The Cortina’s less talented big sister.
The arrival of the Cortina in September 1962 was a seminal event for Ford of Britain. Here was a light and efficient family car that was designed to be simple and inexpensive, both to build and to run. It offered everything the average motorist and their family needed, and nothing they didn’t. The Cortina exemplified the value engineering approach to design and manufacture that would come to define Ford for the next thirty years.
The Cortina also made the rest of Ford’s UK range suddenly look outdated. This was a particular problem for the Consul Classic and Capri models, which had been launched just a year earlier. Their introduction had been delayed by a couple of years because the Anglia small car was such a runaway success that Ford’s Dagenham plant lacked the capacity to build them. Moreover, the cars’ American-influenced styling had been fixed in 1958, before the revolution that swept away baroque detailing and excessive brightwork in favour of much cleaner and simpler shapes. They were also complex and expensive to build and sold very poorly from the start.
A replacement was urgently needed for the Consul Classic saloon(1), and the Cortina would provide the perfect basis for this. The new car would use an extended version of the Cortina’s floorpan, with an extra 3” (76mm) inserted into the wheelbase. While much of the Cortina’s internal structure was retained, a completely new body was designed, which was 8½” (216mm) longer, 1” (25mm) wider, and the same amount lower than the Cortina.
The styling was strongly reminiscent of the 1961 US Ford Thunderbird, with its sheer, unadorned flanks, strong shoulder line and pointed nose. One particularly neat styling detail was the way the high-set exterior door handles were incorporated into the chrome trim that defined the shoulder line. It certainly looked quite different to its progenitor, but perhaps a little over-bodied because of its still relatively short wheelbase and, in particular, narrow front and rear tracks.
The new model, which would be named Corsair, shared most of its mechanical underpinnings with the Cortina, including its launch engine, a 1,498cc OHV inline-four, which was carried over from the Classic. This was available in two states of tune, a 59bhp (44kW) version for the standard and deluxe models and a 78bhp (58kW) version for the GT. The mechanical layout was resolutely conventional, with MacPherson strut front suspension and semi-elliptical leaf springs and dampers at the rear supporting a live axle.
The Corsair would be assembled at Ford’s new Halewood plant on Merseyside(2) which was opened in October 1963 to deliver additional production capacity for the company. The new plant cost £38.5 million and would ultimately employ 11,500 workers.
The Corsair was launched at the Earls Court London Motor Show in October 1963. A press launch event was organised for Killarney in the far south-west of Ireland. Ford planned to ship twenty-one new Corsairs to Ireland for the event, only to fall foul of Irish customs rules. At that time, Ireland charged swingeing import taxes on imports of fully assembled cars, in order to protect its nascent car assembly factories, so customs officers threatened to seize the cars pending payment of the duty.
Harry Calton, Ford’s PR executive organising the event, had to engage in tortuous negotiations to import the cars free of duty. Ford even had to incorporate a separate import company for the venture and provide a written undertaking that customs would be notified of any work carried out on the cars while in Ireland. For example, should a windscreen(3) need to be replaced, Ford had to promise to declare this and surrender the damaged screen to customs for destruction!
Small Car(4) magazine’s George Bishop was one of the journalists invited. His first impressions were not positive. Bishop found the Corsair to have “a poor driving position with a high-set wheel and a seat which would not move back enough [and was] too low and narrow for comfort”. He observed that “thick windscreen pillars obscured the driver’s vision, the steering was a thought (sic) vague, the suspension somewhat firm on rough roads”.
Countering this, the floor mounted(5) gear-shift was “a joy to use” and the GT model’s power-assisted brakes needed “much less prod” than the unassisted brakes on the standard version. The GT version’s “extra power made [the car] easier to balance and overcome the initial understeer”. Bishop’s comments seemed to indicate that the Corsair was underdeveloped, which is hardly surprising given the accelerated timetable that brought it to market.
Autocar magazine subjected the Corsair to a full road test in early 1964 and was more impressed. The test car was a mid-range two-door(6) deluxe model, priced at £677 including purchase tax. The introductory comments praised the “modern high-efficiency engine” with “inherent mechanical quietness [and] smooth running” attributed to its five-bearing crankshaft and the “structural stiffness and efficient sound insulation of the body” which “combine to bring the Corsair into line with the best in Europe in these respects”. This resulted in “relaxed and untiring motoring that taxes neither the muscles nor the nerves”.
