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.
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.
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.
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.
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.