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Extremely Cool Lotus Cortina


The 1965 Ford Lotus Cortina Mk I Saloon was the first time a legal race car was made in a production class

Ford's 1960s profile-raising competition program included recruiting Lotus boss Colin Chapman to give the new Cortina a sporting makeover. Chapman's brief was to develop a Group 2 competition version; Lotus would then build the 1,000 cars required for homologation.

Launched in 1963, the Lotus Cortina featured the Elan's Ford-based, DOHC, 1.6-liter engine in the two-door bodyshell. Lotus Cortinas dominated saloon racing's 2-liter class, often challenging for outright honors. Works cars were driven by Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Peter Arundell, and Jackie Ickx, while Sir John Whitmore, driving an Alan Mann-entered Lotus Cortina, was European Touring Car champion in 1965.

The Lotus Cortina offered here is one of the original Works racing saloons campaigned during the mid-1960s by legendary Formula One World Champion Jim Clark, while touring car champions Sir John Whitmore and Jack Sears also competed in this same car. It was raced by the Works-backed Team Lotus during 1965 and comes with its factory record card recording events entered, dates, drivers, engines fitted, failures, and comments. During 1965, the car was used in the British saloon car championship, being driven by Jack Sears at Goodwood and Snetterton (twice), Jim Clark at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, and Sir John Whitmore at Oulton Park.

Offered with Swansea V5 registration document and letters of authentication from the Lotus Cortina Register, "JTW 498C" represents a unique opportunity to acquire an historic racing saloon associated with three great motor racing champions, including the legendary Jim Clark.

The SCM Analysis

This car sold for $281,808 at the Bonhams Olympia Auction, which took place on December 3, 2007.

Look, guys, I love Lotus Cortinas at least as much as the next guy, but this is insane! This car sold for twice the published estimate, which was twice what I would consider fair market for a garden-variety Lotus Cortina. Is the racing history associated with the car worth that much these days, and if so, why? I guess that's pretty much what I'm here to discuss today.

There is no doubt that Lotus Cortinas (Lotus Type 28, if you want to be twiddly about it) are extremely cool cars. They have been described as the world's first homologation specials -- cars designed and produced with the specific intent of making a car legal to race in a production class. It all started when Ford, with a very long history of building fundamentally stodgy cars, decided to upgrade its image and embraced the "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" philosophy.

Caprino? That means goat dung

The Cortina debuted in 1962 as English Ford's first modern (unibody) car design. It was a light, stiff chassis with contemporary suspension and featured a wonderfully robust five-bearing evolution of their "Kent" 4-cylinder engine. It was the perfect base for a sporting sedan/racer conversion. (As a fun aside, the Cortina was named after the site of the Winter Olympics. It was originally to have been called the "Caprino" until somebody realized that the word meant "goat dung" in Italian.) By the early '60s, Colin Chapman and Lotus were well established as a premier English producer of sports and racing cars, and were developing a twin-cam cylinder head for Ford's Kent engine block (to replace the expensive and unreliable Coventry Climax engine). When Ford decided to create a performance variant of the Cortina, Chapman was the logical person to call. Chapman loved the idea, not least because his company could use the production line business (30 cars per week), and he set about designing the changes that would convert a clunky sedan into a sporting proposition. Obviously, the twin-cam engine went in, along with the close-ratio Lotus Elan transmission. Aluminum door, boot, and bonnet skins replaced steel units, the front suspension was dropped and stiffened, and then Chapman took on the rear suspension. Not content with simple leaf springs on the live axle, he created a complicated coil spring system with an alloy differential carrier to save weight. The whole rear suspension looked very elegant; we'll talk later about how well it worked.

The end product was an impressive piece of kit in 1963, very "slammed" and aggressive-looking in its English white with a green blaze livery -- the only way they came. It certainly wasn't something your Auntie drove to the Vicar's for tea. Ford's image was about to change. Lotus Cortinas were impressive out of the box in saloon racing, quickly establishing themselves as the car to beat in the under-2-liter class and often challenging for overall honors. The iconic image was repeated throughout Europe -- a thundering herd of saloons chasing one or two little white and green Cortinas, hunkered way over in a corner with their inside front tires lifted clear of the track. They didn't start racing until September 1963, but in 1964, they won the championship easily; same in 1965.

That "inside front wheel in the air" thing, by the way, was a function of stiff front springs and very soft rear ones, a design concept that you don't see much any more but seemed to work at the time. What didn't work was the fancy rear axle arrangement, which proved leaky and unreliable. For 1965, Chapman quietly went back to leaf springs with an iron differential, and nobody noticed.

Really nifty tin-top racer

Fast forward 40-plus years, and you've got a really nifty tin-top vintage racer. They're fun to drive, fairly reliable, easy to get parts for, and can be as fast as you want to make them, depending upon how much you want to pay an engine builder. Considering the money spent on this car, though, I doubt get-it-dirty racing is on the buyer's mind. I expect the car will become an honored (and mostly static) part of somebody's sports memorabilia collection.

Face it, we're an icon- and celebrity-worshiping society. If a Ferrari Lusso with seat wrinkles from Steve McQueen's tuckus can sell for three times an ordinary example, what must Jim Clark's imprimatur be worth? Obviously a lot, as that's the only real difference between this car and a lesser one. My friends who inspected the car were a little disappointed in how ordinary it seemed. Yeah, it got used as a street car for years after its glory time, but somehow, if you're buying a Team Lotus championship weapon for huge money, you'd like to have it be a bit scruffy and dog-eared, maybe with some old scrutineering stickers peeling off the side windows and some chips from battle.

It did have (replica) correct Works racing seats in it (Lotus 18 formula car seats -- terribly uncomfortable unless you're Clark's size), but full heater and ventilation? Aside from the documentation proving its provenance, it was for the world a street Lotus Cortina.

The documentation and provenance are what matter, however. Though he was an iconic early-1960s racing driver, Jim Clark had a very short career and didn't leave much behind. He didn't sign many autographs and he drove relatively few cars, so the pickings are slim if you really want something to collect. Personally, I am a vintage racer, not a memorabilia collector, so I can't really understand spending that kind of premium for the history, but neither can I say it was wrong. The market clearly values the rarity that provenance bestows on certain cars, and this was an example. I hope that history proves it to have been well bought.

Details

Years Produced: 1963


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