No, not that one…
but this one…
The launch of the Mazda MX-5 in 1989 marked a huge turning point in the history of the sports car. Until that point – in Europe at least – affordable two-seater roadsters were most definitely on the wane. The arrival of a wave of powerful, capable and desirable hot hatchbacks – typified by the Ford Escort XR3, Vauxhall Astra GTE and Volkswagen Golf GTI – had turned the heads of young enthusiasts, who were not exactly turned on by the aging roadsters that could be had for the money.
Fifteen years before, roadsters were the darling of the young, with the Alfa Romeo Spider, Fiat X1/9 and Triumph TR7 proved to be just what the doctor ordered. But without new blood in the sector, and the nouveau competition, it’s no surprise that many were predicting the death of roadster.
Ford’s front-wheel-drive sports car idea
The product planners and designers hadn’t, of course, given up. The efforts of a mid-1980s Austin Rover design team to try and persuade its management to build a new MG Midget are well known. Meanwhile, over at Ford, Bob Lutz was championing a new front-wheel-drive challenger, built in the form of this delightful little prototype, the Ghia Ford Barchetta (below).
It was shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1983 and, although it would not realise production in that form, it would emerge five years later as the Australian-built Ford and Mercury Capri.
The original concept was based on the floorpan of the Ford Fiesta Mk2, making it unusual in its day for being a front-wheel-drive sports car. However, being based on an existing mass-produced supermini meant there could be agreeable economies of scale with any production Barchetta.
Bob Lutz loved it, stating in his autobiography, Guts, ‘it started out as a beautiful, slick, highly desirable little roadster that would have done well.’
Barchetta becomes Capri
The car was developed for the American market, to fight imports such as the Toyota MR2, as well as the clever little Pontiac Fiero. However, during its protracted and delayed development, its European coolness seems to have been lost, on account of the project being taken over by Ford Australia, which at the time was looking for an export project to help it step up onto the world stage of the Ford empire. It was styled by Ghia, but ended up being underpinned by the Mazda 323’s platform.
And therein lay the Capri’s problem. In 1983, as a racy little barchetta, it oozed desirability, but in a world that was about to be remoulded in the shape of the Mazda MX-5, this was never going to do. Along the way, it had grown to incorporate a pair of back seats (why?), and issues with the hood and overall quality hadn’t been overcome by the car’s Australian launch in 1989.
And so it proved when it went on sale in America – the US launch of the Mercury Capri (below) in 1990 saw it going head to head with the MX-5 and, even though later XR2 and Tickford versions handled better and were a sharper drive, Japan’s Lotus Elan pastiche had already destroyed it in the market place.
…and goes on to fail
Bob Lutz was clear on the reasons for the Capri’s failure. ‘functionalising it wrecked it. When you’re into emotional cars, it’s about appearance and how cool is it… it’s the same thing as sports motorcycles. Not necessarily comfortable, not suitable to saddlebags… but they look like track bikes and they’re fun to ride.’
However, things might have been different had the car made it to the market at least a couple of years before the MX-5, and in a form more closely resembling the original Barchetta. Would a Valencia-built 1986-’87 Barchetta have gained enough traction in the marketplace to stave off the subsequent Japanese invasion? It’s an interesting question – and one that we can never do anything more than speculate upon. But Ford’s marketing record is second to none, the Capri name was still hugely strong, despite the last V6s going out of prodiction in 1987, and it looked so very good.
I suspect that, had Lutz had his way and the Barchetta hit the market earlier, it would have been a hit, and the classic boys’ obsession with the Capri might well look a lot different today. Ah well, what might have been…