Do you remember the compact but family capable coupé? Based on a regular family car, usually, but with the kind of styling that could go most of the way to satisfying those sports car urges many have, or being able to add a piece of glamour to the everyday. Maybe no more performance or better handling, almost certainly less practical and more expensive, but often the car best remembered by many. Mustang or Falcon? Renault 17 or Renault 12? Opel Manta or Ascona? Toyota Celica or Carina, or was it Corona? You get the drift.
For a Curbivore growing up in the UK in 1970s, there can be no better example than a Ford Capri. First launched in 1969, it was not Europe’s first interpretation of the formula, or even Ford’s, but it was perhaps the most successful, enduring and recognised.
Ford had a Capri before of course – from 1962 to 1964 Ford in Britain sold the Consul Capri, with a few exports as well. It was actually built, painted and trimmed by Pressed Steel Fisher, not then part of BMC, and then completed by Ford at Dagenham or Halewood. An expensive and very un-Ford way to produce a car, and after thirty months and fewer than 20,000 sales it was retired. The 1962 Cortina, and its derivatives, was to be Ford’s mid market future.
All these derivatives were conventional to the point of ordinary, even for 1962. OHV engines, leaf rear springs, four speed gearboxes, saloon or estate styles. Nothing to frighten the children, fleet buyers or conservative buyers as BMC were starting to do. Or the horses, as these were not performance cars and did not claim to be, Lotus Cortina aside.
The first one was the 1963-70 Ford Corsair saloon – a lengthened Cortina with Bullet Thunderbird imitating styling and larger 1.6, 1.7 and 2.0 engines, including the Essex V4.
Successful, selling over 300,000 copies in the UK and some in Europe, but now overshadowed by the Cortina in popular memory.
The next variant one was the best known of all though – the Capri we all remember came in 1969, with one of the most memorable strap lines in British car advertising. “The car you always promised yourself” Cue bonuses in Marketing. And unlike the Cortina and the Corsair, this was a Ford of Europe product, not just the UK. So, well known across Europe as well and considered a home team product in Germany as well.
Style wise, the Capri managed to bring to Europe many of the styling cues seen on cars like the Mustang or Camaro – the long bonnet, short rump, the lowered roof line, raked screen and power bulges, which were even filled on some models.
Whilst the styling of the Capri was clearly a major factor in its success, there were other reasons. It was a Ford, so it was easy to find. In the UK, Ford had several hundred dealers, more than anyone except BMC/BLMC with their duplicatory networks and probably ten times as many as a continental sports brand such as Lancia, Alfa or BMW. And as many as Fiat, Opel, Renault and VW combined. There was one reason among the many that allowed Ford to have 30% of the market.
And whilst it may have been a Cortina in disguise in many ways, it was very well disguised, and distinctly upmarket of the Cortina. Few cared about the simple rear suspension when it looked like it did, and for many families (those with only young children for example) it did the family car as well as a Cortina. Compare this car’s profile with its primary UK competitors – the Morris Marina Coupe, the Sunbeam Rapier or the Vauxhall Firenza, Magnum and Viva Coupes.
The Marina was really a two door saloon with fast back rear end that more resembled a VW Type 3 than anything else, the Rapier (as Paul showed us recently) was a crib of the Barracuda, even if well executed, and the Vauxhall just plain mismatched front to back, with styling that tried to ape America and got lost in translation. All these cars suffered from something Ford went to a length to avoid, by sharing the front end (up to the B post for the Marina and Viva) with the saloon variant. The Marina even shared the doors of the four door saloon. The Rapier might have hidden its Hillman Hunter/Sunbeam Arrow origins under a sharper skin but the relationship between the cars was obvious when they were together.
Ford, however, added almost three inches to the Cortina MK2’s wheelbase and looking at the front of the car in profile there’s no doubt where they went – ahead of the screen, behind the rear wheels. Maybe they weren’t needed there for V4 and V6 engines, but who cares?
There was another reason for the appeal too. In a word, variety. More variety than Heinz. Engines ranged from 1.3 litre to 3 litre, a wider range than any other European Ford. UK built cars had 1.3 and 1.6 litre inline fours, a 2.0 litre V4 and by the end of 1969 a 3.0 litre V6. German and Belgian built European market cars had 13, 1.5 and 1.7 litre V4 and 2.0, 2.3 and 2.6 litre V6 engines and the trim levels went through four levels or more. Add manual or automatic on many versions as well.
