Was Capri a model or a make? The car itself that burst on the scene at the start of the 1970s was gorgeously self-evident, a lively sport coupe that handled as good as it looked. It was a collaboration between British and German designers of the most globally diverse of all car companies; Ford. Sport sedan aficionados throughout Europe all knew that this racy coupe wore the Blue Oval proudly on its bonnet. It was the Ford Capri, and they loved it. But when it came to America, Capri’s many fans here were less clear what to banner this racy little coupe drove for. Was it a Ford? Ford dealers in the States already had a sporty coupe to sell. That was called the Mustang…and rumor has it, it did pretty well. So Capri would be sold through the Lincoln-Mercury division. But was it a Mercury? No Mercury ever handled like a this. Things didn’t get any clearer over the next two+ decades in America. Capri took different forms, spanning four generations and as many continents. It wasn’t really a Ford or a Mercury. We can only call it Capri - the subject of our next Makes that Didn’t Make It.
Fords from Europe
Ford Motor Company began importing English Fords to America soon after the end of WWII. For the first decade or so they didn’t import very many. Their presence in American showrooms was more a result of pressure applied by the British government under its “Export or Die” policy, rather than on any actual demand for the small, well designed, but poorly made cars.
Things changed abruptly in 1958. In the aftermath of the Edsel debacle, the parent company reorganized its brand structure. The Lincoln-Mercury Division was formed to sell the company’s larger, more prestigious offerings. L-M was also given the task of selling European Fords. This turned out quite well for dealers during the severe 1958 recession that lingered into 1960. Lincoln-Mercury sold nearly 100,000 Consuls, Zephyrs and Zodiacs over the next few years. As the sixties arrived however, bringing with them the homegrown Ford Falcon and Mercury Comet compacts, sales of Fords from across the pond petered out.
That was too bad, because at about the same time Ford of Britain was introducing a nifty little coupe called the Consul Capri. The high volume Consul sedan’s ungainly backwards canted roof was ditched in favor of a sleek fastback and pair of tail fins. The Consul Capri looked a lot like a 5/8 scale American Ford Galaxy. It was a nice little car but lasted only a couple of years before the Consul line was replaced by a more modern Ford Corsair. An updated Capri version was not commissioned.
The Sexy European
Back in America, the 1964 Ford Mustang was arguably the most successful and profitable new model in the history of the automobile. What made the Mustang a hit was its aggressively sporty shape, just what early members of the Baby Boomer generation who were now coming of age craved. The reason Mustang made so much money was that beneath that sexy body was the ubiquitous and cheap underpinnings of the Ford Falcon compact sedan, loved by gramps and grammas everywhere. With a suitable platform already in place and paid for, Ford spent but a pittance developing the Mustang. Then they sold millions of them. It wasn’t long before European managers at Ford asked the question, if the Yanks can do it, why not us?
The 1969 Capri was one of the first collaborations between Ford’s newly merged British and German operations. The two groups did not always see eye to eye, but they did agree to apply much the same formula for their new coupe as the Mustang’s. Take a compact sedan - in this case the Ford Cortina Mk III - push the cockpit back on the frame, dress it in a sleek, sculptured coupe suit, and get a ground breaking new car for a fraction of the cost of an all-new car.
Capri’s Anglo-Germanic heritage made it an unlikely masterpiece. Less than a generation removed from being enemies on the battlefield, the tension that must have existed between the Capri’s collaborators was potentially explosive. But they managed to channel that tension artfully. With German precision and British purity, the Capri’s taunt lines coil, ready to explode forward. Its every proportion perfect with nary a detail out of place. Capri was a stunner. In January 1969 it was unveiled at the Brussels Int’l Auto Show (fittingly, about half-way between London and Colonge) Capri became an instant hit across Europe.
Back in America, as the 1960s became the 70s, cars were getting steadily bigger and fatter. When it was introduced in 1964, the Ford Mustang weighed just 2500lbs. By 1971, it would top 3000lbs. The waistline of the Mercury Cougar, an elegant coupe spawned by the Mustang, had similarly bulked up, now hitting 3400lbs. With these two pony cars letting themselves go, it opened up a niche in Ford’s American lineup for a new lightweight sporty coupe. The European Capri fit the bill to a tee. The little coupe also fit nicely with Ford Motor Company’s strategy to differentiate the Mercury brand from lower priced, higher volume Fords. The Capri and Cougar would bracket the Mustang both in image and price, just like the Cougar and Lincoln-Mercury’s new Continental Mark III bracketed the Ford Thunderbird.
