Cheap and Cheerful: The European Ford Capri

CAPRI TWILIGHT

By 1983, it was clear that the Capri was approaching the end of the line and there were rumors that it would be gone within a year. In many markets, that was true: Ford terminated production of left-hand-drive models in November 1984. The Capri soldiered on in Great Britain, still selling around 25,000 units a year. To maintain buyer interest, Ford trotted out an assortment of special editions like the Laser and the semi-official turbocharged Tickford Capri 2.8T. Developed by Aston Martin Tickford, the 2.8T was nearly twice the price of a 2.8i, but with 205 hp (150 kW), it was fast enough to see off a Porsche 944, an Audi Quattro, or a BMW 635 CSi. Only 100 Tickfords were built between 1983 and 1987.

In 1985, Capri production dropped under 10,000 units. At that point, it was no longer economical to build and its volume wasn’t high enough to compel Ford to spend the money on a new or substantially updated design. Production ended in December 1986 with a last-of-the-line special edition called Capri 280. The Capri’s demise left many British observers misty-eyed; it marked the end of an era. Total production for all three generations amounted to 1,922,847, an exceptional figure for a European car and respectable even by American standards.

Ford never really replaced the Capri, at least not in the hearts of British customers. In the late eighties, Mercury applied the name to an Australian-built roadster of no particular distinction, but it was not the same thing. The closest equivalent to the old Capri was probably the FWD, Mazda-based Probe, but it met a rather cool reception in Europe.

1987 Ford Capri 280 front 3q
There were 1,038 of these final Capri 280 models in 1987, all painted Brooklands metallic green with red-and-white pinstripes, trimmed with leather upholstery and fitted with 15-inch alloy wheels. (Photo © 2008 Martin Alford; used by permission)

FROM UNIFICATION TO GLOBALIZATION

The unification of Ford of Europe was a very protracted process. Ford did not really finish rationalizing products and engines until the eighties and even then it retained separate development teams in Britain and Germany.

Unsurprisingly, the chairmanship of Ford of Europe became a highly political position, under much closer scrutiny from Dearborn. Henry Ford II was heavily involved in European operations throughout the seventies and turnover of chairmen was rapid. John Andrews retired after only a year and died not long after. Stanley Gillen, former head of FoB, succeeded him for a year, followed in short order by Paul Lorenz, Phil Caldwell, Bill Bourke, John McDougall, Harold Poling, and Bob Lutz. Many former Ford of Europe bosses went on to higher positions in Dearborn.

Ford of Europe remained based in the UK until 1999, when then-president Jac Nasser transferred operations to Cologne. Since then, Ford automobile production has dropped substantially. The Dagenham plant, which celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2009, stopped building cars in 2001, although it remains an important engine plant. The factory in Halewood, opened in 1963, was converted in the early 2000s to Jaguar and Land Rover production, but Ford sold those marques to Tata in March 2008. Ford’s European passenger car production is now concentrated in Germany, Spain, and Belgium; Ford’s only remaining British plant is the factory in Southampton that produces the Transit van and that plant’s long-term future seems gloomy.

In recent years, the focus (no pun intended) of Ford’s international operations has been on eliminating the differences between its European, North American, and Australian products. Early efforts at “world cars” like the FWD Escort, Mondeo/Contour, and Mk 1 Focus were more different than alike, but current Ford CEO Alan Mulally has pushed for greater commonality, bringing models like the European Focus and Fiesta to North America.

In the past two years, there have been rumors that Ford will launch a new Capri based on the FWD Focus platform and sharing most of the same engines. In objective terms, a new Capri would almost certainly outperform its famous predecessor, although we expect the usual kibitzing about its worthiness to wear the storied name. Admittedly, the old Capri’s image remains a trifle naff, recalling as it does the era of bell-bottoms, gold medallions, and shaggy seventies hairdos, but it was as close as many Europeans ever came to owning a real muscle car. It’s still remembered with bemused affection, particularly in Britain.

Whatever its eventual virtues or failings, the new Capri (if it ever materializes) will never have the same impact as the original. There’s no longer anything particularly novel about inexpensive sporty coupes and modern buyers have far more choices than they did 40 years ago. A new Capri might well be a good car, even a great car, but it won’t be “the car you always promised yourself.”

FIN


SPECIAL NOTE

In 2011, Kacper Kasperkiewicz and translator Marcelina Trybuła translated this article (with our permission) into Polish for the Polish website Oldtimery.com. You can see that version here: oldtimery.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=203:ford-europa&catid=18:stare-samochody&Itemid=1 and oldtimery.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=204:ford-capri-1&catid=18:stare-samochody&Itemid=1 http://oldtimery.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=204:ford-capri-1&catid=18:stare-samochody&Itemid=1. (In the interests of full disclosure, Oldtimery was kind enough to link to Ate Up With Motor on their Partners page, although we did not charge Oldtimery for either the use of the article or this link.)


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We would like to extend a special thanks to Martin Alford, who graciously allowed us to use many of his photos for this article.


