Friday, 27 June 2008

Test Drive - Ford Cortina 1600GT

It’s a sad fact of life that people don’t have a lot of respect for Essex. Whether they believe the white stiletto stereotypes and tales of macho bravado and congenital idiocy or they just find the accent easy to mimic, folk generally overlook such delights as Southend Pier, Epping Forest, Maldon (home of Captain Britain, comic book fans), Waltham Abbey, Audley End House and Hedingham Castle in favour of perpetuating the increasingly less hilarious stories of filthy slags picking up Ben Sherman-clad chavs in Basildon and taking them for a quickie at the ‘secret’ nuclear bunker in Kelvedon Hatch. It’s a shame.

One Essex myth is true, however: at least half the population were conceived in the back of a Ford Cortina. And this is a good thing. Essex is the home of Ford in the UK, and there’s a lot of local pride inherent in the classic Ford scene. Everyone has Ian Dury-esque memories of the Cortina from some point in their personal history – they were cheap, spacious and fun, so most people have had one at one time or another. The back seat is, of course, generous and accommodating…

They’re pretty entertaining to drive too. In the case of this particular model – a mkII 1600GT of 1970 vintage, no less – you get the engaging combination of an exciting driving experience and a thorough workout. The non-adjustable non-inertia reel seatbelts do little to hold you in place on the slippy uncontoured vinyl seats, while the steering box (no rack and pinion here) provides, er, unique steering feel with a dead inch or so in the straightahead and weirdly uncommunicative responses at any other angle. The resulting lack of support and stimulus means significant concentration is necessary at all times to stop you looking a tit. It’s a hoot.

Whilst Ford knew what they were doing in 1970, years of subsequent experience allow the development of certain improvements and modifications to the car. Add to this the impressive extent to which part sharing is possible across the Ford range and the long history of backstreet tuners getting big power and big smiles on little budgets and you have a vast army of enthusiasts with an encyclopaedic knowledge of just how to make your old skool Ford better. Take the suspension, for example. CLH 324H has lowered springs on uprated shocks at the front, a thicker anti-roll bar and the suspension setup from a mkII Escort RS2000 at the rear. This results in an aggressive stance, a reasonably compliant ride and impressive cornering abilities the like of which would have staggered the Dagenham boys 40-odd years ago. Who needs big money tuning?

The engine is a 1600cc crossflow (sourced for the princely sum of £250 from a local classic Ford specialist) and features a mild cam, 32/36 Weber carb, four-branch manifold and straight-through exhaust. Nothing too complex or pricey there, yet the improvements over the standard crossflow are tangible and immediately obvious; throttle response is rather more urgent than, say, a modern 1600cc Fiesta (not an incredible claim but hey, four decades is a long time for technology to evolve) and coupled with the short-ratio gearbox from the Lotus Cortina, your quick wrist-flicking is rewarded by brisk acceleration with a gratifying chirrup from the rear tyres in second and third. (Of course, the short gearing means that motorways are a miserable nightmare and anything above 70mph leaves the little bones in your ears tinkling one by one to the carpet. Ah well. Stick to the twisty country lanes.)

There’s a certain degree of snobbery in the retro car community, with a lot of people feeling that there are two distinct areas to operate within; the restorers of cars to their original condition, and the custom modifiers. Either keep it standard and polish it on Sunday or wang a V8 in it, basically. However, there’s much to be said for the art of period tuning – a concept that is gaining increasing respect in the community – and this Cortina is a case in point. With the exception of the wheels (15” Ultralites imported from Australia, incidentally) and the cheekily modern RS badge (from an Audi), everything on the car could have been bought either from Ford themselves or from your local tuner at the time. The results speak for themselves. It’s pretty frugal and can be quiet and sensible around town, but the Jekyll & Hyde cam means that spirited driving will result in throaty barks from the exhaust, plenty of steering from the rear and general oversteery sideways tomfoolery, and some lovely touring car style pops from the tailpipe on the overrun.

There’s no electrical assistance with anything whatsoever. Steering means wrenching the wheel firmly with both arms, braking involves stamping the middle pedal into the bulkhead and hoping, for air conditioning you just wind the window down. This is simple motoring, and all the better for it. For all the Cortina’s lack of precision and feedback, it’s still infinitely more involving and satisfying than any of its modern counterparts. Imagine lapping the Nürburgring in this, then doing it again in a Focus ST. Sure, the latter will be several minutes faster, but the 1600GT will have you grinning like a loon and finishing with a genuine sense of achievement. It’s the polar opposite of clinical. It’s great fun. It’s sexy. It’s menacing. It makes a brilliant noise. And if you play your cards right, Sharon will climb in the back with you.

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