Blog : Capri – the car that might have changed history

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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…

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

26 Comments

  1. The Barchetta was / is a nice looking car, particularly in Red. I suspect it would have sold well in Europe against the MX5 had build quality been up to the mark and a suitable market niche developed for it

  2. It looks to me as though it was made from a lump of dough . I am not in the least surprised that it was a complete failure . Whoever it was at Ford who said that these cars had to look right was absolutely correct ( Lutz) and this looks awful.Ford had a spate of this sort of failure , with the Probe being a similar example

  3. Actually prefer the Fiesta-based Ghia Ford Barchetta concept shown elsewhere, might have worked pr at least established its own niche had it been based on the Fiesta platform, spawned a 2-seater Coupe variant with the range-topper featuring the 1.6 RS Turbo engine.

  4. If it had come out with fiesta underpinnings I suspect it may have flopped. The 80s were the decade of the fast hatch in Europe, which is probably why it was ignored by the boys at Warley.

    • It would largely depend on its weight and whether it is just available with 1.6 NA / 1.6 Turbo Ford CVH engines (or if possible larger 2-litre engines), one of the things that did not help the Reliant Scimitar SS1 was featuring entry-level 1.3-1.4 Ford CVH engines and Ford would have be stupid to follow suit.

      What would have interesting is this mk2 Fiesta-based sportscar being successful enough to be replaced by a mk3/mk4 Fiesta-based sportscar, especially given the success of the Ford Puma.

  5. Nice neat period interior but what did it look like with the roof up? The MX5 is/was a clever Mk1 Elan pastiche – this one looks a bit like the dumpy and unsuccessful Mk2 Elan that Kia took over.

  6. I was standing in the crowd when the Barchetta was shown at the 1983 Detroit Auto Show. The crowd around the car was six deep at its thinnest, and you could feel the electricity in the air. Parents stood with their teenage sons and daughters, twenty somethings and thirty somethings — male and female — were star struck, and a number of folks in the crowd were asking where they could send their deposit. It was obvious that there was pent-up demand for a stylish, affordable sports car. I mean, this was Detroit in the middle of January! I was there with one of my brothers (he’s now a senior Ford engineer), and both of us owned Fiestas. He had a gold-colored Ghia, while I had a Blue “S” being brought up to XR2 spec. We wanted this car. Only we both knew that, without U.S. production, it would be too expensive. Slowing demand and high prices had caused Ford to drop the German-built Fiesta from the U.S. lineup in 1981. There was some hope the company would build a production Barchetta off the Fiesta platform, and use the prospect of global sales to keep costs and prices within reason, but this was, after all, the Ford of the 1980s. Not only did the Australian Capri totally miss the mark and bastardize the Ghia styling, Mazda had offered Ford a version of the Miata in order to share costs, but Ford turned them down. The Australian Capri program was well underway, and the execs in charge at the time claimed, “Ours will beat theirs in terms of sales, performance and demand.” No wonder Ford was such a basket case at the time.

  7. Speaking of the original RWD Ford Capri, it would have made more sense to develop a mk4 (or even mk5) Ford Capri from the Ford Sierra platform that managed to last until 1998 in stretched Ford Scorpio form.

    Though it would have had to grow up to survive against the mid/late-80s+ Hot Hatches so sub-2 litre engines would be out of the question in favor of 2-litre 4-cylinder and 2.5-3.0-litre V6 (to even V8..) engines, leaving an opening for the Fiesta-based Ford Barchetta Ghia to fill the void.

      • Agreed yet they are still Sierras at the end of the day, there was also the 4WD Ford Escort RS Cosworth that was related to the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth.

        Given what was available a hypothetical Sierra-based mk3/mk4 Capri would potentially feature 136-150 hp 2.0 16v I4 DOHC and 195-210+ hp 2.9 Cologne V6 Cosworth as well as 200-230+ hp 2.0 Pinto-based Cosworth YB turbo engines with optional 4WD, which even without a V8 or other potential updates (I4 DOHC Turbo, etc) sounds a lot more appealing than a Ford Probe or Ford Cougar.

        • Capri sales had been dropping off since the start of the hot hatch and Ford did not see a need for a separate sports car – they thought hot versions of the Escort and Sierra would suffice. Remember this is Ford where every bean is counted and if a model could not make a set percentage of profit it was not made.

          • While Capri sales did drop off, that had as much to do with the outdated mechanicals as it did with the rise of the hot hatch.

            Ford would have been much better off with a mk3/mk4 Capri derived from the Sierra and Scorpio compared to the Ford Probe, at until it can be replaced by a shortened DEW98-derived mk5 Capri.

  8. The FWD M100 Lotus Elan was launched about the same time with an Isuzu engine. Looked nicer than the Capri was also a sales dud .

    Everyone seems to like sports cars , but we don’t buy them anymore. Their heyday was after WWII until the late 70s.

  9. The only word I can think of to describe the stance, proportions and overall appearance of that thing is “gimpy”. A well deserved failure.

  10. It would have likely helped Ford if they already had a background in producing small 2-seater MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire rivalling sports-cars in the UK during the late-50s / early-60s.

    The likes of Vauxhall did look into producing the Viva HA-based Vauxhall HA Roadster concept, while Pietro Frua designed the Ford Anglia Spyder prototype though would like to believe Ford themselves were already investigating similar projects (ideally with the 1300GT and 1600 Mexico engines from the Mk1 Ford Escort).

    http://www.anglia-models.co.uk/convertible-photo003.htm

  11. It would have likely helped Ford if they already had a background in producing small 2-seater MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire rivalling sports-cars in the UK during the late-50s / early-60s.

    The likes of Vauxhall did look into producing the Viva HA-based Vauxhall HA Roadster concept, while Pietro Frua designed the Ford Anglia Spyder prototype though little came of it and would like to believe Ford themselves were already investigating similar projects (ideally powered by more potent Kent / Crossflow engines).

  12. Ford took the very nice looking Saxon coupe, based on the Mk1 Cortina to car shows, but never put it into production.

    At least we got the Lotus Cortina “hot saloons”.

    • Is there any idea how much shorter and lighter the Ford Saxon is compared to the mk1 Ford Cortina?

      Envision Ford’s (Anglia / Escort based) RWD 2-seater sports-cars not directly competing against the Lotus Elan (so likely no 1.6 Lotus Twin-Cam), while 1.6 Cosworth BDA versions would be limited-run variants at best.

  13. If I remember rightly the problem with the Capri in Europe was getting it there in the first place – it was seen as a competitor for the XR2 )or whatever the “hot hatch” of the time was), so why would Ford Europe import competition?
    And, yes, the quality was a bit off and on the first couple of years production the hood didn’t actually keep out the rain…..

  14. What if Ford instead used the Mazda MX5 platform as the basis for a sports-car in place of the Aussie-built FWD “Capri”, like Fiat today via the 124 Spider though with styling possibly aping the Barchetta and utilizing Ford’s own engines?

  15. On the subject of open-top sports cars which were perhaps ahead of their time, don’t forget the superb looking Vauxhall Equus which was criminally never put into production. That could have been what the MX5 became.

    • The question is what would have been a suitable RWD platform for the Vauxhall Equus that could have lasted until the late-80s / early-90s, given that many models in GM Europe were shifting towards FWD?

      The only choices seem to be the Opel Manta B2 or do what Isuzu did with Chevette derived Isuzu Gemini to produce the Isuzu Piazza.

  16. It may have been a failure, but I have a RHD 1994 Capri XR2, with all the options here in the UK – I think it’s a great little car as so cool watching the boost gauge rise!

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