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My love affair with the Lotus Cortina

The car was always huge part of the book. It had to be – symbolic of the escape both my main characters were yearning for, while also being undeniably ‘cool’. The Ford Cortina was the car of the 70s, released in five generations between 1962 and 1982. However, the edition Russell drives is particularly iconic.

Announced in The Motor in January 1963, the Lotus-modified Ford Cortina was pitched as ‘a ravening wolf in slightly sheepish clothing’. Sold through Ford as ‘the consul Cortina sports Special’ the car was for both consumer sale, as well as appearing (and winning) on the track – it’s reputation sealed by Jim Clark winning the British Saloon Car Championship in 1964. The car reached a top speed of 108mp, with an acceleration of 0 to 60 in 9.2 seconds. Tinny and box-like in design, with green racing stripes and roomy interior, it was a working class car with an F1 makeover. The absolute dream car for a 19-year-old boy with a passion adrenaline.

"It was the sort of car that even before hearing the rumble of its engine, you could sense its longing for speed. "

In 1966, the MKII was released with the slogan, “New Cortina, is more Cortina”. Bigger than the MKI, the car had more interior space and was a smoother drive, and quickly became the most popular new car in Britain 1976. This is the car Russell and Jen drive across Europe in pursuit of what would be Kate's first and last tour.

I first sat in a Cortina on a research trip to Haynes Motor Museum in Somerset. It wasn’t the right edition, but Rachel Comen, the Collections Care Officer I’d been in contact with, kindly let me beyond the ropes to have a proper poke around. She also suggested I look up the Lotus Cortina owners club, who would not only go on to answer many a niggling question I had about Russell’s car, but who also shared photos, personal stories, tips for dealing with well-known sore spots and – this is the big one – ran the occasional get together. It was through this group that met Rikki and finally got to experience the car for myself.

Rikki's MKII Cortina was everything I had hoped for, and those couple of hours I spent with him showing me under the bonnet and explaining all the car's quirks and misgivings were some of the most useful in all my months of research. Not only did it enable me to breathe in the little details – like the constant fogging on the windscreen, the sweating of the seats and the need to blast the heating, even in the height of summer, to prevent the engine boiling over – it also solidified a crucial plot point that would see Jen and Russell break down halfway to Stuttgart.

"The car continued to hum, despite the engine being cut – drawing out its pain in a long and strangled whine."

Of course, there was no way I could write a 1,500 mile round road-trip in a beaten up Cortina without the car breaking down at least once. But how it might break down, and how my characters might go about fixing it again, had been causing me a headache until that fated day out with Rikki.

Picking me up from the station, I heard the car before I saw it. I played with the radio and felt the awful jolts as we went over potholes. I smelt the petrol fumes seeping into the interior and struggled with the door handles (which don't work in the same way as modern cars). I experienced the Cortina as Jen would have for the first time, and as she did felt completely in awe of it, despite its obvious imperfections.

It feels like a shame to give away any more of the story than this, however much I would love to keep pontificating. So I guess, if you want to know more, you'll just have to wait for the book to hit the shelves. And in the meantime, if you do happen to be a fan of the classic Cortina, I can highly recommend the Lotus Cortina Club meet ups – if you're lucky, you might even catch a rally.

(Many thanks to The Haynes Motor Museum, The Lotus Cortina Club, and to Rikki for sharing your passion and answering my peculiar questions!)

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