Cheap and Cheerful: The European Ford Capri

PROJECT COLT

When the Ford Mustang debuted in America in April 1964, it created a sensation, offering a combination of sporty image, reasonable practicality, and affordable price that many buyers found irresistible. By promoting the ability to “customize” the Mustang with a lengthy list of extra-cost options, Ford also made it a very profitable car.

As successful as it was, the Mustang was primarily an American phenomenon. Ford did sell a modest number overseas, but in many markets, import duties pushed its price well out of the bargain realm. It was also a little too big and thirsty for European tastes, even in six-cylinder form.

1965 Ford Mustang side
Ford sold Mustangs abroad, but with engines ranging from 2,779 cc (170 cu. in.) to 4,728 cc (289 cu. in.), it was an expensive proposition in many European countries. In Germany, the Mustang was badged as T-5 (the Mustang’s internal project code) until the late seventies because of a trademark conflict with the truck maker Krupp, which was already using the Mustang name.

Ford market research suggested that the Mustang concept was perfectly viable in Europe, even if the car itself was not quite right. In the fall of 1964, Ford launched Project Colt, a scaled-down “pony car” for the European market.

Ford’s design studios in Dearborn, Dunton (Essex), and Merkenich each offered proposals for the styling of the new car. The winner was the Dunton proposal, dubbed “GBX,” which was the work of stylist Phil Clark and design executive Uwe Bahnsen under the supervision of FoB chief stylist Duncan McRae (previously a stylist with Kaiser-Frazer and Studebaker). The GBX design was apparently mostly Clark’s work, although it incorporated a number of elements from Bahnsen’s earlier German designs. It bore no specific resemblance to the U.S. Mustang except perhaps in the fake louvers ahead of the rear wheels, but was clearly the same sort of car, with the familiar long-hood, short-deck proportions.

The GBX design was approved in July 1965. It was very close to the car’s eventual production form; the only elements that changed significantly were the shape of the C-pillars and rear quarter lights, which were altered after marketing focus groups complained the original “hockey stick” quarter windows made the already-cramped rear seat so dark and enclosed as to be claustrophobia-inducing. (After seeing photos of the original design, your author, not normally prone to claustrophobia, was inclined to agree.)

Project Colt received production approval in July 1966 with a development budget of £20 million (about $55 million). As with the styling, engineering development took place primarily in England, albeit with considerable input from Cologne. The coupe remained primarily a British design, but Hans Muth’s German styling team was heavily involved in refining the car for production, recognizing that the “Colt” would eventually be an international car.

1969 Ford Capri 1300GT front 3q
British-built four-cylinder Capris were initially offered in both standard and GT forms. GTs had more highly tuned engines, better seats, and full instrumentation. With 64 hp (48 kW), a 1969 1300GT like this one could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little under 15 seconds with a claimed top speed of 93 mph (150 km/h). (Photo © 2009 Martin Alford; used with permission)

Just as the Mustang was based on the Ford Falcon platform, the new car was mechanically related to the British Ford Cortina. The Capri eventually got a unique floorpan, but it shared the Mk 2 Cortina’s suspension, brakes, and other components. British and German versions had different engines and gearboxes, but all were drawn from existing models. Mechanically, the new coupe was unexceptional, but its commonality with other Ford products kept the cost down, which was a major part of the design brief.

As the project name implies, the new coupe was originally supposed to be called the Colt, but by the time the car was ready, Mitsubishi had already registered that name. In November 1967, a month after the production design was locked, the new coupe became the Ford Capri, a name Ford had previously used for a short-lived coupe version of the Consul, the Cortina’s predecessor. (In the U.S., there was also a Lincoln Capri from 1952 to 1959.)

THE FORD CAPRI YOU ALWAYS PROMISED YOURSELF

Early production of the Capri began in November 1968, months behind schedule and 10% over budget. The car made its public debut with great fanfare at the Brussels auto show in January 1969 and went on sale on February 5.

The Capri’s marketing campaign echoed the themes of early Mustang advertising. The emphasis was not on performance per se — Ford recognized that the market for hard-core performance cars was relatively small, particularly given the high costs of running any car in many European countries — but on image and individuality. As with the Mustang, you could tailor a Capri to suit your tastes and budget with a bewildering array of trim series, option packs, and engines (see sidebar), ranging in output from 50 to 136 hp DIN (37 to 100 kW). Ford immodestly proclaimed the Capri “The Car You Always Promised Yourself” (or, if you prefer, “Das Auto das Sie sich schon immer gewünscht haben“).

