70s but the words "Ford" and "Lotus" indicated that it had to be British and from the '60s. As it turned out, it was indeed British and a Ford, but the Lotus legend was a sham.
"No twin-cams," said the driver in a thick Australian accent when I queried him through our open windows. "It's a pushrod with twin-carbs." I didn't pursue the matter any further knowing full-well that the knowledgeable owner had disguised his Ford Cortina GT MKII to look like its more muscular and certainly more famous sibling, the Lotus Cortina.
But to those of us who know the history of the British Ford Cortina, he need not have bothered: the Cortina GT has a proud pedigree of its own.
At the beginning of the post-war era, British small sedans in general and Fords in particular we a homely lot, to put it politely. I owned a half-dozen of them; Anglias, Prefects, Consuls and Zephyrs. And their performance factors paralleled their looks. They had just enough speed and quickness to keep up with traffic, but it required extreme concentration on the part of the driver to avoid being a rolling obstruction in town or on the highway.
Ford began to change this stodgy mien with the introduction of its tiny-but-expandable overhead valve, short-stroke "Kent" engine, in the '59 Anglia. It was light, well-designed and could be "tweaked" easily to produce high horsepower.
About that time, Ford world-wide decided to change its image and got on the performance bandwagon (remember the superfast Galaxies and four- placed T'Birds of that decade?). That mindset crossed the Atlantic to Ford of England headquarters in Dagenham where an economical performance car blueprint was adopted. It took its then-current compact Cortina Mark 1 two-door family sedan, lowered and stiffened the suspension, bolted on wider wheels, installed a larger, hopped-up and enlarged version of the standard Kent engine and added some "sporting" instrumentation and paint. Immediately, Ford dealers in the British Isles had a performance car, the Cortina GT, to sell alongside the mundane Cortina purchased by the more practical members of the population. It was obviously an Anglo version of the American muscle car formula.
While no one in particular is credited with the implementing Ford's "Total Performance" image, Sid Henson, a well-known motorsports engineer of the day, became Competitions Manager at Ford of England and the company built special performance workshops at a little-used airfield. Colin Chapman, the Lotus guru, was looking for a high-performance engine for his upcoming Elan sports car and quickly saw the potential of the new Cortina engine.
And like it's American cousin, Ford of England presented its new over-the-counter Cortina GT sports sedan by highlighting it with a "concept car" at the Earl's Court car show. Chapman had taken an enlarged Kent engine and had engine whiz Harry Mundy design a twin-cam cylinder head for it. The power was nearly doubled and although Chapman has his own Elan roadster in mind for the powerplant, Ford had him extensively modify a Cortina, install the twin-cam head and dubbed it the Lotus Type 28, essentially a Cortina on steroids.
But more important to the average British enthusiast was the Cortina GT that was on the same stand. Not only was the GT version upscale and trendy, but this lowly Ford sedan began winning races and rallies around the world. With the help of the extensive British speed equipment industry, Cortina GT owners could further modify their economical speedsters to achieve speed and handling that was close to that of the Lotus version but with more reliability.v When the Cortina version of the Kent engine was further upgraded by the addition of a crossflow cylinder head in 1967, it became the engine of choice for several classes of Ford-powered single seater race cars. In effect, these cars became a training ground for future Grand Prix and Indycar champions.
That Cortina GT engine became a mainstay of performance and racing on British tracks but its introduction to Americans came from a very different source and one that over the years has become something of a joke to drivers here.
It was the Kent engine that powered the first Ford Pintos sold on the U.S. market in 1971.