Curbside Classic: 1992 Ford Capri Barchetta – Full Circle

(first posted 5/23/2017)     The saga that was the Ford/Mercury Capri has been told many times, from its extended gestation to its disastrous birth.  After it became clear that things were not going well, the range was rejigged and this Barchetta was one of the outcomes.  The “full circle” part of this piece’s title refers to the name of the concept car that initiated the Capri, the Barchetta which appeared at the Frankfurt motor show in 1983.  Read on to join the dots…

The Barchetta concept car was shown at the instigation of Bob Lutz who was then head of Ford of Europe and wanted to build a pure speedster-type sportscar.  The numbers did not add up though, but in 1984 compromise number one came when the concept was re-cast by Lutz and Ford Asia Pacific head Alex Trotman as a slightly larger, more useable 4-seat sports car to be developed by Ford Asia Pacific and Mazda with a major market being exports to the US.  Tellingly the man chosen to lead the project, Dave Fewchuck, was very sceptical about its prospects and was reluctant to take it on.

This is the 1986 convertible version of the second-generation fwd Mazda 323 Familia

The car had a rather tortured development, as design was contracted to Ital Design in Turin using the original Ghia exterior and existing Mazda 323 floorpan and mechanicals as starting points.  Setback two came when the US Ford division rejected the proposed car, however Edsel Ford thought it might help revive the lagging Lincoln-Mercury division and thus the program was approved in 1985.  Perhaps US readers might be able to comment on L-M dealer attitudes to selling a sports car, but I think it is safe to say that it wasn’t their forte?

Early version of the Ford Capri

The early days of development in Turin were marked by a culture clash between the animated designers from Ital Design and Ghia and the Japanese Mazda engineers who were shocked by heated arguments (or perhaps just animated discussions?) that took place in meetings.  Setback three came because the extended pre-program work meant the original 323 platform was going to be replaced before the car would reach production, so existing work had to be redone around the new platform.

Australian non-airbag interior

Setback four was even bigger when a late change in policy that meant the Capri would have to incorporate airbags to meet coming US crash regulations, whereas originally vehicles already under development could remain under the existing regulations.  Surely a short-sighted, penny-pinching approach and not one that would impress buyers!  This cost $70 million (of a total $328m cost) due to re-doing all of the crash testing that had already been completed, and crucially delayed the launch by a year.

You could almost call it a comedy of errors, although it seems that those involve in the project might not see it that way; for example the team that had to approve the suspension setup were fans of the way the Crown Victoria drove!  One thing that made it through to the final design was the convertible roof, which was supposed to be put into a channel around its lower edge in a process that really took two people to achieve properly, and was the main source of the infamous roof-leaking problems that were to plague the Capri.

A fifth major setback came with change in exchange rates between the US and Australian dollars as well as the Japanese Yen during the late 80s, which significantly increased costs and the subsequent sales price.

Through this time the Mazda MX-5 was also under development; being green-lit in 1983 and launched in February 1989.  With Mazda obviously heavily involved in the Capri project there was not only awareness between the two product teams but cooperation, because their vehicles were aimed at different audiences.  Plus of course Mazda would benefit from the extra volume from all the componentry incorporated in Capri.

The Capri was shown at the Chicago motor show of 1988 and had its Australian launch in April 1989 with two models; the base model with a 1.6L SOHC giving 61 kW/82 hp as well as a DOHC Turbo with 100 kW/134 hp and class-leading performance.  Both came with a 5-speed transmission, and a 4-speed auto was available only on the base model.  A former colleague had one of the early Turbo cars, connected to Ford’s sponsorship of the Australian Open tennis tournament, and was quite enthusiastic of its performance.

The car had a 2405 mm / 94.6” wheelbase and was 4219 mm / 166” long – almost a foot more than the MX-5.  Weight was 1043 kg / 2300 lb, or 53 kg / 117 lb more than the MX-5, with the Turbo adding another 49 kg / 108 lb.

The Capri cost AUD$23,317, or $27,407 for the Turbo.  This compared with the Nissan EXA (Pulsar NX in North America) at AUD$26,995 or the MX-5 at $29,995.  The AUD-USD exchange rate of the day (approx US$0.77:$1AUD) does not explain the much lower price of USD$12,588 and $15,522 for the XR2, as the turbo model was known as in the US; despite shipping costs the Capri was much cheaper in the US.

Early production in the converted heavy truck Plant 2 at Broadmeadows had poor quality, and were subject to intense media scrutiny with one TV program (ABC’s “The Investigators”) showing the leaks that occurred when the car was taken through an automatic car wash.  I’m not sure the Italian designers had allowed for that!  Exports to the USA started in November for the 1990 model year by which time the initial bugs would theoretically be worked out.

Victorian Premier John Cain driving the first export Capri onto the ship, alongside Jac Nasser

A redesigned soft top was quickly developed, but was still not perfect.  In 1992 the car was facelifted (SC model) with new XR2 and XR2 Turbo names and painted bumpers – a good move as I am not sure that many buyers would have connected the grey plastic adorning the early cars with the original Barchetta show car from 1983.

Soon after there were 200 limited edition Clubsprints built, based on the Turbo with restyled front and rear bumpers incorporating round lamps, 16” alloys, Momo steering wheel, blue leather seats and a humped “capote” cover over the rear seats similar to the old 1962 Thunderbird Sports Roadster.  Performance improvements included a modified suspension setup and the low-profile Michelin tyres.  The Clubsprint returned with the next facelift, but without the leather seats.

Our featured Barchetta was introduced to lower the cost of entry to the Capri range, doing without such niceties as alloy wheels but with a typical early-nineties graphic on the sides to add some pizzazz.  But only 1034 Capris were sold in Australia in 1992, and only 9000 were sent to the USA.

There was final SE facelift in 1993; still no sheetmetal change, but new tail lights at least!  A 1994 model year car was launched in the USA with dual airbags (before any locally-sold cars had this).  According to Jac Nasser in 1992, due to the extra development costs it would “almost have to run its full cycle (ie to 1996) to break even”.  Mind you at that time Ford was still talking up the likelihood of a second generation car, but sales continued to deteriorate and production ceased in 1994 after 66,382 Capris had been built.  Of these, 55,808 were sent to the US, 9,787 were sold in Australia as well as 440 exports to New Zealand and a further 120 cars sent to Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand.  Both the first and last car off the production line remain with Ford.

In summary it would seem that Dave Fewchuck’s initial scepticism as to the merits of the project he was asked to lead were well-founded.  Given the strong reaction in Europe to the original concept car perhaps it might have resonated in global markets had it been introduced before the emergence of competitive Japanese models (CR-X, MR-2 and MX-5); it wasn’t the first car that missed its window of opportunity, and no doubt it won’t be the last.  Unfortunately it represented a loss, including Ford Australia’s reputation both with the public and Ford in Dearborn.


Further Reading:

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

Curbside Classic: 1991 Mercury Capri – Birds Of A Feather