Most of my writing on this site is centered around the “clash of civilizations” – the eternal debate over whether American or European cars are superior in qualitative, if not quantitative matters. But among all those reviews of new European and American cars, or my sordid tales of living with old American iron in Europe, it’s easy to forget that today’s European cars are in fact quite similar to the American ones. At least compared to what they’ve been in the past.
To prove my point, I borrowed my friend’s 1964 Ford Cortina. This car is quite special to me, being one of the old European Fords I loved in my late teens and early twenties – I took them as a substitute to the classic American cars, which were out of my reach then. My grandfather used to own a Mark I Cortina just like this one, although it was replaced by a Polski Fiat 125p before I was even born.
But more importantly to you, my dear readers, is the fact that the Cortina is representative of the typical European family car of the epoch, one of the most popular cars in Great Britain and sold in large numbers in other countries as well. You can even trace exact lineage from Cortina to 1980s Sierra to the Mondeo – which, when the new generation finally comes, will be identical to the USDM Fusion.
But back in 1964, its USDM equivalent would be the Ford Fairlane. While the Fairlane was 5,002 mm (197“) long, hulking sedan riding on a 2,934 mm (115.5“) wheelbase, with a 2.8-litre straight six (145hp) as a base engine (a 4.7/289 c.i. V8 with 271hp was available), the Cortina was a different beast altogether. A fairly sizeable car for Europe of its time, it boasted a stately 4,274 mm (168.25“) of length, riding on 2,489 mm (98“) wheelbase. Under the hood? A 1.2-litre four. That’s 73 cubic inches, or a bit less than a typical American motorcycle of the time had. Horsepower? A whopping 65 ponies.
And it doesn’t stop here. Just look at the list of optional extras. With Cortina, you could buy things like heater or a fan as extras. Or a fancy DeLuxe model with a real chrome grille, instead of painted one. The Fairlane? Power steering and power brakes were not only available, but very common, as was the automatic transmission (Cortina could have one, but it was extremely rare). You could also order power steering, power brakes or even air conditioning – something basically unheard of in Europe of that time.
On paper, it would seem that the American car beats its distant European cousin on all fronts – and usually by quite a margin. But what about reality? Did the British Ford make up for the tiny size and missing horsepower by its sophistication and precise handling?
The very first thing you will notice once you sit behind the Cortina’s huge wheel is the sheer emptiness of the cabin.You are sitting in a car quite a bit smaller than today’s Focus sedan, and you feel an unusual roominess. For the passengers in front, it can probably feel even roomier than today’s Mondeo/Fusion. There is no huge center console, no wide door pockets, no deep buckets. Just you and a lot of empty space. Also nice is the fact that you can actually see outside, as the roof is supported by slender pillars instead of massive columns used in modern cars.
The flip side of all this? A bit of discomfort, caused by total absence of ergonomics, as well as any comfort equipment. Nowhere to put your keys, wallet or a phone. And probably also the quite unpleasant fact that once you crash, even just a little, you will die a horrible, painful death.
Obviously, this car isn’t equipped with a modern, fuel injected engine with array of sensors and a computer to decide about things like the air/fuel ratio. Today, we take for granted that once you turn a key in the ignition/press the starting button, the engine starts purring evenly, with no hesitation
Here, you have to pull something called a “choke” to increase the air/fuel ratio, so the cold engine actually starts up. And you have to do a bit of magic with the right amount of gas during starting, or maybe a few “pumps” of the pedal before you turn the key. Once the engine gets warm enough, you have to remember to switch the choke off again, or else you’ll “flood” the engine. And no, there is no “idiot light” to warn you that you’re running on choke for too long.
But other than the carb-related wizardry, the Cortina’s operation is fairly straightforward. Step on the clutch, find first gear – yeah, in this case, you have to really find it, with a gearstick the length of a small fishing rod – and go.
Once on the move, you’ll notice much of what you have probably expected. The Cortina is very slow, but from behind the wheel, it feels like you’re driving awfully quick. The engine and transmission are noisy, the car doesn’t feel very stable and isn’t even that comfortable – it is much less comfy than you would expect with a softly sprung suspension and tiny wheels with narrow, tall tires.
You probably also wouldn’t be surprised by the fact that driving this car requires some muscle – the brakes and the steering are not power-assisted. Braking from higher speeds, as well as turning in slow speeds, is a pain in the ass. When braking, you’re usually concerned whether you will stop the car at all and not about your tires blocking and losing grip. And similarly, at speeds over 50mph, you need to pay real attention to ensuring that you won’t just go off the road.
However, there is still one surprise. With all the current jibber-jabber about the electric power steering systems being devoid of feel, and the preceding hydraulic ones being much superior, we tend to think that old cars were magically connected to the driver, talking to him and signalling the ever-smallest changes of grip underneath the wheels.
But I have some bad news for you. With old-style recirculating-ball type steering, you can just quietly forget about “steering feel”. And without the power steering, even more so. The helm requires some strength to turn, has some play and doesn’t really tell you much about what’s happening underneath. Did I mention that the steering wheel is friggin’ huge? Otherwise it would be impossible to turn around or park, without the power steering. But if you just imagine things like going sideways with this thing, well, it’s really, really terrifying.
This is probably the biggest surprise I encountered during my drive. Arguably, the modern car offers more driver involvement in some respects. While the new cars, with their electric steering racks, unswitchable ESPs, fat tires and absurd limits of grip are scary to drive fast simply because you have to go extremely fast to really feel any speed, the Cortina is scary to get even close to the limit, because its controls just don’t offer you enough control to ensure that you don’t kill yourself. It’s not fair to extrapolate the difference in progress between the various eras. The cars from eighties or nineties were truly the exception instead of the norm. In those two decades, it was fairly normal for a ordinary car to be truly communicative, to be easy to drive on the limit, and to provide immense fun. The gap between the 1960’s and the 1980s versus the 1980s until now provides us with a window where we can view the extraordinary progress made in terms of driving dynamics.
That’s not to say that the Cortina isn’t fun. It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys, as they would say in the sixties. I would add that it’s more fun than barrel of angry, rabies-infested monkeys. And probably as likely to kill you. You will not want to go near the limits of grip – not because it’s hard to find, but because it’s very easy to find. And when you get there, it may be too hard to ensure that you won’t die a fiery death. It reminds you of the times when just getting your car at the (today’s) speed limit and going somewhere required skill. Our current speed limits were drawn up in the era of the Cortina, and viewed in that light, it seems crazy that we have never re-examined them.
Even so, the Cortina is a wonderful little car. It made me think about getting something slow and simple and old for myself again. But most of all, it’s a testament to how much the automobile improved in the last 50 years, and that we all should be immensely grateful for that.