It was my 50-year dream to drive a Lotus Cotrina. The List Reader Mark Heath has never forgotten seeing Jim Clark three-wheeling Lotus Cortinas in the Sixties – we get him behind the wheel to realise a long-held dream. Childhood memories of watching Lotus Cortinas three-wheeling at Goodwood have never left Mark Heath. Over 50 years on we finally put him behind the wheel for a taste of the real thing. Words Russ Smith. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
Arriving a comfortable ten minutes early for our meeting at Manor Classic Cars in North Yorkshire, I find enthusiastic Drive-My user/reader Mark Heath is not only already there but has finished his first cuppa and is talking cars with Manor’s Paul Campbell.
His excitement should come as no surprise because Mark has waited almost a lifetime to drive the car we’ve got lined up for him – he can accurately date his love of Lotus Cortinas back to the early Sixties, ‘I have indelible memories of watching drivers like Graham Hill and Jim Clark hurl these cars round Goodwood at the Bank Holiday race meetings. We lived not far away in Worthing at the time and my father used to take me along for a treat. It was so exciting seeing what looked like ordinary road cars being driven that way so the images stuck in my head.
Reader Mark Heath hits the Cortina’s handling sweet-spot but confesses, ‘I could never completely relax in it’
‘Several years later dad bought me a non-running Austin A40 to learn about cars on. I managed to get it going – I even recall grinding in its valves on the kitchen table. But the Lotus thing stayed with me and was further fuelled by my art teacher at school having a Lotus Cortina MkII in the same colours. All the petrolheads in my class thought it looked cool, so my first road car was always going to be a Cortina. Not a Lotus, of course, they were already too expensive then and have always remained tantalizingly just out of my reach. So what I bought, for the grand total of £55, was a 1964 Cortina 1500 Deluxe – less exotic but by god did I have some fun in that car. At least I did right up until the back of the driver’s seat collapsed and I lost control of the car and hit a tree. That proved terminal for the Deluxe and marked the end of my Cortina-driving days, though I did later own a couple of Corsairs, including a 2000 GT.’
We expect today’s car – previously rally-prepped but now returned to road trim – to be made of sterner stuff, and it’s now time to introduce Mark to his ride. This is a car with something of a history and was owned in the Eighties by former Classic Cars auctions correspondent, Richard Hudson-Evans. Though the registration number suggests a 1965 car it was actually a late-registered ’64 ‘A-frame’ model, so in theory top of the Lotus Cortina tree. However, when used for historic rallying by the French Ecurie Ten team in the Nineties it was converted to leaf springs on the back, the better to cope with the demands of rough terrain.
Mark had to modify his usual driving style in the Lotus, ‘You have to drive it assertively’
But it’s still very much a Lotus Cortina, and Mark is already impressed. ‘Just realising when I got here that the car under the cover was the Cortina that I was about to drive made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It fits alright – I feel good in here. There’s still a familiarity even after all this time. I am a bit worried by the lack of an interior rear-view mirror though – you don’t see much in those bullet door mirrors.’ No one was quite sure what had happened to the mirror but we weren’t going to argue the point because we had some driving to do.
A twist of the key and there’s a metallic cough as the engine bursts into that guttural, stumbling idle typical of fast Ford four-pots on Weber carburettors. To an Essex boy of a certain age like me it’s as familiar as birdsong. Mark’s just grinning and ready for the off, after a couple of stalls. His first thoughts, ‘It has all the right sounds and smells – you know what I mean? But that clutch is hard to get used to. There’s such a fine line between in or out and it’s quite vicious. With a powerful and unfamiliar car you want to be gentle at first and work up to speed, but this car is having none of that; you really have to drive assertively. Once you do, and you master the other fine line, which is between second and reverse gears [they sit next to each other in the gate] it becomes a real bundle of fun. I love that raw feel and sound – it’s just so involving and so much a part of the whole driving experience.’
