1973 Ford Capri
1973 Ford Capri. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

The Ford Mustang, launched in April, 1964 was a runaway success for Ford Motor Company. By fitting an attractive, sporty, long-hood, short-deck, 2+2 body to well-proven Ford Falcon running gear, Lee Iacocca’s Ford Division created a new type of vehicle called the pony car.

Because the Mustang was so popular in North America, Ford thought the idea might be successfully transplanted to Europe. Personal coupes, as they came to be called, selling at reasonable prices, had not yet really caught on there, with a few exceptions like the MGB GT.

Since the days of the Ford Model A (1928-1931), Ford’s British and German subsidiaries had usually been left to design their own cars more suitable for European motoring conditions. But the American pony car idea seemed so good that Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Michigan sent a product planner named Stanley Gillen to Europe to pursue it. He began work on the project with Ford of England in 1965.

The new Capri as it was called when introduced in 1969, was faithful to the Mustang formula. Its low, long-hood, 2+2 coupe body was fitted to existing running gear, and like the Mustang, offered a wide range of options.

While the Capri was conceptually a smaller Mustang, there were differences. Whereas the Mustang’s front suspension had A-arms with high-mounted coil springs, the Capri used MacPherson struts. Both had solid rear axles and leaf springs.

The Capri’s 2,560 mm (100.8 in.) wheelbase was more compact than the Mustang’s 2,743 (108), and at 4,262 mm (167.8 in), it was 351 mm (13.8 in.) shorter overall. The Mustang was also much heavier at 1,270 kg (2,800 lb) compared with the Capri’s 968 (2,135 lb).

Ford built German and British versions of the Capri, the same car, but usually with existing engines taken from their respective product lines. Displacements would ultimately range all the way from 1.3 to 2.8 litres. Power went to the rear wheels though a four-speed manual transmission.

While the Capri was originally intended for the European market only, it turned out so well that Ford officials decided it might appeal to North Americans. Ford started importing them in 1970.

The Capri that arrived was neither purely British nor German. The North American version was built in Germany but fitted with the English Ford Cortina 1.6 litre, overhead valve four that had already been emission-certified for North America in the Ford Cortina. The German engine wasn’t.

Because Ford dealers had the Mustang, the new Capri was sold through Lincoln-Mercury franchises. Although it was advertised as “The Sexy European,” the performance didn’t prove very sexy. Road & Track (6/’70) recorded a lethargic 0-to-96 km/h (60 mph) time of 17.3 seconds and top speed of 145 km/h (90 mph).

Although L-M dealers sold more than 30,000 Capris within a year, a first-year record for imported cars, Ford quickly recognized the need for more power. The remedy was the optional German-built 2.0-litre overhead cam four for 1971, also available in the Ford Pinto. This improved performance considerably: R & T (2/’71) recorded 0-to-96 (60) in 11.5 seconds and a top speed of 174 km/h (108 mph).

With its new-found power, Capri sales moved into the 60,000 per year range, encouraging Ford to offer even more power. For 1972 the German-built Ford 2.6-litre overhead valve V6 was made available. Performance was again improved, although not dramatically: 0-96 (60) went down to 10.4 seconds, and top speed was up to 177 (110) (R&T 3/’72). The anaemic 1.6-litre was discontinued and the 2.0-litre became the standard engine.

Capri’s 1973 sales exceeded 100,000, outstanding for a specialty import. By the mid-1970s however, the Capri’s lustre began to fade. All cars were suffering from the tightening emissions and safety requirements that made them heavier, thirstier and less driveable. Thus, even with the V6 enlarged to 2.8 litres for 1974 (also offered as a Mustang II option), the Capri’s performance and fuel economy declined.

The Capri along with other German cars was also suffering from something else: stiff price increases due to the rising strength of the Deutschmark vs. Canadian and United States dollars. This contributed significantly to slower sales.

A second-generation hatchback Capri came out in 1976 and was imported until 1978, but never enjoyed the success of the original. For 1979 the name was switched to an American-built Mustang clone called the Mercury Capri.

The Sexy European had gradually grown fatter and heavier, losing some of its sex appeal, so it was discontinued.

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