COAL – 1976 Mercury Capri II – The Sexy European

My Capri II is another car I picked up for $400.00,  which is the approximate price point of several memorable cars in my past, and for the use I got out of it, it was money well spent. The picture above is the sole photo I have of the car, and that’s me on the hood. From my clothes and hair, you might guess it was taken in the mid-1990s.

After selling my Accord, I had been living in San Francisco for a while without a car. Between scarce parking and heavy traffic, SF is not an easy city to own a car in, and I’d been getting by renting a car whenever I needed – on one vacation my girlfriend and I spent a memorable week traveling to Las Vegas, Death Valley, and Yosemite in an unmemorable rental Pontiac Grand Am. I’ve always had an eye for interesting cars, and when I came across a 1976 Capri II with a 2.8 V6 and a 4-speed (the top powertrain combo) with a for sale sign in the window, I was lured back into car ownership.

It was owned by a mechanic at a Ford dealer (the long-gone S&C Ford on Market street), and he’d picked up a new car and was selling his old one. It seemed in decent shape, with just a few rust spots on the hatch — the owner’s manual was still in the glovebox, and showed it had been sold new in San Francisco and had likely lived there all its life, and the car was free from the body rot typical of cars that had lived in harsher climates. After test driving it and giving it a close going over, I decided to buy it – talking the $450.00 asking price down to $400.00.

I was at least partially motivated by the inclusion of the V6 Capri in Road & Track’s 10 Best Enthusiast Fars for Under $5000.00. I had read that article when it came out, and had already had experience with two of the other cars on the list — I had earlier owned a 1978 Celica, and had fond memories of a Datsun 510 owned by my family.

Capris were built in both England and Germany and sold as a Ford in Europe but as a Mercury in the US through Lincoln-Mercury dealers. While my car said Mercury on the title I don’t think it had a single Mercury badge on it. The Capri II was a restyle that came out in 1975. The stamped vents and contour line on the side from the first generation were missing, and the car had grown by a few inches in each dimension. The Capri II was available with either the 2.3-liter inline-four or a 2.8 liter V-6. While these powertrain options were similar to what was available in the contemporaneous Mustang II, the lighter Capri made better use of them. Opting for a V6 on a Capri II gave one upgraded suspension, wider tires, and a true dual exhaust (exiting through dual catalytic converters) which was very unusual in this era. And whereas the first-generation Capri had a trunk, the Capri II was a hatchback.

Standard, “Decor”, Ghia, and “S” trims were available. Mine was a V6 in standard trim, in white with caramel-colored vinyl upholstery and a folding rear seat where the rear seatback folded down as one piece. The Ghia and Decor packages offered upgraded interiors and a split folding back seat so either the left or right seatback could be folded separately.

The Base Capri II still came with an impressive complement of equipment.

The top-of-the-line S edition, advertised as “Le Cat Black” came in black, with the trim a mix of blacked out and gold – reminiscent of the John Player Special team cars of the time.

As a car-mad kid growing up in the 1970s, I was aware of the John Player Special racing team, but it wasn’t until visiting England later in life that I realized John Player was a cigarette company, and the black and gold livery was lifted from one of their cigarette packs. It was even later that I realized UOP and Elf were both oil companies.

The Capri was a fun car to drive. The V6 was more than adequate to move the car and produced a nice growl. The 4-speed had long throws but shifted very positively, and it was very satisfying to work the car through the gears. It handled nicely, and the ride was firm but comfortable. The overall driving experience seemed a mixture of opposites — a bit like a scaled-down V8 American pony car, a bit of European coupe.

The interior wasn’t cavernous, but definitely comfortable for two and the back seat was usable with a third or fourth passenger. The hatchback was convenient and I recall hauling a large armchair home from a garage sale at one point. Both front seats were a bit worn and ripped, and the previous owner had swapped the driver and passenger seats to give the driver a less disheveled perch. This meant that the levers to lean each seat forward were on the inside of the seat backs rather than on the outside. It made it difficult for a back seat passenger to get in or out unless they knew the drill to reach to the inner edge of the seat to get in or out of the back seat, and it was often easier for me to just reach over and hit the lever to fold the seat forward.

