Some people remember names, others never forget a face. A select few of us even recall our online passwords. Rob Jones, however, has an uncanny memory for car number plates. Hey, we all need a party trick.
Rob knows the registration marks of every car he’s ever owned, from the MG Midget he bought after passing his test to the SEAT Leon Cupra he drives today. And one of those remembered registrations – FGF 113C – led to an emotional reunion with the car he owned 40 years ago.
Like many great love stories, our tale begins on a sofa in front of the telly. The show was ‘Car SOS’, and presenters Fuzz Townshend and Tim Shaw were battling to restore a Mk1 Ford Cortina GT from little more than a bare shell.
Made in Dagenham
Seeking inspiration, the team visited Ford’s heritage workshop in Dagenham. Their mission: to drive the GT’s big brother – the legendary Lotus Cortina. Rob nearly fell off his sofa. This immaculate white-and-green classic, hailed by Tim as “a sensation of the era”, wore the same number plate as a Lotus Cortina he’d bought in 1976.
“It had to be the same car,” explains Rob, “but I searched through my old photos to be sure.” The Polaroid print he found proved it beyond doubt. There was Rob, in glorious faded sepia, wearing a pair of turned-up flares and leaning on a Lotus Cortina, registration: FGF 113C.
The Ford heritage workshop is usually off-limits to the public, so Rob contacted Motoring Research – having seen our gallery feature on the Dagenham collection. A few excited emails later, Rob had a date in Dagenham. Even better, it was on his birthday.
From road to racetrack
Before our heart-warming ‘boy meets car’ moment, a few words on the Lotus Cortina. This skunkworks special was launched in 1963 and is arguably the first fast Ford. It packs a 106hp 1.6-litre Lotus engine and close-ratio Ford gearbox, clothed in lightweight alloy panels.
Tipping the scales at just 826kg, the Lotus Cortina reached 60mph in 9.9 seconds, plus a top speed of 108mph. It was an instant hit on the racetrack, with Jim Clark winning the British Saloon Car title in 1964, then Alan Mann Racing clinching the European title in 1965.
A total of 3,301 Mk1 Lotus Cortinas were built before the squarer Mk2 arrived in 1967. By this point, well-publicised reliability problems and the launch of the Escort Twin Cam meant the Cortina’s star was fading. But it has gone supernova since, with prices for concours examples stretching well into six figures.
Show some appreciation
Rob negotiated a rather better deal. “I paid £370 for my Cortina,” he laughs, “then sold it for £500 eight months later. I didn’t own it long as I kept having problems with the starter motor. The ring gears would slip or jam – I ended up replacing them about once a month.”
There are no such issues when, four decades on, Rob twists the key of his old car. The twin-cam engine bursts raucously into life, its throaty bark reverberating off the walls of Ford’s workshop – a huge warehouse that used to be a truck factory. Rob’s smile says it all.
“This brings it all back,” he beams. “I was a Lotus fanatic, but I couldn’t afford an Elan – so this was my dream car at the time. It’s been lowered a couple of inches since I owned it, but otherwise nothing much has changed.”
For the custodians of Ford’s heritage fleet, Rob’s visit provides a valuable chance to fill in the blanks about this Cortina’s history. “We don’t know much about the car before it came to us,” they admit.
A Christmas crash
One story in particular raises a few eyebrows. “Yeah, I crashed it,” admits Rob. “I’d just finished my Christmas shopping. I pulled out of a pub car park in Newbury [sober, he adds] and got sideswiped by an Austin 1100. It ploughed into the nearside wing and I ended up paying a £25 fine as it was his right of way.”
On the rain-drenched roads of Dagenham, Rob is being extra-careful: “I didn’t want to push it in the wet. I’m very conscious the car is worth a few quid more than when I owned it.”
It’s clear Rob loves being back behind the skinny wooden wheel, though. “It’s just lovely. I remember that twin-cam sound – and the smell. But the steering is so heavy compared to a modern car. You need muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger to do a three-point turn.”
A great motoring memory
Rob has owned many cars over the past 40 years, including several self-built Ginetta sports cars, but the Cortina is the one he wishes he’d kept. “Just being back behind the wheel felt special. I’d have another, definitely. I just need to discover one in a barn.”
Seeing Rob reunited with his Lotus Cortina reaffirmed our belief that cars are more than mere transport. They bookend periods in our lives, our memories of past journeys and destinations inexorably linked to the vehicles we travelled in.
For Rob, driving the car he owned in 1976 is the closest he’ll get to time travel. And unlike his flares, the Lotus Cortina hasn’t aged a day.