The engine was smooth and flexible, pulling cleanly from 20mph (32km/h) in top gear. The gear change was “beyond criticism for the efficiency of its synchromesh and the easy, short and precise lever movements”. 0 to 60mph (97km/h) was measured at “only 17.8 seconds [which was] not hanging about” and the Corsair would cruise comfortably at 70mph (113km/h) at which speed the engine was “so unobtrusive [that] opening a window slightly or turning up the radio virtually drowns it”.
Road noise was also subdued, and this was attributed to the body engineers “double-skinning the rear floor and propeller shaft tunnel”. There was, however, a noticeable vibration between 70 and 80mph (113 to 129km/h) attributed to out of balance wheels. Average fuel consumption over the course of the test was 28.6mpg (9.88L/100km).
The handling was described as “inherently safe [and] nicely balanced and stable [with a desirable] small degree of understeer”. The steering was a little heavier than the norm with strong self-centring and four turns from lock to lock. The turning circle was “no better than average” at 35’9” (10.9m). The interior was roomy, and the seats were comfortable, except for tall drivers, where the concave runners made the backrest too upright at the seat’s rearmost position. The steering wheel was closer than ideal to the driver’s chest.
In summary, the Corsair was described as “an excellent, up-to-date car, and well above the international average for its class in terms of mechanical refinement and quiet running in general”.
The differences between the two reviews are stark. Was Bishop being overly harsh, or Autocar too forgiving of the Corsair? There is another possibility: Bishop’s test car was a pre-production example, and Ford might have made many small improvements(7) to the production model that Autocar tested a few months later.
Despite generally positive reviews, sales started quietly as the Corsair was overshadowed by its smaller stablemate, which was highly successful and became truly ubiquitous in the UK. The Cortina was heavily promoted and progressively upgraded, then replaced by a rebodied Mk2 model in 1966. The Corsair, meanwhile, was revised in September 1965 and given the new Essex V4 engine in 1,663cc and (a year later) in 1,996cc capacities.
The new engine was scant improvement. Although it developed decent low-down torque, 117 lb ft (159Nm) at 2,750rpm in the case of the larger version, it was rough-running and reluctant to rev much above 4,000rpm, where it became excessively harsh and noisy. Its key advantage was its compact size, but that was irrelevant in a car originally designed to accommodate an inline-four in its engine bay(8). So unrefined was the engine that it earned the car the unfortunate but apt nickname Coarser.
British coachbuilding firm E D Abbott offered an estate car conversion from March 1966. This was attractive looking but was handicapped by the retention of the saloon’s high boot sill. Another coachbuilder, Crayford, offered a convertible version of the two-door saloon. Ford introduced a 2000E range-topping version in 1967, which was distinguished by a vinyl roof, wooden dashboard and deletion of the waistline chrome strip that had previously incorporated the door handles.
The Corsair limped on until 1970 when it was made redundant by the arrival of the enlarged Cortina Mk3, which had its wheelbase extended to match that of the Corsair at 101” (2,565mm). A total of 331,095 Corsairs were sold over its seven-year lifespan. Indifference and neglect resulted in the survival of only a few hundred, but these are now cherished by their owners, who appreciate their distinctive pint-sized Thunderbird styling, so redolent of early 1960’s America.
(1) The Consul Capri would also cease production in 1963 and would not be replaced until 1969 when a new Cortina-based coupé reprising the name was launched.
(2) The engines for the Corsair were shipped over 200 miles (323km) from Ford’s Dagenham plant on special trains running on the public rail network.
(3) Incidentally, this particular item was identical to that on the Mk1 Cortina, so sourcing one would not be a problem.
(4) The publication that became Car Magazine in July 1965.
(5) The Corsair also came with the option of a column gearshift and bench front seat.
(6) This was unusual as the two-door was only available to special order in the UK.
(7) Autocar mentioned that the seat runners had been extended, which addressed one of Bishop’s criticisms.
(8) A popular conversion was to install an Essex V6 in place of the V4.