Then we’re grinding slowly to an unscheduled halt and the old phrase ‘loads of trouble usually serious’ sounds in my head like a crowed told-you-so from a pub know-all. Back to earth and trying not to panic, it’s clear that at least the engine is still running so there’s hope. ‘The pedal’s on the floor,’ says Mark. We push the Lotus off the road into a handy gateway and I dive under the bonnet, having remembered that its release is a cleverly disguised button in the top centre of the grille and not a pull-release hidden beneath the dashboard. All looks good under there so we head for the pedal end, and find that the cable has slipped from the fork at the top of the pedal arm and has nothing there to stop repeat performances. Now I wish the problem was at the carburettor end.
The Lotus Twin Cam’s snappy response delighted Mark.
At least there’s plenty of room to work in the stylishly minimalist engine bay, dominated by those Lotus-badged cam covers. Relocating the cable is a fiddle – you can’t see and do at the same time – but at last it hooks back in place. All it needs is a cable tie to keep it there. This is our lucky day – that gateway we’ve stopped in is the entrance to the Yorkshire Lavender nursery, and we correctly guess that they’ll have a supply of cable ties. Another fiddle to get that in place and the car is fixed – for the rest of the day at least. Repairing stuff on the go is one of the joys of classic motoring.
Anyway, back to the plot, and a mightily relieved Mark whose dream drive can now progress beyond the five minutes he’s so far managed. ‘In more ways than one the Lotus is taking some getting used to,’ he says. ‘But then my current classic, which I’ve owned for the last ten years, is a 1985 Toyota Supra, unrestored and still with only 27,000 miles on it. This is a very different proposition.’
But with the car now behaving itself, Mark is soon getting the measure of it. ‘It has a hard, unforgiving ride and tight steering, so what’s not to like?‘ he says. ‘The steering is notchy but direct, which in one way inspires confidence, but there’s a fair bit of work required to keep it in a straight line and I have to stay focused on that in a car that is, after all, 51 years old. I was only nine when it was born. That said, it still feels a very capable and quick car. The horsepower is nothing special by today’s standards but that’s balanced out by the fact that it’s so light. The snap responsiveness of those carburettors helps with the impression of performance too.’
‘I could spend all day in it, hammering through bends in third gear’
On a run down the impressively dead straight The Stay – a statue, obelisk and archway bedecked switchback that runs past past Castle Howard – noise levels inside the Lotus drop enough so that instead of mechanical thrash we start to notice the frantic ticking of the aftermarket electric fuel pump in the boot. It is in its own way reassuring. Then we turn off onto a twisty and lightly trafficked road that our photographer has remembered runs entertainingly up through Shaw Wood, the better to test the Cortina’s legendary handling and get those twin-cam noise levels up to concert volume again. Mark’s eyes light up and he’s quickly flicking the gear lever up and down the ‘box and scooting out of corners like a pro, the tunnel of trees trapping and enhancing the infectious snarl of the exhaust. This is a time for driving, not talking. Only once the road finally straightens out on a long run down on the other side of the hilltop is Mark ready to deliver some more driving impressions. ‘The engine has such a great willingness to rev, which is just as well because I’m having to keep the revs up to get the best out of it. The full effect only really comes through above 4000rpm. Still, that is often the way it is with cars of this type. The Lotus feels really tractable through the gears, particularly third; I feel like I could spend all day hammering through bends in that gear and never get bored. There are no nasty distracting knocks or rattles – this seems like a really tight car.
‘Cornering feels quite assured even on these slightly dewy and leaf-strewn Yorkshire roads. It’s all very physical though, with very little self-centring action to the steering. I’ll bet my shoulders are going to ache for the next couple of days, but these days I’m a bit of a softie who’s become used to having too many creature comforts.
‘We scoot out of corners, the tunnel of trees enhancing the infectious snarl of the exhaust’
‘Even though I’m getting used to it, this remains a car I could never relax in; driving it is more like a combat sport, but one that’s so rewarding and exciting. I’m starting to really understand why Jim Clark was so happy to corner them on three wheels half the time. It’s great that they still do that in historic racing too – that cocked inside front wheel is such an iconic image. For me it would be a real hoot driving one of these round somewhere like Oulton Park, where I’ve done some trackday stuff in the past. The Lotus feels like it wants to do that. Even the brakes are alright, certainly up to their task and with no fading, unlike a lot of cars from this era.’ As with the straight-line performance, that probably has a lot to do with the Lotus Cortina’s lack of weight – the unvented disc and drum set-up may be a bit old school but it doesn’t have a lot of work to do when scrubbing speed off.
