(first posted 4/15/2014) The idea that American style, automotive or otherwise, influences Britain and the rest of Europe is old and well established, and no car demonstrates this better than the Ford Capri. Like Dearborn’s famous coupe, it was based on a mainstream saloon, and was marketed as an aspirational alternative for a more confident, fashion conscious audience. As an Anglo-German collaboration, however, the Capri was an altogether different expression of a very American concept.
The 1969 Capri, the one we remember, was actually the second British Ford to carry the name. The original was introduced in 1961 and was based on the Consul Classic saloon, itself a car sold above the Cortina, with such a heavy dose of US style it could have been a 1950s Vauxhall. Incidentally, the body for the Consul Capri was produced by Pressed Steel, not Ford’s usual supplier Briggs Bodies, whose UK business had been acquired by Ford in the 1950s. This car was quickly overshadowed by the more conservative (some might say tasteful) and better value Cortina and was superseded by the Corsair in 1964. Even that car was stylistically derived from an American product – the 1961 Thunderbird, still one of my favourite American cars.
The 1961 car was, as noted, a British Ford, but the 1969 Capri was a European wide product. Development of what was first called Project Colt began in Dagenham in 1964, just as the Mustang was making its impact on America. There is no record of who within Ford of Britain was responsible for the attractive, enduring styling, but perhaps the masterstroke was to change the proposed shape of the rear side windows from sharp and straight to that unique horseshoe shape, borrowed from the original 1961 model, helping to emphasise the front (the bonnet and its power bulge on the larger engined cars). Add to that a short rump, fastback styling, dummy air inlets ahead of the rear wheels, and side moulding with a hockey stick shape and this was probably Ford’s most successfully styled car since the war, and maybe still is.
Mechanically, the Capri was typical contemporary Ford: MacPherson strut front suspension, rack and pinion steering, and semi elliptic rear suspension (In Europe, the last car produced so equipped). There was a lot of Cortina Mk2, the 1966 (British) version, in the Capri, with a couple of key exceptions. One was a longer wheelbase, up 3” on the 98” of the Cortina. Looking at the car, you can quickly work out that these extra inches went into the front of the car to get that bonnet length. The other exception is that the Capri came with possibly the widest range of engines ever offered when both the UK and the Continent are taken into account.
For the British market, Ford offered 1.3 and 1.6 liter 4 cylinders, a 2.0 V4 and the 3.0 Essex V6. In the rest of Europe, Ford offered 1.3, 1.5 and 1.7 liter V4s and 2.0, 2.3 and 2.6 liter versions of the Cologne V6. By 1974, Ford had managed to standardise the 4 cylinder engines across Europe, using a 2.3 V6 in Europe and a 3.0 V6 for the UK. Assembly, from 1969 to 1976, was in Halewood, in Liverpool and in Cologne, Germany and Genk, Belgium. From 1976, all production was centred in Germany.
Just like the Mustang, the Capri was an instant hit, helped by strong advertising which placed the car in aspirational and even glamorous settings, and in the UK, the great slogan “the car you always promised yourself”. It doesn’t take a great leap to deduce that cars like this helped to end the career of many traditional sportscars (“you can have a sports car if we can get the shopping and the kids in it”).
In the UK, it became the badge of success in the company car park, frequently being offered as a reward or carrot by employers to staff who might be expected to accept a Cortina. By the end of 1970, Ford had sold 400,000, by 1973, 1.2 million across the world, including North America, where it was sold as the Mercury Capri. As they say in football, back of the net!
The featured pale green car is a 1972 1600 XL. The car with wedding ribbons is actually an eBay find of a 1974 3000GXL, then the top of range version, with an emphasis on luxury rather than sportiness, as with the 3000GT. Good luck Ricky and Niki – that’s a great start to your life together!
The Capri, in its first series, had a strong circuit racing career. For European touring car racing, Ford built the RS2600 and later the RS3100 versions. The RS2600 had a version of the Cologne V6 engine assembled by Weslake, featuring their special all alloy cylinder heads and Kugelfischer fuel injection to raise power to 150 bhp, also forming the basis for the Group 2 RS2600 used in the European Touring Car Championship. The RS2600 also received modified suspension, a close ratio gearbox, lightened body panels, ventilated disc brakes and aluminium wheels. 0-60 was achieved in 7.7 seconds. Dieter Glemser won the Drivers’ title in the 1971 European Touring Car Championship and Jochen Mass won in 1972.
How good the Capri was to drive was often a moot point for discussion – it was not a BMW or an Alfasud but it wasn’t a Morris Marina either. The leaf sprung rear axle was not really an asset, except to the modification industry; many of the smaller engines were pretty humdrum too. The Capri with a V6, either a British 3.0 litre or the German 2.6 litre, was one of the more characterful car and engine combinations of the 1970s, similar to the Rover 3500 SD1. Crucially, the Capri was always sold on value, offering the most glamour for the money, and not by trying to price match more sophisticated coupes from BMW or Lancia, among others.
