A trio of original Lotus Cortinas will make an exciting addition to the line-up of historic Lotuses at the Classic Team Lotus Festival at Snetterton on 20th June. Owner Henry Pearman, classic car restorer and Group C racing driver, has kindly agreed to present the rare Mark 1 saloons at the circuit as a contribution to the vast Lotus bonanza.

The Lotus Cortina played a significant role in establishing the marque as the leading maker of road and race cars in the 1960s. The story began when in 1961 Colin Chapman famously brokered the symbiotic deal with the Ford Motor Company to install the Lotus twin-cam engine in the Cortina family saloon, giving Ford an edge in the showroom and Lotus another string to its competition bow.

At first the plan was to build 1,000 units so that the model could be homologated as a Group 2 racing car. Bodyshells were supplied by Ford and driveline and suspension assembly and cosmetic detailing were entrusted to Lotus’s Cheshunt factory. The early 120bhp 1558cc Lotus twin-cam engine was fed by twin side-draught 40-DCOE Weber carbs and mated to a four-speed Elan all-synchro close-ratio gearbox. Aluminium door skins, boot and bonnet lids were fitted, while new front springs and damper settings were allied to twin trailing arms and A-bracket rear suspension, while anti roll bars and lower ride-height enhanced handling, enabling Jim Clark in particular to set the cars up in dramatic three-wheel pose around corners, the inside front wheel hanging impotent for what seemed like ages.

By 1965 Team Lotus followed the example of privateer Alan Mann and switched the troublesome A-bracket rear end to conventional Cortina GT leaf springs. The following year regulations changed from Group 2 to more highly modified Group 5, using BRM-built fuel injected dry-sump engines developing 180bhp, and front wishbones and relocated shock-absorber turrets replaced MacPherson struts. Clark complained that because they handled flatter, they took all the fun out of racing.

In the first instance Lotus Components built just 97 units – 1,000 was a tall order and production was slow when Lotus Cars were focussed on Elan manufacture, but nevertheless the saloon was officially homologated by the FIA in September 1963, placing 3rd and 4th in the hands of Jack Sears and Trevor Taylor at its Oulton Park Gold Cup debut that year, stealing a march on the previously indomitable Jaguar Mk II saloons. There were worldwide successes for the quasi-privateer Alan Mann and John Willment teams, the official English Ford Line cars in the USA, and Jim Clark won the British Saloon Car Championship (as the BTCC was called then) for Team Lotus.

Saloon Car Champion

The first of the two racing cars, JTW 498C, was one of three new work’s cars for ’65 (KPU 390C and KPU 396C were the others). The innovative one-piece grille incorporating the front sidelights is the visual key to the car’s age. Bob Dance was chief mechanic on the work’s Lotus Cortinas from 1964 to 1967, and Clark’s mechanic in’64, and he tells us more about it: ‘Jim always drove the same car unless he was racing elsewhere, and then David Hobbs or Jackie Stewart drove it. That arrangement lasted through ’65 and ’66,’ he recalls. Bob has kept his exhaustive record of Team Lotus’s testing and race programme, race summaries, what happened, who was driving, distance, times, qualifying positions, and these reveal that not only Clark but Sir John Whitmore and Jack Sears drove JTW 498C at various circuits including Brands Hatch, Goodwood, Snetterton, Oulton Park and Silverstone. In March 1966 the car was bought by Team Lotus mechanic Dave Lazenby who used it on the road for a year, and then it spent 30 years in storage until Trevor Barefoot bought and restored it in 2003

Group 5 hot rod

The second racer, PHK 614D, and two siblings PHK 615D and BJH 417B, were built in March 1966 to new Group 5 regulations, which permitted more extreme modifications. They were now capable of 150mph top speeds, as opposed to the 120mph of the year before, and were capable of staying with the Mustangs, Galaxies and Falcon V8s as well as being more nimble. The roll-call of famous names who drove PHK 614D includes Jim Clark, Peter Arundell, Jacky Ickx, Sir John Whitmore and, as he’d rejoined Team Lotus in 1967, Graham Hill. There were several class podiums and a couple of wins. The car passed from Team Lotus to Tony Dean for Brian Robinson to drive in the British Saloon Car Championship in the latter part of ’67 and ’68.  Subsequently owned by contemporary Team Lotus F1 mechanic Cedric Selzer, PHK 614D was in Rhodesia and his native South Africa from the late ’60s onwards.

Mail Train Robbery

The third car, that of Great Train Robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds, BMK 723A, has to be the definitive road-going Lotus Cortina, thanks to the long arm of the law. It’s a time capsule, with just 3,975 miles on the clock and even wears its original tyres. The Lotus-Cortina was only launched in 1963 and immediately became the hottest four wheeled property around.  Since the first 1,000 were earmarked for homologation as Group 2 touring car racers, initially it was almost impossible to get hold of one because they were only going to race teams. But that wasn’t going to stop the hard man who Masterminded the Great Train Robbery.

A Lotus Cortina was the thing to have in 1963, and indeed the Lotus Cortina was about to show the door to the villains’ previous getaway car-of-choice, the Jaguar Mk II saloon, on track at least. BMK 723A was Bruce Reynolds’s recce machine, and he used it to check out the robbery location and the farm where the gang hid out.

The mail train robbery netted an unprecedented £2.6m in used bank notes, about £40m in today’s values, but Mr Reynolds never got to drive his Lotus Cortina again. He realised that forensics were advancing to the point where his tyre tracks could be matched up, so he took the car to the Ford Performance Centre to have new tyres fitted but the work was never done, and the car was never collected because Reynolds had to go on the run. Everyone that mattered was captured sooner or later, though Ronnie Biggs led police a lengthy dance. Reynolds, AKA Napoleon, fled to Mexico but was arrested after returning to Torquay in 1968 and given 25 years, of which he served 10. His assets were confiscated and the Lotus Cortina was impounded until 1980 when all his personal effects were sold off. It was bought at auction on behalf of Colin Chapman for the Lotus Cars collection, where it remained for nearly two decades.

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