The cars we loved.
The runaway success of Ford’s Mustang in America prompted a new wave of smaller, but powerful vehicles referred to as “pony cars”. The basic American formula was to add a larger engine to a coupe based on the mechanicals of some mid-sized sedan. The pony car phenomenon actually spread around the world with unique translations on the theme. In Europe, Ford sold the early American Mustang as the T38, but went about building its own version of the pony car in factories in Germany, Belgium and the UK. The result was the Capri in 1969. A much smaller car by American standards, it started with a measly 1.6 liter 4 cylinder its first year. In 1970 displacement increased to the Pinto based 2.o and the car was sold in America at Mercury dealerships. It was light, handled well and was fairly quick and efficient.
The 1977 model year saw big changes in a new updated Capri II based model. The car grew in size and in refinement while retaining the original styling cues of the Mk II. It was now about the same size as the American Mustang II, a car considered a low point in Mustang performance, but had a interesting hatchback design that brought it closer in spirit to the Capri, despite being completely different cars in all respects. In America, there were only a few models of the Capri available, mostly luxury based Ghias with 4 cylinders and sporty RS models with V6s.
By 1979 the American Mercury branded German based Capri had given way to a Mustang clone built along American traditional concepts of pony car performance. The Capri Mk III (as it was called in Europe) continued to evolve in parallel to the American Mustang based Capri. They were similar in concept, but could not have been any more different in execution. The larger American Capri was rear wheel drive, featured a live axel leaf spring like suspension and came in either V6 or 5.0 V8 versions (the Mustang was available with a 4 cylinder). The smaller Capri Mk III was rear wheel drive also, but came in a range of engine configurations from 1.3 litre fours up to a potent 3.0 litre V6. Ghia branded cars leaned toward luxury and comfort and were often 4 speed automatics. Sport oriented (and economy) models featured 4 and later 5 speed manual transmissions. Interestingly the European “RS” label was used in America while the sportier versions of the Capri in Europe were called “S” but were sold at Ford RS dealerships in Germany for instance.
For a time, European cars had nearly as much horsepower in 2.8 V6 guise (188) as the Mercury Capri did with a 5.0 V8 (200). At one point turbocharging was used on both sides of the Atlantic in 1982. In America, the Capri RS had a 4 cylinder turbocharged engine shared with the Mustang GT. Although short lived and relegated to a special “European inspired Mustang SVO”, turbocharging was more common in across the Atlantic. In Europe a Capri S with a more powerful turbo was based on a 2.8. A 3.0 was available for a short time, but was never turbocharged. Later a more refined German built 2.8 liter V6 replaced the old 3.0. V8 power eventually returned to the American Capri and the European car continued with V6 power until its final years.
The American Capri RS was in many ways influenced by its European cousin, mostly cosmetically as to suggest that red stripes, black trim and fog lights made cars look “European”. Always a selling point in America, European design cues became part of a movement in America. In Europe the Capri was not influenced by American ideals or concepts beyond spinning your rear wheels with a powerful engine up front (the pony car concept). As such, the Capri Mk III was praised for its bargain based performance on dry roads. When conditions were less than ideal like on wet roads, the live rear axel was not too confidence inspiring (just like the Mercury Capri!). This was a trait that was typical of most rear wheel drive in a time before traction control and sophisticated suspensions. Overall, it was the German influence that gave the Capri it’s sporting nature.
The interior seemed to have the most German influence. Tidy, compact and business like, the controls were straight forward without a lot of fluff. Vinyl, cloth and leather seats were offered as well a power windows and door locks in later years. May up level cars featured a loud plaid trim, a popular 70’s like option that no doubt was probably a concession to English inspiration. Hatchback utility and decent fuel economy were traits of both Capris, but the American cars were electronically fuel injected, while only certain models of the European car were. They were using carburetors well into the 80’s, giving the capri a kind of old muscle car backwater charm. With 9 trim levels and a handful of tuner versions and factory specials, there was a Capri for everyone. Strong sales reflected the versatility with lower power gas sipping 1.3’s being as popular as the powerful 2.8 turbo and 3 litre models.
Of the many tuner inspired models, a few stand out. Although there was no official Cosworth Capri, many enthusiast owners have converted their cars to Cosworth specs by swapping out the 2.8 for a 2.9 litre 24V V6 that made an impressive 220 to 230 hp. These and other Cosworth/ Ford parts could be purchased at any dealership. For those wanting someone else to do the work, there was the Tickford Turbo with its German 2.8 tweaked for 205 hp. Ground effects and body colored wheels completed the boy racer look. The suspension was upgraded and the brakes to disc all around. Inside featured a loaded leather interior with all the luxuries a 80’s car could want. The modifications were hand built, making the Tickford the most expensive of the tuner versions at almost double the cost of the base Capri.
Of the factory options, one of the rarest was 1982’s 2.8 Turbo. Only 200 of these left hand drive only were cars were built in Germany and distributed to German RS dealers. Like the Tickford, it featured custom (but more subdued) bodywork, special four spoke alloy rims and Ford Motorsport badges. A typical 2.8 turbo could reach 137 mph and do 0 to 60 in the low 7 second range. Although not custom per se, a version of the Capri built in England was called the Laser. It was right hand drive and was sold only in Britain. It features many of the luxury and sport based options of the S model, but with smaller normally aspirated 1.6 and 2.0 4 cylinder engines.
The very last Capri was a limited run of cars called the 280. They were all Brooklands Green and featured a limited slip differential and leather Recardo interiors. These are perhaps the best performing and most refined Mk III Capris. They might also be the best looking as they had smart looking 15 inch seven spoke wheels and a red stripe along the side of the car. Ford intended to make a turbo version based on the 3.0, but as production was winding down, it became more feasible to use the 2.8, hense the name 280. By the time the last MK III rolled off the assembly line in 1987, Ford was making plans to pulling the plug on the American Fox based Capri. The name would not resurface until the early 90’s as a Australian built roadster.
Some speculation on the revival of the Capri has been thrown around in the world of automotive gossip for some time. New versions of the Mustang, Fiesta, and Focus have fueled rumors of a possible return of the Capri. For years a sketch circulated that suggested the styling direction of a new Capri (about the size of the last American Cougar of the 90’s). Hopefully if the Capri returns, it will be based on a small but sporty platform like the Focus and be sold as a global car without many changes from the European to American versions. Ford has a chance to do the next Capri right by both standards across the Atlantic. Maybe if the new Focus does really well, some version of it might use the Capri name, if only to get the memory of the 90’s car out of our heads.