For all the hype, the Capri was in many respects a very ordinary automobile. Handling and braking were okay but not great, which also summed up interior accommodations and fuel economy. The smaller engines provided snail-like acceleration and even the biggest V-6s were no threat to American muscle cars, although they were quick by British or European standards. Nonetheless, the Capri looked sporty, it felt sporty, and it was cheap — a basic Capri 1300 started at only £890 (about $2,150) in the UK, 6,993 DM (about $1,800) in Germany. In 1969, very few European cars offered all three of those qualities simultaneously — in the UK, for instance, the closest equivalent was probably the MGB GT, which cost £175 (about $420) more than a Capri 1600GT.

SIDEBAR A: A Car of Many Engines

A rundown of the engines offered on the early Capri makes it very clear why Ford wanted to unify and rationalize its operations. All Capris shared their engines with existing Ford products, but because British and German cars were still quite different, British- and German-built Capris had very different engine options. The following table illustrates the confusing array of early Capri engines:

British Ford Capri Mk1 Engines
Model Family Type cc cid hp (PS DIN) kW
1300 Kent I-4 1,298 79 52–57 38–43
1300GT Kent I-4 1,298 79 64–72 47–53
1600 Kent I-4 1,598 97 64–72 47–53
1600GT Kent I-4 1,598 97 82–88 60–65
2000GT Essex V-4 1,996 122 93 68
3000GT/E/GXL Essex V-6 2,994 183 128–138 94–101
German Ford Capri Mk1 Engines
Model Family Type cc cid hp (PS DIN) kW
* The 1600 and 1600GT replaced the 1500 and 1700GT in mid-1972
** 2600GT replaced the high-output 2300GT in mid-1970
1300 Cologne V-4 1,305 80 50–55 37–40
1500* Cologne V-4 1,498 91 60–65 44–48
1700GT* Cologne V-4 1,699 104 75 55
1600* Pinto I-4 1,593 97 72 53
1600GT* Pinto I-4 1,593 97 88 65
2000GT Cologne V-6 1,998 122 85–90 62–66
2300GT Cologne V-6 2,294 140 108 79
2300GT** Cologne V-6 2,294 140 125 92
2600GT** Cologne V-6 2,550 156 125 92
2600RS Cologne V-6 2,637 161 150 110

The Essex and Cologne series were completely separate families of 60-degree vee engines. The Cologne V-4 was created for the 1963 Taunus 12M (P4) and Mk 1 Transit van; a V-6 version was added in 1965 for the bigger Taunus 20M. The English Essex V-4 was originally created for the British version of the Mk 1 Transit and was later used in the Corsair, inter alia; the V-6s were introduced in 1966 for the Zephyr/Zodiac line. Both V-4s dropped in the mid-seventies and the Essex V-6 was phased out a few years later (except in South Africa), but derivatives of the Cologne V-6 continued to power Ford cars and trucks into the 21st century.

Ford simplified the engine lineup in the seventies, but it was not until the early eighties that all Capris shared the same powertrain choices.

SIDEBAR B: The Capri Perana

While Ford never offered a V-8 on the Capri as a factory option, many tuners discovered that a small-block Ford V-8 would fit under the hood with relatively little trouble. The most famous of these conversions was the Perana, developed by South African tuner (and Ford dealer) Basil Green. The Perana was powered by Ford’s 4,942 cc (302 cu. in.) V-8, also used in locally assembled Ford Fairlanes. In the Perana, the engine was fitted with a solid-lifter cam, aluminum intake manifold, and various Ford performance parts, giving a claimed 281 gross horsepower (210 kW). Performance was appropriately ferocious: South Africa’s CAR managed 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) in less than seven seconds and reached a top speed of 228 km/h (142 mph). Basil Green used the Perana Capri very successfully in sedan racing, winning the South African Championship three years in a row.

Thanks to Green’s relationship with Ford, the Capri Perana V-8 was a semi-official model, sold through Basil Green Ford and other South African Ford dealers between 1970 and 1973. Total production was somewhere between 500 and 550 units.

While the Capri V-8 was the most famous Perana, Green also applied the Perana name to a variety of other performance conversions over the years. The first, launched in 1968, was based on the Mk 2 Cortina; the last was the Sapphire Perana 3.4 in 1991.

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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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