Cheap and Cheerful: The European Ford Capri

The Ford Capri, launched in 1969, was Europe’s answer to the Ford Mustang and one of the first fruits of Ford’s newly unified European operations. This week, we look at the birth of “the car you always promised yourself” — the 1969-1987 Ford Capri — and consider the origins of Ford of Europe.

1976 Mercury Capri badge

THE FIRST EUROPEAN FORDS

To understand the history of the Ford Capri, we must step back some years to look at the origins of Ford’s European operations. The immortal Model T, launched in 1908, was the car that put America on wheels, but it also had obvious appeal for the European market. In October 1911, Ford established its first overseas assembly plant in Manchester, England, followed five years later by a French operation, based in Bordeaux. By the mid-twenties, Ford had plants in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey. The company would have even more by the end of the following decade.

At first, Ford’s European operations were just assembly plants, building “Tin Lizzies” from CKD (complete knocked down) kits manufactured in Dearborn. By the late twenties, however, it was becoming clear that American products were not well suited for many European markets. A major problem was engine size; many U.S. engines ran afoul of local taxable horsepower rules, some of which had probably been conceived specifically to exclude Yankee imports. In Britain, for example, the Ford Model A’s 3,285 cc (200 cu. in.) four had a Royal Auto Club taxable horsepower rating of 24 HP, more than some substantially more expensive cars. With an annual tax of £1 per RAC horsepower (about $5 at the time, the equivalent of perhaps $65 today), that was not an economically viable proposition for many motorists. Sales suffered accordingly, compelling Ford to offer a de-bored, 2,042 cc (122 cu. in.) version with a more affordable 14.9 HP rating.

Aside from the need for products better suited to European conditions, Henry Ford had grand ambitions of building a European empire to rival Ford’s North American operations. His “1928 Plan” called for the creation of full-fledged European manufacturing capacity centered on a new English factory in Dagenham, followed by a German plant in Cologne-Niehl. Those operations would be managed by a new holding company, Ford Motor Company Ltd.

That novel plan was undone by the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Depression. By the time the Dagenham and Cologne factories came on line in 1931, the economies of Europe were in ruins. Many nations imposed stringent import tariffs, which made any kind of transnational manufacturing alliance difficult. Money for new cars was scarce, making Ford’s American products even more difficult to sell abroad.

Ford hastily concocted its first true European car, the Model Y, in early 1932. Designed in Dearborn, it was nonetheless tailored to the needs of the British market, with an 8 HP rating and attractively low price. A German version followed and the subsequent Model C spawned both German and French variants.

1934 Ford Model Y front 3q
The Ford Model Y was powered by a 933 cc (57 cu. in.) flathead four. It made about 24 hp (18 kW), although its RAC taxable horsepower rating was 8 HP. With an annual tax of £8 (about $40 at contemporary exchange rates), it was much cheaper to run than a Model A, which cost £24 ($120) per year. (Photo: “1934 Ford Model Y Junior Fordor Saloon ANR936” © 2009 Lars-Göran Lindgren Sweden; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license)

The advent of European products did not mean a common European organization. Although Ford’s British, French, and German products had many similarities, commonality was almost nonexistent and the different national organizations were direct competitors in some export markets. It was a far cry from the unified empire Henry Ford had imagined in 1928.

FORD’S EUROPEAN UNIFICATION

Henry Ford II, who took over his grandfather’s company in 1945, shared the elder Ford’s global ambitions. As early as 1950, Henry II declared his desire to unify Ford’s European operations into a single organization, based in England. In the forties and fifties, however, Henry was busy rebuilding Ford’s U.S. operations, which had fallen into chaos toward the end of his grandfather’s reign. As a result, when civilian automobile production resumed after the war, Ford’s British, French, and German subsidiaries once again went their separate ways with distinct products, different engines, and separate manufacturing operations. Ford sold its French subsidiary to Simca in 1954, but Ford of Britain (FoB) and Ford Werke AG (Ford of Germany, or FoG) remained direct rivals.

By the early sixties, this situation was becoming untenable. Ford’s market share was quite high, but it was facing tougher competition, particularly from BMC’s new Mini. It no longer made sense for FoB and FoG not to cooperate.

In 1964, FoB and FoG launched their first collaborative effort, the Ford Transit van, which proved very successful. Henry Ford II subsequently ordered John Andrews, the American-born chairman of FoG, to prepare a study on unifying the British and German organizations. By that point, Henry had become thoroughly exasperated with the balkanized nature of Ford’s European operations, which he saw as not only a waste of resources, but also a challenge to his authority.

