By on November 15, 2021

Across two generations and nearly two decades of production, the Ford Capri existed as the European market alternative to the very America-centric Mustang. Basic or more luxurious, thrifty or more powerful, Capri played an important role in its day: It brought a practical, fun driving experience within reach of the average European family consumer.

The European Capri began its development when the Mustang was about to be unleashed on America, in 1964. And much in the way the Mustang shared its platform with the midsize Falcon sedan, the Capri shared its bones with the midsize Mark II version of the Cortina. While the Cortina was available with two or four doors as a sedan or an estate, the Capri was limited in its scope to a two-door fastback.

Capri’s sporty design was penned by Phillip T. Clark (1935-1968), who’d also drawn up the original Mustang, designed its emblem, and suggested its name to Lee Iacocca. Given Ford’s intent to recreate the idea of a pony car for the European market, Clark was the ideal candidate for the job. Unfortunately, Capri ended up as Clark’s final work; he passed away due to kidney failure before his design entered production.

Ford selected the Capri name for two reasons: First, it was exotic to use the name of an Italian island, and second, Ford already owned the Capri trademark. Previously, Capri was used on a coupe version of the unpopular Ford Consul Classic. The intended name for the new car was Colt, but Ford found that Mitsubishi already owned that particular trademark.

The first Capris were built in November 1968 at Ford’s Halewood plant in England. Production expanded shortly thereafter to West Germany, at the plant in Cologne. Other eventual production locations for the first generation Capri included Saarlouis (also in Germany), Genk in Belgium, Port Elizabeth in South Africa, and at Homebush, Australia. The exciting new coupe had its debut in January 1969 at the Brussels Motor Show in Belgium, and Capri went on sale as a 1969 model.

Aside from its sleek body, the Capri was very similar to the Cortina upon which it was based. Its suspension was the same MacPherson setup at the front, and live axle with leaf springs at the rear. Steering was sourced from the smaller Escort. Capri used a total of 13 different engines dependent upon trim, market, and production year. Engines had four, six, or (rarely) eight cylinders. Four-pot power was inline or V configuration, with 1.3-, 1.6-, and 2.0-liter inline fours, alongside 1.3-, 1.5- and 1.7-liter V4 engines from Ford’s Taunus lineup. V6 power was 2.0-, 2.3- 2.6, 3.0-, or 3.1-liters, From the Cologne or Essex engine families. There was a singular V8, the familiar 5.0-liter Windsor, but that was offered only in South Africa and only on 500 cars. All first-gen Capris were four-speed manuals.

Of note, initial Capris for the UK market were built in England and used the inline-four engines, while V4 versions were sold in the rest of Continental Europe and built in Germany. Trims and market offerings expanded quickly, as the positive reviews of the Capri arrived right away. Capri was on sale in Australia by mid-1969, and in spring of 1970 it arrived in South Africa and North America, though in the latter market it had some badge engineering applied.

A captive import like the Merkurs of the future, the Capri used for North American purposes was marketed as “imported by Lincoln-Mercury.” All examples hailed from the Cologne factory in West Germany, as it already produced cars in left-hand drive. Lincoln-Mercury dealers displayed the small, zesty Capri next to the enormous Marquis, Montego, and Colony Park. However, it was seemingly advertised separate to the other, not-so-foreign Mercury cars. Worth noting, the Capri just said “CAPRI” on it, and did not wear any Mercury badging. Unlike European Capris, an automatic transmission was optional.

