Cheap and Cheerful: The European Ford Capri

As with the Mustang five years earlier, the Capri struck a nerve with buyers and early sales exceeded Ford’s most optimistic projections. Thanks to the production delays, demand outpaced supply for months after launch. Total first-year production was 217,834 units, rising to nearly 240,000 in 1970, which gave the Capri a market share of more than 3% in both Germany and the UK.

To bolster the Capri’s sporty appeal, Ford promptly took it racing. At the time, Ford of Europe still maintained separate competition departments in Britain and Germany, each of which pursued different avenues with the Capri. The British focused on rallying; a few of the early Capri rally cars even had Ferguson 4WD, very similar to that of the Jensen FF (albeit without the Jensen’s Dunlop Maxaret ABS). The German racing division, headed by Jochen Neerpasch and Michael Kranefuss (later the head of Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) unit), focused on European Touring Car (ETC) Group 1 competition.

The Capri did poorly in its inaugural season, but the better-prepared RS2600 — known as “Plastikbombe,” for its fiberglass outer panels — scored well in 1971 and dominated the 1972 season, winning eight out of nine races. In 1973, however, the Capri lost out to the newly bespoilered BMW 3.0 CSL “Batmobile,” which had far better high-speed handling. Ford campaigned the Capri a final time in 1974, but the OPEC oil embargo led FoE to shutter both the British and German competition departments late in the year. Capris continued to race in private hands well into the eighties, often with a fair measure of success.

1973 Ford Capri Hans Heyer side
Driver Hans Heyer on the north curve of the Nürburgring in July 1973. Racing Capris were fast, but drivers found them evil-handling at speed. (Photo: “Heyer, Hans – Ford Capri – 08.07.1973” © 1973 Spurzem (Lothar Spurzem); resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Germany license)

PROJECT DIANA: THE CAPRI II

The launch of the Mustang in 1964 had caught Ford’s rivals flatfooted and it had taken General Motors nearly two and a half years to prepare a direct response. The Capri was not so fortunate; GM launched the sporty Opel Manta coupe less than a year after the Capri’s debut. The Manta, styled by former Cadillac design chief Chuck Jordan and based on the Opel Ascona sedan, was aimed at the same market as the Capri and proved a formidable rival, particularly in Germany.

1971 Opel Manta A side © 2006 Pibwl (CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic
A somewhat modified early-seventies Opel Manta A at Kielce Race Track in Poland. (Photo: “Opel Manta A PICT0012” © 2006 Pibwl; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license)

Ford gave the Capri a mild going-over in the fall of 1972, adding a new dashboard, bigger headlights, and various detail changes. There was also an effort to simplify and rationalize the proliferation of models and engines. German-built cars traded their V-4s for a new 1,576 cc (96 cu. in.) OHC inline four, shared with their British-built counterparts. British cars dropped the GT versions of the 1300 and 1600 models.

Despite those changes, the Capri’s market share dropped substantially between 1969 and 1973, falling by nearly 60% in Germany and almost 25% in the UK. The Capri hadn’t really caught on in non-European export markets, either. Sales in Australia and New Zealand ended in 1972, South African sales a year later, despite the Capri’s impressive record in South African sedan racing.

By then, Ford was already working on Project Diana, the second-generation Capri. It was a cautious redesign, 2.1 inches (53 mm) wider, slightly taller, and fractionally longer than the Mk 1. Some of the Mk 1’s details were eliminated, including the fake scoops on the rear fenders. The big change was the addition of a rear liftgate, making the Capri a hatchback. Model and engine choices were much the same as before, but there was a new top-of-the-line “Ghia” trim series.

Enthusiasm for the Capri II, which arrived in early 1974, was dampened by the OPEC oil embargo, which sent demand for all new cars plummeting. The embargo also contributed to skyrocketing inflation, which pushed the base price of a British 1300L to £1,731 (a bit over $4,000 at contemporary exchange rates) and a 3000 Ghia to a hefty £3,109 (about $7,300). Capri production fell about 20%. Reflecting the anxieties of the time, a high percentage of those sales were the 1300 and 1600, which had anemic performance but respectable fuel economy.

1976 Ford Capri 1600L front 3q
The Capri II looked cleaner than the Mk 1, but was also a trifle bland. It was also heavier with softer suspension tuning, making it less sporty than before. This is a 1976 1600L, which had 72 hp (54 kW), giving 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 14.5 seconds and a top speed of 98 mph (157 km/h). (Photo © 2009 Martin Alford ; used by permission)

With demand slipping, Ford of Europe scaled back Capri production dramatically in the mid-seventies. In 1975, German production was cut from two plants to one and the following year, Ford shut down the Capri line in Halewood, Liverpool, consolidating all remaining production in Cologne. By that point, annual sales had fallen to around 100,000 units worldwide. If the Capri’s commonality with other Ford products had not made it relatively cheap to build, we doubt it would have survived much longer.

THE SEXY EUROPEAN: THE FORD CAPRI IN AMERICA

Ford introduced the Capri in North America in the spring of 1970. To keep it from cannibalizing Mustang sales, it was distributed through Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, although it bore no marque identification at all; badges read simply “Capri.” At first, there was only one model, a British-built 1600 with manual transmission. The 2,994 cc Essex engine and automatic would have better suited American tastes, but the 1600’s 1,598 cc (97 cu. in.) Kent engine, also used in the Pinto, had already completed EPA emissions certification. With 71 hp SAE (53 kW) in federalized form, 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took more than 17 seconds. American advertising for the Capri called it “The Sexy European,” which was faintly ironic considering that the Capri was fundamentally a very American concept.

The press liked the Capri’s size and looks, but its lackluster performance and lack of automatic transmission limited its early sales. Ford boasted that the Capri had the best first-year sales of any imported car ever sold in America, but its margin of victory over the new Datsun 240Z was only about a thousand units despite the Z’s much higher price.

1976 Mercury Capri rear 3q
The Capri II’s rear hatchback was more practical than before, but it was heavier and less aerodynamic, with an annoying propensity for rattles. This is a later U.S. Capri II with the bulkier body-colored bumpers added to comply with federal safety regulations. This car has non-standard 14-inch alloy wheels, borrowed from a later Mustang.

Ford scrambled to get the U.S. Capri more power, boosting the base engine to 75 hp (56 kW) and adding the Pinto’s 100 hp (75 kW) 1,993 cc (122 cu. in.) OHC four to the options list. The 1,993 cc engine could also be had with automatic, which did wonders for the Capri’s popularity. The updated Capri also earned a 1971 Import Car of the Year award from Road Test, one of the least credulous of the American magazines.

In 1972, a protracted strike at the Halewood plant compelled Ford to source North American Capris from Cologne instead. Since German sales were falling rapidly, the switch also allowed Ford to better utilize the Cologne plant’s capacity. Such moves, which would not have been feasible before 1967, tended to validate Henry Ford II’s decision to unify the European operations.

Switching to German-built cars also led to the launch of a U.S.-market Capri 2600, with a federalized version of the German 2,550 cc (156 cu. in.) V-6 making 107 horsepower (80 kW). The Capri 2600 was probably what the U.S. Capri should have been from the beginning. It cost nearly $350 more than the 1600, but was nearly as quick as a base Mustang V-8, got better gas mileage, and was easier to park. U.S. Capri sales climbed to just under 92,000 for 1972 and hit a peak of more than 113,000 for 1973.

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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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