Nobody loved the Mk III, but now it has a starring role in 'Life on Mars' and turns heads on the street

Thirty years ago, one in every three cars sold in Britain was a Ford, and one in 10 was a Ford Cortina. The Cortina dominated the automotive landscape. Every family aspired to one, every schoolboy lusted after one (though maybe not in preference to an Escort Mexico), and every rep demanded one, preferably with the extra performance and luxury denoted by a few evocative letters stuck on the boot lid - GT, GXL, Ghia, E.

Other manufacturers feared the Cortina and tried to emulate it. None succeeded. Ownership of a Cortina in the 1970s induced the same air of smug satisfaction that possession of a Volkswagen Golf does today: there may be plenty of them around, but somehow it's still desirable. It's the default choice; not too showy, but nothing to be ashamed of. A nice trick, and a lucrative one for any brand that can acquire this Midas touch.

But familiarity soon bred contempt. The Cortina was also known as the Dagenham Dustbin, after its Essex birthplace and a result of its supposed flimsiness and propensity to rust. That must be one reason why so few survive.

Another reason was that it quickly became unloved, a symbol of a less prosperous past - and its ubiquity made it "common" in the worst sense of the word. They made four million Cortinas, in various guises, in the 20 years from 1962. Between October 1970 and 1976, more than a million of this car, the Mk III, were made, but now they're rarer than a Jade Goody fan.

The Mk III is much better known to people today because of its starring role in the BBC sci-fi/detective show Life on Mars than because they've actually seen one, still less driven or owned one. For many years, indeed, the Mk III was the runt of the litter, its "Coke bottle" styling and lairy colours as deeply unfashionable as flares or an Afro.

The Mk I was very Sixties and stylish, the Mk II neat and tidy, and Mks IV and V boxy, bland and almost contemporary. The Mk III seemed to have nothing going for it, a piece of shrunk-down Americana. Soon enough, it was completely out of time. Its pinched waist, kicked-up lines and general curvaceousness were anachronistic. Just as Oxfam shops in the 1980s and 1990s filled up with old vinyl by Mud, Sweet and Gilbert O'Sullivan, so the scrapyards were piled high with Cortinas in copper brown or Daytona yellow with brown vinyl roofs and Rostyle wheels.

Now, the Cortina Mk III, like many another chattel from the decade that taste forgot, has turned full circle and a bit more. Now, even in 1300L form with vinyl seats and wild "Modena green" paintwork, it's just the sharpest thing on the road, as I can testify.

No other car I've driven has attracted the same degree of interest. Not the previous champ, the scissors-doored, 200mph £313,000 Mercedes-McLaren SLR; not any Ferrari or Lamborghini, no Rolls-Royce or Bentley; not even an Aston Martin. There is nothing like a Mk III for garnering instant respect, or at least affection, out on the mean streets. In that sense, if no other, the Mk III Cortina is the best-performing car in Britain today.

Hmm. So, say you want to save yourself £80,000, cancel the Vantage V8 and find yourself a nice Mk III - a 2000GXL, say, with fake wood on the dashboard; or an ultra-rare two-door GT. What will you be letting yourself in for?

Well, like platform shoes, there is a price to be paid for your art. Most Cortinas, even the 1300 version, will just about keep up with modern traffic, and function tolerably well by 21st-century standards. But the car is noisy, there's no fifth gear and little crash protection. It rolls around a lot.

Even on the posh ones, you'll probably have to put up with vinyl seats. The heater is inefficient. It uses a surprising amount of fuel. It's got uncomfortable "static" seat belts. If you're unlucky, as I was, someone may have made some ill-advised mechanical adjustments even to the most pristine-looking example. "My" Cortina was borrowed from the Ford Heritage Collection, but at some point in its pampered life someone had decided to put some gaffer tape in the air filter, so preventing the old girl breathing properly and getting into her stride on the M1. After the AA surgically removed the offending tape, she ran fine and performed in the way God and the Ford Motor Company intended.

After all, the Cortina was the rep's special, designed to pound motorways and spend less time in the garage than its front-wheel-drive rivals. Apart from a wisecrack from the AA that the lack of power I'd complained of was down to its feeble engine, the Cortina didn't hurt my feelings again. Quite the opposite. With a Mk III Cortina, it seems, you're "cool". I was grateful to bask in the bright green hue of its reflected glory, if only for a few days. Life on earth can be fun.

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