Visually differentiated to European market Capris, North American ones wore four sealed beam headlamps as composite European lamps were not compliant with archaic US headlamp regulation. That meant turn signal indicators moved into the grille. The quad headlamp look was available in Europe, but was reserved for the sportiest Capri models there, the GT and RS. All North American Capris used the power dome style hood, not present on all trims elsewhere. The Capri was a discount offering at Mercury, and asked $2,300 in spring 1970 ($16,500 adj.). Sold as an economic sports car, Capri didn’t offer upscale options and engines like in other markets. Though Mercury’s version of the Capri used British-built Kent inline-four engines initially, power was quickly adapted for 1971 to align more closely with the Pinto. After the Pinto’s introduction in ’71, some Pinto engines did make it to Capris in other markets outside North America. Domestically there were inline-four engines of 1.6 (Kent, 1970 only), 2.0, or 2.3 liters, or a 2.6- or 2.8-liter V6. V6 engines were from the Cologne family, and marked the first time Ford offered a V6 engine in the North American market. 1973 brought with it ugly five mile-per-hour bumpers, as the original slimmer chromed bumpers were replaced by plastic.

Elsewhere in the world the Capri continued in its popularity, and was entered in races from time to time. A modified Capri was used in the European Touring Car Championship in 1971 and 1972. By 1972 the Capri had proven itself quite market-worthy, and Ford granted it a visual update. Tail lamps were larger and no longer the same as the Escort, there were larger headlamps, and a new suspension setup tuned for more comfort. All the Kent inline-fours were all replaced by Pinto inline-fours, but V4 engines remained in production. The changes carried over to the North American Capri, and coincided with the debut of the big bumpers.

1973 was a banner year for Capri, as the coupe netted its highest-ever sales, 233,000. In the UK there was great excitement around a new right-hand drive RS version, as the RS 2600 (Cologne) was replaced by the RS 3100 (Essex) in 1974. RS 3100 was a homologation special, and just 250 were made so Ford could take Capri touring car racing that year. The special version was complete with wider front fenders, Bilstein shocks all around, revised leaf springs, larger disc brakes, and a lower ride height among other edits.

Capri earned its reputation as an affordable, reliable car for enthusiasts and thrifty drivers alike. 1974 was the final year for the first-generation car, and a total of 1.2 million examples were sold globally. Ford was ready to move with the times, and in 1975 introduced a new Capri with a slightly different focus than its predecessor. More in Part II.

[Images: Ford]

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34 Comments on “Rare Rides Icons: The Ford Capri, a European Mustang (Part I)...”

  • avatar

    Great, great memories. This is the first brand new car I bought – a brown 1972 Capri with a 4 speed clutch. Got it right after I got married, and both my wife and I absolutely loved it. A treat to drive, for trips both short and long. There wasn’t much trunk space, and the back seat was pretty small. But we did go from Ohio to Washington DC with another couple squeezed in the back seat (hey, in your early 20s you can do that), and it worked great. It had about 70,000 miles on it when I traded it in, which was pretty much common back in those days. Got lots of compliments from a variety of people while I had it. Not the best car I ever had, but emotionally it holds a very special place in my heart. Would love to just be able to sit in one again to reminisce!

  • avatar

    Poor Cologne V6. Its career started so promisingly, and then ended in timing chain problems in BHPH Explorers.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Beautiful car. As a 3-time Pinto owner, this was the car I aspired to as a very young driver – but money was extremely tight then.

    However, Capris rusted out even faster than Pintos. Being the ‘sportier’ small car, they tended to be abused, and their rarity meant finding a decent one was hard to do.

    I was unaware of the larger engine options in Europe. Those would have been impressive runners.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Still an attractive design. In high school one of the Grade 13’s had one and then right after school a couple of others appeared among our friends. At the time they were considered to be an ‘above average’ vehicle.

  • avatar

    I had a ’72 with the 2.6l v6 and loved that thing! the motor was strong for it’s size and sounded great. I added a Dobi chin spoiler and whale tail, blacked out the trim and painted it Guards Red. It looked great if a bit boy racer. I wouldn’t mind finding another and restoring it but can’t remember the last time I saw one in the wild.

  • avatar

    My cousin had a 1974 with the 2.8L V6 and 4-speed manual which she let me drive for the summer of 1982 while she was in Germany. The only problem I encountered was a fuel-logged float in the Weber 2V carb. In a stoplight drag race battle of 1974s, it trounced a Datsun 260Z. Fun times.

