The car you always promised yourself…
THE car industry had been going through some liberating times during the 1960s. Fuel was plentiful and cheap, and the Americans were making the most of the situation – offering buyers plenty of V8s to choose from. Even the entry-level ‘college’ cars were packing big (by European standards) six-cylinder engines.The car that epitomised the attractive youthfulness of the American car-buying public was the Ford Mustang – a sporting legend designed for the young free and single. Originally based on the Ford Falcon, the first Mustang rolled off the production line in March 1964 and straight into the arms of public acclaim.
Within weeks of its launch, the Mustang had generated huge waiting lists, and it had become the new cult car for a new generation. Within 18 months, it went from zero to a million sales, and a legend was born. By the time the Mustang was fully up to speed in the USA, Ford of Europe was already looking at doing the same thing over here – making a ‘Pony Car’ out of one of its mass-market saloons…
Development of the European Mustang came under the codename, ‘Colt’ in 1964 – a reference to the car’s role as a baby Pony Car, and was initially undertaken by the engineering team at Dagenham. As the project continued towards its July 1966 sign-off, an increasing amount of co-operation with Ford’s engineering and design department in Cologne resulted in the Capri being the second Pan-European Ford after the Escort.
In typical Ford fashion, development was a swift and efficient operation, despite the swooping styling needed changing at the last minute to incorporate the horseshoe shaped rear window line, in response to unfavourable customer clinic comments. As it happened, in this case, the customers were absolutely right, and that uniquely shaped rear window became a Capri styling trademark, which remained with the car for the rest of its life.
Despite CAR magazine’s rather off-hand assertion that the Capri was little more than a ‘Cortina in drag’, the new car actually boasted a bespoke platform developed in the UK that comprised of the best bits of the Escort and its larger brother, the Corsair. Engines choice depended on where the car was being sold- in the UK, you could have either the 1.3- or 1.6-litre versions of the long-lived ‘Kent’ engine, alongside the forgettable 2-litre V4, and crackerjack ‘Essex’ 3-litre V6.
The German versions, on the other hand, used its own V4 and V6 engines, the former in 1.3-, 1.5-, 1.7-litre form, and the latter in 2- and 2.3-litre form. Talk about an abundance of choice. Considering it was a sporting car, Ford decided to launch its vitally important new car in the depths of winter – in Belgium. The January 1969 Brussels Motor Show might not seem the most glamorous location to unveil a car, but despite the winter gloom, the world’s press warmed very quickly to the Capri.
Ford would have dearly loved to use the Colt nameplate for its new sporting car, but Mitsubishi beat Uncle Henry to the name, leaving marketing gurus fishing through the filing cabinet of defunct names – and drawing out the Capri moniker following its short career on the rump of the short lived Classic-based Coupe of 1961-1963.
Sales kicked off in February 1969, and Ford soon found itself in the fortunate position of having yet another sales hit on its hands – and thanks to a memorable advertising campaign which was cleverly tailored to appeal to the young professional couples who the company wanted to buy the car. If the intention had been to replicate the North American success of the Mustang here in Europe, it soon became clear that Ford had succeeded in its aims. Being a pan-European venture, the Capri was rolling off the production lines at Dagenham and Halewood in the UK, Genk in Belgium (briefly), and the Saarlouis and Cologne plants in Germany.
Rival manufacturers no longer needed convincing that four-seat affordable Coupes were the way forward, and very soon, they all knuckled down to work on their own alternatives. Chrysler and BL’s most striking efforts never made it into production (R429 and Condor respectively), although we did get the Morris Marina two-door fastback… However, the rest made it further – and thanks to the success of the Capri, we ended up with such fine cars as the Opel Manta, Renault 15/17 and Volkswagen Scirocco.
The impact the Capri made on the buying public and popular culture as a whole was even bigger than on an industry that had been caught napping. Ford’s laser-sharp marketing gurus correctly figured that as buyers were becoming increasingly affluent – with many cars now being bought by companies in the UK and offered to their employees as inflation (and tax-proof) ‘perks’. They put out an inspired series of adverts, depicting the Capri in all manner of exotic locations, and added the unforgettable tagline, ‘The car you always promised yourself…’
They figured that married-with-children middle managers liked the glamorous image of the Capri, and desperately wanted to identify themselves with the ‘bachelor-and-leggy-bird’ lifestyle depicted in the cheesy advertising.
One of the greatest aspects of the Capri wasn’t so much about how it drove, or even the way it looked – but the keen pricing. At the time of its launch in the UK, the entry level 1.3-litre Capri would set you back a very reasonable £890 – nearly £100 less than one of the year’s other big launches, the Austin Maxi 1500. And that’s a lot of money in an era when you could buy a semi-detached house in Essex for £6000…
Having said that, the 1.3-litre Capri was a bit of a sheep in wolf’s clothing, with a 0-60mph time of 18.8secs and a top speed of 84mph. But none of that mattered, because it looked good, and made its driver feel like Jason King. Nevertheless, the road testers liked the Capri, and the normally sanguine Autocar proclaimed the 1600GT XLR as, ‘the best car Ford has ever produced.’ And although we consider the Capri a bit medieval today, its handling was blessed as some kind of minor miracle: ‘On corners, this Ford is quite unlike any other. It is balanced neutrally and in some ways feels like a four wheel drive car.’