In 1974, Ford effectively broadened the car’s appeal by adding a hatchback and a larger interior, selling it as the Capri II. Some of the compact sportscar appeal was lost, but Ford effectively had a multi-tasking competitor – it could be a sports coupe or 3-door family hatchback, albeit with relatively cramped rear seats and somewhat limited luggage space. And, against the conservative nature of Ford’s saloon offerings in the mid 1970s, its charm was still clear.
The red car is a rather basic 1977 1600L; this bronze car is a 1977 3000 Ghia Automatic, the brougham of Capris.
Ford followed their usual course, offering as many engines and options as possible, from the 1.3 litre, that was advertised against the Vauxhall Chevette at one point, to the 3000 Ghia, which featured all the trimmings you’d expect.
Perhaps the best remembered is the 3000S, with a sports emphasis and the JPS special. JPS was a popular brand of cigarettes (maybe still is? I don’t know anything about cigarettes!), which sponsored the Ford-powered Lotus Formula 1 team for several years from 1972, including Mario Andretti’s world championship car of 1978. Like the Lotus Formula 1 car, the Capri was black with a classy gold coachlining and quickly became one of the winners in the school playground Dad’s Car Competition.
In 1977, Ford gave us the ultimate Capri, known unofficially as the MK III. By dint of Uwe Bahnsen’s careful restyle of the nose to accept a four headlamp configuration and new rear lights, Ford created a car of much stronger visual appeal, that implied a much more modern and firmer (or not so soft) style for the car. A 3000S in this configuration is perhaps the most preferred Capri in the UK now.
But by 1977, the true competitor to the Capri, the hot hatch, was beginning to make its mark. These cars showed that you had to make no compromises, in terms of practicality, to own a sportscar. Within a few years, the range of hot hatches on offer included cars from VW, Renault, Fiat, Vauxhall and Chrysler (later Talbot). Add to this the fact that Ford’s key, high profile, motorsport activity in Europe was rallying, for which the Escort was used (cars like the Escort RS1800 and RS2000 are truly revered now) and the reduction of the Capri’s profile was almost inevitable.
By 1980, Ford was offering a hot hatch as well – the Escort XR3, the ultimate version of the Mk3 European Escort, with a 1.6litre CVH engine and later, as the XR3i, fuel injection. In terms of presentation and impact, this was one of the best of the bunch, even if ride and handling were somewhat compromised. However, it was a successful car, both in terms of sales and in adding some pizzazz to the Escort, and deserves a spot in the history of hot hatches and fast Fords. I must say, though, I can’t remember Ayrton Senna advertising them in Europe!
In 1981, Ford finally let the 3.0 litre Essex V6 go to rest, and UK market cars used the fuel-injected Cologne 2.8 litre, now hooked to a five-speed transmission, in its place. From 1984, the Capri was sold in the UK only (though British production had ended in 1976), and the range was trimmed back to just two specifications: the Laser, in 1.6 and 2.0 forms, and the 2.8 Injection Special, which featured a limited-slip differential and partial leather seating.
This car was also the basis for a sequence of special models with an increasing emphasis on distinctive equipment, along with some mechanical changes, culminating in the Capri Tickford Turbo, with 205 horsepower (forty-five more than the regular 2.8) and a price tag twice that of the 2.8 Injection. I’ll let you decide if you’d prefer a 1969 3.0 litre V6.
In 1983, to add to the Escort XR3i and the Fiesta XR2i, Ford offered the Sierra XR4i, (also the basis for the Merkur XR4Ti). This was the final signal that the Capri was due to be retired, and it was finally put out of production in 1986, after seventeen years. Ford would have preferred to discontinue the model two to three years earlier, but the continued popularity of the 2.8 Injection kept the car popular in the UK a little while longer. The final send off for Ford’s European coupe was the Capri 280, which was painted in Brooklands green and featured fifteen inch alloys and a full-leather interior. Turbo models, converted by Technics, were also sold in limited numbers and featured a healthy 200 horsepower, but unlike the Tickford models, were only regarded by Ford as semi-official.
Ford have tried to recreate the Capri magic, although seemingly without putting their heart into it, as was clearly the case in 1969. In 1994, Europe was offered the second generation Ford Probe and in 1998, the Mondeo/Contour/Mystique-based Cougar was offered. Ford sold 12,000 in 2 years in the UK, and didn’t replace the car when production ceased in 2002. Europe also got the Puma, based on the 1996 Fiesta, from 1997 to 2002.
Do you recognise that rear window shape?