A Promise Fulfilled (Part One)

A retrospective on a car that went from cynical marketing exercise to icon for a generation of drivers.

(c) avengers-in-time

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.

1969 Ford Capri 1700 GT. (c) autowp

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.

1972 Capri post-facelift. (c) bestcarmag

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

35 thoughts on “A Promise Fulfilled (Part One)”

  1. The road going RS2600s did not have aluminium cylinder heads. They used cast iron heads like the other Cologne V6s but had a Kugelfischer mechanical injection system with an aluminium induction plenum chamber. This version formed the base for the later fuel injected 2.8i versions.

    The RS was a very successful circuit racer in the German national championship. The racers had aluminium heads supplied by Harry Weslake before they got Cosworth-developed DOHC engines based on the Essex V6 from the RS3100. They gave BMW with their E9 CSLs a good run for the money

    1. Ford was very masterful in freely interpreting homologation rules.
      The way they got homologation for the Escort Mk2 RS or the RS200 was very clever. The RS3100 also had plastic rear leaf springs of purely decorative character for its rear suspension with coils and Watts linkage.

  2. Morning, all. Has anyone read “The cars you always promised yourself” by a Steve Saxty? It goes heavily into the genesis of the Capri in particular from a design and product management, rather than an engineering perspective. I have a copy but it’s a bit buried at the moment…

  3. Good morning, Daniel, fantastic article as always.

    I know that it was a completely different car in engineering terms, but since you’re focusing on the marketing side I’m surprised you haven’t discussed the 1961-4 Ford of Britain Consul Capri. Though I believe the car was something of a commercial failure, surely Ford must have learned some lessons from its attempts to Anglicise the styling of the Thunderbird?

    Looking forward to future instalments!

    1. Good morning, Waldensian, and thank you for your kind words, which are much appreciated. The Classic and its Capri derivative certainly do deserve a look, at least as a lesson in what not to do. They were complex to build and their Americanized styling did not appeal to conservative European buyers. They only survived two years on the market, so represented a costly and uncharacteristic misstep for Ford in Europe.

  4. Daniel, a good subject for a yarn.

    I should like to quote from Wikipedia on the Capri:

    “The initial reception of the car was broadly favourable. In the June 1970 edition of the Monthly Driver’s Gazette, tester Archie Vicar wrote of the gearchange that it was “…in Ford fashion easy to operate but not very jolly”. In the same review Vicar summed up the car as follows: “Perhaps with a bit of work it can be given road-holding and performance less like an American car and more like a European one”.[7]”

    No doubt Simon Kearne has been delighted with the spread of satirical commentary that DTW has inflicted on the world ! And literal-thinking Wikipedian authors, scribbling away mightily, have often taken the Archie Vicar spoofs as luxurious fodder for quick and easy references on several different distinguished automobiles.

    Well done, DTW!

    Back in the real world, one wonders if in fact the Capri didn’t use a few chassis bits and pointers from that strange-looking beast, the Corsair, rather than the Mk II Cortina, which was spared the tremulous Essex V4 engine.

    The Cortina MkII body turned out to be an aerodynamic brick which rather crimped its attainment of speeds beyond 90 mph, most noticed in the Lotus version; whether it could be labelled “the tinny, trashy and cacophonous Cortina” is a bit open to question, in my view, though. The Capri did feel more solid than the four-door Cortina, but one wonders if this was due to two doors and/or reinforcements of the pressed tin variety to carry the 2.0 V4 previously worked out for the Corsair, and the boat anchor iron Essex V6. That was an engine untroubled by advances Ford had made in the USA with their 221/260/289 and 302 V8s, which all weighed the same or less at 500 lbs! Ford made much of their new thinwall casting technique for the iconic V8 family in North America. The period 1969 to ’74 corresponded to my graduate study in Blighty, so I was up on this stuff as a car nut.

    I was not, however, privy to local level social chattering on the prestige of the Capri. That was an interesting observation I’d never considered, but paralleled the Mustang’s effect in North America. External appearances trump the prosaic underpinnings for most people, and the Capri was certainly an example of that phenomenon.

    1. The Essex engines were incredibly heavy because sn intended dieselisation was part of the design equation. Another result were crankshaft bearings so large in diameter that they prevented the engine from reaching higher revs without damaging the bearings.

    2. “the tinny, trashy and cacophonous Cortina” – I don’t remember it as such, but it’s down to points of comparison, and the family car of the time was a 1957 Morris Minor 1000.

      I recall – hopefully correctly – that the 1971 Capri was the first British Ford where “NVH” was referred to in advertising and press material. Was the acronym confined to the internal argot of the industry until then?

      I hadn’t realised that the German Capris had V4 engines right down to 1.3 litres, but it makes perfect sense. The 53bhp 1.3 must have been a rough and heavy lump of misery. The 1.3 Kent sounds a better prospect – the pedantic will no doubt note that the toponym was not used until 1970.

      To its engineers’ credit the Capri was the first true European Ford. British and mainland European Transits and Escorts had less interchangeability than external appearances would suggest, but the Capri was metric at its core, albeit with quite a few work-rounds to accommodate stubbornly Imperial British component suppliers.

      These late ’60s British motoring writers seem a snobbish lot. I suspect the Capri was instantly characterised as a ‘spiv’s’ car. In its long life, the Capri in the UK never quite suffered the social opprobrium the Opel Manta received in its home market – Mantafahrer being shorthand for a vacuous oaf.

