Once ubiquitous on the streets of the British Isles, the Mk3 Cortina is now vanishingly rare, and worthy of reappraisal.
Walking through the lanes of the Suffolk market town I call home recently, I happened upon a car that I haven’t seen in the metal for many years. It was an arresting sight.
The car in question was a 1971 Ford Cortina, an early example of the Mk3 generation of Ford’s family stalwart. It was a four-door saloon, resplendent in dark metallic green. The lack of any additional badging on the boot lid and an absence of brightwork indicated that it was an entry-level base model. The cod-heraldic shields on the lower front wings behind the wheel arches proudly proclaimed it was a 1300, the smallest engine option available.
The 1970 Cortina Mk3 was a significant advance in style over the 1966 Mk2, itself a cautious reboot of the 1961 original. The Mk3’s wheelbase was extended by 3” (76mm) to 101” (2,565mm) which significantly improved rear legroom. Contrary to appearances, its overall length actually shrunk by ¼” (6mm) to 167¾” (4,261mm) in saloon form.
The rather staid upright lines of the Mk2 were replaced with a bang-on-trend sinuous Coke-Bottle waistline, heavily curved side glasses and a semi-fastback profile, with broad C-pillars flowing smoothly into the rear quarters and boot lid. The bonnet sported a prominent raised centre section, with a matching step in the grille and indent in the front bumper. One might be tempted to call this a power-bulge, but that would be writing a cheque that the weedy 1,297cc 60bhp (45kW) OHV Kent engine, carried over from the Mk2, would struggle to cash.
It was with the launch of the Mk3 that Ford really perfected the structure and nomenclature of its range hierarchy, ensuring that there was a Cortina for every purse, if not purpose, to misquote one time GM chief executive, Alfred P. Sloan Jr. The range started with the base model, simply branded Cortina with no suffix. There followed in ascending order L, XL, GT and GXL models. The latter pair were priced similarly but the GT had a sporting bias, while the GXL was steeped in luxury trimmings and equipment.
Well, not quite. The differences between each model in the hierarchy tended to be rather minor and were mainly aesthetic rather than substantive. Additional exterior brightwork, side rubbing strips, rubber bumper inserts and over-riders(1), twin rather than single headlamps and, finally, that ultimate signifier of luxury, the black vinyl roof. Inside, cloth upholstery replaced vinyl, (plastic) wood-effect inserts embellished the dashboard and door trims, a push-button radio replaced a manually tuned unit, and a clock and rev-counter supplemented the otherwise sparse basic instrumentation. These higher trim levels were offered with the option of more powerful 1.6 and 2.0-litre engines, which added more go to the show.
Today, however, we need not concern ourselves with any of these permutations, as the Cortina we are examining is as basic and unadorned as they came, and the more interesting for it. The condition of the car might fairly be described as useable everyday classic. It was by no means concours, but perfectly respectable. There was not a hint of rust in sight, but plenty of evidence of recent paintwork, so the usual horrors might be lurking beneath, depending on the extent and quality of the refurbishment work.
What minimal exterior trim was originally fitted was all present and correct, although the bright inserts around the windscreen and rear window were rather discoloured. The base model Cortina did not even have exterior wing or door mirrors fitted as standard, so this example had a couple of aftermarket items clamped around the leading edge of the door skins, which obviated the need for drilling into the bodywork. The pressed aluminium(?) front grille had survived remarkably unscathed for over half a century. The front bumper looked perfect, but the rear was noticeably pitted, or elegantly patinated(2), in the lexicon of classic car buffs.
Inside, the tan coloured vinyl upholstery looked to be in reasonable shape, although the drivers seat had been replaced(3) by one with a different embossed pattern, probably from an L version. In either case, the non-perforated surface would be an uncomfortably sweaty perch in hot weather.
The dashboard was a stylish affair, at least in early 1970’s terms, with two symmetrical inverted U-shaped mouldings either side of the centre tunnel. The one in front of the driver contained three deeply inset circular dials, with a central speedometer flanked by fuel and temperature gauges. The same space in front of the passenger contained a tall, wide but shallow(4) glove box.
Unfortunately, form was placed ahead of function and there was no room left for the Mk2’s excellent swivelling eyeball face-level ventilation outlets. Instead, the Mk3 had long narrow grilles immediately beneath the dashboard top moulding(5). One peculiarity of the Mk3 Cortina was its noticeably elliptical steering wheel.
Back in the 1970’s, Mk3 Cortinas were literally everywhere and barely attracted a second glance, especially base-spec examples like this one. Now, however, its lack of ornamentation provided the opportunity to appreciate the car’s contours and form, and there’s quite a lot to take in.
One detail that intrigues and appeals to me is seen in the rear three-quarter aspect, where the roof flows down the C-pillars into the rear wings in a smooth continuous sweep, with not a hint of a joint to be seen. It’s a lovely detail that looks classy and expensive, and so much nicer than the fussy C-pillar treatments that are almost universal today. Another nice detail is the complex pressing that forms the peak in the front wings containing the indicators. It may not be razor-sharp like Volkswagen’s current efforts, but it’s still satisfying. The lack of front and rear quarter windows lends the DLO a pleasingly clean and uncluttered look.
The raised centre section of the bonnet, continued through the grille and down to an indent in the bumper, gives the front end some character. Unlike the similar, but narrower and rather pinched looking arrangement on the contemporary Ford Taunus TC, it is nicely proportioned. That said, the front end was clearly designed primarily to suit the twin 5¾” headlamps of the GT and GXL versions. The single 7” items on this example do not sit so happily within the grille. At the rear, the small light clusters are very neatly incorporated into the corners of the wing and, uniquely on a Cortina, the boot opens down to bumper level(6).
Coming across a car I had largely forgotten about gave me the opportunity to study it anew and appreciate its refreshingly clean but not at all characterless design. It may not be regarded as any sort of classic, but it stands as a quiet rebuke to today’s overwrought and fussy automotive designs and their authors.
Author’s note: DTW contributor Richard Herriott has previously written a more formal analysis of the Cortina Mk3’s style, which may be found here.
(1) These actually fitted beneath the bumper, so are technically under-riders.
(2) A useful phrase I use occasionally to describe my own less than pristine appearance these days.
(3) Ford seats of this era had a reputation for being poorly padded and collapsing prematurely.
(4) Measured from front to back.
(5) The 1973 facelifted Mk3 would receive a new dashboard, which saw the return of the eyeball vents. This dashboard would be carried forward into the Mk4 and Mk5, the latter formally designated the ‘Cortina 80’.
(6) The Cortina Mk4 reverted to a fixed rear panel and high-level boot opening. Ford PR types excused this retrograde step by saying that it made it easier to see when the boot was fully loaded!