The Lotus Cortina set the stage for M3s, WRX and Evos, and countless other rad cars

The Lotus Cortina set the stage for M3s, WRX and Evos, and countless other rad cars


People tend to think of cars from the '60s as being muscle cars, English sports runabouts, or exotic supercars. But, for people who love mid-size performance cars like the Mitsubishi Evo, BMW M3, Ford Sierra RS, or Subaru WRX, the car which came before all of them is the mighty Lotus Cortina. 

Launched shortly after Ford's revolutionary new Cortina model hit the showrooms, legendary race car manufacturer Lotus cast a keen eye over the small Ford's bones and realised it could be a Very Good Thing to use in motorsport. 


Colin Chapman and his Lotus employees came up with a DOHC head for the rorty little 1600cc Ford four-cylinder, along with an aluminium diff centre that (while proving fragile) saved weight. They also switched the rear leaf springs in the Ford to coil-over struts, lightened up the tiny Cortina, added more bolstered seats, extra gauges, and generally made the green-over-white two-door Fords the kind of homologation performance car special edition that would be copied for decades to come. 

The genius of the Cortina is it used most of the same 78kW drivetrain as the equally-legendary Elan roadster. The Elan is the car that Mazda singled out as the greatest inspiration for the creation of the MX5, so that should give you some idea of how good they are to drive, and how they could revolutionise a dowdy three-door Ford sedan shell into a race-winning package. 

The MacPherson front-end and lightweight underpinnings, combined with a close-ratio gearbox and a rapid (for 1963) 78kW from the DOHC twin-carburettor-fed 1600cc engine, meant the Cortina was ready to take on the highly competitive British Touring Car Championship.

One of the greatest race drivers to ever step into a car, Jim Clark, helped develop the Lotus Cortina (just like Ayrton Senna with the NSX decades later). Clark, the 2-time Formula One World Champion and Indy 500-winner, then dominated the 1964 British Touring Car Championship winning every round. 

The Cortinas took on big six-cylinder Jaguars, Ford Mustang and Galaxie V8s, along with countless Mini Cooper S and European four-cylinder performance cars like Fiats and Alfa Romeos. 


Ford shipped Cortina shells to Lotus, who were a tiny manufacturer used to constructing open-wheel racing cars and sports racing cars. Lotus then fitted out the coupe with all their hot sauce mechanicals and sent them off to Ford dealers, where they flew off the lot.

Cars like the BMW 2002 and Alfa Romeo GTV, which appeared around the same time, are said to have been directly influenced by the Lotus Cortina. And the success of the model gave rise to a Mark II model in '66, as well as several special high-performance variants of the new Ford Escort - one of which included a twin-cam 1600cc DOHC four-cylinder from Lotus. 

While they only needed to build 1000 for homologation purposes, Lotus ended up building 3306 between 1963 and 1966, with a huge number of revisions to improve reliability or cheapen the cost (after the initial 1000 built had homologated the model for racing).  

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