Then Mark notices that the Cortina is running low on fuel – we started with a nearly full tank so either the twin-cam must be a lot thirstier than expected when being properly exercised or the tank is small – so we satnav our way to the nearest petrol station five miles away on the A64, fretting that the gauge indicates that it seems to be running on fumes by the time we get close. But even at major route prices it only takes £19.24 to brim the tank. That’s not even half what it should hold so it must be a faulty sender or float. Relieved once again, we head back to Castle Howard and park up in the nearby Arboretum car park to take stock.
Despite our classic car driving reality checks, Mark is still brimming – like that tank – with enthusiasm for the Lotus. As are several others in the car park, suddenly a lot more interested in Essex metal than Yorkshire wood. ‘It does attract attention,’ says Mark. ‘Everyone over a certain age knows instinctively what it is and what it means. There’s such a purity to its design that any additions would ruin the effect. ‘Finally getting to drive one has truly lived up to all my expectations.
It has been a lovely experience, totally worthwhile. Would I own one? Yes of course, but I think it would be kept for trackday use mainly with just occasional sorties onto public highways. The way it wants to be driven doesn’t quite match the sensibilities and legalities of being on public roads.’
On a final drive to return the car Mark makes no more mention of the snatchy clutch, tricky gear change or super-firm ride; there’s just a faraway look in his eyes. I’ve seen that kind of thoughtful expression before – it’s the look of a man doing a mental tot-up and wondering, ‘Maybe, just maybe…’
Thanks to Manor Classic Cars (manorclassiccars.com) which is selling this car on behalf of a client
TECHNICAL DATA 1965 Lotus Cortina MkI
Engine 1558cc inline four-cylinder, dohc, two Weber 40 DCOE twin-choke carburettors
Power and torque 105bhp @ 5500rpm; 108lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Burman recirculating ball
Suspension Front: independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar / Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs and radius arms, telescopic dampers
Brakes Discs front, drums rear, servo-assisted
Weight 885kg (1949lb)
Performance Top speed: 107mph; 0-60mph: 10.4sec
Fuel consumption 24mpg
Cost new £1027
Values now £25,000-£55,000
THE IMPORTANT MODELS
LOTUS CORTINA MKI 1963-1964 Having used Ford’s cylinder block as the basis for the Elan’s twin-cam engine, Lotus returned the favour by installing the 105bhp unit in twodoor Cortina GT bodies. They were made even sportier by having aluminium doors, bonnet and bootlid. Suspension was lowered, and while the front just got a fatter anti-roll bar, the rear changed from leaf springs to coils with trailing arms and a wide-based ‘A’ bracket to aid lateral location. Wider 5.5x13in steel wheels, front quarter-bumpers and a white-with-green flash colour scheme finished the job.
LOTUS CORTINA MKI 1964-1966 Sometimes referred to as the Mk1½, revisions made to the Lotus Cortina in late 1964 including reverted to leaf springs (stiffer, so the car rolls less) because the A-frame on earlier cars had distorted and broken too many axles. Cost considerations saw the aluminium opening panels replaced by standard steel items, then for 1966 the close-ratio gearbox was changed for a Corsair 2000E unit. The result was 46kg (101lb) extra weight and reduced performance, but made for a much more civilized road car.
Mark didn’t quite manage the three-wheel cornering antics of his childhood hero Jim Clark.
LOTUS CORTINA MKII 1967-1970 There was considerably more than just a straightforward bodyshell change when the Cortina MkI became the MkII in 1967. The Lotus version became rather closer to its GT brother and was now assembled in Ford’s factory rather than by Lotus, though the trusty twin-cam engine remained – and with the tantalising promise of an extra four bhp. However, any benefit from that was lost because weight was up by nine per cent to 964kg (2027lb). The other big change was that, unlike the MkI, the new car could be ordered in a variety of colours other than the traditional white with a side green flash.
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