A retrospective on a car that went from cynical marketing exercise to icon for a generation of drivers.
That Ford chose to produce the Capri was as logical as night following day. The US Ford Mustang, launched five years earlier and, like the Capri, based largely on a humble sedan (the Falcon), had been a huge sales success. Ford had expected to shift around 100,000 Mustangs annually, but 400,000 were sold in its first year and a further 600,000 in its second year of production. Little wonder that, on seeing these numbers, Ford Europe decided to try and emulate its US cousin.
The Capri was an Anglo-German joint-venture, produced at both Halewood and Cologne, each plant utilising its own range of engines. The car’s design is credited to Phil Clark, overseen at Ford’s Dunton design studio by Duncan McRae.
The UK model had the Kent inline four in 1.3L and 1.6L capacities, and the Essex 2.0L V4 and (later) 3.0L V6. The German model had the Taunus V4 in 1.3L,1.5L and 1.7L capacities and the Cologne V6 in 2.0L and (later) 2.3L capacities. Ford had wanted to call the new coupé Colt to emphasise its conceptual relationship to the Mustang, but Mitsubishi had already trademarked that name* so it was unavailable.
The Capri was launched on my eighth birthday. As a car-obsessed youngster, I still remember my excitement when I first laid eyes on a grainy black-and-white photo of Ford’s new coupé in my dad’s morning paper. At the time, I hadn’t a clue about its prosaic 1966 Cortina Mk2 underpinnings and wouldn’t have cared even if I had understood that cart springs and a live rear axle are not the stuff from which thoroughbred sports cars were made. A long bonnet, close-coupled cabin and sleek fastback tail gave the Capri instant appeal, and that was all that mattered.
The Capri’s scheduled launch nearly didn’t happen. Ford’s normally highly efficient press office gave journalists a couple of months’ notice of the launch date, so that the monthly magazines could test and photograph the new car beforehand, maximising the publicity surrounding the launch. However, a strike at UK brake component supplier Girling disrupted production and brakeless but otherwise finished cars piled up at Dagenham and Halewood.
Instead of the scheduled 200 cars a day, early production was limited to a few dozen, with assembly line staff scavenging brake parts from wherever they could find them. Eventually, enough cars were gathered at Ford’s test track at Boreham for the press launch, after which they were shipped off to Malta for a dealer junket.
Car Magazine was present at the press launch event and was, to say the least, underwhelmed. The 1600L version the journalists first drove sounded, rode and felt exactly like the Cortina on which it was based, except that, with a 0 to 60mph time of 18 seconds, it was actually slower than its saloon equivalent. However, further acquaintance with the more powerful 1600GT model demonstrated that, at higher speeds of up to 95mph on the test track, it was much quieter, more comfortable and stable than the tinny, trashy and cacophonous Cortina.
The seat comfort and sporty, arms-stretched driving position were also a significant improvement over the Cortina. The Escort-sourced rack-and-pinion steering was light and precise and the car’s handling was limited by the tyres’ grip, particularly in the wet, beyond which it tended to understeer, albeit safely. The journalists did, however, wonder how the (not yet available) 3.0L version with a much heavier V6 engine would perform in similar on-the-limit circumstances.
Overall, the journalists were rather sniffy and cynical about what they described as the Capri’s “triumph of marketing over engineering” and opined that “the point of diminishing returns [of this approach] must be very close indeed”.
The journalists’ cynicism was, however, misplaced. Ford marketed the Capri as ‘The Car You Always Promised Yourself’. UK base prices initially ranged from £890 for the (loss-leading?) 1300 to £1,087 for the V4-engined 2000GT. There were a range of X, L and R option packs to personalise and upgrade the GT models. Demand was strong and over 400,000 Capris were sold in its first two years of production. It was sold as far afield as Japan, South Africa and even the US, the latter under the Mercury brand name.
In 1971 a high-performance Cologne V6 RS2600 model was introduced to burnish the Capri’s sporting credentials. This had Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection and formed the basis for a Group 2 racing car. The RS2600 was replaced by the Essex V6 RS3100 in September 1973.
In 1972 the Capri was treated to a mild facelift that introduced larger rectangular headlamps, or twin round items on the top models, with the indicators relocated to the corners of the front bumper. The rear lights were also enlarged, replacing the Escort-sourced original units. The dummy vents ahead of the rear wheels were modified to look smaller and less ‘dummy’. Under the bonnet, Pinto engines replaced the Kent units on UK cars.
The facelift successfully boosted its appeal and the Capri had its best ever year in 1973, achieving 233,000 sales, with the millionth Capri rolling off the production line in August.
The MK1 Capri really had a model for everyone. I recall that the otherwise very sober middle-aged woman who ran our local haberdashery shop had a bright yellow 1600L with a black vinyl roof. Mr Emmett, my secondary school chemistry teacher, briefly became too cool for school when he turned up in a metallic blue 2000GT. Sadly, family commitments meant this was too soon replaced with a dreary mud coloured MK3 Cortina of some sort.
My now brother-in-law lusted after a second-hand Capri for his first car before the reality of the prospective insurance premium made him buy a VW Beetle instead. It is with some regret that I never had the opportunity to own a Capri.
The Mk1 Capri defied its critics with sales of 1,172,900 over its five-year lifespan, a tremendous success for a ‘niche’ product. In Part Two, we’ll examine the Mk2 and Mk3 Capris and reflect on why the Capri became a victim of changing tastes.
*Mitsubishi fought and won a court battle with Ford over the Colt name. The company would subsequently use Colt as the brand name for all its models sold in the UK for a decade from 1974, fearing that the British would struggle to pronounce or spell its own polysyllabic and unfamiliar name.