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.
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.
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.