Ace Archbishop: Ford Cortina Mk1 GT

In the 1950s, English Fords had done quite well in the USA, but aside from the Anglia they had been swept aside by the Falcon. But the Falcon didn’t compete directly with the smallest cars (like the Anglia and the VW). It was a stab at this market which ultimately spawned the landmark Cortina Mk1 – but not in the way you’d think.

In 1960, Dearborn and Ford of Germany merged two separate, but similar, small front-drive car ideas into “Project Cardinal” for production in Germany and the USA. With Dearborn taking the lead, this car grew a little bigger than Cologne had intended, but another branch of the family, Ford of England, hadn’t been consulted at all.

“Project Archbishop”

When Ford UK’s freewheeling, charismatic CEO, Sir Patrick Hennessy, discovered the plan he was furious. He decided almost there and then to build a rival car at Dagenham. To one-up Cologne, product planner Hamish Orr-Ewing labeled the car “Project Archbishop.”

“Project Archbishop” became the Cortina Mk1. Detroit ultimately bailed on its planned collaboration with Cologne, supposedly because American marketing managers didn’t like it, and “Cardinal” became the Taunus P4.

“Cardinal” had annoyed Hennessy to such an extent that he was determined to build something that was better and cheaper. In this period, he and his staff were also trying to get costs fully under control and make their cars more profitable, so “Archbishop” was designed in every way with an eye to cost.

In 1959-60, the appeal of front-drive was strong thanks to BMC’s Mini – but Dagenham costed out the Mini and potential front-drive “Cardinal” alternative and decided to make the best use of a conventional car instead. At the time, Dagenham was apprehensive about both the German project and BMC’s forthcoming ADO16 1100.

The cost of front-drive wasn’t the only cost Dagenham was worried about. “Archbishop” and a larger derivative, the Corsair, followed the delayed (and less than successful) Consul 109E. That decidedly transatlantic car was considered by management to have been too long delayed, too heavy, and too complex to build – that could not happen again on “Archbishop.”

Playing Catch-up

Already a year behind “Cardinal” in the middle of 1960, Hennessy had his team pour on the speed. The new car was developed in just 20 months.

The style side was led by American Roy Brown, banished to Dagenham for having styled the 1958-59 Edsels. His design made it to production more or less unaltered except for the rear, where round tail lights with what appeared to be upside-down peace signs were dictated by “Jack” Bugas, Henry Ford II’s right hand man at the time.

Don Ward and Dennis Roberts, mathematicians as much as body designers, created the unibody. It was vaguely similar in size to the 109E but 300 lbs. lighter and even more roomy. The structural science paid off in both space for a family and in terms of rigidity. As evidenced by the later Lotus Cortina, the car could handle heavy stress and high speeds with aplomb. It was also much less costly to stamp.

To keep costs down, mechanical pieces were developed from other Ford components – Macpherson struts as seen on earlier cars out front, Anglia-derived “Kent” fours under the hood, and other re-used pieces wherever possible.

The result was much more than the sum of its parts. Conventional in every respect, it kept the recipe very simple – but baked it to perfection.

Originally the “Consul Cortina,” using some name equity from the earlier Consul and Consul 109, it went on sale in September 1962 and became one of Dagenham’s most successful (and profitable) cars. In the first four years, more than a million were built.

The name was in part another stab at Ford’s continental cousins, it was name for the Cortina d’Apezzo ski resort in Italy. A little glamour never hurts.

The Cortina also spawned the derivative, larger Ford Corsair – a direct replacement for the 109E.

Meanwhile, in America, all the English Fords except the Anglia had essentially vanished in the early sixties – but the Cortina was offered, in small numbers, starting with the 1963 model year – at first carrying an 1198-cc Kent four with an optional 1498-cc version offering a more palatable 64 hp.

Cortina GT & the USA

Most U.K. Cortinas were family cars and in the USA, they were considered economy machines. But about a year in, two much more desirable versions hit the road on both sides of the Atlantic.

One was the Lotus Cortina – which is a tale entirely of its own. The other was the Cortina GT – a more accessible car that was quite fun to drive in and of itself.

Launched in the spring of 1963 with a 1498-cc 78 hp “Kent.” This engine made for a sporty drive matched with the Cortina’s 2200-lb. weight and that durable unibody, and front discs, standard from 1964, made it even better.

In the USA Mk1 Cortinas sold at a glacial pace, but the GT was available as a Four- or Two-door in 1964. British customers preferred the four-door Cortina GT, but Americans, on the rare occasion they bought one, liked the 2-door better.

In 1965 and 1966, when sales went up slightly, only the 2-door GT was offered. No doubt the GT was burnished by the exploits of the Lotus version and its famous owners like Jim Clark.

Any U.S. Mk1 Cortina is rare today, but especially this one – a very early GT. The Mk1 was facelifted in late 1964. Despite its American looks and massive U.K. success, Muscle-car minded Americans weren’t as interested in English Fords as they’d been previously, and Ford dealers preferred to sell and service domestics.

About 4,000-7,000 English Fords a year were sold in the U.S. during 1964-66, and a significant number of them, particularly early on, were Anglias. The Cortina GT was only a couple hundred dollars cheaper than a V8 Falcon. On top of that, many buyers who’d have appreciated the GT’s qualities looked to MGs and Triumphs.

U.S. sales improved on the MkII, offered from 1967, though that too faded away from the U.S. market by 1971 – supplanted by the Pinto.

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