      Is there a German word equivalent to ‘oaf’? My Oxford Wortbuch gives “Trottel” but I suspect that misses several layers of subtlety.

    3. “Leo” dictionary gives me words like “Blödian”, “Depp” or “Lackel” as a choice. Each of these words has different connotations, so it might be that neither of them is a direct translation. On the other hand, there might be no good English translations of these German words either. What the words have in common is that they describe someone not too intelligent, but not necessarily of bad nature. Does that sum it up?

    4. The Capri had a kind of credibility because of its successful career in motor racing, particularly in the German touring car championship. That’s something the Manta didn’t have. There also were no RS Opel dealers (in Germany there were not too many RS Ford dealers, either) and there was no Manta RS. The Capri could survive so long because in the end it was a 2.8i which provided a lot of bang for the buck, something the Manta also never had.

    5. “Trottel”, “Blödian” or “Depp” are simply indicating that someone is stupid. A “Lackel” is someone with bad manners.
      In Germany a Manta driver was considered a “Proll” which roughly translates to “chav” or “nacker” and is comprehensively pejorative.

  5. Hi Daniel,

    Thank you for this article. I didn’t know much about the Capri as I was too young then.
    I wonder if the Puma’s rear window was inspired by the Capri.

    I didn’t know Mitsubishi was named Colt for 10 years. What about the other countries in Europe ? Did Mitsubishi thought only English people wouldn’t be able to pronounce its name ?

    1. NRJ, some accounts do suggest the Puma’s rear quarterlight was a direct reference to the Capri, although I have not read anything which would lend credence to that assertion. On the other hand I recall Ian Callum, who was involved in the Puma styling programme to some extent at least, was quoted as saying it was shaped to reflect the treatment on the Aston Martin DB7, which itself was a development of the stillborn Jaguar XX/ XJ41. Given the lack of clarity on this, might I suggest you take your pick as to the one you like best or find more credible?

    2. Ford did contemplate a Capri replacement in 2003, when it produced the Visos concept:

      The distinctive Capri DLO does look a bit forced on this concept and it wasn’t particularly well received, as I recall

  6. I knew someone who had one in the early 90s.

    It was one of the later models, so it looked vaguely cool in a kind of 80s way, but once inside it felt like the 1970s… and that was not cool then. Maybe not even now. It was also one of the lower powered versions, so totally gutless. Not only was it not fast, it didn’t feel like it enjoyed moving at all.

    Any hankering I may have had for a Capri ended right there. To me, a Golf GTi or any number of other hot hatches were infinitely more desirable.

    Some old cars are charming to drive, with character making up for their objective shortcomings. I doubt this would be the case here.

  7. I think Mitsubishi being known as Colt in the UK may have been a quirk of the company which was importing them. It wasn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mitsubishi conglomerate. There may have been a link too to the Australian assembler?
    Annoyingly I read in some detail about it somewhere on the web once, but I haven’t retained the information, or where to retrieve it. Teenaged me would have been horrified that middle-aged me could forget some motoring trivia!!

    1. Hi Michael,

      Thank you for the info. I will try to investigate this matter further.

    2. Hello Michael and NRJ. Michael, I think your recollection is correct. I also remember that it was the UK importer (and its advertising agency) that was responsible for the Colt name in the UK. Here’s a nice period press advertisement, coincidentally for Colt’s competitor to the Capri, the Celeste:

      NRJ, I intend to ignore your showboating about your extreme youth… Oh, bugger, I’ve mentioned it!

    3. The UK importer of Mitsubishi cars is still called The Colt Car Company Ltd. Wholly owned these days by Mitsubishi I believe I have read somewhere.

  8. Here are some cheesy ads for the mk 1, which are ‘very much of their time’, as they say.

    I have some other films, but they can wait, as I don’t want to steal Daniel’s thunder.

    1. Hi Charles, steal my thunder? No, not at all! The second ad in particular is hilarious, because it’s so offensive to modern gender sensibilities. One would hope that Claudia, Margo and Yvette wouldn’t put up with that creepy, philandering lothario for a moment these days.

      “Take Claudia, and I sometimes wish somebody would.” Pure comedy gold! Thanks for sharing.

  9. As a child of the eighties very much into the Sierra, the Capri never did it for me. I used to pore over the Ford brochures and wonder why they had this ancient-looking funny car in between the Sierra and Granada sections! Of course when I was older I learned that the Sierra’s engines were similarly ancient.

    1. Hi John, yes, the sierra really did flatter to deceive, with that futuristic aero body covering up some pretty rudimentary mechanicals. It was ironic that Ford Europe’s real technical and dynamic leap forward, the first Mondeo, was clothed is such a conservative (and anonymous?) body.

      Now, here’s today’s fun fact. Mondeo Mk1 petrol models had a grille in the shape of a flattened oval, like this:

      But the diesel versions had a different style, like this:

      Which allowed greater airflow for cooling, I believe.

  10. A more sensible ad, from Ireland – it features rally driver, Rosemary Smith, courtesy of Silverpine Studios, in Bray.

    1. Now, that’s more like it, Charles. Rosemary was quite a trailblazer in her day. Claudia, Margo and Yvette could have learnt a thing or two from her.

      I don’t remember being able to buy a Capri in Roches Stores though…I’m sure I’d have noticed!

    2. That’s very much of it’s time too. It’s been a long time since that kind of hotel was glamourous!
      Rosemary Smith, on the other hand, is still going strong…

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