It took me until September, but I finally scheduled time off from work for the first time this entire year. One could say that I finally had an “Aha!” moment and realized that I’d much rather take some vacation days while the weather is still warm and nice, versus taking them all after temperatures have fallen along with so many leaves, or even snowflakes. Why hadn’t I thought of this before, and what took me so long to execute this plan? I enjoy my career in the insurance and financial field well enough, but I don’t do it for fun even if it may seem that way sometimes.
The catch is that while I had assumed (or hoped) that the week following Labor Day Monday here in Chicago would be filled with warm, sunny, lazy days of spending time outdoors by Lake Michigan and doing nothing in particular, almost as if on cue, the high temperatures plunged something like ten degrees and it was overcast the entire time. There was even heavy rainfall that Tuesday. I normally don’t remove my air conditioner from the window until the beginning of October, but given that the forecast called for more of the same over the next couple of weeks, I took it out and stored it after thoroughly scrubbing and cleaning my place from top to bottom. That’s right. I used almost an entire vacation day to perform household chores.
I had mentioned in one of my recent essays about a 1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo how the current pandemic has impacted my shopping and spending habits. With many of my former leisure activities remaining curtailed, along with voluntary abstinence from alcohol (for close to seven months at this writing), it has been not all that difficult to amass a little pile of extra spending money over the course of everybody’s favorite year, 2020. I have really wanted to travel abroad again since a November 2017 trip to Italy captured my imagination. After not having even been back to my hometown of Flint, Michigan all year (which still probably won’t happen at all until 2021, at the earliest), I’ve been itching to travel anywhere.
I’ve also wanted to buy a car. I think I have pretty good impulse control. Being an insurance underwriter by trade, being deliberative in my thought process has always seemed innate to my personality and partially to credit for my career success. It’s also true that I “underwrite” or assess the pluses and minuses of pretty much everything. Owning a classic car, though, would be as much an emotional experience for me as factual, numerical, or logical one. I was faced with a choice of three things as I reviewed my current financial situation: continue to save money (which would be wise in any economy), start planning for future travel, or buy a car. My idea with the last option was that not only could I potentially do so immediately, but I could also use said car to travel in the future. Done.
I’ve learned more about the experience of shopping for a car online here at Curbside than anywhere else. If Aaron65 was brave enough to pull the trigger on the online purchase of his beautiful, ’74 Pontiac Firebird Esprit and have almost nothing but positive things to say about the experience, why couldn’t I do the same? A funny thing happened while under quarantine this year, with regard to the garage situation here at my condo building. I had been stuck in the number three spot at the top of the underground parking list where I live for most of this year. It had taken me only a decade to get that far, and then all momentum seemed to be lost. It was like being a song stuck on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at number three “with a bullet” behind two songs whose popularity showed no signs of slowing down.
Then, within the span of just one week, I bolted to Number One. I was trudging down to the common laundry room in my flannels one morning, when the parking list on the bulletin board opposite the door caught my eye… I was now eligible to lease underground parking! I dropped my loaded clothing hamper on my right foot out of unbelief, but it was true. At this part of my telling of this story, I realize that I’m veering into minutiae, so I’ll get to the point.
After scrolling online through advertisements for affordable vintage cars that had been in the top-five of my all-time want list, I found a classics dealer in the northwest Chicago suburbs that is an outpost of a larger, nationwide network that was offering up a 1971 Ford Capri, which was the first year this celebrated “European Mustang” was imported to the United States. Being introduced to the U.S. in the middle of 1970 as a ’71 model, the Capri managed over 17,000 sales during its first, full calendar year. Sales of this import would double for ’72, and by 1973, the Capri was the third-biggest selling import in the United States, after the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle, with over 113,000 sold. Mine was a two-owner, U.S.-spec car that had belonged to an English expatriate who had the car fitted with the front fascia and badging of a first-year, Euro-spec ’69 1600 GT XLR.
After some research, an afternoon of phone calls with trusted gearhead friends, and an exchange of funds (a cash sale netted me a slightly lower selling price), this red Capri was mine. I had loved the Ford Capri (known simply as “Capri” in North America, having been sold by Lincoln-Mercury dealers as a captive import) since taking notice of them as cool cars on the secondhand market in the ’80s. Similar in size to a Mustang II but somehow much cooler, with their European heritage and near-universal image as a winner, these cars captured my imagination from a young age. What’s more is that the C-shaped rear side windows, a visual trademark of these cars, have always reminded me of the shape of my own head in profile. These cars were notorious rusters where I grew up in the Midwest, but when in good condition, they were very sharp to behold and reportedly quite fun to drive.
