Norfolk car maker Lotus has always punched above its weight. David Clayton looks back at the time it took a workaday family car and turned it into a race winner and meets the proud owner of one of these beasts

I have an enduring memory of visiting Snetterton in the mid-sixties, when the motor racing was spectacular, especially as we sat in a grandstand at The Esses. The track configuration back then had the cars hurtling down a long straight, emerging from under a bridge, then doing a rapid left, then tight, right turn to head off round the Coram Curve.  

A good many cars were carrying too much speed into the bends and were attempting a late lunge overtake. Not everyone made it and a few went off into the adjacent field. Somewhere I have some old cine film of that race which I must go back and view. 

Quite the best racing for eager spectators were the battling saloon cars. They were pretty much the sort of thing your dad drove but tuned and modified within an inch of their lives for maximum speed and agility.  

You’d have thought the more powerful the car the more likelihood of it being at the front, so the big-engine Jaguars were expected to win - that was until the Lotus Cortina came along. Colin Chapman’s modification of the new Ford Cortina back in 1963 resulted in a car that was light and nimble. It ran rings around the big Jags.  

As the Lotus Cortinas flew into a tight curve, they were invariably on three wheels. It was all down to the set-up of the sporty suspension. 

Ford knew the power of good publicity for their cars and, with the Lotus Cortina looking exactly like an ordinary Cortina until you got up really close, many a dad and his son could imagine they were at the wheel of a sporty motor. Cosmetically, the Lotus versions of the stock Ford were distinctive in what was called Ermine White, with a green flash of Sherwood Green down each side.  

This was how nearly all of them emerged from the Lotus factory in Cheshunt. Just a few were finished in red. They sat a bit lower on the road and there were some yellow and green Lotus badges to spot. There aren’t too many around now but they probably lasted better than the bog-standard Cortina because they carried the Lotus name and were worth preserving.  

Simon Godfrey has one in his garage at Thorpe on the outskirts of Norwich. He acquired it back in 1986. “You know that phrase, never buy the first car you see? I did,” he tells me.  

Simon was only 20 at the time and having saved some money and borrowed some more, he paid £2,150 for it from a man in Larling near Snetterton. “I had to put it on my dad’s insurance.” The car was a 20-year-old boy-racer’s dream, but an insurers nightmare.  

The car had been restored but Simon did some more work, mostly cosmetic improvements. He enjoyed it and took it to shows all over the country until the car developed a number of mechanical problems in 1991.  

Then he got married and there were other priorities in his life, so the Lotus Cortina was off the road. His wife, Florica, kept suggesting he should, “sell that old car in the garage.” Simon resisted. “It was a false economy to do so,” he explains.  

While he was resisting and hanging on to the car it was growing in value, and talking to him about it now, it seems back then he had a sixth sense about what the vehicle could become.  

It took until 2012 to begin the work to get the car roadworthy again. “I stripped back the whole car – every nut and bolt was taken off it.” As Lotus Cortinas go, Simon’s is pretty much all original.  

“When the front wings were put back on during a previous restoration, they weren’t put on properly,” he explains. “The panels didn’t line-up exactly.” Months of painstaking work and help from his friend Martin, he returned his 1966 Lotus Cortina to head-turning, immaculate condition.     

It was Martin who took on much of the engine re-build, re-invigorating Colin Chapman’s sporty 1600cc power unit with its twin overhead cams and twin Weber carburettors. It now sits in a pristine engine compartment and gives the car a distinctive sound.  

In fact, when Simon’s wife was driven round in the newly restored Lotus Cortina she was smitten, as much for the engine sound as the car’s classic looks.  

Simon has taken time to research the car’s history. “It was sold by the Rugby Autocar Company in Coventry in 1966 to a Mr Bulow who was in competition with a famous Coventry City footballer to buy it.”  

Because he has the original green log book, he was able to make contact with the man who bought the car originally. “I looked him up and he was still at the same address in Coventry. He was involved in motorsport as a race marshall.” 

The car eventually found its way, in something of a sorry state, to a garage owner in Norfolk. Phil Buck got the car for a couple of hundred quid and then did a lot of work to put it right in the late seventies. Then it moved on to the chap in Larling from where Simon acquired it in the mid-80s.  

Standing there looking at the Lotus Cortina in all its glory after Simon’s painstaking work, the inevitable question came up; what’s it worth today? “It’s insured for £75,000,” says Simon.  

Martin, who helped with the restoration, was a little more forthright, “Name your price. It’s one of the best in existence.” Much of that is down to the originality of all the body and components. According to Simon the body shell retains around 75% of its original steel.  

A great many restored Lotus Cortinas have lots of structural repairs and it’s not unknown for Mark 1 Cortina GT owners to mock-up their cars to look more like the Lotus version. The genuine, pristine Lotus Cortina is a rare beast. 

Simon confesses he’s always fiddled with cars and along with his mate Martin, they’re always looking for the next thing to restore, so now the car is as good as it can be, what’s next?  “I’ve got a 1968 Rover P5B Coupe in there I’m working on.” He points to the double garage door. Sure enough, up on jacks is the big old Rover limo in mid-restoration. If the Lotus Cortina is anything to go by, it’ll be stunning when finished.  

The legendary status of the Lotus Cortina was well-earned. It was famously raced by Jim Clark and was used by the Great Train Robber, Bruce Reynolds, when planning the infamous heist. That particular car was impounded by the police until 1980. A decade or so ago it sold for £100,000. 

Colin Chapman’s son Clive, who now runs Classic Team Lotus at Hethel, says the Lotus Cortina was significant in the company’s history. “It was extremely important for Lotus when it got established. It was vital income. Dad loved looking at what someone else had done.”  

Clive explained that Colin and his engineers took the family saloon, then basically gave it more power and better suspension. “It was a different car,” says Clive. It certainly was.  

Simon Godfrey definitely appreciates Colin Chapman’s vision. “I love the design and the way it drives. It looks and sounds like nothing else on the road.”