Ford Cortina Mark IV at Forty. Time for a comeback?

The BMC Mini and the Ford Cortina represented two contradictory strands of the British character.

image : newoldcar.co.uk
Ford Cortina 1.6L – image : newoldcar.co.uk

Soon after its release, Ford, notoriously, took apart a Mini and realised what BMC hadn’t worked out, that each car sold would lose the company money. It wasn’t going to make the same mistake. Ford Germany inherited the abandoned front-drive ‘Cardinal’ project from the USA to become the Taunus 12M, but Ford Britain were having none of this fancy stuff and its ‘Archbishop’ (ho, ho) project was very, very conventional. But what the first (Consul) Cortina did offer was a lot of up-to-date looking car for the money. Less well recorded is that BMC, returning the favour, bought a new Cortina, took it apart and were appalled at the bodyshell’s lack of torsional stiffness. But even had this fact been publicised, it’s unlikely that it would have affected the Ford’s success.

Just as the Mini represented a certain ingenuity and resourcefulness, so did the Cortina represent a certain conservatism and dislike of pretension. These might all be seen as part of the British character of the time and, as such, so did both cars prosper through the 1960s in Marks 1 and 2 form. In 1970, though, the Cortina Mark 3 signalled a major change. Not only was the styling giving more than an overt nod Stateside, but the larger car shared its underlying structure with the previously, distinctly separate, German Ford Taunus, though the exterior styling was markedly different. On paper, too, its mechanical specification with front wishbones and coil springs all round, seemed a half-decent step forward. Once production glitches were sorted, Cortina sales remained on a roll but, in the days when motoring journalism was more gentlemanly, the various coded criticisms from road tests were brought to a head by the, then, more outspoken Car Magazine in an issue that itemised a series of perceived shortcomings.

If you want to say 'well lairy' in period, look no further than the Mark 3 2000 GXL (but keep that Focus out of shot) - image : warpedfactor.com
If you want to say ‘well lairy’ in period, look no further than the Mark 3 2000 GXL (but keep that Focus out of focus) – image : warpedfactor.com

Despite improvement, the Mark 3 generally remained a flabby dog. Dressed up in top spec form it looked the part, but it reeked of flashy cynicism, and the basic models were meanly half-hearted. In 1976 it was replaced, as the Cortina and the Taunus finally merged completely. Elsewhere on this site, I’ve chronicled my short career as a vehicle delivery driver. This occurred at the tail-end of 1976 so I started off driving a lot of Mark 3s and ended up driving a lot of Mark 4s. For a car that was, apparently, just a major facelift, the transformation was pretty radical. Everything about the Mark 3 seemed soft and imprecise. The Mark 4 felt far tauter, closer, though still not equal, to a Peugeot of the time, which back then still meant positive praise.

cortina-4-newoldcar-co-uk

The restyle was by Patrick Le Quement, avoiding the Transatlantic flash of the Mark 3 and the rather dowdy squarer look of the Mark 3’s German cousin. It offered increased glasspace, a positive then, though apparently less appreciated now, with just enough of a nod to its predecessor’s Coke bottle side profile to retain interest. Gone was the glaring chrome and, a welcome change for those buying the basic models such as the 1.6L on the accompanying photos, is that the detailing didn’t immediately scream that fact to the world. The interior design was better, with more emphasis on function and comfort than glitz. This was the quintessential Cortina with the broadest appeal.

cortina-2-newoldcar-co-uk

Mildly facelifted, as the so-called Mark 5, it continued in the UK until 1982, when replaced by the Sierra, only just falling from the top-selling position in its last year. In Turkey, Olosan kept it in production for another 12 years. Despite some people’s rosy memories, it was objectively speaking, never more than adequate, though poor rustproofing has ensured that there are few decent examples left, should you wish to confirm or dispute this opinion. My own choice would be a 2.3 litre V6 GL in Sahara Beige, though it might be fun to try one of the understeering, Australian 6 cylinder Falcon engined Cortinas.

