Curbside Classic: 1971 – 1978 Capri – Ponycar Reborn

(first posted 8/4/2011)  Lots of ink has been spilled in lament of the Mustang’s “lost decade” that stretched from circa 1970 to 1979, when a new Fox platform revived a nameplate that Ford had done its best to kill during the malaise era. The bloated, cartoonish ’73 had given way to a gussied up Pinto that couldn’t get out of its own way and rusted like a tin roof in Texas. Buyers were cruelly disappointed when they got their “Cobra” Mustang II home from the dealer and found that its de-tuned, de-smogged, no-NOX engine wasn’t much faster than the lo-po straight six of a few years earlier. Some buyers felt swindled and got out of the FoMoCo ponycar habit for good. Some went over to the dark side and just grabbed a Camaro from their friendly Chevy retailer. But the smart ones stayed in the family and found a revival of the original package that they hankered for right next door- At the “Sign Of The Cat”.

When Ford started to abandon the original concept and essence of the original Mustang in the latter part of the 60’s, sales started a slow, lazy decline that set off alarm bells in Ford HQ.  The sales race with GM meant that any downsizing or de-emphasizing of performance could be fatal to what was then a still fairly new brand.  There seemed to be a market for smaller, lighter, more practical cars that lived the sporting life, but would appeal to a more nuanced buyer than the rip snorting Cobra Jet Boss Mustang.  Fortunately for Ford, that car already existed, was being built in Ford factories and was even conceived as the Euro-Mustang.  It was called Capri.

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The Ford Capri had been on the market in Europe for about a year when it got its marching orders for the states.  The federal spec Capris would be built at the Ford plant in Cologne, (West) Germany, but would be sold on this side of the pond at Mercury dealers.  This was a good idea as Ford showrooms were already pretty full with Pintos, Mavericks, Mustangs, Torinos and LTDs.  But at this time (1970) there was as yet no sub compact for L-M dealers to sell. Wilkommen Capri.

It was a lot easier for car makers to tap their overseas operations for a gap-plugger in those days.  Of course their captive imports would have to meet federal regulations for emissions, lighting, side marker lamps, seatbelts and the like, but the gap between there and here wasn’t nearly as wide as today.  It was a fairly easy affair for the “Sexy European” to qualify for sale in the U.S.  And Ford put the Capri on sale April 17, 1970 – exactly 6 years to the day that the original Mustang exploded on the scene.

The Capri had the same letters patent as the Mustang when conceived in the mid ’60s.  It had to be sporty, adaptable, and appeal to a youth market deemed essential to success.  The one variable that was applied to the Capri that didn’t affect the Mustang, however, was fuel economy.  European policies that placed steep taxes on petrol meant that this new concept had to be salable in markets where gasoline was threatening the equivalent of $2 a gallon.  (In D Marks, Francs and Guilders of course – There was no euro in those days).  This stricture meant that the Capri would never see half a dozen V-8s on the options list and wasn’t programmed to add weight and bulk to keep up with the competition.

The running gear installed in the Capri was, like its American cousin, sourced from a humble family sedan that made the economics of the whole project compelling.  The Cortina was in itself a very good car (which found its way to the U.S.  in limited numbers in the late ’60s) and like the donor car for the Mustang (the Falcon), engines, transmissions and rear ends were plug and play.  It was one of the rare moments in automobile history that the accountants, marketers and customers were all happy at the same time.

 Initially, you could have a US-market Capri with any engine you wanted – as long as you wanted a 1600cc four cylinder made in Ford’s Kent County, U.K. Plant. The little 1.6 was tough and relatively durable, but was stretched mighty thin to be sold as “sporty”.  It lasted through the first season before Ford wisely installed the 2.0L SOHC engine that gave the Capri performance that matched its looks.  Not happy with better gitty- up, Ford added a 2.6 V-6 in ’72 for even more scoot.  Obviously, this strategy was working.  Every engine upgrade resulted in a sales bump and by the spring of 1974, the Capri was the second best selling import behind the Beetle, having pushed the Corolla aside (temporarily).  The Mustang had sired a thoroughbred.

(Note: European market Capris were built with a wide range of engines. The continental model, built in Germany, had 1.3, 1.5 and 1.7 L V4s available, as well as a number of sizes of the Cologne V6. UK market Capris came with   1.3 and 1.6L Kent fours, the 2 L Essex V4, and the 3 L Essex V6, all in numerous level of performance)

Even while throwing the sporting crowd ever meatier bones, one thing that was not lost in the Capri’s mandate was the “secretary’s car” setup that had been completely lost with the Mustang.  Until its last days, the Capri retained a low dollar, entry level model with four cylinders and four speeds for the young driver that wanted an economical sporty car.

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All of the styling cues that had made the Mustang a smash were present on the Capri.  Long hood / short deck?  Got it.  Side strakes?  Check.  Body scallops?  No extra charge. The Capri was a rare case of a copy being equal, but pleasingly different than the original.

One more engine upgrade (to 2.8 L) marked the end of the “Mark I” Capri years in 1975.  By March of that year, young car watchers (like the author) were astonished that Mercury was advertising a 1976 model many months before the normal new model announcement was due.  It was the “Mark II” that the cougar was growling about on the L-M sign in the ads.

In many ways it was a case of saving the best for last.  The 2.8 V6 returned and the standard issue 4 pot got a bump to 2.3 Litres, which made it something of a bargain in the performance department.  The styling was a pleasant update of the original, with more nuanced curves, expanded color options and a much more handy hatchback. Mercury had the world by the cat’s tail. Or so it seemed.

Almost as quickly as it rose, the Capri’s star fell due to the malarial fever/chills U.S economy in its latter years.  The sinking value of the dollar sank in the late 70s made Capris (and other euro buggies) money losers when they were built for expensive marks and sold for cheap dollars.  The price of a ’76 had now climbed above $4500 with a V6, an almost 50% increase over the previous three years.

There was nothing really wrong with the car itself, but the economics of the “captive imports” were becoming impossible and the Capri was sent packing back to the fatherland, where it was built until 1986.  Over half a million were retailed in the U.S. during its run here, but finding a prime example these days is tough.  Rust, the suspect in a lot of old car deaths, is common on this one.  Add that to the usual reluctance of dealers to support a discontinued “captive” and the attrition rate is steep.  Finding a clean Mark I takes patience, but the Mark II has better rustproofing (and aftermarket rustproofers like Ziebart were becoming more popular in these years), so that’s the one to have.

Hard times were ahead for buyers of small cars in those years.  The cheap dollar meant that the subcompacts on the showroom floors of the Big Three would be American built for the foreseeable future, and that future looked grim. The Capri was supplanted in L-M’s subcompact slot by the Mercury Bobcat.  This little pain machine had all of the limitations of the Pinto on which it was so obviously based, but the buyer paid about 15 percent more to boot.  The ridiculous little “Mercurized” grille was just an added insult.  I happily drove a Capri Mk 1 during my first year of college, but alas, it had been abused and became a money pit that I was powerless to fill.  When I (reluctantly) disposed of the Capri, I fell for another Ford Werke product that is among my all time favorite cars–the 1978 Ford Fiesta. That’s a story for another CC.