COAL: 1974 Ford (Mercury) Capri – Never Mind the Bumpers!


In our last episode I had bid adieu to my Simca 1204 and headed for an extended stay in ‘Yurrop’, as the thrice great Henry Manney of R&T fame liked to call it.  My stay there lasted for several months trailing into years and included stints in Torino, homeland of FIAT and Lancia, and Milano, home of Alfa Romeo.  Sadly lack of funds precluded the purchase of even the most forlorn of these as it seemed I’d taken an unintentional vow of poverty without reading the fine print.  Consequently, my chief mode of transportation was public, which actually works fine in Italy as the system is robust with tentacles reaching anywhere (almost) that you would consciously choose to go.

Notwithstanding my penury, for any tifoso Italy is still the promised land, it goes without saying. If I couldn’t drive the bloody red cars, as the Brits dubbed them, I could certainly look at them.  I visited the FIAT and Lancia works, Alfa headquarters, the track at Monza, and the National Auto Museum in Torino. I was on hand at the main FIAT showroom in central Torino when the X-1/9 was unveiled.  I wept at the sight of a Lamborghini Miura parked on a side street in Moncalieri that looked like it had been painted with a mop. I gained a great appreciation for Italian engineering and Italian style. And all of that was only a subset of the language and culture of my adopted homeland.  I became a lifelong Italophile.

The reasons for this Italian sojourn are beyond the scope of this Curbside Classic, but to some extent it was fueled by the fact that my brother, he of Impala SS, Pontiac GTO, and speeding tickets fame, was shipped off to Vietnam by the US Army, never to return.  Subsequently, by 1972, three of his four surviving siblings were living in Europe for complicated reasons, some rooted in politics, some in sorrow.  Nonetheless, by the summer of 1974 I was ready to return to the troubled shores of the USA.  The day I left Milano for the long journey home the morning paper announced Nixon’s resignation, a page marker of sorts, if not a panacea.

The morning paper: Nixon Is Fired!

I returned to a United States that seemed much changed, although it’s likely I was the one who had changed.  I gathered up the pieces of my life, enrolling in college, along with my boatload of Italian credits.  One thing I lacked was transportation.  Dad had traded in the Simca on a Dodge pickup with a camper shell mounted on the back:  that certainly wasn’t going to be the solution.  My savings were sparse, but Dad came to my rescue, offering to chip in on some serviceable transportation.  Now my father didn’t like used cars–they were nothing but someone else’s long list of trouble so far as he was concerned.  If used cars are stricken from the list, that left only one choice.  Dad gave me a budget and I started a search.  At that time the only automobile dealer in town that carried foreign cars was the local VW establishment, if you didn’t count the captive imports of the time.  The homegrown purveyors did present a few choices:  the Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth boys had assorted suspect Mitsubishis but any Simcas had long disappeared from the lot.  But wait!  Ford (or Lincoln Mercury, if you want to get technical) had the German-built Capri . . . and Italian-built DeTomaso, but Dad wasn’t going to spring for something that went for the price of three Buicks.  Speaking of Buick, they had the Opel Manta.  So, after a delusory look at a forbidden used Triumph TR6, the choice seemed to be between the Capri and the Opel.  I loved the styling (and still do) of that vintage Manta, but the build quality seemed a little suspect.  Plus, the Capri could be had with a V-6 . . . moar power!  And the interior really was a cut above the competition.  My one reservation was that no one in the US seemed to know how to pronounce ‘Capri’.  In Italian, the emphasis is on the first syllable.  This caused no end of irritation, but eventually I gave up trying to correct my well-intentioned friends.


The one that got away.


After the usual desultory negotiations (‘what can we do to get you in this car today?’) we arrived at an acceptable figure and the deal was done.  Delivered into my hands was one dark brown ’74 V-6 4-speed manual with tan interior; a cassette tape deck was the only option.


The Capri proved to be a pretty good car, at least given the state of the automotive art in the mid-seventies.  The Cologne V-6, which oddly enough would reappear in the family Ford Aerostar a couple of decades later, was a solid if not exactly inspiring performer that returned 119 horsepower and fuel economy sometimes in thirties.  The Capri was certainly stylish, although its new for 1974 five-mile-per hour bumpers didn’t do the basic shape any favors.  The styling obviously was cribbed from the premise of the original Mustang, but it seemed more successful in my eyes than the recently introduced Mustang II, about which the less said, the better.  The subsequent ’76 Capri, on the other hand, was a looker, but short-lived in the US for reasons understood only by the corporate wonks at Ford.

R&T’s ringing endorsement.