cortina-3-newoldcar-co-uk

Oddly, it’s hard to reconcile that the Taunus/Cortina was almost a World Car, being made in Britain, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Taiwan, and South Korea. To us Brits, the Mark IV will always be, somehow, absolutely British, taking us back to a time when the UK was a funny little island in the North Sea, divided internally and rather run-down, yet still trading on its idea of past glories, keeping itself at arm’s length from the rest of Europe which it viewed, along with most the rest of the world, with a mixture of suspicion and resentfulness. Oh, just a minute……..

cortina-manual

Incidentally, images of the pristine Cortina come from website www.newoldcar.co.uk which I hadn’t come across before. As you might guess, they feature photos of old cars in pristine condition.

15 thoughts on “Ford Cortina Mark IV at Forty. Time for a comeback?”

  1. I thought the crisp Mark IV was designed by Uwe Bahnsen rather than Patrick Le Quement?

    1. As with Bangle and other designers, Bahnsen headed Ford’s design, so certainly deserves credit for guiding the overall style, but I believe that Le Quement was the main person who actually drew the Mark IV.

  2. I guess I find it hard to think of him in association with the Cortina, so strong is my association to his later work at Renault. Nice piece BTW. And look at all that room under the bonnet!

    1. That’s nothing John. I know someone (French) who once owned a Simca Ariane, which was co-incidentally a Ford design. This was a large car, originally designed for a V8 in Vedette form. Fitted with a 1300 cc 4 cylinder, my friend could actually get into the bonnet area to work on the engine!

      Le Quement also has the Sierra on his CV. You’ll find it jointly attributed to Bahnsen and Bob Lutz, which does underline how much collaboration goes into designs.

  3. What I’ll never understand is why they bothered changing the entire roofline and raising the roof for the Mk V Cortina ’80. Must’ve been some work involved in that job for a car almost ten years old and with only a couple more to go. Does anybody know the story about that? I find the question intriguing…

    1. I can’t say I noticed at the time and it’s so subtle that only its designers would have cared. They might have felt that the previous curve aged it compared with the later Granada. Of all panels, the roof would probably be one of the simplest to remodel providing all the join points remain the same. With the volumes, I guess it was an indulgence Ford could afford and, compared to annual US sheet metal changes, it was nothing. I also remember the Mark V grille design being heralded for its clever aerodynamics, though it would seem very basic now.

  4. Car design is clearly a team sport, Sean. On the Sierra team were Bahnsen, Le Quément and Volvo’s Peter Horbury. Quite the dream team! However, it appears the Sierra design’s actual origin story is rather more interesting than the official record suggests. There’s an intriguing comment over at AROnline from Klaus Kapitza, later of BMW:

    “I was part of the Sierra design team at Cologne and I´m sorry to tell you that Patrick Le Quément was NOT the designer of that car. The original Toni concept came from Gerd Hohenester (ex-Opel). I started the Sierra programme, as leader of the advanced design studio and Friedl Wülfing (production design studio) finalised the project. U. Bahnsen never liked the Sierra design. It was Ray Everts who pushed the design process in Cologne.”

    (http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/cars/ford/sierra-ford/the-cars-ford-sierra-development-history/#comment-113026)

    1. Having, for many years, believed that Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the Lamborghini Miura and that Albrecht Graf von Schlitz genannt von Goertz von Wrisberg designed the Datsun 240Z, only to find that the latter designer’s tale was as long as his name, I’ve always taken design attributions with a pinch of salt and, indeed with most things few people take something from sketch to realisation without others being involved.

  5. The Mark IV and V Cortina/Taunus in retrospect were quintessential Uwe Bahnsen cars. Ford’s of that era tended to display a similar suave, well tailored look to that of the eminent design director himself. I’m interested to learn it was le Quement who actually penned the car. He kept quiet about that but really, why be ashamed? It was the mechanicals of the car that were behind the curve – the styling was right on the button.

