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Jul 21

1969 Ford Cortina GT: Canadian Survivor!

As a boy growing up in England in the 1960s, my world was populated with its share of quirky people and their quirky vehicles. What kid could resist cars with names like Bristol Beaufighter, Jowett Jupiter, Reliant Scimitar and Jensen Interceptor? I sure couldn’t. True, others like the Imps, Elfs (Elves?) and Sprites sounded like they were out of fairyland, not to mention the ubiquitous overachieving Mini Minors. But this was the heyday of the British car industry and for me these cars were an endless source of fascination. Fords, too, were commonplace, from post-WW2 Prefects and Populars that were still on the road, to the newer Zodiac, Anglia, Capri, Corsair and Cortina models.

Many were fitted with left-hand drive and a marginally more effective heater, and then exported to Canada where quirky Canadians eagerly bought them until the early 1970s. By 1969, in fact, the Ford Cortina Mk2 was Canada’s second best-selling import car. Replaced by a Mk3 version in 1972, it was retired here a year later to make way for the Anglo-German 1974 Mercury Capri, the “sexy European” as it was so marketed. The Cortina, however, was the last truly English Ford (as they are referred to here) seen on our shores.

Believe me, you don’t see many in Canada now! If the Cortina is remembered here at all it’s likely by vintage motorsport enthusiasts who recall the collaboration between Lotus founder Colin Chapman and Ford of Britain that produced the original MK1 Lotus Cortina from 1962-66. Powered with a twin-cam Ford-derived Lotus engine and featuring a performance suspension and aluminum body panels, the Lotus Cortina in traditional white paint with broad green stripe was campaigned internationally with many of the world’s top drivers behind the wheel.

However, our subject 1969 Mk2 Cortina is not a Lotus Cortina, but arguably it’s the next best thing: a Cortina GT. Then as now, Ford, like many manufacturers, would add sporty details to a family car hoping it would appeal to a younger buyer. But with the Cortina GT, which came in two and four-door versions, it wasn’t just about stripes and chrome trim (although it got those, too). This one’s a two-door version; they also came in four-door.

I purchased mine in 2014. It was the first one I’d seen in 25 years, and it was the unexpected recipient of a recent and professional nut-and-bolt restoration by Classic Automotive Repair owner Steve Hayes. I say unexpected because if you’re going to restore a ’60s Ford in Canada, you can bet it’ll be a Mustang. So doing a rotisserie restoration on a Cortina and displaying it at a local British car show was both a labour of love, and, as it was done by a guy starting a classic British car restoration business, great marketing!

When it was eventually offered for sale, I couldn’t resist, and furthermore, it wasn’t the first Cortina I’d owned. I also bought the one I mentioned seeing 25 years ago. Coincidentally, it was also a red 1969 Cortina, only it wasn’t a GT, it was a Deluxe and it was fitted with an automatic transmission. When it was offered for sale for $500 by Baker Racing, a competitive team in Canadian vintage racing, I couldn’t resist then either! I ended up putting a couple of thousand dollars into that car, buffing it up and moving it on to my brother who had a short-lived love-hate relationship with it before walking away.

So Cortinas and me sort-of go back!

Why the appeal? I dunno. Almost nobody owns one (not here, anyway); they won races; they represent a period of interesting British cars just before the Japanese upended the compact car market; they’re surprisingly well-constructed and practical; they’re fun to drive; my partner scoots around town with her girlfriends in it; we use it and we like it!

Under the hood of this meticulously restored Mk2 Cortina GT you’ll find the famous “Kent” 1.6 litre four-cylinder engine with cross-flow head. This engine was the foundation of the Formula Ford racing series for three decades (some are still in competition), and as you can imagine, there is an extensive range of performance upgrades available for the Kent should owners be so inclined. But the ’69 Cortina GT already arrived with a hotter camshaft, Weber carburetor and performance four-branch header that boosted horsepower to 93 at 5400 rpm (a 52 percent gain over the base 1.3L engine and a 30 percent increase over the 1.5L engine).

In addition you got bigger (and power assisted) brakes, a stiffer suspension, a larger diameter driveshaft, four-speed close-ratio manual transmission (no automatic available with the GT), radial tires and, of course, you paid more. The base ’69 Cortina started at $1,899, but you’d be looking at $2,582 for the GT, which also got chrome trim, clock, a matte black panel a rear, a matching matte grille at the front and a rather overdone racing stripe that mine lacks but which I may yet reproduce. Another departure is that my Cortina GT wears aftermarket 14-inch Minilite wheels (my doing), as opposed to the standard 13-inch steel wheels with covers.

Inside, the driver faces a sporty 110 mile-per-hour speedometer (top speed is a reported 95-102 mph) and a 7000 rpm redline on the tachometer, along with a special wood dashboard with four “race type” gauges mounted atop the centre stack and a clock below. The ignition key is on the left, and there’s a choke on the right to help with starting. The gear shifter doesn’t exactly fall to hand, but it’s reachable.

And check out the headrests. These are a recent find! They were missing when I bought this car in 2014, but I found a pair in British car enthusiast Joe Lightfoot’s car yard near Kingston, Ontario, which I dyed to a close colour and installed (see my post Joe Lightfoot’s Field of Dreams). They are unique to North American Cortinas, I believe.