We wonder how many GT40 owners would agree to the sentiment.
Originally, the 2-litre V4 sat atop the Capri range, but it was merely keeping the daddy’s seat warm. Towards the end of 1969, the 3-litre version was rolled out – out went the form-guide, and in came a new benchmark in performance for accessibly priced cars. Using the 2994cc 138bhp ‘Essex’ engine in the light Ford Capri bodyshell, the pretty if non-too flighty Capri became a genuine performance car bargain. For just over £1000, you got a 120mph top speed, and 0-60mph of less than ten seconds – in 1970, you needed to spend considerably more than this to get comparable levels of performance.
But if the 3000GT wasn’t quick enough for you – then the RS2600 would have been right up your street. Featuring Kugelfischer fuel injection and 150bhp of muscular power, the special model was offered to customers on a limited in order to make Ford’s Group 2 activities in the European Touring Car Championship nice and legal. The RS2600 handled like a thoroughbred thanks to modified suspension, and was usefully quick thanks to the power boost and close ratio gearbox. Ford was never one for resting on its motor sport laurels, and within a couple of seasons, upgunned the RS2600 replacing it with the phenomenal RS3100. Although it was no more powerful than its predecessor, it was even more special…
The Capri went on to become one of the most successful sporting coupes ever built, and by 1973, a million had been built. Despite the roaring success, Ford developed the Capri continuously in order to keep it at the head of the pack. In 1972, it received suspension upgrades and a new interior, and the ghastly V4 engines, as well as the ‘Kents’ were replaced by the overhead cam ‘Pinto’ engine, as used in the USA.
In February 1974, the Capri Mk2 was introduced. After a run of 1.2 million cars sold, and with the post-1973 mood being rather glum in the wake of the oil crisis, Ford appeared to lessen the Capri’s glamour with the Mk2 version, and made it a whole lot more versatile with the addition of a commodious hatchback rear end, and split folding rear seats. So for all those, who said the Fiesta was Ford’s first economical hatchback, we present you with the Capri Mk2 1.3L…
The newer car built on the successes of the flamboyant original, but many purists felt that it looked a little on the ‘soft’ side. Perhaps it was the big and friendly looking headlights, penned by Peter Stevens – or maybe it was the fact you could now buy a Capri L, GL or Ghia – just like a Cortina or any other run of the mill Ford. Sales did take a hit with the new car, and although the 3000S, Ghia and JPS Special edition added much needed testosterone-fuelled appeal, it was clear that a little more va-va-voom was needed…
The final – and some would say ultimate – Capri came in 1977, and with the minimum of effort on Ford’s part, it put right just about all of the Mk2’s wrongs. Designated Project Carla, the re-invigorated car looked mean and moody, and proved that the Ford styling boffins had not lost their magic touch. In fact, it is hard to believe that in terms of styling, the only major differences between the Mk2 and Mk3 amounted to a re-profiled bonnet leading edge, some natty ribbed rear light clusters, and wraparound bumpers.
Once again, the Capri became the pushy young exec’s weapon of choice, and the ‘S’ versions did all they needed to impress potential buyers who may have otherwise been tempted to go and buy a Manta. The 3-litre version remained the performance bargain of the decade, which no rival could answer – and although the Essex engine was beginning to be seen as a bit on the long-in-the-tooth side, there was no denying it delivered the goods.
However, time wasn’t kind to the Capri. By the ’80s, buyers were beginning to see the Capri as a bit of a hangover from a by-gone era, and just like stragglers at an overnight party the morning after, turfing out time was upon us. Except the Capri didn’t give in to the ravages of time without a fight – despite the arrival of the new generation hot hatchbacks as epitomised by the Golf GTi and Escort XR3. Ford dropped the Essex engine in 1981, replacing it with the ‘Cologne’ V6 – this creating one of the coolest named cars in the world – The Capri Injection…
Boasting 160bhp and a 0-60mph time of 7.7 seconds, the Capri was able, once again, to punch above its weight, and give the snobs from Germany and Italy a bloody nose… However, in real terms, that was it for the Capri. Final development was little more than a marketing exercise, with a raft of special editions seeing it into old age – you could buy the Calypso, the Cabaret, the Brooklands. But in an era of engine management and digital dashboards, uncle Henry’s European Pony Car has passed its sell-by date.
In 1987, time was called on one of the defining cars of a generation, and a run of nearly two million cars, the book was closed on a legend. The Capri was a social phenomenon and attracted a loyal army of fans during its lifetime – it was the introduction to Coupe motoring for many a young blade – and let’s not it’s rather lucrative Television career. The irony was that in 1989, Vauxhall launched the Calibra – truly a modern day Capri – and caused a storm with it.
Just as Ford had no answer…
Thanks to Andrew Elphick