The seatback releases (black rectangles above) were on the inside of the seatbacks on my Capri

Like many Fords of the era, the horn was on the tip of the lever that also operated the turn signals and high beams. I recall Ford Fairmonts & Fox-body Mustangs from the late 70s to early 80s also having this setup.

The windshield washer pump was foot-operated and located on the floorboard, in about the same spot where older American cars put the high beam switch. I wonder how often a new Capri driver tried to turn on their high beams and ended up with a squirt of washer fluid on their windshield.

I also remember feeling vaguely insulted when a friend mistook it for a Pinto.

After owning it for a while, the steering started developing a lot of play, and examining the car, it was evident the rag joint in the steering shaft was disintegrating. It was a fairly simple repair, but I couldn’t find a new rag joint at any of the auto part stores I contacted. After quite a bit of searching, I finally located a wrecked Capri II in a junkyard and pulled the entire steering shaft with a fairly intact rag joint from the car. I recall there being another car balanced atop the Capri in the wrecking yard, but thankfully I was able to get into the engine compartment of the Capri and pull my part without any disaster. Wrecking yards seemed a lot more haphazard then, and the pick-your-part format with cars parked in neat rows was not yet prevalent, at least around San Francisco. A quick web search leads me to believe this part is still hard to find, though I did locate a specialist who sells a urethane upgrade, as well as a discussion in an online board about adapting a rag joint repair kit from another car to a Capri.

An aftermarket steering coupler for a Capri — a part I was unable to find in the 1990s.

The disintegrating rag joint was not long after followed by disintegrating steering rack mounts, and locating parts was again a headache. It took visits to numerous auto parts stores and having the wrong parts ordered more than once before I was able to find a parts person who could even locate the correct parts to order. This was before computers were widespread in retail establishments, and the counterperson would typically flip through an immense rack of catalogs to find the part to order.

Sometime later, the car wouldn’t start in a parking lot. I was able to get a jump and get it home, and I swapped in a new battery, assuming that was the issue, but it continued to have periodic hard starts or no starts. It was time to do some diagnosis, and after digging out my multimeter and confirming that the battery was holding a charge and the alternator was charging it, I decided to pull the starter and have it tested – after lengthy parts searches on my last two repairs, I’d confirmed that I could, in fact, order a rebuilt starter for my car from a local parts store — perhaps the use of the 2.8 motor in the Mustang II made engine parts easier to find. At the time, I didn’t have a garage and did all my repairs on the street. I unhooked the battery, and being in my 20s and fairly limber, I slithered under the car without jacking it to pull the starter. Unbolting the starter cable, the problem became evident – the terminal where the battery cable attached to the starter was green and fuzzy with corrosion. With my pocket knife and some sandpaper, I cleaned up the terminal, getting it back to bright metal, and gave the stud on the starter where the cable mounted a good cleaning as well. After reconnecting everything, the starting problems were resolved. It’s always gratifying when a nagging problem has a simple solution, though at the time I wish I’d caught it before I had sprung for a battery. I’ve since had other instances where hard starting was traceable to a bad battery cable and if I were doing this repair today, I’d probably replace the battery to starter cable out of an abundance of caution.

Even after the rag joints and rack bushings, the front end was starting to get loose, and was probably due for a rebuild. I was enjoying owning a car again, especially for taking trips out of town, and after some thought, I decided to look for another car rather than sink money into the Capri. My frequent difficulty finding parts was a big contributing factor – I had visions of breakdowns out of town, and this was not the type of car for which a fuel pump or alternator would likely be in stock at a chain auto parts store on a Sunday afternoon. In the pre-internet era, it seemed the case that old or unusual cars that weren’t worth much would often be junked or parked for good simply because a part couldn’t be located. Another issue was that street parking in San Francisco required moving the car on a regular basis – often every few days, so any repair that kept the car from being drivable for more than a day or so risked a parking ticket at best and a tow at worst. I felt like I should unload the car while it was still running fairly well, so I took out an ad in a weekly classified paper and sold it to another young guy for the same $400 price I’d purchased it for, and started my search for another car.