Theme: Places – Cortina

The joke’s on me: Cortina isn’t just a 70’s Ford. The 1956 Olympics took place there. The car came in 1962.

Cortina, Italy: source
Cortina, Italy: source

Ford make decent affordable cars for people like you and me. Even if we may never buy one, most people could imagine owning a Ford whether they really want to or not. So, how plausible is the Cortina name?

I will immediately admit that until I started writing this, I knew nothing about Cortina other than that it was a town in Italy. Prior to that (sometime about a year ago) it dawned on me it was a place-name. If you knew about Cortina the Italian town, please forgive this show of ignorance.

Think of it as a case study in the problems of borrowed names. As I said in my article on Ascona, a place name needs to be plausible. That means the image of the place and the image of the car must be in some kind of synchronisation. If the brand name itself is neutral then a model name can give it a lift.

That’s how Opel Ascona, Honda Sienna and Chevrolet Sierra work. An Austin Cap d’Antibes is bathetic. A Lada Istanbul creates a clash of images. Ford’s decision to name their fiercely cost-competitive and workaday Cortina for town known for skiing aristocrats (if known at all) strikes me this morning (as I write) as humorous.

Luckily, it’s too late for the humour to do any harm. I am aware that the potential humour rests on an unkind and uncharitable snobbishness. I am not a snob – I place a huge value on treating people as individuals with their own intrinsic worth. Snobbery depends on feeling you and your values are the best and, also, critically, exercising your status advantage at every opportunity. It’s really bad manners.

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No, the irony of the Cortina name lies in how others less kind may see the Cortina owner in contrast with the Cortina visitor. The Cortina had the good luck to be Britain’s best-selling car and a national institution in the way I think only the British do such things: Marmite, Corby trouser presses, Cavaliers, Cortina’s and Geo. F Trumper.

At the same time, the Cortina got entrained with complex notions of class, status and social values. So successful was the Cortina name it became bigger than the car: a short-hand for a way of life, from new to second-hand to stolen. Ford could not control the car’s afterlife.

In selling so many, there was no alternative for second-hand values to do anything but fall making the car not only an economical and efficient tool of commerce and family work horse but a cheap car for anyone with a paycheck to purchase used. I don’t look down on Cortina owners but I am very well aware that a lot of others may have.

Not all it’s cultural associations are negative. Tom Robinson used the name as a short-hand for boy racer culture in his song Grey Cortina. In 1982 Alexei Sayle made a film about The Private Life of the Ford Cortina (a rather admiring piece) and his song Ullo John, Gotta New Motor makes use of the car in the accompanying video film.

1977 Ford Cortina: (c) Autocar

So, on the one side is a democratic or proletarian car with used-values in ponies and, on the other, a name for a town that only the very rich know much about.

This is Cortina: a town and commune in the Dolomitic Alps, situated on the Boite river and a popular winter resort known for skiing and its jet set, aristocratic European crowd (paraphrased from the source of all knowledge). Hemingway, Bellow and Buzzati holidayed there. Hemingway even wrote a book while staying in the town.

Eon Productions filmed “For Your Eyes Only” there in 1981 (the ski chase is notable in addition to the hotel scenes). I wonder did Ford UK pick that name because someone had been there or because a chap in marketing had only read about it in the London Illustrated News?

The joke is mostly on me though, isn’t it? Clearly Cortina is a shibboleth. If you are not really lucky, it means an old Ford. And if you are very lucky you may not even know what a Ford Cortina is and the associations with rusty bangers won’t touch you high up in the Dolomites.


Post-script: This blog suggests that Cortina is even today not very well known.
(Slideshow credits: Cortina 3, Honest John, Wikipedia, Cortina Club,,,

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

18 thoughts on “Theme: Places – Cortina”

  1. You never know Richard, Ford may have named the Cortina after the Spanish or Italian word for curtain. I owned three back in the 80’s, a Mk III, Mk IV and Mk V, the last being the most uncomfortable and unpleasant to drive. I persisted with them because I was a minicab driver at the time and many of my colleagues told my naive young self that it was the only car to have because it was dead easy to fix. This may have been true but as I discovered when I graduated to French cars, it’s better to have cars that don’t need fixing all of the time.

