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.
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.
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.
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.