National Treasure

The many lives of the Ford Cortina

1963 Ford Consul Cortina. Image: classiccarcatalogue

I wanna be your vacuum cleaner
Breathing in your dust
I wanna be your Ford Cortina
I will never rust
If you like your coffee hot
Let me be your coffee pot
You call the shots
I wanna be yours

This is the opening to the poem, ‘I wanna be yours’ by John Cooper Clarke, legendary post-punk poet and recording artist, first released on 1982’s ‘Zip Style Method’ LP. So influential has the Salford-based bard’s verses become over the intervening decades that I wanna be yours has subsequently become a popular recitation for more left-of-centre weddings and since the 1990s has become part of the UK school’s English poetry curriculum.

It was here that a young Alex Turner first encountered the poem[1]; his band, the Arctic Monkeys later employing Cooper Clarke’s words for a song of the same name on their critically acclaimed 2013 album, ‘AM’. Latterly, the track has taken on a second (or third) life, having been streamed over a billion times on Spotify. And not just in English speaking countries, the song proving most popular in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil — not to mention in India, the Philippines and Turkey. It is now, according to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, not only Britain’s go-to wedding recitation, but the world’s favourite English-language poem.

It is a truism worth restating that once a product becomes immortalised through popular music, poetry or other artform, it transcends its status as mere consumer durable, entering the realm of national treasure. For many years, Britain’s best seller, few 20th century cars have captured the national consciousness, or inhabited the British psyche in quite the same manner as Ford’s Cortina. For if the more glamourous Capri was billed as “the car you always promised yourself”, it was the Cortina that most people settled for.

The Cortina came about to a great extent by consequence of the Ford Motor Company’s anxieties regarding foreign imports and the US sales success of Volkswagen’s Beetle in particular. Having developed a front-wheel drive subcompact prototype, dubbed Cardinal, Ford’s all-powerful CEO demurred, favouring the more conventional (and cheaper to build) Falcon model instead. Unwanted in the US, Cardinal was offered to Ford of Germany, who developed it for launch in 1962 as the Taunus 12M (P4).

Meanwhile at Ford of Britain’s Dunton engineering centre, a rival programme, dubbed Archbishop was enacted under the auspices of Ford of Britain CEO, Patrick Hennessey. This by contrast was a wholly conventional design, aimed at fleet users and the family man with technical simplicity, light weight and cost-effectiveness as its bywords[2]. Having been banished from Detroit to Essex following his involvement in the styling of the disastrous Edsel model line, Roy A. Brown joined the styling team at Dunton and was credited with Archbishop’s neat, modish style — Brown’s design, unlike the 1959 Anglia carrying its Americana lightly, and to better effect.

Image: classiccarcatalogue

Developed at record speed over 21 months and introduced in 1962, the Ford Consul Cortina[3] (as it was first known) entered a section of the UK market, at that time largely devoid of rivals. Sales success would soon follow, the Cortina vindicating Dunton’s ambitious gambit.

In time-honoured Ford fashion, the Cortina range was expanded (four-doors, an estate, not to mention myriad trim levels), and larger (1500 cc) engines offered, further broadening the car’s appeal. Perhaps the most influential of these being the GT model, a less hairy-chested version of the giant-killing Lotus Cortina homologation special, which helped cement the model’s aspirational appeal to go-getters of all ages.

1966 Cortina II. Image: bestsellingcarsblog

Quickly becoming as ubiquitous a piece of UK street-corner furniture as red post boxes, the Cortina was renewed in Autumn 1966. The Mark II received a slightly wider and more rectilinear style, courtesy of Dunton lead designer, Roy Haynes[4]. Again, the influences were transatlantic in origin, but subsumed into a clean, contemporary form. While the first series car was a success, the Mark II saw Cortina’s sales take to the stratosphere; in 1967 assuming the top spot in the UK[5].

The second series Cortina was offered with a broader range of engines and trim levels (three body styles once more), fulfilling the UK car buyer’s fantasies and aspirations better than anything its rivals could contrive. It also marked the point where it would become immortalised in art and culture, for instance its role in the seminal 1971 crime film, ‘Get Carter’. Director Mike Hodges could have used any other ubiquitous saloon car of the era, but the Cortina by then had street credibility other rival cars lacked[6].