Another interesting story about the interior has to do with the workers who sewed the upholstery. If you’ve seen or can access the movie “Maid in Dagenham” (it may still be on Netflix), you’ll know that the women who assembled Ford interiors at the time were paid at a lower rate than men. Basically, they were designated as unskilled workers who therefore didn’t rate higher pay, but really they were underpaid because being women, they were always paid less than men. As it happened, this small group of women went on strike for equal pay and their action not only transformed Ford practices globally, but arguably set the stage for a move toward wage parity in the automotive sector throughout the world. The interior in this car was most certainly sewn by some of those “maids.” Hopefully post pay-raise maids.

One other observation about the Cortina interior is that it’s airy and spacious. Look at the Cortina’s delicate A and B-pillars and note the thin doors, the lack of map pockets and the amount of glass surrounding its occupants. Outward visibility is abundant in all directions in this car, and the doors still close with a satisfying thunk even after 48 years. And at 594L the trunk capacity is huge. With its overall length of 4267 millimetres, the Cortina is actually shorter than a current subcompact-class Ford Fiesta sedan (4406 mm), which offers only 362L of trunk space.

There are other reasons for this roominess, I know. No airbags, absence of massive chassis reinforcements, no power equipment, no chunky steering wheel, sensors, insulation and padding to accommodate. But still…

From a practical perspective, this is why the Cortina makes a great hobby car to drive daily (at least in the summer; I wouldn’t ever try to run this in a Canadian winter. How did they manage?). It easily accommodates four adults, has lots of room for cargo, doesn’t use much fuel, turns on a dime (it’s rear-wheel drive with a 9.1 metre turning circle), is very easy to parallel park and is peppy enough to handle modern highways. Plus people wave and give you thumbs-up, so it inspires convivial behavior. Always a good thing these days, I reckon.

The simple lines of the exterior now turn heads (hence the appreciative waves). It’s a quintessential three-box car design with no hint of the aerodynamic wedge profile that has dominated vehicles for the past quarter-century. This, I think, is the key to why it stands out now (along with the abundant use of chrome).

Oddly, though, there’s no Ford badging visible on the exterior of Canadian Cortinas (likely US market, too). In the middle of the grille is the letter “C” for Cortina (like people would know…). On the trunk lid is a nice metal Cortina GT badge and on each rear fender is a badge that identifies the vehicle as a GT. The only Ford branding on the entire car is a tiny emblem on the sill plate.

On the road the Cortina GT zips happily along, although perhaps its major shortcoming is the lack of rack and pinion steering. Cortinas were fitted with a steering box that can impart a heavy feel when taking corners; you adjust, but it’s not as sharp and precise as a rack-and-pinion setup and it’s not power-assisted, either. This can make maneuvering in close quarters a chore. The brakes, however (front disc, rear drum) were power assisted in Canada (a Girling Supervac, I believe), and pull the 921-kilogram (2,028 pound) car down from speed smartly. Would that my servo worked, though.

Otherwise, this is a great summer driver and it turns out that some people do actually remember them, most fondly. Take it to a British car show and the MGBs will be ignored in favour of your Cortina. We were the only example at the British Invasion of Stowe (Vermont) last year; a 500 km drive each way. We even got a station wagon version in Canada — the Estate — although I can’t remember the last time I saw one, if I ever did. But the GT just picks up and goes, turning heads with its boxy vintage look. “Is it a Toyota?” “Looks like a Datsun 510.” “Hey, I love your car!”

1969 Ford Cortina GT. Apparently they’re all the rage elsewhere!

An interesting aside for those who need even more:

When I bought the Cortina in 2014, its Ontario registration identified the car as a 1969 Cons GT. Yes, a Cons.

How and why did this happen? My theory is as follows: The very first Mk1 Cortina models were not badged as a Ford; they were badged as a Consul (Consul being the name of a Ford of Britain model in the 1950s). Possibly, and do correct me if I’m wrong, but possibly in the early 60s Ford of Britain briefly decided to assign the name “Consul” to a separate nameplate that would offer its own models. Thus, the Consul Cortina.

Ford apparently abandoned the idea in short order, but initially because Consul Cortinas were badged and registered as Consuls, I think that the Ontario Ministry of Transportation may have used Cons as an abbreviation, which could have stayed on the books even after the Consul nameplate was replaced by Ford. Some Ministry of Transportation front-desk clerks, therefore, would have continued to register a Cortina using the short-form “Cons” and a Cortina GT would have become a Cons GT.

Okay, so that was my theory (with which I didn’t presume to enlighten the Ontario Ministry of Transportation) as I set about changing my registration document (title) from 1969 Cons GT to 1969 Ford Cortina GT.

Easier said than done. After acquiring a letter from Campbell Ford in Ottawa attesting to the fact that the Sales Manager had examined my car and determined that it indeed was a Ford Cortina GT, and presenting said letter at a Ministry of Transportation licence bureau as instructed, I was met with a look from the counter clerk that suggested I was really ruining her day. Then she disappeared, returning with her manager who examined my documents, then examined me and decided to proceed.

After much keying-in, furrowing of eyebrows and signing of papers, I was rewarded with the familiar buzzing from one of the Ministry’s truly vintage dot-matrix printers as the new registration document was produced.

Success! Or maybe not.

Upon examining the title I found that I was now the owner of a 1969 Ford GT. Which is how my car is now registered.