    1. I’d really like to test drive a Cortina, any of them. A neighbour has one. I should ask nicely. It’s all very well to note the received wisdom – with cars it’s hard to validate everything you read – but some of the landmarks are worth checking out. I’d like to see how bad it could be.

  2. There are a lot of reasons for choosing Cortina:
    – it sounds nicer than Garmisch-Partenkirchen
    – 60 years ago, visiting Cortina was as exotic as seeing a Yeti or a Touareg today.
    – Cortina is bigger and more popular than Sestriere, the Agnelli winter-village.

    1. For me, it sounds like a Ford. They say that I knew all cars when I was three or four. That was obviously long before I could develop any idea of geography beyond a few streets around our house.
      Taunus evokes a slightly metallic, hissing car noise. No idea if any Taunus actually sounded like this.

  3. And what about Taunus? Why Ford renamed the Cortina for other markets? Here in Argentina maybe a semantic connotation, but in other european countries?

    1. Rodrigo, I wrote the below, whilst you were writing yours. Strictly, Ford renamed the Taunus as Cortina, not the other way round, since the Mark IV onwards was not longer really a Dagenham Dustbin but more a continuation of the German model that you can trace back to 1939.

  4. Straddling social boundaries, as befits an anachronistic metropolitan liberal, I have both driven lots of Cortinas and visited Cortina d’Ampezzo several times, though not for the Winter season since I don’t ski, and it’s a long way to drive to not ski. It’s very pleasant and, being on a through road, it lacks the rich ghetto exclusivity of other resorts and, should you wish, I can recommend a good garage. They welded up my exhaust pipe and were loath to charge since they didn’t think it would last long enough (it lasted two more years in fact).

    The only bad memory is having a Dutchman come up to me in the street and start asking a question in English. I can’t remember the question since, as a proud cosmopolitan, I was so shocked that my nationality was blatantly obvious. Was it the bowler hat, Spurs T-shirt, brown khaki knee length shorts, public-school tie belt, skinny white legs, grey socks or Clarks sandals? Or the Tesco carrier bag?

    As for the car(s), it’s yet another case of old-school Ford cynically producing a car that was just good enough for the time. I think I can look down on the car, without looking down on its owners. Why buy a Cortina when there were, as Mark points out, better options? Probably because it was the unpretentious choice – the car that, despite the name, didn’t suggest that you were too up yourself for your own good.

    Of course the Cortina’s cousin also evoked mountains, being called Taunus, though I believe the skiing, let alone apres-ski, isn’t so good there.

  5. As a cultural signifier we could also consider “Red Cortina” by those commentators on rural life in Ireland, the Saw Doctors.

    1. Indeed. Cortinas, Asconas and Jettas in “middle Ireland”. Ford had an assembly plant in Cork (Ford’s ancestors came from around there) so for many years Irish people viewed Ford quite favourably. It would be a monumentally exhausting task to track down references to car models in Irish pop songs. In advance I expect a short list and a few nameplates to dominate.

  6. There’s also Tuam’s finest’s pithy tribute to to Ohioan God-botherer, “I’d love to kiss the Bangles”.

    Not sure if it refers to the Fiat or BMW era.

  7. You lot must be young ‘uns if you don’t remember Ford racing Cortina GTs down the Cortina D’Ampezzo bobsleigh run, you know just to validate the fact that a leaf-sprung back axle (but with advanced fore-aft radius rod location oh wow) tin box was made of magnificent stuff and true to its namesake. There’s even a YouTube video, but the obituary of this man has a couple of the requisite pix:

    Actually I quite liked the Mk 1 Cortina GT on normal roads and drove one extensively during the summer of 1966 out on Vancouver Island. The ability of the engine to sit at 5.000 rpm in third for 1o minutes at a time meant it wasn’t the slowest vehicle climbing the mountain near Duncan. It wouldn’t hold pace in top, so third it was. Nor did it overheat or exhibit any sort of tantrum, while sweeping past detritus like VW Beetles, Renaults and various lumpen BLMC chariots of the Farina Morris Oxford variety. Victors had no chance either, only those darn old Volvo 544s which seemed to be even less troubled than the GT by steep and long grades.