  • avatar

    Love the Capri! Big bro’s buddy had a MKII, that was a great car, a lot of fun to drive. I’d like to see Ford create a new Capri on the Mustang platform with the Ecoboost, and Make the V8 Mustang GT the only Mustang model.

  • avatar

    I’m still confused about the US marketing. Some sources, including this post, say the Capri was a Mercury, even though it has no Mercury badges. Other sources say it was NOT a Mercury, it was just sold at Mercury dealers because Ford corporate and/or Ford dealers didn’t want it on Ford lots, because they thought it would compete with Mustang.

    • 0 avatar

      It was sold as a captive import through Lincoln Mercury dealers in North America from 1970 through 1978 as (I believe) the Mercury Capri; in 1979, the Fox-body Mustang Mercury alternative was labeled Capri. The German original was sold as the Ford Capri in European markets.

      • 0 avatar

        So far my research suggested it was sold as a Mercury. The advert evidence all says “Lincoln-Mercury division” or “Imported by Lincoln-Mercury,” as they play up how foreign it is.

        Thorough BaT pics at the link there, and there’s nothing that says Mercury anywhere on it. I think it may have -not- had a brand. It was Capri, free-standing.

        • 0 avatar

          I suspect the vagueness was intentional. I also wonder if the cars were titled as “Mercury”.

          I had an ’05 Scion xB that was titled:
          Make: Toyota
          Model: Scion xB

          I’m guessing that Capris were titled as Mercuries.

        • 0 avatar
          MRF 95 T-Bird

          The local Lincoln-Mercury dealer near where I grew up in the early 70’s would have the Capri and Pantera on the lot as captive imports parked along side Lincoln Continentals, Mercury Comets, Montereys and Marquis.
          They also had the Lincoln-Mercury signage along with Capri and Pantera signs.

        • 0 avatar

          Thanks for putting this article together. It’s not often that the Ford Capri gets too much press, at least on this side of the pond.

          I’m old enough to remember seeing the adverts on TV, and it was my 1st car in ’77. The “Capri. Imported by Lincoln-Mercury” was the most popular.
          Meanwhile, there was no reference to L-M on the Fed-spec Capri. The VIN plate read, “Ford – Werke AG Koln Western Germany” and there was a small “Ford” oval badge on the passenger door sill that would usually fall off after so many years. But, that was it as far as badging or references to the manufacture.
          I currently have a ’73 V6 Capri, which is the most popular amongst us Capri nuts. If you want to dive down into the Instagram rabbit hole, you can find it/me at @Umanisti.
          Again, thanks for your efforts to shine a light on this orphaned Ford.

        • 0 avatar

          And, BTW, I noticed your Twitter acct lists you as living in OH. FWIW, The primary source for Capri parts in the US is located in a small town outside of Columbus OH. It’s called Team Blitz.

    • 0 avatar

      I bought mine at a Lincoln Mercury dealership. The car was sort of an outlier there – I remember the brochure was different from the L/M materials, and the car had no Mercury identification on it anywhere. Or any other connection to their other vehicles, for that matter. Sort of reminds me of other cars that American manufacturers imported and sold as additions to their regular line: i.e, Buick selling Opels, Dodge selling Colts, Chevy selling Geos, etc.

    • 0 avatar

      The European Capri was NOT marketed as a Mercury. Capri was considered a make in its own right and it was only sold by Lincoln-Mercury dealers. There were a handful of stand-alone Mercury dealers and quite a few Ford-Mercury dealers and they were not allowed to sell the European Capri. Then starting with the 1979 model year the American Ford Mustang-based Capri officially became a Mercury.

  • avatar

    I think this probably gets short shrift from the collective memory. My sister loved hers, and it seemed to fit the times. Ford at least had the cojones to try an outside the box product, or a cross market attempt. Imagine if they had kept Lee and Hal Sperlich and gotten the mini van through Hank the Deuce and on sale? The downstream boggles my mind.

