With the exception of a few fake side vents and one character line too many, the Capri was handsome and looked the part of a 2/3-scale pony car
"The Sexy European" was how FoMoCo billed the Capri for its U.S. launch in 1970, as if it was peddling Sophia Loren at Lincoln-Mercury dealers rather than a sports coupe from across the pond. To potential Cougar buyers and the white shoes with matching white belt Lincoln crowd, the svelte Capri's presence on the same showroom floor as so much Detroit iron didn't make much sense, even if the design of the car was heavily influenced by American tastes.
Jealously eyeing the success of Dearborn's Mustang, Ford U.K. and Ford of Germany wanted their own hit. A long-hood, short-rear-deck coupe was envisioned, though one more in tune with European proportions. So just as Ford had based its Mustang pony car on the econobox Falcon, the Europeans tagged the Cortina as the donor platform for the Capri. Although it was barely more sophisticated than the Falcon, its European chassis tuning made it a good-handling small car (just ask the folks at Lotus who made some notable tweaks to the Cortina a few years earlier) and a great basis for the Capri.
The case for importing the Capri to the U.S. was likely bolstered by Ford's undeniably miserable Maverick and Pinto, which were introduced the same year. By European standards, the Capri was a thoroughly conventional rear-wheel drive car, with McPherson struts and disc brakes up front, and drums and a live rear axle at the rear. Compared to Dearborn's small-car offerings, however, it was nothing short of brilliant.
The Capri that U.S. buyers got was assembled in Germany but powered by Ford's 1600-cc Kent four-cylinder from the Cortina, the same engine used by everyone from Morgan to Marcos to TVR. With the exception of a few fake side vents and one character line too many, the Capri was handsome and looked the part of a 2/3-scale pony car. Standard wheels were the same attractive Rostyle steel wheels as those used on MGBs. However, proving once again that the American Big Three just don't get it when it comes to bringing in European cars, with only about 70 hp on tap and some 2,200 pounds to lug around, performance was nothing special.
Things got interesting about a year later when Capris became available with Ford's 2.6-liter Cologne V6, which was rated at about 120 hp. This German mill gave the car enough power to run with established performance cars of the era, like the Alfa 2000 GTV and BMW 2002 tii. Various four-cylinders of 2.0 and 2.3 liters soldiered on for several more years as well; however, these are of far less interest to enthusiasts. Base model cars did help push U.S. Capri sales into six figures for several years, and can still serve as parts donors.
Either '72 or '73 V6 models are the more desirable Capris today, as these have the smaller chrome bumpers, weigh less, and their engines are less burdened by smog controls. Like every car from the period, the post-'73 years were not good to the Capri, with tightening regulations harming the car's sporting nature. Surprisingly, this didn't spell the end for the German Capri.
To its credit, Ford of Europe did an admirable job adapting to the new bumper laws, with some of the first well-integrated urethane-covered bumpers. It also tidied up the profile, injecting some sheetmetal botox that eliminated the extra character lines along with the phony side vents. For good measure, Ford boosted the V6's displacement by 200 cc to try to retain the performance that would otherwise have been lost, and a practical hatchback model was also added.
Road & Track continued to applaud the Capri's "light, precise handling" which it characterized as "delightful," praising its refinement and German build quality. Creature comforts like an effective integrated factory air conditioner and alloy wheels crept onto the option list, along with an upgraded interior. When sales slowed, Ford resorted to the time-honored tradition of the "special edition," marketing "White Cat" and "Black Cat" versions.
Eventually, the exchange rate spelled the Capri's end in 1977, the last year Ford imported the German Capri. It was replaced with a face-lifted, Fox-platform Mustang here, though the Capri continued to be produced in Britain until 1986, by which time a staggering 1.9 million of them had been built.
Like most captive imports foisted upon the ambivalent, when the sales figures started to drop, Lincoln-Mercury dealers quickly jumped off the Capri bandwagon, thereby erasing all traces of the alien infestation from their parts departments and discontinuing any real service support. For this reason, Capri values plummeted and the car quickly joined the ranks of disposable beaters.
Attrition, rust, and unsympathetic teenage owners finished off most Capris over the years. Because of their forgotten status, the rising tide of values that has thinned the herd of worthwhile cheap sports cars has still failed to find the Capri. Lousy cars tend to be free for the towing and really good ones, often still proudly wearing their period Minilite or American Racing Libre wheels can be had still for well under $3,000. Outside of California, however, Capris are hard to find.
When shopping, rust in the sills, door jambs and floors should be the sign to walk away. Mechanically, the cars are robust and cheap enough to fix. While not as ubiquitous as the four-cylinder Kent, the 2.8-liter Cologne V6 was used in the Mustang II and can therefore be supplied by your local NAPA. Trim and other obscure items may be more problematic. Team Blitz (www.teamblitz.com), a Capri specialist in Pennsylvania, stocks a substantial number of repair, service and performance parts. Most other items can probably be found in Britain via the Internet.
Capris will probably never find a real collector audience in the U.S. In spite of their good performance and decent looks, they lack the cachet of those "real" European sports cars from Alfa, BMW, MG, etc. But that's good for those of us who like cars that can be bought on a credit card, as Capris offer plenty of bottom-feeder fun for the money.