Ford supplied Europe with Capris from its factories in both Halewood in the UK, and Cologne in West Germany. Despite a less favorable exchange rate for the deutschmark and a two-decade tradition of English Fords in America, Halewood’s terrible labor relations and intolerable build quality, meant that when U.S. sales commenced in April 1970, all U.S. bound Capris, would be sourced from Germany.
The Capri was widely praised for its racy styling and crisp handling, its upscale interior and rock bottom price, everything but its performance. The culprit was the English sourced 1.6L overhead-valve “Kent” engine, a crude, underpowered mill that had been powering European Fords for the last two decades. The Kent was poorly suited for American driving and totally out of synch with Capri’s sexy sophisticated look. But even with the outdated motor, Mercury sold 15,000 Capris in its abbreviated first year.
Capri’s single wart was surgically removed in 1971, replaced with a larger, smoother OHC 2.0L power plant. The new engine not only produced more power for much better performance (100hp vs 75), but with the job of moving a 2200lb car now spread out among more horses, the 2-litre actually delivered better fuel economy. Sales tripled to 53,000 that year.
They rose to 80,000 in 1972, when the captive import received an optional German-made V6 engine. With this set up, Capri could embarrass any muscle car on the road when that road got twisty. For 1973 Mercury sold 113,000 Capri’s, placing it second only to the VW Beetle that year for popularity among import models in America.
Federal environmental and safety mandates began to really bite in 1974. As a result, Capri’s V6 engine grew larger, but less powerful. The massive plastic bumpers added weight while sapping grace.
A redesigned and renamed Capri II arrived in late 1975. It was more refined than the original, and despite the blocky federally mandated bumpers, was still quite pretty. Unfortunately, the value of the German currency was on the accent in the mid-seventies. The Capri II became relatively expensive in comparison with new coupes from Japan. The Capri II lasted only two model years in America.
Despite being felled in the States by regulations and economics, the Capri remained popular in Europe. It was redesigned in 1979, now known as the Capri Mk III. But in the early 1980s sales began to wane. The Capri was replaced on the Continent by a modern aerodynamic Ford Sierra XR4. The Brits, however, love automotive oddities (Do they still make Bristols?) The Capri had something of a cult following among a small segment of the Queen’s subjects. It remained on the market there into 1988.
The Tubby American
After a 1-year hiatus in America (to clear out unsold inventory of 1977 cars), Capri was back for 1979. This was the first Capri to actually wear a Mercury badge. It was built in Michigan alongside a new Mustang with which it shared a platform. The Ford/Mercury comparison did not favor the latter. While the new Mustang was a major improvement over the horrible Pinto-based Mustang II, the new Capri was replacing a much better car than the Mustang II. The distribution of looks didn’t help either. Badge engineering had descended on the Ford Motor Company during the recession-wracked 1970s. That meant Capri differed from its paternal twin only by a blockier (called “formal”) grill up front, and later a heavy bulbous glass hatch in back. Initial year sales were good, nearly matching the 1973 model. They quickly tapered out though, and the Capri was discontinued after 1986.
The Ugly Aussie
In the auto industry good names die hard. A new decade brought a brand new Capri, this one possessing a brand new passport. In the endless pursuit of the setting sun, the source for Capri’s production continued westward, from Europe, to North America, on to the Antipodes. After a stopover in Japan to collect the underpinnings of the Mazda 323, the 4th generation Capri was now assembled in Victoria, Australia. That journey across the Pacific must have been a tumultuous one. When the Capri arrived in Ozzie, it had not only lost its top and its back seat, but flipped around its driveline. The Capri was now a 2-seat roadster with front wheel drive. What hadn’t changed on its continuing western migration was the heavy toll each stop took on Capri’s once terrific looks. They were as convoluted as this car’s bloodline suggests.
On the stat sheet at least, the Capri from Down Under looked pretty good. It could be had with a 1.6-litre turbocharged engine that put out a healthy (for the time) 132hp. In the flesh, however, this new Capri was crude and unrefined, especially when compared to its distant cousin, the sensational Mazda Miata. By 1994, the Capri was gone for good.
The final iterations of Capri weren’t awful cars, but they weren’t good ones either. Why not put them aside, and revel in the memories of those beautiful Capris of the 1970s? Those lithe rolling sculptures. They weren’t Fords, nor were they Mercurys. Capri stood apart.
Copyright@2018 by Mal Pearson