So, what was the owner experience like?  Well, the little Ford (Mercury) handily survived its first Wasatch Front winter.  It was, to be honest, crap in the snow, especially after the front wheel drive Simca, but fwd was still scarce in those days so it was essentially on par with everything else.  Once the snow melted and ski season was over the Capri was faced with its first real test:  two friends and I had come up with the wild idea for a Road Trip in lieu of Spring Quarter.  We even had sanction from the University, who in those less-structured and simpler times often let us do whatever the hell we wanted as long as we turned in a paper at the end of the term.  Our proposal was to do a circuit of the continental USA, checking out historical and literary sites along the way, and in doing so provide grist for academic mill.  Eventually, we did write up the results of our escapades and somehow received credit, although the details remain murky to this day.

The Capri was our vehicle of choice as out of three possibilities it seemed the one most likely to survive the trip; plus, it wasn’t a pickup truck.  Given its dimensions, we were packed pretty tight for a trip of three plus months, but then we were accustomed to traveling light in those days.  We headed south to Arizona, turned left at Tucson, and trekked through Texas and the Deep South, spending time in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Mobile, Alabama, inside of which we were stuck with the Memphis Blues, again.  From there we spent time on the Florida beaches (more research) before heading up the East Coast with stops in South Carolina, Washington D.C, New York, and Cambridge, Mass (‘our fair city’), where we crashed in a friend’s Harvard dorm before continuing into the nether reaches of New England, arriving eventually in Canada, specifically in Montreal and Toronto.  In due course we made it back down into the lower forty-eight with stops in Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, taking on the Midwest and then back to the Rockies, looming in the distance.

Our Capri swallowed the miles without complaint, although a troublesome shimmy developed in the front end that stops to a couple of Ford dealers failed to address (‘they all do that’).  The upholstery on the backs of the rear seats cracked in the Florida sun and was replaced under warranty.  The only other issue occurred when the car appeared to completely disappear one morning on the first of April, but that proved to be only a misguided prank on the part of my buddies.  (Travel tip:  do not inform your friend that his car has been stolen 2500 miles from home and expect laughter.)

One other development came during a stop in Maryland where I caught up with a certain young woman I’d met in Trieste the year before.  One thing led to another, we came to an understanding, and then an engagement, a fact ultimately not alluded to in my official term paper.

Which leads us to the next Capri road trip, which ended in a wedding sometime later that same year.  I posted a note on the travel bulletin board in the Student Union:  “Wanted, passengers, preferably with drivers license in hand and no criminal charges pending, for a trip to the Mid Atlantic region.  Please leave drugs at home.”

A response was soon forthcoming, some bloke and his girlfriend both with valid drivers licenses, an important item due to the fact that I was planning on driving straight through to Maryland.  In theory, they also weren’t carrying drugs, although that fact remains somewhat hazy.  They showed up at the indicated time and place and we were off to the races, or at least the East Coast.  One fact the couple conveniently neglected to mention was that girl couldn’t drive a stick.  Ostensibly, that removed one driver from the equation, but they both laughed and insisted that she was perfectly willing to learn–how hard could it be?  The answer came somewhere in a Denny’s parking lot in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the Capri faced the most difficult trial of its short life, as her clutch came very close to complete disintegration.  The girl (and I!) ended up in tears as the boyfriend, much to my chagrin, berated her for her complete inability to make a simple standing start.  She never did get the hang of it, so we were down to to two bleary-eyed drivers for the 36 hour drive.  I sincerely hope that said girl dumped that jerk, but I never heard from either of them again so I couldn’t say.

The return trip back West was much more memorable, with only two newlyweds aboard.  Happily, the bride in question had awesome clutch skills as she had grown up on a steady diet of VW Beetles and Microbuses.  The little Capri remained in our care for another couple of years (including a trip to the inaugural Long Beach Formula One Grand Prix in 1976), at which point its liabilities came into focus.  We needed more room as the family began to grow and so, notwithstanding my Dad’s conventional wisdom, I found a low miles Saab 99 that seemed to meet our every requirement, although I don’t remember exactly what those were.  Certainly, it was a hundred percent better in the snow and it had seat heaters, a feature that seemed heaven-sent when the temps dropped below zero, plus the rear seat folded down and you could haul a cubic ton of stuff.  And on a side note, Henry Manney had given the 99 his blessing usually reserved for big  Citroën Basking Sharks and the like.  And so, we sold the Capri to some kid down the road and settled into Swedish bliss.

The addendum to this tale is that some months later we passed the home of the new owner of the Capri . . . and there she was, resting in the drive, her front end pretty much pushed into the firewall, completely destroyed.  Sometimes it’s best not to know the fate of your treasured memories.