By Stuart Grant
Is there any other vehicle that symbolises South African motoring more than the Ford Cortina bakkie? Thanks to its Port Elizabeth-based development, extremely high local parts content and the fact that in period you’d see one parked on almost any street corner, farm, building site, caravan park or even beach, it could well be the quintessential South African motoring icon. He finds arguably the best, most unmolested low-mileage version of the legendary 3-litre model to pay homage.
Technically the term ‘bakkie’ stems from the colloquial term, bak, which loosely translates to box, and scanning through 1970s publications reveals that it wasn’t until the Ford Cortina Pick-up production was in full swing that South Africans started using the term bakkie for any light utility vehicle. So did the Cortina bakkie start the trend? It’s difficult to say but utter the word and chances are the vast majority of the population will picture the iconic Ford product.
Ford’s focus on making a light-medium pick-up suited for South African conditions kicked off in 1962 when it converted the German-built Taunus station wagon into a workhorse. But the cost of the Taunus base proved too exorbitant for mass production. When the Mk1 Cortina launched later that year the lower cost of the car looked promising. But it wasn’t to be as the monocoque construction didn’t provide enough strength, and the lack of heavy-duty differentials in the range meant the load capacity would not be high enough to make it a viable workhorse. The engineers pushed forward though, delivering 8 prototypes over the next seven years, based on the Mk1 Cortina, Corsair, Mk2 Cortina station wagon, Mk2 Cortina sedan and even an Escort panel van. The technological strides taken were decent but the differential issue remained a thorn in the side and the engineers still maintained that a frame-type chassis was needed.
Prayers were answered in 1969 when Borg-Warner set up an axle manufacturing plant in Uitenhage and the Ford engineers were given advanced warning on the next generation Cortina design, which meant that they could develop a frame-chassis pick-up around that and not have to chop and change an existing model.
Prototyping upped the ante, and engineers developed a frame section that was then joined, with what Ford called a torquebox, to the front half of the Mk3 Cortina sedan’s monocoque structure. The torquebox, a box section running transversely at the join tied the front and rear via numerous braces under the seat and added the required strength but also substantial weight – 6.5% heavier than the car version.
Concurrent to this development a new body panel pressing plant had been set up which, together with the local differential and engine supply, saw to it that the soon-to-be-released Cortina Pick-Up found favour with the authorities thanks to its 78% local content ratio.
Ford launched the Cortina Pick-Up in November 1971 and almost immediately it took over the market sector. Not only did it swallow up a 750kg payload but it offered road car-like interior comfort and believe it or not, performance. It accomplished this by employing a slightly tuned 1600 (1598cc) Kent 4-cylinder petrol engine that powered the rear wheels via a 4-speed all-synchromesh gearbox and 4.1:1 diff ratio. Clearly the maths worked well as CAR magazine managed to get it to outperform the lighter 1600 Cortina sedan in road tests and found it to have good climbing and pulling carrying capabilities with the maximum torque figure of 127Nm being delivered from as low as 2600rpm.
Where it did fall down when compared to a saloon was in the ride quality department when unladen – no surprise when you see that Ford SA chucked out the 4-seater coil springs and slotted in some truck-styled leaf and rubber-cone setup. Its saloon background also meant that it featured a relatively spacious interior, with the bench seat being able to move backwards on rails to accommodate even the largest occupants, but bakkie headroom was less than the sedan with the seat raised to clear all the bracing and torquebox in place. And if you opted for the De Luxe model you got a heater, carpets (instead of moulded rubber) and reverse lights. As if being a top seller wasn’t enough, a 2.5-litre V6 version was released soon thereafter.
In 1975, with the arrival of the updated MKIV Cortina on the horizon, Ford SA’s product engineers were given the task of creating a more powerful and better pick-up capable of carrying a psychologically magical tonne. The MKIV Cortina bakkie launched shortly after the new Cortina did in 1977 and besides the ever-reliable 1600 lump it was also offered with the renowned Essex 3-litre (2994cc) 6-cylinder. It retained the ladder chassis technology as well as the hefty suspension and axles, and came standard with truck tyres to enable the 2.6m² double-skinned steel bak to hold the 1 000kg. The good ol’ marketing department saw fit at this time to stop labelling the utility vehicle as the Ford Pick-Up and replaced it with ‘Ford 1-Tonner’.
