TEAM PLAYERS

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By Stuart Grant

In August 1979 the world saw the introduction of the Mk5 Ford Cortina and as our local manufacturers so often did, Ford South Africa decided it needed a bit of modifying to suit the harsher conditions. The result was the fitment of the 3-litre Essex V6 instead of the European 2.5-litre Cologne 6-pot and a unique to SA 5-link rear suspension, which not only proved itself on the highways and byways at the tip of the continent but also on the race track, where in the hands of Sarel van der Merwe, Geoff Mortimer and Serge Damseaux it excelled in the competitive Group 1 series. Here’s one of 500 Cortina XR6 TFs, a tarted-up version that by paying homage to these racers, showed that the Ford marketing department was also on the ball.

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But before getting stuck into the TF, which stands for Team Ford, it is worth recapping the XR6 and XR6 Interceptor stories.

Although no definitive meaning is given for the XR moniker, we do know that Ford America first made use of it on the 1977 Cougar XR7 and continued to apply it to its sporting saloons through the 1980s. Ford South Africa were quick to follow suit with the lettering, launching the Cortina XR6 in August 1980 which like the Cougar XR7, pulled at the performance-orientated heart strings. It did this by taking the 3-litre Essex-powered Cortina 3000S and adding a range of accessories to make it look and mentally go that much faster – the basic changes including colour-coded bumpers, blackened brightwork, twin spot lights, front and rear spoilers in black and a big bore exhaust system.  

In its January 1981 test, Car magazine boldly stated that with a 0 to 80km/h sprint of 6.3 seconds, top speed of 180km/h on a flat road, the ability to pull smoothly from 20km/h and stop cleanly from 90km/h to zero in three seconds it was a very special kind of car, offering GT motoring in the grand style, and quite spectacular value for something like R8 500.  

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With racing continuously progressing Ford felt the need to up the Cortina ante in 1981, but in order to meet the stringent Group 1 standard production car rules, this meant making enough road versions carrying the required modifications. So they did just that, unleashing the uprated Ford XR6 Interceptor to the market. All of the 250 units made were red in colour and saw the fitment of triple Weber 42 DCNF carbs replacing the single Weber 38/38 EGAS unit, trick inlet and exhaust manifold, high compression pistons, more aggressive camshaft and flowed cylinder head. Power output increased from 101.5kW up 118kW, which coupled with a 3.08 diff ratio and some imported alloy 13-inch Ronal wheels made it incredibly quick off the line.

On track memories were made when Sarel and Mortimer battled door-to-door with the likes of the Nicolo Bianco and Abel D’Oliveira 2.5-litre V6 Alfa GTVs and BMW 535s of Tony Viana and Paolo Cavalieri. The debut race for the Interceptors at Kyalami was not only hugely successful for Ford, with Supervan winning in damp conditions, but also thanks to one of the closest finishes on record, established this formula as the one to watch. It was spectacular, with the Fords and Alfas drifting around the corners, and the way Bianco came from behind to almost steal the Interceptor’s debut thunder to put him up near the top of the favoured drivers list.

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Unlike the red Interceptor road versions, these Team/Span Ford race cars were painted white with three shades of blue running down the sides and up over the bonnet, and rumour has it that to save the last few grams in the weight department the bodies were painted in a single coat without any primer. For good measure Sarel also competed in the Star Modified series that year with a more heavily modified version, again in white with blue, but this time wearing Kreepy Krauly branding.

All good things come to an end though and for the Cortina XR6 the writing on the wall started appearing in 1983. Not only did Alfa Romeo SA unveil its own 3-Litre GTV6 homologation special for racing but long-time Ford motorsport boss Bernie Marriner headed to Opel motorsport, Van der Merwe and Mortimer jumped ship to compete in Group 1 with Volkswagen’s GTi (no doubt incentivised by the prospect of also rallying the monster Audi Quattro) and the launch of the Cortina replacement, the Ford Sierra, was imminent. To stop would-be Cortina customers from waiting it out for the Sierra and denting the books, Ford marketing execs played the TF trump card in April 1983.

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Limited to just 500 units the Ford XR6 TF was just a cosmetic treatment to the regular XR6. It used a more subtle rendition of the Team Ford motorsport livery, so this meant white paintwork, a white radiator grille, white bumpers with black inserts and overriders. Three shades of blue striping ran down the flanks, a darker tint sat below the side rubber mouldings and TEAM FORD SPAN headlight covers were fitted. Like the Interceptor the TF came with 6J 4-spoke Ronal alloy rims and while supportive sports seats were included, the usual colour combinations were dumped in favour of a grey/blue fabric. Door panels were finished in this way too and the seatbelts and carpeting came in slate grey.

All the running gear was your normal XR6, so performance was not up on the previous figures. What was up though was the price, with the run-of-the-mill Cortina XR6 costing R11 990 that month while the TF went for R12 340. Despite this it was a successful sales plan and the TF aesthetic was also added to the front-wheel-drive XR3 TF.

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If you were more about performance but felt the TF wasn’t really top of the pops and had missed the chance to own an Interceptor, there was a solution from Simpson Ford dealership in Port Elizabeth (that was also sold nationally through other Ford outlets) – the Ford X-Ocet. Former marketing director of Ford SA George Simpson and genius tuner Andrew Cave took a base spec Cortina XR6 and bolted on a 4-barrel Holley carb, free-flow manifold/exhaust and high-lift camshaft.

The results were almost identical to the Interceptor with the X-Ocet running to 80km/h in 5.5 seconds, 100 in 8.8 seconds and on to a top speed of 194km/h. No wonder the firm named it after the deadly Exocet air-to-surface missile used in the then recent Falklands War. It came at a price though, selling for R13 621. How many official Simpson-built cars hit the road is difficult to say as they also sold kits for XR6, Granada and bakkie owners to do a bit of backyard DIY.

The options for any Ford fan wanting something limited are out there and while the TF might not be the top dog in the performance department it is by no means a slouch when lined up against other saloons of the period. Where it does come back fighting is in the looks department, with its white paint and blue stripping stealing the 1980s fashion show prize from the rest and with double the number made compared to the Interceptor, the chances of finding one today are that little bit more likely. 

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