The now demolished Trinity Square multi-story carpark in Gateshead. Scene from 1971’s Get Carter. Image: sovibrantopinion8

By now the Cortina had entered its third iteration. The Mark III, introduced in 1970 had to the consternation of rival carmakers — who were almost catching up — grown in all dimensions, and was offered with engines of up to 2-litres capacity. Again, US trends informed the Cortina’s style — now closely related to the German market Taunus model — albeit the latter model lacked the British design’s so-called Coke-Bottle rear hips.

Cortina Mark III. Image: Author’s collection.

Following a shaky start (quality issues in the main) the Cortina hit its stride in its third iteration, regaining the UK sales chart top-spot in 1973, a grip the Cortina was not to relinquish for the remainder of its career.

Running from 1974 until 1978, the Thames Television police drama series, ‘The Sweeney’ brought a gritty realism to the somewhat hackneyed cop show formula. The Flying Squad detectives the show portrayed primarily drove unmarked Ford Consuls. Cortinas however, also featured throughout[7].

Image: veikl

Wish I had a grey Cortina
Whiplash aerial, racing trim
Cortina owner – no one meaner
Wish that I could be like him
Twin exhaust and rusty bumper

In 1978, the Tom Robinson band released its ‘Power in the Darkness LP’, which featured the track, ‘Grey Cortina’, where the protagonist stares longingly at a rival male’s souped-up Cortina, admiring his swagger and bravado[8]. Beloved of the go-faster brigade, and with older examples both plentiful and cheap, Cortinas had by now become the default choice for the young and impecunious male; an opportunity to exhibit some semblance of cool, even if all he could run to was a pair of fluffy dice, or a set of go-faster decals.

Two years later, English pop outfit The Lambrettas recorded a track called ‘Ford Cortina Mark II’, a classic of the ‘is she really going out with him’ genre, where the singer bemoans the fact that his girl has taken up “with the boy next door”, for no better reason than “because he’s bought a Cortina Ford”. Extolling the Cortina’s attributes as pulling magnet and mobile boudoir, the singer laments, “it’s a guarantee of sexual conquest”, announcing in exasperation, “she only loves him because he’s got a Cortina”.

Something for everyone. The 1976 Cortina Mark IV range. Image: classiccarcatalogue

From 1976, the Cortina had entered its fourth and perhaps definitive generation, its grip on the UK car market and Britain’s affections by now unbreakable. Merged entirely with its German Taunus equivalent, this model, designed by Patrick le Quément under the supervision of Uwe Bahnsen at Ford’s Cologne-Merkenich studio, and moving further upmarket in reach would for all intents and purposes see the model out — late in the day canopy-lifts notwithstanding[9].

The same year that Cortina gave way to its controversial replacement, alternative comedian, Alexei Sayle released the track, ‘Ullo John! Got A New Motor?’, the artwork which accompanied it prominently featuring a Cortina. Sayle, who would later (briefly) moonlight as a motor columnist for Car Magazine clearly had an affinity with the model, the same year hosting a documentary for the BBC in conjunction with the British Film Institute called ‘The Private Life of the Ford Cortina’, which examined the car’s iconography with contributions from poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman, musician, Tom Robinson, Sir Terence Beckett of Ford, who was responsible for its development, and design critic, Stephen Bayley. Just as it breathed its last[10], Cortina had gone high-brow.

Image: discogs

There is a certain irony in that a car seen as being intrinsically British began life as something of an American cover version. But then, Britain has been imbibing US culture ever since the Revolutionary War ended. Never anything but broadly competent, the Cortina was no revolutionary, but it had at its best a raffish and endearing everyman appeal. And while it is likely that we will never see another car bestride the nation’s sensibilities in quite the same manner as the Cortina once did, John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours’ extraordinary afterlife has (perhaps unintentionally) cemented the car’s iconography for a whole new generation.

There’s power in poetry.

[1] “It made my ears prick up in the classroom, because it was nothing like anything I’d heard.” Alex Turner. 

