Driving the classics: Lotus Cortina (1965) CAR review

Published: 08 May 2012

We deal with new cars here at CAR Online, but every now and again an oldie captures our attention and we just have to go and drive it. The Mk1 1965 Lotus Cortina you see here ticks that box, especially within the current context and the recent drama at Hethel.

I’ve known Paul Wankle from Classic Cars Ltd in Pleasanton, California for quite a few years now. I try to drop by when I visit family out in Berkeley, and the picture on his website (classiccarsltd.com) is of me with his original Mini back when I was a freelancer for Practical Classics. The Cortina was a new addition to his collection the last time I was out there and Paul was kind enough to let me have a steer.

Even looking at this immaculate machine had me thinking up horrific crash scenarios, but when Paul mentioned the last owner had spent 23 years restoring it and that it had covered just 1500 miles since, well, my nervousness hit new heights.

Lotus Cortina: its history

Turns out the last owner – a chap based up in British Columbia, Canada – had bought the car in 1980 after it had suffered a mild engine fire. An utter perfectionist and an engineer by trade, said chap undertook a full frame-off restoration, tirelessly sourcing correct original parts and, when necessary, improvising in his garage – the wiring loom, for instance, was home-brewed.

As with many older cars, the thin pillars lend the cabin a kind of hyper-real element – light floods in and the view is more widescreen than windscreen. It feels more solidly built than I expected and the materials look to be of surprisingly high quality too, with a gloss black finish on the dash and door cards, aluminium backing for the dials and a thin wood rim with three tantalisingly dished metal spokes. I love the thick padded door cards and the comfortable seats that are just-and-so canted back. Perfect!

How the Lotus Cortina drives

The rim actually feels a bit fragile at first, and Paul cautions that I apply pressure only at the points where spokes meet the wheel! And the drive? Amazing. The steering feels light when you first turn it at speed, then weights up nicely in corners, the gears are easy to slot and the engine – the original 1.6 DOHC with some choice mods including a stage two big valve cylinder head for around 140bhp – is sprightly with a thick gurgly rort.

It was a fairly timid drive if I’m frank, but it did remind me how badly we miss the magic Lotus used to bring to family cars with its brilliant reimaginings of Cortinas Mk1 and 2 and the Vauxhall Carlton. I suppose the Lotus Insignia doesn’t carry quite the same appeal, and the Lotus Focus is just too much of a mouthful. But a Lotus VXR8? Now we’re talking...

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator