The ultimate old-school Ford battle: MK1 Lotus Cortina vs MK1 Escort Mexico

by | May 1, 2022 - 4:00AM | Cars

MK1 Lotus Cortina vs MK1 Escort Mexico

Fewer dreams become more real than this. A battle between two of Ford’s race-bred icons to discover, in depth, which comes out as the victor. The gloriously iconic MK1 Lotus Cortina and the well-remembered MK1 Escort Mexico.

We seldom think that the most nostalgic things in life ever made us unhappy. From your old family toaster with that little bit of rust on the side to a classic evening session of Crash Bandicoot on the original Xbox. Oh, and did you ever listen to music on a vinyl or cassette system at least once in your life? You know, the sorts of things that one day, we subconsciously put to one side and moved on to the next big thing.

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More often than not, we tend to remember such things and naturally have a yearn to dig them out of the dust and enjoy them once again. The excitement is present in the moment, you have the urge to feel just that little bit younger again. But in most cases where this happens, comes the realisation of why you also wanted to move on…

These days, you can add unlimited amounts of tunes to your Spotify playlist and enjoy hours of non-stop listening. With an old vinyl however, you’re cut short with only six songs before you have to flip to the other side. Before you know it, you’re suddenly left feeling a bit cold.

Cortina vs Mexico: Is it always a good idea to revisit nostalgia?

This neatly brings us onto the pair of fast Fords which were easily the most nostalgic performance cars on British soil in the 60s and 70s. These are cars I’ve wanted to drive ever since I pushed my first Hot Wheels toy: the MK1 Lotus Cortina and the MK1 Escort Mexico. Oh, does it feel good to be alive.

Or does it? Because hype is always a fairly dangerous pool to swim in, and petrolheads from all over the globe constantly rave about how incredible classic Fords were. Brits especially rage in agony about how much they regretted selling theirs. The question stands: which of these iconic race-bred legends is better 50 years on?

That’s a more difficult question than it seems because the MK1 Lotus Cortina was launched in 1963, whereas it took a full seven years until the Mexico came along. Of course, there was the Escort Twin Cam from 1968 and the RS1600 which carried on from that, but even so, the age difference between the two is larger than you might think.

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The Cortina, as per the name, uses a Lotus-tuned 1.6-litre twin-cam four-cylinder engine and gearbox taken from the Elan sports car. Churning out 105bhp, this was an early 60s family saloon which not only sounded fast, but proved it. It only weighed in at just over 900kg, bear in mind.

Turning the key and gently blipping the throttle gives you an idea of how much sportier this was compared to a normal Cortina. It’s throaty, buzzy and hints to you that it never likes to idle for too long. Barely 20 seconds into getting out on track and you get the impression that this is an engine that likes to be spinning very, very quickly.

The Cortina’s maneuverability

A rather pleasant surprise is that even without power steering, the Lotus Cortina is a fairly easy car to maneuver. This is probably due to the skinnier tires which the Escort on test didn’t have. Out on the coned airfield course, the racing pedigree of Colin Chapman’s saloon began to effortlessly shine.

You would require some skill to pull off a full Jim Clark one-wheel-off-the-ground move. But it feels light enough to be possible! But even without Formula One skills, it’s a wonderous thing to chuck around the bends.

This is due to the extensive modifications to the suspension, notably the rear leaf springs being replaced by coils. Meaning the Lotus is almost unrecognisable to what a standard Cortina feels like. Journalists at the time described it as a Lotus Elan with a tin top. And honestly? It’s not hard to see why.

Colin Chapman’s magic is fantastically displayed in the Lotus Cortina; it feels light on its feet, while also being able to point exactly where the driver intends. The twin-cam engine is eager to rev and with such short gear ratios, keeps the driver on their toes as you embrace the magic of the touring car legend.

Through the chicane and hairpin bends, you can feel the potential of a rear-end dance had you applied a little bit more bravery. But powering out of the corners is where the Cortina comes into its stride as it rages through the rev range and sprints like a hungry cheetah. This is a seriously quick car and it feels it!

The Cortina is an amazingly easy car to drive fast. After some time on track, you suddenly understand why it was the go-to machine for drivers in the British Touring Car Championships. That was until at least, the MK1 Escort platform came along.

So, how does the Escort stack up?

The Mexico was introduced as a celebration model for the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally, which was won by a modified MK1 Escort using a tuned 1.8-litre version of the Crossflow Kent engine. This would form the basis of the road car bearing the finishing country’s name.

A quick turn of the key immediately provides you with a different vibe to the Lotus-tuned Cortina. Instead of the eagerly revvy twin-cam unit, the 1.6-litre Crossflow unit had 86bhp from the factory. Though as these cars were popular with amateur racers, they tended to get tuned quite a bit. This one with its RS-esque Fast and Furious body kit produced a little over 100 – so about the same as the Cortina.

Though it’s important to mention that the earlier Escort Twin-Cam from 1968 did have the Lotus engine before being replaced by the Cosworth-powered RS1600. All of this means the Mexico was never the top player in the Escort range when introduced in 1970. But it is one that so many souls remember and often go, “I shouldn’t have sold mine!”

Straight away, you feel that the Escort is a stiffer breed of Ford. The lightness has been replaced by a stickier, more planted feel that makes the Escort feel light years more modern. Flick both through the chicane at 60mph and you would never believe that the basic chassis and roll bar designs are a mere six years apart from each other.

To flick the rear end of the Escort out requires a loose-surface rally stage because on dry tarmac, it’s on its own set of rails. Unlike the Cortina, the Escort will point in exactly the direction you want it to go with hardly any steering input.

‘The real deal of fast driving’

To demonstrate the difference in road holding between the two, the Cortina is like a ballerina effortlessly light on their feet while balancing on fresh ice. The Escort meanwhile is like a break-dancer on a freshly-paved sidewalk.

You can instantly tell which one has more grip and is heavier on its feet. Most of this however, is probably due to the wider, grippier tyres installed on the Escort. But it is wonderous to feel how much more weight is pushed down as you apply more force into the corners. Whether you’re a keen petrolhead or not, this is the real deal of fast driving.

The handling isn’t the Escort’s only trick up its sleeve though. It’s a quick little thing too, though not quite in the same style as the Cortina. Instead of the eagerness of the Lotus engine, the Crossflow gives you a progressive growl with slightly longer gear ratios. In turn, this gives the Escort a slightly more relaxed sense of acceleration.

To really get the most out of the Mexico, you have to keep the revs high and pray that you don’t miss a gear, otherwise you’re back to level 1 and have to rebuild all of the progress you made before. Once you’ve nailed it though, you begin to realize that the Escort plays no games like the Cortina might. This is a serious car for serious drivers.

The verdict

To choose the better drive is entirely dependent on what kind of racer you are. If you like to set your hair on fire occasionally, then the Lotus Cortina is the one for you. But if you prefer to be serious about the correct racing lines, then the Escort is the perfect car to learn the craft.

Should you revisit your nostalgic heroes? In the case of these two, absolutely!

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