Trim levels were almost as complex. L, XL, GXL, and GT were all used, as were 2.0S and 3.0S and of course Ghia on the later Capri II, a 1974 hatchback or liftback derivative of the original car. Truly, this a version intended for Lee Iacocca himself.
Our feature car is a 1971 Capri 1600GT with evidence of the other secret weapon on Ford’s catalogue – an extensive range of accessories. This car shows the black bonnet, rear window louvres, vinyl roof, Rostyle wheels, swept back mirrors, rear ski blade spoiler, foglights, and, yes, furry dice. All things you could ask Ford to build in or for the dealer to add.
Motorsport success, mostly circuit racing rather than rallying for which Ford used the Escort and something the competitors could only dream of, added to the glamour. Buy a Capri 1.6, take the family shopping on Saturday morning and see something looking like it racing on the TV after lunch. No Marina ever did that.
And if you ever see a Marina now, it won’t look like this either. Truly, an impressive presentation for a modest car. Just like it was fifty years ago.
Nice article! Capri is one of those cars that looks great as a road car and a race car.
Those damn fuzzy dice….apparently no car is immune… Great write up on a iconic machine that has always been one of my fav’s.
This was the best selling import for at least a few years in the 70s. I remember seeing quite a few as a child in the 80s but suddenly they all vanished. I never see them at shows either. I think ford stopped supporting them after a few years and as repair parts became unavailable they disappeared.
As several people have observed, if this had been adapted for north american manufacture to avoid the exchange rate dilemma, it would have made a vastly better mustang ii than the dowdy, slow, rattly, ugly, cramped, wallowing, pinto. This had some looks and handling.
I don’t dislike Pinto’s, but objectively the Mk3 Cortina would have been a better Pinto than the Pinto.
It was never the best selling import. VW and Toyota were. It was #2 for a year or two.
Probably my most favorite import in the 70s. I miss the Capri, the 510, the Cortina, the Manta, and the Kadett from the first half of the 70s.Would be cool to have a collection of them to go with my American iron but now all but extinct.
The juxtaposition of this post with Tom Halter’s Crossfire COAL points out a similarity in styling philosophy between the two cars: a striking shape and proportions but fussy detailing. Even in 1969 the arc behind the rear wheel well on the Capri looked off, to me. The Capri II on the other hand, is just about perfect in every way, down to the practical liftback. By the way, in the Bay Area the Capri Club remained active long after the cars were off the market. Along with the Shelby Club and Alfa Club, they were pioneers in organizing “track day” events long before those became mainstream.
I feel like we need an article on the V-4 engine. It had a relatively short life and never achieved any sort of widespread adoption. Ford had this one, which they also sold to SAAB. Lancia had a sort of V-4, but with a narrow angle and a single cylinder head, a la the much later VW VR6. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of any others.
Was it a bad idea? Why. And if it was, why did only Ford think it was a good idea?
I think there were some air-cooled V4 industrial engines, but the only other mainstream automotive application I can think of was the Soviet Zaporozhets, also air-cooled. Meanwhile, after a few false starts, the V4 has become a dominant power plant layout for performance motorcycles, with several high end sport or sport touring bikes from Aprilia, Ducati and Honda as well as all MotoGP racers except Yamaha and Suzuki. Yamaha themselves had the V4 VMax muscle bike in their lineup almost continuously for 35 years, dropped just this year.
It should be noted that Ford actually produced two separate V4 engines. There was the Cologne V4 first used in the Taunus and later sold to Saab. Then there was the larger Essex V4 that saw use in British Fords.
I liked these as a kid/teen, but had never realized that these were related to the Cortina. My grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, had a second-generation Cortina while I was growing up in the late 60s/early 70s. (It replaced a late 59s Hilllman IIRC.) I don’t recall ever seeing another one of either at the time. (We had a 67 Saab wagon, so being in an uncommon car seemed normal to me.)
Also, the round taillights on the Mk 1 Cortina look familiar but I can’t put my finger on it. Rambler maybe?
Funny, but I never considered the Capri “upmarket of the Cortina”. Since the V4 was a van engine, and the V6 rather heavy, the 1.6 with the Weber carburetter was the best option, and that motor would always produce better results in a Cortina or Escort. It was the Cortina initially and later the Escort that dominated races and rallies, and there was never a twin-cam Capri. A friends’ dad bought an early Capri – a 1300 with the Ford carburetter , and that said it all.
