Curbside Classic: 1989-94 Ford/Mercury Capri – Unfashionably Late

(first posted 3/30/2017)     Building and exporting a compact convertible was quite a challenge for Ford Australia. They had built small, front-wheel-drive models before but never droptops. The Capri was to establish an Australian export program and fly the flag for the Australian automotive industry, the first Aussie car exported in any real numbers to North America.

Exports to the US were always the linchpin of the Capri program, codenamed SA30 in development. Any Australian sales volume was going to be small as, despite our generally sunny climate, convertibles have never been hugely popular here.

The Capri was initially planned for export to North America and Europe. European exports never eventuated but the Capri’s sale through North American Lincoln-Mercury dealerships went ahead as planned. There, the Capri was sold alongside the mechanically-related, Mexican-built Tracer. Both vehicles were derived from the 1985 Mazda 323 platform which meant that by the time the Capri was launched, its Mazda platform-mate was being replaced.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, niche vehicle lover Bob Lutz played a part in the Capri’s development. The Ghia Barchetta concept of 1983 was his brainchild and he lobbied hard for it to be produced using Fiesta mechanicals. Alas, he was overruled by executives who didn’t see a market for the car. The idea and design were put on the shelf, only to be dusted off for the Capri. Had the Capri launched when Bob Lutz wanted it to be, the car’s story might have been very different.

Unfortunately, timing would prove to be the Capri’s worst enemy. The car was in danger of being cancelled during development by CEO Donald Petersen due to persistent quality issues, and its launch was delayed by a year to iron these out and to fit a driver’s side airbag. This meant the Capri started hitting showrooms just as the Mazda Miata/MX-5 did. Although the Mazda also used some 323 components, it was a purer sports car with excellent handling courtesy of a rear-wheel-drive platform.

The delayed launch of the Capri also meant the car looked just a tad dated by the time it reached showrooms. Its styling was a more conservative interpretation of the 1983 Ghia Barchetta concept. In a showroom in 1984, the Capri would have looked radical. But it was launched in 1989, where its angular lines subscribed more to the 1980s origami design school instead of the new, 1990s organic style evinced by the Miata.

Although the MX-5’s launch overshadowed the Capri’s, that’s not to say the Capri was a bad steer. The 323 platform was a good set of bones to work from and the Capri handled well. But the Miata handled better and although it was a two-seater, the Capri’s rear seats were pretty rubbish and hardly a selling point.

The Capri launched with a choice of two Mazda engines: a single overhead cam, naturally-aspirated 1.6 four with 82 hp with either a five-speed manual or three-speed (later four) automatic, and a Miata-beating, turbocharged 1.6 four (132 hp, 136 ft-lbs) offered only with the five-speed stick. The SOHC NA four was quickly replaced with a twin-cam mill boasting 100 hp and 95 ft-lbs; it was this engine that opened the North American Capri range.

In Australia, the Capri undercut the MX-5 by a few thousand dollars. In the US, that wasn’t the case. In Australia, the Capri was one of the few inexpensive convertibles on sale, facing competition only from the dated and pricier VW Cabriolet. In the US, there was no shortage of inexpensive droptops, from fun little runabouts like the Geo Metro to larger fare like the Chrysler LeBaron and Ford Mustang.

Although competition was fierce in the US and the Capri was hardly the kind of car shoppers would expect to find in a Lincoln-Mercury showroom, it at least appeared to be poised for success in Australia. Alas, timing conspired against the Capri once again and it reached showrooms just before a recession hit. Early issues with leaking roofs, although quickly rectified, scared some buyers away. Still, the Capri’s lower price tag meant it outsold the MX-5 most years by more than 2-to-1.

1992-94 Aussie-market Clubsprint

Coupes and convertibles tend to be more impacted by changing tastes and fashions. Capri sales peaked in Australia in its second year of production, with 4,413 sold in 1990. Sales then plummeted to 1,643 in 1991, where they remained relatively steady for the rest of the car’s run. It was a similar story in the US market, sales peaking in 1990 and then plummeting shortly thereafter despite an attractive facelift. In the US, it was the Mazda that outsold the Ford by around 2-to-1. The Capri never reached its projected 35,000-unit annual target and a resurgent Aussie dollar hampered profitability.

Memories from my childhood: a Capri on the cover of the 1994 “Refidex”

In Australia, where affordable droptops were less common, the Capri enjoys a loyal following today. It seems as though enthusiasts flock to used MX-5s, while Capris are kept by folk who like the way it looks and just want a nice droptop runabout.

Ultimately, the Capri was a victim of bad timing. It reused a concept car design from 6 years prior to its launch and arrived just as Mazda was revolutionizing the compact convertible market. From a North American perspective, it offered neither the practicality of a Cavalier convertible, the ultimate dynamic ability and style of a Miata, nor the low, low price of a Geo Metro convertible. To make matters worse, it launched with some well-publicized build quality issues. That the car was modestly successful in Australia means little—the car’s success hinged on the US market and it flopped. It’s a pity it took Ford Australia’s North American export program down with it.

Related Reading:

Automotive History: 1989 Mazda MX-5 Miata – Simple Pleasures

Curbside Classic: 1990 Mazda MX-5 Miata – Nothing Complicated; But Done Properly

Curbside Classic: 1989 Buick Reatta – A Pudding With No Theme