Cheap and Cheerful: The European Ford Capri

Unfortunately, the American Capri’s performance continued to be sapped by federal safety and emissions standards, which added weight and subtracted power in roughly equal measures. By 1974, the four-cylinder Capri 2000 was down to 80 hp (60 kW) and even the new 2,795 cc (171 cu. in.) Cologne V-6 could only muster 105 hp (78 kW). Meanwhile, the base price of the 2800 had climbed to just over $3,800, making it about $900 more expensive than a Ford Maverick Grabber and around $30 more than the new Mustang II, which offered the same engine. The Pinto-based Mustang II was heavier and slower than the Capri, but was significantly plusher and had the undoubted advantage of the Mustang name. Capri sales fell to about 75,000 in 1974 and there were so many unsold cars at the end of the year that Lincoln-Mercury decided not to import any 1975 models at all, giving dealers time to clear their unsold inventories.

1976 Mercury Capri front
All U.S. Capris had quad sealed-beam headlights; the European Capri II’s rectangular units were not legal in the States at the time. American Capri 2800s, like this Ghia model, had a bored-out 2,795 cc (171 cu. in.) version of the 2,548 cc (156 cu. in.) Cologne V-6, rated at 109-111 hp (81-83 kW). The 2800 was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 10 seconds with a top speed of perhaps 108 mph (175 km/h).

A federalized Capri II arrived in the U.S. in 1976. Like the European version, it was a hatchback, but it sported bulkier bumpers and sealed-beam headlights. To cope with the extra weight of the bigger car with its 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers, the base engine was now the 2,301 cc (140 cu. in.) OHC Pinto four with 88 hp (66 kW).

American critics loved the new Capri, in large part because of its European character, but the American public was apparently not convinced, particularly with rapidly increasing prices. Capri sales fell to less than 40,000 units for 1976, dropping under 25,000 for 1977. Lincoln-Mercury stopped importing the Capri in the summer of 1977, although around 4,100 leftover cars were sold as 1978 models. The Capri III never came to the U.S. at all, but Mercury confusingly applied the Capri name to its clone of the Fox-body Mustang from 1979 to 1986.

While U.S. sales totaled over 465,000, amounting to nearly 25% of all Capri production, the Capri never made the kind of impression on the U.S. market that it did in Europe. American buyers had far more options when it came to affordable sporty cars and the U.S. Capri was not the bargain it was elsewhere. The base price of a V-6 Capri swelled from around $2,800 in 1974 to more than $5,200 in 1977, largely because of the falling Deutschmark/dollar exchange rate during the same period. Even with a unified European organization, Ford was still not immune to currency fluctuations and other hazards of export sales.

1976 Mercury Capri Ghia badgeIn 1967, the venerable Carrozzeria Ghia was purchased by Alejando de Tomaso, who sold his interest to Ford in 1970. Just as Chrysler did with LeBaron, Ford promptly turned it into a trim series, starting in 1973. The Ghia design center in Turin continues to develop Ford of Europe’s concept cars.

PROJECT CARLA: THE CAPRI III

By 1977, Capri production had fallen below 100,000 units a year and we suspect that Ford of Europe seriously considered letting it die a natural death. Development of the Capri III, known internally as Project Carla, did not begin until April 1977, less than nine months before production of the new model began. The Capri III was more of a facelift than a redesign, aimed at cleaning up the Capri II’s dodgy aerodynamics. The interior and running gear were basically unchanged.

Although production was now entirely based in Germany, the Ford Capri had become an icon in the UK, thanks in no small part to its television career. Starting in 1978, the Capri 3000S played a starring role on the British TV series The Professionals, a popular action show in the mold of Starsky & Hutch. With its tire-squealing car chases, The Professionals did for the Capri what The Dukes of Hazzard did for the Dodge Charger or Magnum, P.I. later did for the Ferrari 308 GTS. The show was hardly great art (although it had its moments), but it thrilled a generation of young male viewers.

1986 Ford Capri 2.8i front 3q
The Capri III sported a narrower slatted grille, quad headlamps, and an under-bumper spoiler to improve aerodynamics. In late 1981, Ford replaced the older 2,994 cc (183 cu. in.) Essex V-6 with the fuel-injected 2,795 cc (171 cu. in.) Cologne V-6 from the Granada. The new 2.8i had less torque than the Essex, but more power (160 hp/117 kW) and was faster all out. (Photo © 2008Martin Alford; used by permission)

Despite the Capri’s undoubted celebrity, the redesign proved to be little more than a holding action. There was a brief blip in sales in 1979, but it was downhill from there. As sales declined, Ford began to prune the model range, dropping the 1300, the 1600S, and the 3000. The latter was replaced in 1981 with a new fuel-injected 2.8i model, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than eight seconds and a top speed of 126 mph (205 km/h). Like the North American Fox-body Mustang, the Capri was a little crude, but few rivals could touch its performance for the price.

1986 Ford Capri 2.8i rear 3q
Even the final Capri III models had a live rear axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs with radius rods for axle location. Its smooth-road handling was fine and contemporary critics liked its crisp steering response, but the Capri’s ride quality was notably harsher than rivals with independent rear suspension and its manners in the wet were never particularly good. (Photo © 2008 Martin Alford; used by permission)

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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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