High-octane hybrid: Part Ford Cortina, part Lotus racing car, Sean O'Grady says the Lotus Cortina was more than the sum of its parts

The Ford Motor Company's Heritage Collection is an amazing place. This gathering of 90-odd historic vehicles, ranging from a 1910 Model T to GT40s from 1960s to modern Fiestas and Focuses, lives in a rather nondescript workshop on Ford's estate in Dagenham.

For a car nut, it's a bit like going into an eccentric uncle's potting shed and finding the contents of the Tate's Turner collection, the Benin bronzes and the entire works of Tracey Emin inside.

The Ford people tell me that they used to have a proper museum, but that went with the "restructuring" of the Dagenham site. Much of the plant has gone as the manufacture of "blue oval" cars ended there a few years ago, but it's still an important centre for diesel-engine production. It's not the same, though, in spite of the huge wind turbine that now lends the site some contemporary interest.

Still, some good has come of it. Ford's public affairs department takes the view that cars, even the rarest treasures in the collection, are there to be driven. Old cars benefit from being given a run, I reckon, and surprisingly few of them get damaged.

Some months ago, Ford had kindly allowed me to tear off in the last Ford Capri ever built, which I thought was taking generosity way too far. It is an irreplaceable piece of automotive history, in my view. Having returned the Capri in one piece, I must have gained their confidence. Anyway, now it was my turn to take their 1965 Mark 1 Lotus Cortina for a spin.

Well, she went fine for a 40-year-old. So did the car. Sorry, couldn't resist that. Basically, what was a very fast car for its day - 100mph-plus top speed, 0 to 60mph in less than 10 seconds - is no more than average today. It will keep up in town, though, and the handling seems perfectly adequate, but then I wasn't pushing it as hard as the race and rally drivers of the past did. After all, Jim Clark won the British Touring Car Championship in 1965 in one of these, and it was the beginnings of a long tradition of fast Fords, right up to and including the Focus ST and the Mondeo ST220 that you can find at your Ford dealership today.

The Lotus Cortina came about because Ford wanted to do more in motorsport and because Lotus were happy to help, as they, in turn, were already looking at Ford engines as the basic units to power their sports cars. The Ford people knew the Lotus people well, especially the firm's legendary founder Colin Chapman, so the collaboration was made all the more easy. BMC's collaboration with John Cooper to make the Mini Cooper may also have been an encouragement.

Development of the car proceeded very quickly. The first Lotus Cortinas went on sale in 1963, less than a year after the launch of the basic Ford model that was to conquer the British market. Ford supplied the body shells (two doors only), and Lotus did the mechanical bits: engine, gearbox and suspension (although the latter components proved a little fragile, and were in due course replaced with more robust standard Ford parts).

Lotus Cortinas, to adapt Uncle Henry's famous saying, came in any colour you liked as long as it was "ermine white" with an olive green "flash" down the side. They featured Lotus badging in place of the Ford oval. So, in spite of their familiar lines, these cars were very different from what the average sales rep was moving his samples about in. Unless he was very successful, I suppose.

There are lots of nice things about the Lotus Cortina. The engine is actually quite eager, in that old-fashioned way; a bit like the old A-series engines found in Mini Coopers.

Of course, this Lotus Cortina is both an old car and an old design, and it does make a good deal of noise. The engine, developed by Lotus but based on Ford's contemporary 1.5-litre overhead valve offering, revs to high heaven and produces 78bhp. The transmission moaned, down to age, and there was all manner of wind and road noise thumping into the cockpit as I took the old trooper down the A13. But you can hold a conversation, and most of the conversations I held in the car concerned how ideal it would have been as a getaway motor for a post-office blag in 1966.

Obviously, "old fast Ford" is synonymous today with crime rather than motorsport, and I suppose the current range such as the XR2s, and the XR3s of the more recent past, also have a pretty lairy image.

All of which is a bit hard on the Lotus Cortina. This was very much a gentleman's racer in its day, a car for the discerning driver from an age when Ford was almost a premium brand. Yes, really; once upon a time, folk aspired to own a Cortina. For quite a large swathe of British society, a Ford Cortina parked on the drive, especially a new one of the latest shape, was a symbol that you had made it.

Then Ford started grading the trim levels in a quite meticulous fashion, ensuring that if you owned a Super you wanted a GXL, and if you owned a GXL you knew you really lusted after a Ghia, and if you had a GT, surely the only thing that could satisfy would be a Lotus version. I've conflated three decades of badging here, but you get the idea.

But the notion of a Lotus version at the pinnacle of the Cortina range didn't last long. There was a Mark II Lotus Cortina, which lasted until 1970, and that was that. The nearest Ford equivalent since has been the Cosworth Sierras of the 1980s, now attracting serious money. (One recently went for £16,000). So, in case you needed reminding, a classic Ford can be just as desirable as a Jaguar or a Porsche - especially if it wears a Lotus badge.

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