Cortina time warp: Ben Oliver drives the Ford Cortina Mk5

Published: 22 June 2012

I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner; I have a Slimline briefcase and I use the firm’s Cortina.

By 1982, when it finally went out of production, the Ford Cortina had enjoyed a 20-year Tescopoly on British motoring. For ten years it was Britain’s best-selling car; in its best years nearly 200,000 were sold and one new car in eight was a Cortina. Sir John Betjeman’s ‘Executive’ drove one; so did you, or your dad, or your grandfather. And it managed all this despite being, according to CAR magazine at the time, ‘a calculated attempt to sell the public ordinariness’.

But where have they all gone? The shape might be imprinted on our collective motoring memory, but when did you last see it? In just twenty-six years almost all of the four million made have swirled down the automotive plug-hole, an irresistible, fast-moving downward spiral that starts when a car is offloaded by its big fleet, goes to a private owner who runs it for a few years then sells it to a minicabber, before it winds up on bricks in a council-estate front garden before being resurrected for a banger race, and scrapped. Of the million-plus square-bodied Mark IV and Vs, fewer than 2000 remain on the road.

So if the Cortina is so bad, and so dead, why am I wearing a period Marks and Sparks faux-suede trimmed cardie and driving a mint MkV around the seventies and eighties architectural crimes of Hounslow? Because I think those few remaining Cortinas can teach us two lessons. The first is to appreciate what we’ve got. To an early eighties Cortina driver an ordinary, modern Ford Focus would feel like a Bentley for the heft and unctuousness of its construction, with advances and safety and gadgetry that would seem to come straight from Buck Rogers. You only appreciate what you’ve got when it’s taken away, so I thought I’d give myself a week’s mental recalibration in a Cortina.

But secondly, there’s a school of advanced car design that says that we’ve spent the last twenty-six years driving in the wrong direction; that cars have become unnecessarily complicated and heavy, and that to cut fuel consumption and extend the range of hybrid, electric or fuel-cell cars we’re going to have to accept simpler, starker vehicles. Cars will get more like the Cortina, they say; question is, will we want to buy them?

But which Cortina to have? I thought about the curvy, Coke-bottle MkIII, as owned by my grandfather and made in the year of my birth. But you don’t have to go back over thirty years to get the required effect, and I didn’t want anything with any retro-excitement to it; that Detroit-inspired styling and Life on Mars have made the MkIII too desirable. Nor did I want any classic-car reliability worries. I wanted to feel exactly the way an early-eighties sales rep would have when his firm’s fleet manager led him out to a wet, grey company car park in Droitwich or Daventry and they both stood there in the rain and their beige flared suits looking at his new, 1982, 91 horsepower, 1600cc Ford Cortina Crusader saloon in Strato silver with crushed velour trim.

So that’s exactly what I’ve got. The spectacularly plain MkV makes better sense for this story; at 26, it’s old enough to have been ceased production before some CAR staffers were born, but young enough to have been in production when CAR readers now in their early forties were passing their tests. This is a car in our recent motoring memory. Mine comes from Ford’s historic collection; it’s the last one ever made and with just 1200 miles on the clock it is exactly as it would have been presented to our sales rep.

Parked among modern cars the Cortina looks small and incredibly square; Ford’s seventies stylists seem to have put one box each around the engine, cabin and boot, and disappeared to a Slade gig. If you tilt your head and squint there is just the tiniest hint of aerodynamicism around the front end, but any thoughts of speed are quickly dispelled by the ‘racy sports wheels with shiny wheel trim rings’ – ’82 brochure-speak – which at just thirteen inches shrink apologetically in even the Cortina’s modest wheel arches. The one area in which we’ve undoubtedly made progress is in caring how ordinary cars look.

So you slide the key into the door lock, turn it and pull the metal handle. Everything moves with a pleasing mechanicity, but what you notice most as you settle in is how everything does just one thing. The key is just a key; no keyless go or remote lighting control. The door is just a door; a solid steel lump with no wiring or air-con piping running between it and the body. The steering wheel has no airbag or multi-function controls, the seats no heating or cooling or electronic memory positioning; you start to tally the weight being saved.

The dashboard is as uninspiring as the exterior; a collection of black plastic boxes to house the blower controls and the standard radio, which doesn’t work until you’ve opened the door and pulled up the aerial on the wing; do I have to everything myself in here? A standard radio was a big deal 26 years ago; Ford’s period marketing blurb describes the Crusader special edition’s cabin as ‘sumptuous’ and ‘extraordinary’, but the fact that the clock gets top billing tells you how Spartan it really is.

You do get some rough-grained, MFI-spec fake wood though, held in place with exposed back screws. There are front seatbelts, though you didn’t yet have to use them. And you could have dipped into an impressive range of accessories, including a ‘melodious but compelling’ two-tone air horn, a CB radio which, worryingly, could ‘help you find a repair service at 3am’, and a locking fuel cap, fitted to my car and useful when ‘a tank of petrol could be worth more than £20!’

Of course the brakes are terrible, the roll angles ludicrous and live rear axle squirms even under the Cortina’s limited power, but there’s still plenty to like about the way it drives. The engine is amazingly torquey; you could probably get by with one cog fewer than the four it has. The ride is soft around town and the steering clearly communicates that there’s no front-end grip. Visibility past those thin pillars is a revelation and the square shape at least makes parking simpler. It also makes the plain metal box of a boot way more accessible; it swallowed a bicycle (minus wheels) whole, something few modern saloons of any size can manage. And suddenly the national speed limit makes sense again; short gearing in top meant I had absolutely no desire to exceed 70mph, and I arrived everywhere less stressed than I might have otherwise, and not much later.

Did I miss the gadgets and the expensive, thick moulded plastics of a modern car? Not in the slightest. I’d add airbags and air-con back in, and a TomTom for sat-nav, but the other stuff  - the electric seats and rear air-con controls and vast, monolithic dashboards - we can live without. It’s not like the car companies give to us for free; we pay for it when we buy the car, pay for it again when it goes wrong, and pay for its weight every time we fill up. I realized that I’d really like is a Cortina-sized car with modern design, safety and lightweight materials, but the Cortina’s specification and simplicity. It would be cheap to buy and run, and good to drive and look at. Who’d have the balls to build it? I’m not sure any of the existing major carmakers would, yet. If they do, maybe they could call it the Cortina. Or perhaps not.

What CAR said about the Ford Cortina at the time

The Cortina was born in the same year as CAR – 1962 – and we never liked it. ‘One of the least exciting automobiles a major British manufacturer has had the courage to launch since the middle fifties’ we said, and our opinion wasn’t changed by the sight of Jim Clark, Jacky Ickx and Sir John Whitmore campaigning Lotus-Cortinas in saloon car racing and rallying; it won both the RAC rally and the European touring car championship. But what we thought didn’t stop you buying it; each of the four major iterations sold over a million in the UK, and after a long run at the top of the sales charts it only slipped to number two – behind the Escort – in its last year of production.

That ubiquity means everyone has a Cortina memory. Ben Oliver’s grandfather had a sporty red MkIII, posed with here by his Mum in 1972. CAR’s former production boss Glen Waddington’s dad had a ’72 and a ’75 and baby Glen was brought home from the maternity ward in one. And as editor Phil McNamara is from Essex he was almost certainly conceived in the back of one.

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features