    Later in the UK I was working away as a foreign postgrad student in 1972 and some English pals, also engineers, started up Tech Trek. This involved their purchasing a brand new Landy 110 10 passenger, F-head 2.6 litre 6 cylinder lumberer, and going on 12 day rips around the continent in an English homage to the American practice of “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium!” But camping all the way rather than snoring in Hiltons, of course. Unfortunately, this grand idea had made no money for them commercially after carrying all their relatives hither and yon on the cheap as regular bookers were rare, so they decided to flog the beast, which had been delicately modified by having a large piece of best BR mainline rail bolted on to replace the flimsy front bumper. The owners had decided that “priorite a droit” in France was illogical, and hence local French farmers bumbling down their driveways and turning right onto the main road without looking left or caring what was coming were a menace to the Anglo-Saxon race. I must admit the 110’s hulking presence and jutting prow did indeed seem to provoke violent last-minute braking on the part of the somnolent peasantry, so that idea worked particularly well on two occasions with Renault 4’s and once with a 2CV that I witnessed. Ahem.

    As a farewell to the 110, 7 of us pals including its owners crammed into its interior for a last Euro trek, the remaining three spaces taken up by really bad unbranded tinned British food “to keep costs down”. Since I was the only one who would have much preferred eating local after a 2 month backpack around Europe the year before and was thus sole objector to such awfulness, I was overruled by xenophobia, and banished to the only sideways seat remaining at the rear to gaze at cartons containing tins of British-made no-name ravioli with sauce and other culinary delights. Not even decent Heinz beans. The boxes did make excellent armrests though.

    We bumbled down to Austria, finally staying at a posh camp outside Vienna after disasters with loo facilities at lesser camp spots. This one was populated mainly by German campers on holiday , and for some reason sported a huge three-storeyed restaurant/beerhaus with central atrium and balconeyed rows of tables where the only main course seemed to be steak and chips. But GOOD steak and chips. Heh, heh. Here in the incredible din of malted alcoholic hilarity on all sides, on our second night when tinned ravioli seemed revolting and some real food beckoned, silence happened when the Munich Olympic kidnapping/killings came on the TV. Downer. No more happy Germans up at 5am the next morning jogging laps aroumd the property’s periphery followed by PT while grunting and counting reps loudly, waking everyone else up.

    So off we went to Italy, cutting through the tip of Yugoslavia from Austria. The Italian Customs decided we were drug runners, and tore the luggage apart including all the tents carried on top of the 110. Finally, they found a bottle of Disprin, and we had to stand in a line in the hot sun being berated in Italian, while the senior officer drove off at high speed to the next town with our bottle of Disprin for “analeeseez”. He returned an hour later in a very bad mood, and threw the bottle at us. It took several hours to repack.

    The next day we decided to go to the 14000 foot level in the Dolomites on a dirt road, where we all felt quite giddy due to the lack of oxygen, stopped and had a good laugh. Upon setting out again, the 110’s oil pressure light came on, so we stopped and discovered the sump bolt had disappeared, as had the oil. Very slowly with engine off, wondering what the hell we were going to do, we inched down the mountain to, you guessed it – CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, and the first building was a BL/Land Rover dealership! Stone the bloody crows! Zen. Thank you Lord Stokes! It took about 20 minutes to somehow get these folk to understand what had happened, whereupon the magic sump bolt was produced IMMEDIATELY from a cardboard box along with a big smile. Must happen all the time the six Englishmen supposed – do not drive Landy 110s at high altitude or the sump bolt will unscrew. Well, they were all electrical engineers except me as the lone mechanical and colonial, and knew more about characteristic impedances than screw threads. Luckily, the mechanics after they stuck the bolt back in the sump remembered to add oil before we motored off. Sighs of relief all around, as the disbelief of finding an LR dealer so easily along with the requisite part, the hugs and handshakes meant that in the confusion the oil was almost forgotten.

    I was rather more taken during our service stop by the amazing quality of the young women trotting about, several of whom could have employed Sophia Loren as their scullery maid. Be still, my beating heart! Goodness Gracious! Never seen better, not even in Montreal.

    We continued to Venice, where the campsite we stayed at across the bay was flooded in a violent thunderstorm about 0200 hrs, and minor rivers carrying tents and screaming campers away made for a night more hellish than mere words can describe as the electrickery also went out so no light. I was on an airbed outside my tent proper to get some semblance of fresh air, when I felt myself floating away and eventually collided with a tree. It took a whole day to sort out the mess with over 400 people affected. Luckily someone turned up with mounds of fresh tomatoes, which being Italian and ripe were incredibly wonderful. Venice? Very nice, but the fegato alla veneziana at one posh spot was distinctly inferior to that produced at a newly-opened Italian resataurant in Hammersmith – now that young man could cook! Went about three times a week – pure indulgence but justifiable as it was also cheap.

    On the autostrada, continued apparent full throttle made the 110’s engine exhaust manifold go beyond orange into the white-hot zone, judging by the red glow that eventually appeared. Hmm. Worried looks all around after we stopped and had a look because of the burning smell. Then later that day the thing wouldn’t go over 50 mph. While the others decided the engine was fried, I examined the accelerator pedal, only to discover that whatever engineering creativity was practised designing the Range Rover, none had been expended on LR’s part in the design of the throttle linkage on the 110. They had made a D-clamp such that it could not actually clamp the rod going to the carburettor unless the paint on the rod was thick! It was oversized in the diameter department when fully screwed down. Oh yes, and of course the paint had worn down and about 25% movement at the carb was all that was left. I fixed it with a piece of ciggy-packet cardboard and a pair of pliers. My thanks from my colleagues amounted to everyone wondering if the fuel economy would become insanely bad now the accelerator pedal gave full throttle plate travel. Bloody sods, always calling me a colonial even if I was born in Oxford! However, one of the owners was now amazed at the performance available and decided the linkage had been getting progressively more duff for months. A quality machine.

    The rest of the trip was just as momentous, but I hesitate to try your patience any further. A cyclist in the ditch, proper Italian veal cutlets in a sea of tomato sauce at a truck stop with chips rather than pasta, pizzas that would have been laughed off the table in Canada as rubbish but were defended as original (thank god for unfettered New World imagination, then), chasing rabbits in a cabbage field by the light of the moon in a Landy, an incredible meal in Nowhere, northern France courtesy of my being Canadian and WW2 liberation, etc. We did get back to Blighty in the end. In one piece with most of the ravioli also intact, one notes with satisfaction.

    But that Cortina BL/LR dealer, you really saved our bacon! And that is how I shall fondly remember that Alpine hamlet, along with glimpses of the amazing female beauty it obviously attracted.

    Sorry if this retelling was a bit long, but I was Driven to Write! Cortina!

    1. Thank you for that Bill. You know, we are very happy to accept comments of this size and quality as full blown posts. Any time you’re interested ….

  8. My Dad habitually had Cortinas from the Mk2 to the last Mk5. When he was then given a Montego (no sniggering now), he thought he’d awoken in Paradise! My sister was regularly travel sick in the back, which meant plenty of Feu Orange, which always made me feel sick, funnily. Can’t go anywhere near a Terry’s Chocolate Orange even today for the sensory memories and refluxes it invokes …

  9. This piece does prompt me to muse that location names are particularly popular for special editions. Naturally, the place name employed usually bears an inverse relationship to the likelihood of ever seeing said car in the named location. I am thinking here particularly of the Mini Tahiti, Rover 100 Knightsbridge/Kensington/Chelsea/Caribbean, the Regata SW Riviera, Marea Weekend St Moritz, R5 St Tropez, Ford Probe Francorchamps, Escort Manhattan, Serena Côté Sud, Saxo Monaco, MX-5 Gleneagles, and Corolla Verso Eden Park.

    And they’re just the ones I could be bothered to look up. I know ‘special’ editions have been covered before here at DTW but I truly feel this rich vein has barely been tapped and needs revisiting at some juncture.

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