    Car’s Mel Nichols described the Mark IV at its Geneva debut as aping Mercedes in its styling, which says something about the jump Ford made in stylistic professionalism and visual restraint. It also illustrates how the centre of gravity was shifting towards from Essex via Detroit towards Cologne.

    A vivid memory of these cars was the rear axle shimmy one experienced as the driveline engaged from a standstill and the inevitable OHC cam-rattle. However, the abiding one for me is of decrepit examples held together with bailing twine, usually with at least one haybale sticking out of the boot.

    1. Utterly uncharacteristically, Mr Nichols jumped to an incorrect conclusion, as it was the Fiat 130 Coupé’s design that served as the main source of inspiration for the Mk IV’s shape.

  6. The Mark III, IV and V Cortinas are very evocative and even emotive cars for me as my dad had one of each successively as company cars during my childhood. At the time, they seemed to me like very solid and no nonsense vehicles – especially the latter two which were almost Volvo-body. The back seats were low set, short of cushion and high of back. My sister was always car-sick over longer journeys … Ah, Feu Orange!

  7. Having owned Cortinas Mk III, IV and V, and used them for minicabbing, I can safely say they were absolute crap. My colleagues recommended them on the basis of them being easy to fix, however, fixing they indeed need on a far too frequent basis and the rust was pretty bad too. As for roadholding and ride – terrible. Out of the three, the Mk IV had the best ride and was the best looking.
    Talking of Patrick Le Quement, my personal favourite design of his at Ford was the Cargo truck cab, possibly the most stylish cab of all time, something more challenging to achieve than a stylish sports car.

  8. A timely read, this, on the same day that Ford Australia ceases production. My dad had an Australian-built, Pinto-engined Mk3 back in the day; it replaced a Morris 1100. Back then, Australia had some fairly ferocious tariffs, as well as quotas, on imported cars, so the local manufacturers were dominant. The Cortina is (marginally) more defensible in that light, given that the alternatives included the Holden Torana, Chrysler Centura (a locally-adapted 180), and, er, the Marina. (Needless to say, the Marina’s reputation in its homeland preceded it.)

    The six-cylinder Cortinas were diabolical, but to be fair, probably no worse than any of the other local bilge that had sixes shoehorned into them. Or the Torana SL/R 5000, which I have charitably heard described as ‘terrifying’ and uncharitably as ‘dangerous’.

    1. I’ve never seen an Australian Marina, but encountered a fair few P76s and X6 Tasmans and Kimberleys, which are rightly held in some affection in Australia.

      Perhaps the Marina was so bad that they succumbed to early attrition, even in Tasmania, or possibly it was a precursor of the Bielefeld Conspiracy, and never actually existed. I put the Innocenti Regent into the same category. In extensive travels in Italy in the ’80s I never saw one example.

      It’s widely reported that BMC/BMH/BLMC Australia worked on a Marina-sized rwd car long before Stokes dictated the rushed development of the British car. BLMC-A agreed to drop the project in favour of the British design, in return for the go-ahead for the P76. Ian Fraser made oblique reference to the lost Australian car in the Marina launch article in CAR (May? 1971), where he denounced the Marina as a rebodied Minor, ill-equipped to compete even with its uninspiring Ford and GM rivals.

  9. I have before me ‘Motor’ from 29 August 1979, which has a comprehensive description of the ‘Cortina 80’, as Ford wished us to know it.

    We are told that the raised roof was “prompted by requests from Cortina customers for improved visibility from the drivers seat”.

    Were people really that bothered? From recollection, visibility in the Mk.IV was ok, although many deplored the loss of the Mk.III’s front wing ‘buttresses’. The low and non-adjustable H-point of Fords of that era was probably more of a concern.

    In any case, either Cortina’s visibility would be brilliant compared with a current Focus or Mondeo.

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