NOTES ON SOURCES

Information on Ford’s European operations and the origins of Ford of Europe came from Chris Arnot, “When the wheels came off the dream,” The Guardian 25 February 2009, www.guardian. co.uk, accessed 31 January 2009; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1951-1956 Ford Consul and Zephyr,” HowStuffWorks.com, 11 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1951-1956-ford-consul-zephyr.htm, accessed 10 January 2010; Gérard Bordenave, “Ford of Europe, 1967-2003,” Cahiers du GRES, Cahier No. 2003-11, Groupement de Recherches Economiques et Sociales, September 2003; “FORD (England) 1911 to date” (n.d., Voitures Europeennes D’Autrefois, www.vea.qc. ca, accessed 28 January 2010); Ford Motor Company, “Ford in Europe: The First Hundred Years,” 3 March 2003, media.ford. com, accessed 28 January 2010; “Halewood is great survivor,” BBC News 24 September 2009, news.bbc. co.uk, accessed 31 January 2010); “Henry Ford II’s big idea: A pan-European car company: He saved his grandfather’s company and made it a powerhouse in Europe,” Automotive News Europe February 2003, www.autonews. com, accessed 10 January 2010; Paul Hudson, “80 years of Ford at Dagenham: Edsel Ford cut the first sod of Ford’s new British manufacturing plant in the Dagenham marshes on May 17, 1929,” The Telegraph 15 May 2009, www.telegraph. co.uk, accessed 10 January 2010; “Isadora – 1930 Ford Model ‘A’ De Luxe Fordor Saloon,” Duchy Bus Cars, n.d., www.duchybus. co.uk, accessed 28 January 2010; Karl Ludvigsen, “A GT for the Seventies,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car May 2006; Simon Reich, “The Ford Motor Company and The Third Reich,” Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1999), www.adl. org/ Braun/dim_13_2_ford.asp, accessed 10 January 2010; Peter Weir, “Check Your Engine’s Capacity and British RAC Horsepower Rating,” Veteran Car Club of Australia (N.S.W.), n.d., www.vccansw. org/ articles/vcca_article02.htm, accessed 28 January 2010; and Mary Wilkins and Franck Hill, American Business Abroad, Ford on Six Continents (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1964).

Background on Ford’s other European products of this era came from John R. Bond, “Miscellaneous Ramblings,” Road & Track Vol. 14, No. 1 (September 1962), pp. 15–17; and “New from Europe: Taunus: Taunus now has V-4s and V-6s in all models,” Road & Track Vol. 16, No. 4 (December 1964), pp. 96–98; Andrew Connochie, “Mk. I Cortina,” The Ford Cortina Website, 30 June 2009, www.pixelmatic. com.au/ cortina/cortina.html, accessed 10 January 2010); the Ford of Europe press kit “Ford Escort: 40 Years,” 2008, www.fordmedia. eu, accessed 10 January 2010; “Giant test: Ford Corsair V4, Hillman Super Minx,” CAR February 1966, pp. 42–47; Max Gordon, “A Corsair Is Born,” Ford Consul Corsair, 11 October 2008, www.fordconsulcorsair. co.uk, accessed 10 January 2010; Gary J. Hanson, “History of the Ford T5,” The Ford T5 Registry Site, n.d., www.fordt5. com/ history.html, access 10 January 2010; L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1971 (Bronxville, NY: Herald Books, 1971), and World Cars 1979 (Pelham, New York: Herald Books, 1979); Oscar Moore, “Ford Consul Capri,” AgeCars, 30 August 2008, agecars. com/ coupes/ford-consul-capri/, accessed 10 January 2010; Graham Robson, Cortina: The Story of Ford’s Best-Seller, Second Edition (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing Limited, 2007); Hans Tore Tangerud’s Autoblog website (www.lov2xlr8.no); and “Z cars Mk IV,” Motor 23 April 1966, pp. 44–54.

Information on the Capri came from Martin Buckley, Mike McCarthy, and Jeremy Walton, “Classic Profile: The Car You Always Promised Yourself?” Classic & Sports Car May 1987, reprinted in High Performance Capris: Gold Portfolio 1969-1987, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990); Holly Clark and Wolfgang Kohrn, “The Man behind the Pony & More – Phil Clark,” The unexpected Ponysite, 15 November 2006, www.ponysite. de/ phclark_capri.htm, accessed 10 January 2010; Mike Covello, ed., Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946–2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Ford, “Ford Capri: Bilen De alltid har dromt om” [Norwegian brochure 748661/691/15M], 1969; Ford-Werke AG, “Ford Capri RS” [German brochure, ca. 1971]; Richard Franks, “Capri celebrates 40th anniversary,” @Ford July/August 2009, pp. 8-9; Mark Graham, “Top of the Pops,” CAR July 1997, pp. 58-59; Chris Rees, Essential Ford Capri: The Cars and Their Story 1969-87 (Bideford, Devon: Bay View Books Ltd., 1997); Phil Skinner, “1971-78 Capri/Capri II: Ford’s Foreign-Exchange Program,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 19, No. 1 (June 2002), pp. 42-51; the website Perana.org, accessed 18 February 2010; and emails between the author and Virgil Exner, Jr., 18-22 January 2010.