At a meeting in Paris in June 1967, shortly after Ford’s second victory at Le Mans, Henry named John Andrews the first chairman of Ford of Europe. The new organization would be based in FoB’s offices in Essex, east of London. Stanley Gillen, the head of FoB, became Andrews’ deputy. Henry warned Andrews that he expected him to make it work.

1964 Ford Consul Capri front 3q
From 1961 to 1964, Ford of Britain offered its first European Capri, a coupe version of the Consul Classic saloon with an American-style pillarless hardtop roof. Most of these early Capris shared the Classic’s 1,498 cc (79 cu. in.) four, which provided sleepy performance. Sales were disappointing and the Capri was dropped in 1964. (Photo: “1964 Ford Consul Capri” © 2009 Martin Alford; used with permission)

The merger was inevitably contentious, complicated by serious culture clashes, language barriers, and the 400-mile (640-kilometer) distance between Essex and Ford of Germany headquarters in Cologne. (Ford eventually established its own private airline to ferry senior staff back and forth, judging it cheaper than the cost of commercial air travel.) In the short term, Andrews and Gillen determined that it was not practical or economical to impose across-the-board commonality. Aside from the need to amortize existing tooling and facilities, they did not want to undermine FoB and FoG’s respective strengths.

Ford of Europe’s first post-merger product was the 1968 Escort, but that was a wholly British design, completed before unification. The new organization’s first truly collaborative product would be a sporty new coupe called Capri.

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  1. Enlightening article, Aaron, and well-written as always. I never did understand why the marketing of very good (if esoteric) captive imports was assigned to divisions whose dealerships their target buyers pretty much found repellent. Opel never had a chance while yoked to Buick, just as Mercury hadn’t a clue how to sell Capri.

    Speaking of which, I hope you’ll write about the Merkur XR4Ti/Scorpio debacle.

    1. I think many of these pairings reflect the push-me/pull-you relationship between automakers and dealers. Dealers tend to get pushy when they don’t have something to sell in a particular class, and they don’t necessarily think very far ahead — if you’re selling cars, your priority is selling cars now, not three years from now.

      The Buick/Opel pairing came about during the Eisenhower recession in 1957. Buick was in a bad way at that point. They had let their production capacity overwhelm their quality control (gee, does that sound familiar?), the public was bored with the styling of the ’57 and disliked the ’58, and sales plummeted. As the recession deepened, mid-priced cars in general became abruptly unpopular. I’m assuming that Buick’s sales organization got a lot of screaming from dealers that they had nothing to sell. Buick started working on the first Y-body Special, but it wasn’t going to be ready for a couple of years, so the Opel Olympia Rekord was a stopgap. Buick dealers sold a modest number of them, but they didn’t like the idea of investing a lot of money in parts and training to fix them, and individual salesmen would rather sell a Buick, with the prospect of a much higher commission. The same happened with the Vauxhalls sold by Pontiac.

      (By the late sixties, Opel would have been a better fit with Pontiac, but I’m not sure Pontiac dealers would have done any better selling them than Buick dealers were.)

      With the Capri, you can see the logic, just as you can see why it didn’t work. If they’d badged it as a Ford, it would have competed directly with the Pinto, the Maverick, and the Mustang; Ford already had a problem with each new model cannibalizing its existing products. Lincoln-Mercury was a different story. L-M was moving the Cougar into the personal luxury class, so it was aimed more at the Monte Carlo and Grand Prix than the Mustang, and Mercury didn’t have a Pinto equivalent. (The Bobcat didn’t arrive until 1975.) I’m sure the idea of bringing over the Capri 1600 seemed like a great way to kill two birds with one stone — a junior sporty car to fill the gap left by the Cougar, and a compact economy car to fill in for the Pinto.

      I think the Capri suffered two major problems in the U.S., aside from a more crowded market. First, Matt McLaughlin, who was L-M general manager when it was introduced, didn’t think Mercury should do sporty cars. He felt it was too much of a stretch from Mercury’s existing brand. Second, there was the inevitable “not invented here” problem. If L-M had marketed the Capri the way it was marketed in Europe — with a fuller range of models and engines — it could have been very successful here, but I don’t think L-M (either the division or the dealers) ever really saw it as [i]their[/i] car.

  2. The Capri wasn’t really viewed as a bona fide sports car , in the same way as an MGB-GT , since in basic 1300 or 1600 form it had no performance and little glamour. The 3-Litre V6 was a serious piece of kit, but lesser versions were simply fancy Cortinas , and they didn’t have the competition pedigree or street cred of the Cortina.

    1. Well, the analogy to the American Mustang is quite pronounced. You could make the Mustang into a credible competition car, but the basic six-cylinder Mustang was little more than a sportier-looking Falcon Futura, with less rear-seat and boot space. (The Mustang’s body had less structural commonality with the Falcon than the Capri did with the Cortina, but in hardware and specifications, the point remains.) Even in the States, few people would have called the Mustang a proper sports car; in the vernacular of the time, it was a "sporty car," a subtle but important distinction.