As a 3-litre the bakkie weighed in at an extra 120kg heavier on the scale, this partly due to the extra 2 cylinders but also by way of extra creature comfort features like a fan-driven heater, full set of carpets, cigarette lighter and other regular car accessories. To take it one step closer to a car, a 3-speed automatic gearbox was added to the 3-litre repertoire. Small detail changes like recessing the rear tail lights (as opposed to them sitting vulnerably vertical alongside the tailgate on the MK3 version) and moving the spare wheel from the cabin to under the bin, indicated that the workhorse was evolving into more than just a tool. It was becoming the jack of all trades and quite rightfully cementing its way into South African folklore.
In 3-litre guise it proved a serious performer, not only trouncing all workhorses but also able to give many family saloons and even the odd sportscar a run for their money. Zero to 100km/h came up in just under 12 seconds and a top speed of 160km/h (limited by gearing) was easily attainable, even up at the Reef altitude. The 38 DGAS Weber carburettor fed the 102kW and the 234Nm 6-pot wasn’t even that thirsty compared with the competitors, drinking 12.6 litres of petrol per 100km at a speed of 100km/h but dropping to 9.6 at 60km/h. Long haul trips were a reality with a 70-litre tank.
When the MkV Cortina sedan was released in 1980 the 1-Tonner received the same new front-end sheet metal treatment. Models like the 3000 Leisure Bakkie (Ford were officially using Bakkie in the title by 1983) were offered, and with a bit more refinement and contemporary car-like colour schemes, kept the sales rolling until 1986 when the job of being the country’s halo 1-Tonner was passed on to the Mazda-based Ford Courier.
We weren’t however the only nation to experience the Cortina Bakkie. Europeans saw the light in 1982 when our much developed utility vehicle was exported as the Ford P100 with slightly longer wheelbase. The P100 was released to Europe in MkV Cortina form, just as the sedan model was being replaced by the all-new Sierra, and while the company had considered rather rebadging a cheaper Mazda pick-up, it was felt that being made in Apartheid South Africa was less of a liability than being made in Japan. With Ford being British it also meant that the Cortina managed to achieve 35% local parts content in the UK. Regardless of where the Bakkie originated or its outdated styling, the P100 sold like hot cakes and carried on as the work and play vehicle to have until 1988 when it was replaced by a Sierra-based P100 built in Portugal.
Climbing into the 3-litre test version, borrowed from Route 101 Classic Car Centre, the 28 732km 1-Tonner was the ultimate time machine. It is totally original and unmolested. No speaker holes have been cut in the door cards, a modern radio hasn’t been fitted, dashboard is uncracked and not a single scratch could be found in the bak. Sliding across the pristine bench seat I opened the glove box to find the original sales brochure, spare set of keys (lockable petrol cap and ignition), dealer-stamped service history and even log book showing fuel consumption. The last service was done at 18 876km in 1986 and Mr Engelbrecht’s personal log book shows that he was able to drop the consumption down as low at 7.6 litres per 100km on occasion. Nestled in the engine bay the factory-fitted Donaldson cyclonic heavy duty air cleaner still displays its sticker in perfect condition, as does the front valance with its tyre pressure settings. Original General tyres are still fitted, so are the vinyl protective covers on the chains that secure the tailgate when in the horizontal position.
Crank the key and the V6 springs to life and then sits back into a smooth idle. The lack of engine noise and vibration is noticeable but a stab on the loud pedal sees it rev up nicely. Clutch pressure is firm, gear selector action reassuringly notchy but lacking any slop at all, and the rack and pinion steering free of any play. You pull off with ease and comfort ready to start your day’s work or play. An exceptionally preserved example of an extraordinary vehicle that reminds us of South Africa’s engineering brilliance and proud motoring pedigree.
Ford’s Cortina 1-Tonner Bakkie ticks every box (Bak!).