We also consulted the following period road tests: “Fastest British Ford yet: The Capri 3000 GT,” Motor 11 October 1969; “Autotest: Ford Capri 3000 GT XLR,” Autocar 30 October 1969; “Capri 3000GT — A Lazy Man’s Sports Car,” Motor Racing January 1970; “Three Sporting Coupes: Comparing the Opel Rallye 1900, Toyota Celica ST and Capri 2000,” Road & Track Vol. 23, No. 2 (October 1971), pp. 32–37; “Group Test: Ford Capri 2000GT, Opel Manta 1.6S, Vauxhall Firenza 2000, Morris Marina 1.8TC Coupe, Toyota Celica,” Motor 23 October 1971, pp. 74–79; “Tested in Europe: Capri RS 2600,” Road & Track, December 1971; “Ford Capri 3000E – Brief Test,” Motor 5 February 1972; “Autotest: Ford Capri 3000 GXL: Executive sports car — 1973 style,” Autocar 8 March 1973; “Comparison Test Super Coupes ’74: Mazda RX-2, Open Manta Rallye, Toyota Celica GT, Capri 2800, Vega GT, Mustang II Mach I,” Car and Driver Vol. 19, No. 11 (May 1974), pp. 58–69, 86; “Autotest: Ford Capri 3000S,” Autocar 13 November 1976; Tony Howard, “‘What a lucky boy you are!’ Ford Capri 3000S – 12,000-mile Report,” Autocar 13 November 1976; “Road Impressions: The Ford Capri III 3000S: Excellent performance and driveability, fantastic value,” Motor Sport August 1978; Michael Scarlett, “A Tale of Two Capris,” Autocar 1 December 1979; “Autotest: Ford Capri 2.8i: Straightforward enjoyment”, Autocar 20 June 1981; “RoadTest: Ford Capri 2.8 Injection” Motor 27 June 1981; Roger Bell, “Vee-Six Appeal,” Thoroughbred & Classic Cars October 1981; “The tide turns: Group Test: High Performance Coupes – Renault Fuego Turbo, Ford Capri 2.8i, Cold Cordia Turbo, Lancia HPE VX,” What Car? February 1984; “Tickford Capri: Ford with a touch of class,” Motor Sport February 1984; “Buying Secondhand: Ford Capri III,” Autocar 31 March 1984; Bob Cooke, “Autocar Road Test Update: Ford Capri 2.8i Special: The Primitive Appeal of Ford’s Capri,” Autocar 7 November 1984; “TwinTest: Fast Fords Fight It Out,” Motor 27 October 1984; Mike McCarthy, “On the end of the line,” Autocar 4 March 1987, and “The last of its kind,” Autosport 19 March 1987 all of which are reprinted in High Performance Capris: Gold Portfolio 1969-1987, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990); and “Autotest: Ford Capri 2000GT (1,996 c.c.) 2247,” Autocar 10 July 1969, pp. 8-12; “Giant Test [Capri 2.0S vs. Celica ST vs. Colt Celeste],” CAR July 1978, pp. 48-53; “Giant Test: VW Scirocco TS v. Capri 2000GT v. Toyota Celica ST,” CAR December 1974, pp. 72-79; “Group Test: Ford Capri 2000GT, Opel Manta 1.6S, Vauxhall Firenza 2000, Morris Marina 1.8TC Coupe, Toyota Celica,” Motor 23 October 1971, pp. 74-79; Bob Hall, “Black Gold,” Motor Trend Vol. 27, No. 10 (October 1975), pp. 102–105; “Road Test: Capri 2600 V-6,” Car and Driver Vol. 17, No. 7 (January 1972): 26–28, 82; “Super Coupe Comparison Test,” Car and Driver Vol. 16, No. 6 (December 1971), pp. 25–32, 68–70; and Jonathan Thompson, “BMW vs Ford,” Road & Track Vol. 24, No. 11 (July 1973): 81–85; which are not.

Some facts about the Capri’s most famous television role came from Dave Matthews, “Star Cars,” The Authorised Guide to The Professionals, 1 June 2005, www.personal.u-net. com/ ~carnfort/Professionals/profcars.htm, accessed 11 January 2010.

The typeface in the engine tables is Liberation Sans, one of the Liberation Fonts (version 2.00.1 or later), which are copyright © 2012 Red Hat, Inc., used under the SIL Open Font License, Version 1.1. LIBERATION is a trademark of Red Hat, Inc.

Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and British pound came from Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 British Pound, 1948-2007,” fx.sauder.ubc. ca, accessed 2 January 2010. Exchange rate data for the dollar and the mark came from Harold Marcuse, “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page,” UC Santa Barbara, 19 August 2005, www.history.ucsb. edu/ faculty/marcuse/projects/currency.htm, accessed 9 December 2009. Our inflation estimates were made using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. All equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for illustration and informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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11 Comments

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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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