      Where the analogy breaks down a bit is in the fact that, as you say, Ford managed to establish a fair pedigree for the Cortina, with the Lotus Cortina and GT. By contrast, while the American Falcon became a serious rally competitor in ’63-’64, Ford’s efforts to sell a performance-oriented Falcon in the U.S. came up short. (It would fall to Ford Australia to make that particular equation work.)

      It would be interesting to compare the sales for the sporty Cortinas to those of the lesser Capris. There are always those who are more interested in performance than style and vice versa, and I would be curious to see which was larger at that point. I would suspect the Capri, but I don’t know offhand.

  3. Being only a minor facelift “Project Carla” should have better been called “Capri ‘78”. Its beginnings however were much more substantial. Work began in early 1976. Sketches and tape drawings led to two fibreglass models of differing content and appearance. New sheet metal up front, new headlamps, changes to the rear quarter panel including rear side glass and a modified tailgate. Market research was conducted, comparing it to the Opel Manta, VW Scirocco and the Renault 17. Results were good, but apparently not good enough to convince management to spend the amount of cash needed to earn a decent return. So “Carla” ended up being a minor freshening and series realignment. Given a declining segment and therefore reduced investment levels, the resultant design was probably the best achievable.

    An interesting side story can be told about the “Capri Modular Aerodynamic” concept shown at the 1976 Salon d’Automobile in Geneva. Contrary to popular belief it had no relationship to “Project Carla”. It featured a changed front end similar to the Escort RS2000. The production-based model was modified and produced in the Cologne design studio within four weeks. The prime purpose of its existence was to showcase the concept of the self-blocking louver grille and the related patent filing. The first production application of the new grille would debut on the all-new Fiesta in May of 1976.

    1. Thanks for the info!

  4. Very good article about the European Capri. I spotted a interesting variant of the Ford Taunus TC(who borrowed lots of styling cues from the Cortina MkIII) in Argentina, a coupe version in fastback style similar in design to the Capri. I don’t know what they didn’t used the Capri moniker there however.

  5. Aside from the Ford Windsor V8 powered Capri Perana, curious to know whether Ford ever considered developing V8 versions of the UK Essex V6 and German Cologne V6 engines.

    1. Not that I know of, but I can’t see why they would have wanted to. A 60-degree V-8 poses a variety of balance problems, so you’d end up with an engine that’s less refined than the smaller and cheaper V-6. Either an Essex or a Cologne V-6 (assuming it was created in the same manner as the V-4 and V-6 versions) would have been in the same displacement range as the Windsor V-8 family, not as well-balanced, and probably nearly as heavy. (The initial 3.6-liter Windsor V-8 from the 1962 Fairlane was only about 90 lb heavier than a 3-liter Essex.) The only obvious advantage I could see would be shared tooling, but since it’s hard to see there being a big market for V-8s in Europe or the U.K., it seems like it would have been just as well to import a few 221/260/289 engines for the purpose.

  6. The Essex V6 was popular with British Hot Rodders, although never as in demand as the Rover V8. They were fairly plentiful and had some tuning potential.
    Strangely, imported Small block Chevrolet and Ford V8s were actually cheaper than either motor to tune for more power. Certainly parts were cheaper even after import duties and shipping costs, simply because the economy of both engines enormous production scales compared with the British engines.
    I have seen some European Fords with V8 power under the hood, mostly cars built for the South African and Australian market.

    1. I know Reliant used the Essex 3-liter for quite a while, eventually switching to the Cologne V-6 after the Essex was terminated, and I’ve seen some aftermarket conversions, including Mk2 and Mk3 Cortinas and Mk1 Escorts. Parts cost aside, my impression was that, at least in the U.K., the 2,994cc Essex was about at the edge of what was affordable to live with, assuming you weren’t building an all-out track car. Obviously, Australia had different standards in that regard. I don’t know that much about the South African market; the various semiofficial V-6 and V-8 conversions are well known, but not necessarily numerically common, having often been conceived primarily with homologation in mind.

      The Rover V8 may be ubiquitous, but being aluminum, I don’t suppose it was especially cheap. Even in mass production, aluminum costs more than iron and cylinder liners add to that. It does have the advantage of being a bit lighter than the iron Essex engine. In those regards, the Ford 302 makes a certain amount of sense insofar as it’s cheap, also ubiquitous, and not disastrously heavier than the Essex engine. (It is heavier, of course, but I think the difference is on the order of 80–90 lb, which for 2 additional liters isn’t awful.)

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