[2] The Consul Cortina’s engineering principles had been firmly established by the well-regarded 1959 105E Anglia. 

[3] Named after the upmarket winter ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Italian Dolomites.

[4] Haynes would later achieve further fame (or notoriety) at BMC. He later became a freelance designer. 

[5]  The Cortina briefly overturned the BMC 1100’s pre-eminent UK sales position before ADO16 regained its crown in 1968. 

[6] “There were all kinds of new usurpers of the Hoover, so the term was already resident in the public imagination. I tapped into that. Then I thought, ‘What else is useful?’” The next line was to have featured a Morris Marina. “I had a second-hand one at the time, but I thought, ‘Bit naff.’ It’s not got the clout of Cortina. Funny how some words are better than others.” John Cooper Clarke – Guardian interview 20 March 2023.

[7] A Mark III Cortina GXL would also feature prominently in the 2007 BBC time-travel crime series, ‘Life On Mars’.

[8] Perhaps it was more than his Cortina that Robinson’s protagonist desired.

[9] The Cortina ’80 or Mark V as it became known was a (very) late-in-the-day rework which saw the glasshouse sharpened and raised, amid a number of more minor styling changes, owing it’s believed to the internal rancour over its replacement. 

[10] It’s believed that a total of close to 4.3 million Cortinas were built from 1962-1982.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

42 thoughts on “National Treasure”

  1. As a kid, one of my treasured possessions was a Corgi Cortina mk3 complete with a black vinyl top and a Graham Hill figurine.
    At the same time, The Sweneey was making it’s rounds on our national TV channel 1.
    You can imagine the smell of burned carpet from all those lurid oversteer slides.

  2. Of all the song mentioned I only knew ‘Ullo John! Gotta new Motor?’ Maybe I’ve heard the other songs, but they don’t ring a bell. I’m not sure if the Cortina was officially sold in the Netherlands, but they were produced in the Ford factory in Amsterdam between ’62 and ’74 and exported to Britain, because Ford couldn’t keep up with demand in the UK. It also meant Ford had an alternative production location when workers were on strike.

  3. How I miss The Sweeney!
    But the Granada image, sideways, was the car that impressed me most.
    Around here, the Cortina sold well, but the street cred was more focused on the Escort (GT-HC, please) due to it’s rallying performance.
    Cortinas were more family oriented after the MKI and MKII GT’s.
    MKIII 1.6 GT and 2.0 GXL were more relaxed power than sporty.
    With the MK IV and V, some 80% of the saloons must have been 56ps 1.3… só much for street cred… 🤗

    1. Hi Gustavo. The ‘Granada’ featured in The Sweeney was actually a Consul 3000GT. Quite why Ford felt the need to offer such a high performance version carrying the Consul badge is unknown, to me at least.

    2. Daniel,
      I don’t care, I don’t give a dime, I just want the Sweeney back, I just want to be six years old again! 🤣

      More seriously, and of interest only to myself, I never understood the Consul thing: I remember MKI Cortinas and the corresponding Consul, and the only difference I noticed between them was the later’s less happy grille and front indicators.
      And later, between Granada and Consul, I remember no differences…

      I wonder if, during some time, Consul was for Ford the opposite of Ghia…

    3. Hi Gustavo. The one badged ‘Consul’ on the bonnet with the oval front indicators is the original pre-facelift Cortina:

      The facelifted car instead carries the ‘Cortina’ name on the bonnet and had a different front grille which incorporated the sidelights and indicators:

      More significantly, it was fitted with Ford’s new ‘Aeroflow’ heating and ventilation, with eyeball vents at the ends of the dashboard and extractor grilles in the C-pillars.

      Regarding the Consul and Granada pair, the former name was (mainly) reserved for the downmarket variants, so the Consul 3000GT was a bit of an oddity in the range.

    4. Unless you were in Australia, where the Mark 1 update appeared like this:

      Not a good idea. Back in the day one magazine ran a photo of one where the incorrectly-installed letters spelled ‘CORITNA’

  4. But owning a Corgi Cortina (metallic orange, wasn’t it PJ?) was one of my unfulfilled child dreams…
    They retail on eBay for around 50 quid

  5. My grandfather had an immaculate cream colour four door Ford Consul Cortina Mk1 that he was still driving and servicing himself well into the 1980s. My childhood memories of it are mainly of acres of metal and carpet and the extraordinarily long gear stick. Old cars are fun.