It was probably in 1971 that someone gave me the keys of a Capri for a spin – a 1600 GXL or GT – and by that time I was in Ireland, and Irish roads showed-up the deficiencies in Capri suspension.
And yes, the final edition ( German made ) 2.8 injection Capri was a bit of a classic.
I’ve always thought it a bit of missed opportunity that the Capri never had a twin cam engine like the BDA Escorts.
It would have almost been like a Fiat 124 Sport Coupe competitor, but except that the 124 was a better car in almost every respect than the Capri and all the other cars mentioned here.
The press introduction in Cypress indeed did have BDA powered Capris that got dropped from production plans at the final hour.
As ever Roger, an enjoyable write-up.
I grew up in England in the 60’s and 70’s and I remember the Capri suddenly being the car to want, especially in orange with black trim.
BTW while you were getting the pictures of the 1600 GT, did you get any more pictures of the black hot-rod item (seen in the 1st and 3rd of your shots)?
Should have guessed someone would spot that…not my bag particularly.
This seems to be the best one.
To be honest, I would spend longer looking at the very smart original Capri than the hot-rod but it does look ‘interesting’.
Nice tribute to a terrific car. It’s remarkable (or not) that the Capri was able to essentially replicate the Mustang’s success in Europe five years later. Same winning formula, and very similar results. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but it seems the Capri’s sales in Europe probably didn’t drop off nearly as fast as did the Mustang’s in the US. It seemed to have more staying power, but then it also stayed much more true to the original formula.
Makes me wonder if the Mustang might have done better if it had stayed closer to its original formula?
The Mustang went from simple, lithe and fun to huge, bloated and vulgar, then to slow and tape-stripe-tacky in a surprisingly short amount of time. It was all over the place in mission and execution. Short-attention-span theatre.
The Capri always knew what it was and stuck with it (with some refinements) until the end.
…except it did fall prey to the vinyl-top, but nothing’s perfect.
A friend had one when I was in high school. It was beater by then (1978) but was fun to drive. Good looking car except for that vinyl roof Yuk!
Tacky accessories aside, what a pretty car.
I was only a couple of years old when this came out, and it started me liking cars. My mom had one, and I would just stare at it and I knew it was something special.
If I look at it objectively I suppose the rear lights look kind of cheap, the big crease around the back wheel is odd and the trunk a little too blunt.
But I can’t look at it objectively. When I see it I still get the same warm happy feeling from then.
Since I’m being all nostalgic-y, the second car to give me the happy vibes when I was a youngin’ was the second-gen Corvair. Those two cars still look just about perfect to me still. Oddly, the Corvair has been recently moving up in my mind as one of the best-looking-good-vibing cars ever made.
But I also like the Matador coupe, so, there’s that.
I always liked the look of the imported Capri. Unfortunately the Minnesota winter and road salt ate them up just like everything else.
The later Capri’s based on the Mustangs had some weird styling.
I always liked these little cars but i never got to drive one. They were Mercurys in the US, not Fords. The american V6 version had good performance specs. I’ve always wondered what it could do with an aluminum Rover 4.0 V8 swapped in.
I don’t think these were actually called Mercuries in the US, but they were sold only at Lincoln-Mercury dealers. I think the ads did say “Imported for Lincoln-Mercury” but there was always a blue Ford oval right nearby. I think Ford was a little ambiguous with what brand it was identified as.
Could be they weren’t forthcoming about it at the time. But clearly they were going there since the later mustang based Capri was in fact a mercury
While I despise almost all rear spoilers I love those louvers. They are perfectly integrated into the rear flying butresses.
I like big butresses and I can not lie!
Both generations of the Capri had more livable rear seats than the much larger current Mustang.
Must remember to get Roger some stylish furry dice for Christmas
An enjoyable read, Roger. There have been lots of cars that did well in England, or in Germany, or in the rest of Europe, or in the US, but the Capri seems to have been fairly unique in being a desirable car in all of those markets – certainly one from one of the US-HQ companies. It probably didn’t have the market penetration in the US that it had in Europe or the UK, but then again Ford stuck it in the Lincoln-Mercury dealer channel.
I found these appealing from the get-go. Looking at these pictures, I am trying to think of any other car that made use of that body-sculpting line that goes straight back then follows the rear edge of the wheel down to the bottom. It looks fabulous on this car.