How the Ford Cortina became part of the fabric of Britain

Ford Cortina - Stuart Wing/Capture Your Car Photography
Ford Cortina - Stuart Wing/Capture Your Car Photography

When the Arctic Monkeys sang “I wanna be your Ford Cortina. I will never rust”, they were paying tribute to the enduring power of a car that has never stopped being a bit of a legend. Part boy-racer dream-car, part sitcom staple, mostly an all-round family favourite that was built to last, the Cortina, for nearly a decade, was Britain’s best-selling car. Indeed, we bought about 2.6 million of them, overall.

From 1972-1981, at the height of its popularity, you couldn’t navigate a car park without seeing one, souped-up of course with, perhaps, furry dice hanging from the rear-view mirror or sporty go-faster trim.

Its credibility was first established when racing legend Jim Clark drove the version commissioned from Lotus by Ford, an example of which sold four years ago for about £200,000. There was even a moment of genuine stardom when the new Mk4 Ford Cortina appeared in the James Bond romp The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. Admittedly, it was driven by the baddies (listed as Cortina Gunmen in the credits) while 007 escaped in a Lotus Esprit.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a 1969 1600E, with fur-lined doors and race seats was Jeremy Clarkson’s first car. “I didn’t know there were other cars,” Clarkson has said. “I was raised in a Ford Cortina.”

And when the production line finally stopped in 1982, the BBC immortalised the car in a documentary, Arena – The Private Life of the Ford Cortina, with a cast that ran the gamut from Alexei Sayle to Sir John Betjeman.

Liverpudlian comedian Alexei Sayle was a fan - Julian Brown /Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Liverpudlian comedian Alexei Sayle was a fan - Julian Brown /Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Remarkably, we do know the whereabouts of what is believed to be the oldest surviving example in Britain: a De Luxe, produced in the summer of 1962, owned by an aficionado called David Rose. New it would have cost £667. Now it is worth at least £25,000 – but would fetch far more were it to be offered for sale.

Today, Rose’s Cortina stands testament as a reminder of how the model name became part of the fabric of Britain.

“The original Cortina was Ford’s big push for a family saloon for the masses,” says Michael Jordan, chairman of the Official Mk1 Cortina Owners’ Club. Equally importantly, that exotic-sounding name – inspired by the host resort of the 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy; several Cortinas were driven down the bobsleigh run in a publicity stunt – appealed to a new generation of motorists who aspired to a world of continental holidays and believed that a family saloon did not have to represent staidness.

You might not think of Ford in such fashionable terms today. But in the 1960s, a new Cortina in your driveway was as much a symbol of success as owning the latest Dansette record player. It was affordable modernity, at a time when a manual worker might earn £16 per week.

Rose’s Cortina was made in July 1962. “It had one owner until it was rescued from a barn,” he says. “It had been there 30 to 35 years, with only 17,000 miles on the clock. Since then, it has been preserved rather than fully restored.”

The Cortina range expanded quickly from blue two-door De Luxes to a four-door body shell and, in 1963, Ford offered an estate version. There was even a famed collaboration with Lotus that was wildly successful on the racing circuits of Europe.

For those of a more modest budget, there was the GT. For £766, you too could impress your neighbours with the rev-counter and “remote-control gear lever”. The Super in 1963 came with a cigarette lighter and two-tone paintwork - for the princely sum of £688.

Britain bought 2.6 million Cortinas, such was the popularity of it - Popperfoto via Getty Images
Britain bought 2.6 million Cortinas, such was the popularity of it - Popperfoto via Getty Images

This version in pale blue featured prominently in Carry On Cabby, co-starring Sidney James and Hattie Jacques.

By the time Ford had supplied 1,010,000 of the original car to showrooms – and brought out the Mk2 in 1966 – countless Britons associated the name Cortina with the daily commute rather than with an Italian ski resort.

Three more facelifts followed, finishing with the Mk5 aka the “Cortina 80” which lasted until 1982, when the cosy world of familiar Ford family saloons was blown apart by the introduction of the radical-looking Sierra.

Things would never be the same – or as high street sexy – again.

Did you own a Ford Cortina? What are your memories of it? Let us know in the comments