    People used to chat to him at traffic lights and ask him how much money he wanted for it. He eventually had to sell it when ill health meant he could no longer drive it. I wish I could remember the numberplate so I could check to see if it still exists.

  6. How could you omit The Salford Jets classic “Gina, I’ve got a Cortina, it coulda been cleana , oh yeah…”.

    Just round the corner from the Mr Clarke himself!

    Life couldn’t be sweeter,
    In the back of my cortina,
    just me and Gina!

    Me and Gina, riding in city lights!
    Me and Gina, rolling to paradise!
    Me and Gina, exchanging a seat or two!
    There’s people there, but we don’t care!

  7. Good morning all.
    I’ll admit I actually owned a second-hand one as my first car. Although I once wrote a lengthy blog post about the lengthier experience (over at Curbside Classic) I never felt moved to write a poem about it. Let alone a song.
    Here’s my 2000 L, about 1982.

    1. There once was a man called Peter
      Who owned a mk3 Cortina
      It had a smart vinyl roof
      And to tell you the truth
      I’ve seldom seen one that was neater

      ‘Cortina’ is quite an easy word to rhyme with – perhaps the fact that it has 3 syllables and ends with an ‘uh’ sound helps.

  8. I grew up with my Dad having Cortinas as his company car – I just about recall a dark (flat) blue MkII, then a yellow 1.3L MkIII (which he hated for being slow and heavy), then a light blue 1.6L, followed by a red MkIV and finally a silver MkV – the latter being of the 1.6L variety.

    Earlier cars had a rubber foot button for working the windscreen washers, and all bar the last two had vinyl seats. The suspension used to make my sister travel sick – never great on summer holidays. They were largely reliable and dependable workhorses, and we were glad to have them, as otherwise I have no idea what we could have afforded to buy as a family car – funds were very tight.

    He wasn’t allowed to go for a Sierra (insurance was high, reflecting stories of expensive repairs), and so had the pleasure of a red 1.6L Montego in 1984 – actually a much more modern, more spacious, faster, econon

    1. … economic and more comfortable car which did not induce car-sickness. It was even reliable, although a minor knock at the rear saw a load of the paint fly off the rear bumper!

      Thanks for the article – Alexei Sayle was/ is a fan of the C6 and was an amusingly left field contributor to Car.

  9. didn’t one chap named Reginald Kenneth Dwight once sing „I was made in England,
    like a blue Cortina“?

    1. I noticed that too. Maybe tomorrow’s article accidentally placed one day too soon?

    2. Gentlemen: Blame it on the scheduling fairies. I’m afraid that particular pleasure must be deferred until tomorrow. Apologies for any confusion or loss.

  10. Over forty years since it ceased production it’s now a rare treat, even a late one.

    One can even forgive the custom paint job.

    There were so many Consul models in the Ford range in the early ’60s it almost formed a sub-brand.

    1. Good point there, Bernard. Have we ever looked at just why Ford put the Consul badge on pretty-much any and every mid-to-large sedan for a while there? For a while there you had the old Zephyr-type Consul, the Consul Classic and related Consul Capri, and then the Consul Cortina. I’m sure there must have been a reason.

  11. Wasn’t it Ian Dury who had a love affair with Nina in the back of his Cortina?

    Like most interesting Fords the Cortinas were sold in Switzerland and could be seen north of the Swiss border every now and then.
    My favourite Cortinas were driven by Roger Clark

    or Jim Clark

    1. As with most pictures of him driving, it’s hard to see from the photo exactly which direction Roger Clark is supposed to be travelling in.

    2. DaveAR: How could I have forgotten Ian Dury’s Billericay Dickie, which contains the following immortal lines…

      “Had a love affair with Nina
      In the back of my Cortina
      A seasoned-up hyena
      Could not have been more obscener
      She took me to the cleaners
      And other misdemeanours
      But I got right up between her
      Rum and her Ribena”

      I had a vague suspicion I had missed something…

    3. You haven’t heard it from me, but I can confirm my mk IV back seat had such capabilities…

  12. Yet another example of Ford’s illogical affection for its names.

    Consul was a pretty uninspired name for their entry level large car, but Ford liked it so much they decided to name a whole series of cars (Classic, Capri, Cortina, Corsair) with the Consul prefix. Then they realised it was a bad idea and dropped it.

    About a decade and a half later, they revived the name for their entry level large car. Then they realised it was a bad idea and dropped it.

    Ford are an odd company. Which I suppose is why they are in such an odd industry.

    1. And there was the one just called ‘Consul’ too, though they added ‘375’ when the Classic Consul (sometimes suffixed ‘315’) arrived.

    2. Planning the DTW Christmas Quiz well in advance, and answering a question I have never actively asked before now. What did 375 (and 315) represent? And why was the 315 called the Classic when it was newer that the other Consul?

    3. I’ve looked up old articles (e.g. an early review in Motor Sport magazine) and they said that Ford couldn’t state a meaning for the ‘315’ designation.

      The Consul Cortina was going to be called the Consul 225 – I think they thought it sounded cool (I think it does).

      Re the ‘Classic’ designation – the car was meant to be quite posh, ‘suitable for the golf club car park’ was the brief, so I think the Classic designation was meant to add a bit of reassurance given its somewhat space-age looks.

      The Classic name also differentiates it, with its 4-door layout, from the sportier Capri coupé.

      I’ve got a lot of time for Fords of this era – they’re pleasingly bonkers.

    4. Cortina 225? Sounds almost familiar.
      Here in Australia Ford rationalised the Cortina range once the Consul part of the name was dropped. We had the 220 (base trim two door cheapie with the angle-iron grille), 240 (deluxe trim two door), 440 (deluxe four door) and GT. They kept this range through the Mark 2, but dropped it in favour of L/XL/XLE when the Mark 3 came here.
      220s were never common, but there’s a repro badge available

  13. Ford is an odd company. I came across this (unfortunately) silent clip of the 1963 Geneva motor show. Some of the stands are quite wacky in the way they demonstrate cars. Ford’s stand looks interesting and features both a 2-door mk1 Cortina and the Taunus P4. They rotate and look like a peculiar fair ride combined with a spot the difference competition.

    The clip is at the 4:17 mark. ‘Hey, look! We’ve produced two nearly identical cars!’

    The clip also shows the 1300 Simca which we’ve been talking about recently, at the start.

  14. I had a Cortina MK III 1.6 in metallic blue with cloth seats. Reg No was PLU 247L – how does one remember such things??
    Drove it to Herefordshire from London and was going round a sweeping bend only to find that the steering wheel wouldn’t return to its original position. Got it looked at and sorted locally.
    Apart from that issue a fine car that was replaced by an Austin Montego Company car.

  15. Weren’t the later Cortina Mk3s later rebadged as Cortina E ?
    Or was a peculiarity of the portuguese market ?

    Anyway, I find the Mk3 still quite handsome in an understated way.

    1. PJ,

      I guess the MKIII had three front grilles during his lifetime.
      The lesser models’ had a metalic grille.
      As I remember, the 2000 we had here was first sold as a GXL with the black grille, minilite lookalike steel wheels, vinyl roof, lots of bright work and four headlamps; towards the end of production the grille became grey, the brightwork diminished and the name changed to 2000E.
      I guess if it was not like that, it was not by far 😉

  16. PJ,
    I feel we must disclose our little secret to our DTW friends: for us, Cortina means curtain, isn’t it? 🤣

    1. That’s funny ! For all of my life I never thought of Cortina (as in Ford Cortina) as in meaning a curtain.
      Only now. It’s the accent. We say Cortina (as in curtain) with an u-souding “o”, completely different.

    2. Of course, the sound when spoken is very different between cortina the car and cortina the curtain 😉
      But when I was learning to read, I couldn’t help myself seeing a lot of ‘curtains’ around, on the bootlids of every MK I, II and III that populated the streets

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