From the archive: on this day in 1963

Lotus Cortina front three quarter

Some 3000 Cortina Lotuses were made; another 4000 in Mk2 form from 1966

Lotus turns the Cortina into a delightful GT, rallies come to UK forests, Dartford’s tunnel opens

When lotus founder Colin Chapman needed a replacement for his race cars’ Coventry Climax four, he hired its creator, Autocar journalist Harry Mundy, to spice up Ford’s mundane Kent engine.

The resulting Twin-Cam proved itself immediately in the 23 sports racer. Ford therefore asked Lotus to fit it in its new saloon for Group 2 racing – and a legend was born.

Homologation required 1000 Ford Cortina Lotuses to be made for the road, which caused great excitement among enthusiasts.

In addition to the new DOHC unit, Cheshunt gave the Cortina a high-ratio rear axle, modern rear suspension, a heavier-duty set-up at the front (lowering the ride by an inch), wider tyres, a close-ratio manual gearbox and aluminium parts to compensate for the extra bits. As such, the car’s power-to-weight ratio more than doubled, from 51bhp to 190bhp per tonne.

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“Everything seems more firm and taut,” we said. “It remains glued to the road when driven fast through bumpy corners.

“The car holds its lines through corners very well indeed. Should one feel boisterous, however, the tail can be hung out by dexterous throttle use – steering corrections being easy and responsive.

The manual shift was smooth and precise and the clutch wasn’t leg-quiveringly heavy as feared.

“As a high-performance car, it’s inconspicuous and deceptive in its speed and acceleration,” we summarised. “High speeds can often be used, and they go hand in hand with a high standard of stability and braking power – the three criteria for a grand tourer.”

The first high-speed rally stages come to UK forests

Rallying was originally all about the reliability of cars and the regularity and navigational skills of their crews. Then in the 1950s, the Scandinavians dreamed up the ‘special stage’ – meaning a leg run away from speed-limited public roads, on which the fastest driver was the victor – and the sport was changed forever.

Annoyingly, there was no legal way of shutting a public road for motorsport in the UK, which quickly left the RAC Rally looking old-fashioned and boring and unpopular with foreign competitors. It was thanks to organiser Jack Kemsley that it was saved, as in 1960 he convinced the Forestry Commission and some private land owners to close a few of their dirt and gravel roads for special stages.

For 1961, these sections were extended to cover some 200 miles, and the high-speed, dramatic rallying that we know and love today came to Britain.

Sweden’s Erik Carlsson won in a Saab 96 again that year, then for a third time in 1962 (another 100 miles of special stages included), and looked a safe bet for 1963.

Sure enough, through almost ceaseless rain and ankle-deep mud on the rocky, rutted forest tracks, the Scandis’ skills shone again – but this time the win went to the Volvo PV444 of Tom Trana (seen left applying a nice bit of opposite lock).

He made Bournemouth from Blackpool with a 47-minute advantage over Harry Källström’s Volkswagen 1500 S and Carlsson’s 96 for an all-Swedish podium.

How American cars used to be more common in the UK

American cars used to be far more easily available in the UK than they are today, and many of them in right-hand drive, thanks to manufacturer-supported concessionaires.

In 1963, we surveyed all of Detroit’s offerings, from the Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Imperial, Lincoln, Oldsmobile, Plymouth, Pontiac, Rambler and Studebaker brands.

The 48 models spanned ‘sedans’, ‘station wagons’, convertibles and ‘coops’; enormous to enormouser; 85bhp straight six to 340bhp V8 (although almost all were V8s); and from £1569 (£27,385 in today’s money) to £4862 (£84,860).

Dartford crossing opens

We often complain that Britain takes too long to get things built nowadays, but the tunnel between Dartford and Thurrock took 25 years. There was a world war, mind… Work resumed in 1959 and was completed by 1963, at a cost of £13m (£227m today).

It was designed to take two million vehicles between Kent and Essex annually (at a toll of 2s 6d for a car, or £2.18 today). But by 1970 it was carrying four times this figure, leading to the opening of a second tunnel in 1980, before completion of the M25 led to a giant bridge being added in 1991.

Source: Autocar

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