When I had traveled abroad to Europe as an elementary school-aged youngster, the Capri was one of cars I recognized from the States as a common sight on the roads of Paris, London and Bonn, Germany. As a teenager, I had even looked to purchase an orange ’76 Capri II equipped with the same, basic 2.3 liter, four-cylinder engine installed in the ’88 Mustang I would later own. That orange Capri was a four-speed, though, and I had not yet learned how to operate a manual transmission. The owner had also painted some hideous, homemade white graphics on it which made the car look like a cross between the Starsky & Hutch Gran Torino and a high-bouncing Superball. I passed on that car, even if it got the thumbs-up from our family mechanic, Ted at Autotech in downtown Flint.
As of just under two weeks ago, I am the proud owner of a red Capri fastback from the first year they were available in the United States. It has the 1,600 cc “Kent” four-cylinder engine with only 64 horsepower. Even with a curb weight (without me in the drivers’ seat) of just over one ton, this car is pretty slow. I don’t even think it would reach sixty miles per hour in under twenty seconds. I don’t think I’ll be taking it out on Lake Shore Drive and “opening it up” this year, as I’d like to admire my new toy in its current pristine state for just a while longer. This car is also smaller than I remember. I’m a hair under six feet tall, and even with the seat pushed way back, I still have to contort just a little bit to find a comfortable driving position.
I’m also just a bit freaked out by the little, round petrol… ahem, gas tank mounted behind the back seat, but I’m guessing that’s probably no less safe than what’s featured on other small cars of this era. I’m guessing these cars have little to no chance of survival in a major rear-end collision, anyway, so maybe it’s a good thing that I probably won’t be getting any speeding tickets in it.
When I was in college, I spent a lot of time at the library in the periodicals section. If I had spent half as much time on my psychology studies as I did leafing through old car magazines, I might be a practicing doctor and not writing this essay. That’s obviously hyperbole, but it’s also true that I gave those Xerox machines at the university a workout, copying many print ads of my favorite cars of the 1970s in sticky, black-and-white ink and putting them into plastic binders, many of which I still have.
Ads for the early Capri were plentiful, announcing its affordability as the first “sexy European” below a certain price point. (Numbers that stick out in my mind are $2,300 and $2,400.) I didn’t, and still don’t, think of the Capri as being sexy in a manner of speaking, but I think of my new car rather as having a certain mystique as an efficient, well-engineered, beautifully-styled runabout that was affordable to the masses in Europe in various states of tune and performance throughout the course of its eighteen year life overseas.
Before making my purchase, I watched four or five semi-current videos of Europeans from all walks of life singing the Capri’s praises, which gave me a sense of understanding just what a beloved car the Capri was for much of that continent. I had heard the comparison made before, but it wasn’t until after having watched those videos that it solidified in my mind that the Capri really was the European “Mustang”. It also put into perspective what Ford of North America may have been trying to replicate in terms of the Capri’s success abroad with our own Mustang II.
Getting back to my impulse control, I was wondering if I should have held out for a Capri II, with the added utility of its hatchback. Old habits are hard to break, and when I was a college student hauling my things to and from my parents’ house, a hatchback and fold-down rear seats were of paramount importance. Though I haven’t been doing that particular dance for over twenty years, a hatchback would have been nice for hauling bicycles or larger pieces of cargo. My Capri’s 8.2 cubic feet of trunk space isn’t a whole lot, though I suspect that when I take this car back to Michigan (very slowly, and carefully), some of my luggage may end up in the rear of the passenger compartment.
In the middle of my overcast staycation here in Chicago, I drove my Capri to nearby Foster Beach for a little photo shoot. I may not have gotten the extra, summer’s end sun that I had wanted to, but I patted myself on the back for having made it to the beach as planned, in any case. It has been something of a tumultuous year, given the pandemic and various other challenges.
The clouds, wind and waves of Lake Michigan seemed to echo that sentiment as I clicked away with my Canon by the waterside. As unsummerlike as the weather was on this Thursday morning, it was undeniable that it made for a dramatic backdrop. Summer may be abruptly over, but I now have this classic Capri to show for having adapted to this year’s set of unique circumstances, as well as my own self-discipline, as a sort of reward. I’ve kept my promises to myself, and it’s now time for my next chapter.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Thursday, September 10, 2020.
Print ads as sourced from the internet.
A somewhat similar piece of Curbside fiction: My New Peugeot 404 by PN.