  • avatar

    Discerning European customers of 1969 purchased these because of Ford’s mastery of panel gaps.

    (Stupid Americans didn’t know the difference, so sales were lower.)

  • avatar

    Both of my uncles had a Mercury Capri, 2.8-liter V6. I was too young to understand what a car was, but I certainly understood speed as Uncle R (to protect the innocent) drove at, shall we say, well above the speed limit.

  • avatar

    “Previously, Capri was used on the well-known coupe version of the sedate Ford Consul.”

    Not even close.

    That earlier Capri was a godawful version of the godawful Consul Classic 315, which had zero relationship to the real Ford Consul. It had its own new chassis, while the real Consul morphed into the Zephyr 4 Mk III.

    The Consul Classic 315 was so bad and so ugly, it lasted only about three years on the UK market from 1961. It had the only really unreliable version of the Kent engine ever made, 1340cc of flaming go-power. And whoever named it is lost in the mists of time. They even palmed a few off on us colonials in Canada, in case anyone was even more repelled by the Frontenac version of the Falcon. The Cortina Mk1 arrived a year after the Consul Classic, and managed to cut about 150 pounds of deadweight out of its revised chassis, and about the same number of pounds sterling out of the build cost.

    If you want a good belly laugh, here’s the Wikipedia link, complete with many gruesome photos:

    The original Capri is in there as well. One thing’s for sure, no Englishman styled these cars. Or maybe they did, and it was their interpretaion of a US Ford. Whatever. Ford in Dearborn owed Ford UK the real ’69 Capri after this piece of rubbish! I studied in the UK from ’69 to ’74, and the quick Capri had the 3.0 litre Essex V6. It made the tin box move all right. The corresponding Cologne V6’s were wimps in the early ’70s.

  • avatar

    I am somewhat bemused as to why that woman is wearing a book on her head. To mark the page? As a sun shade? To throw people off the scent as she discretely breaks into the car?

    • 0 avatar

      She has a lot of baggage.

      (Please don’t use bungee cords for an application like this. General rule: Never take safety guidance from Ford Motor Company promotional photography. True in 1969, true in 2021.)

  • avatar

    The 73 Capris did not have rubbers. I bought one in November of 72. Of course it was the V6, four speed manual and sunroof, I sold my 70 Datsun 510 to buy the Capri. I loved the 510 but the Capri was in a different league. It was not just the extra power and torque, but the ride and handling. Sadly as a young man, I wanted something newer and different, I sold it to buy a 75 Datsun pickup as I had gotten into dirt bikes.

  • avatar

    No mention of what a huge sales success it was considered in the US. For 1971 it was the second best selling “import car” only outsold by the Beetle.

  • avatar

    I had a brown 73 V6 (US model with chromed bumpers) Sold it at 181k miles, still had original clutch. I remember only two bad things 1) turning the key to start and the plastic toothed gear that drives the cam stripped itself!, and 2) sitting at a stop light, pushed in clutch and the clutch cable snapped… luckily I was in neutral!

  • avatar

    Neighbor of mine had a silver one, pretty little car. A couple times when he travelled he gave 14-year-old me the keys and had me start it up every couple days. I hadn’t yet learned to drive stick, so no chance of a clandestine joy ride.

  • avatar

    Mom had a 4 cylinder 72 back in the day. Was 2 when they traded it in 76 after a particularly bad ice storm fried both its, and their other car’s, electrical systems, and neither car would start in the rain. They still talk about how it was the favorite car they’ve had between them. Would love to find another like it (I’m sure the original has long been a refrigerator, as Ohio winters weren’t kind to any cars actually driven on the road back then), but the prices seem to be only going up for serviceable examples as the nostalgic, rose colored glasses wearing folks continue to look for them!

  • avatar

    I had the ’74 2.0 model with the plastic bumpers. I liked the look of that year. I bought it at one of those “wholesale” places, whatever that was after a long fruitless search for the perfect Celica. The car hunting had tired me out so when I saw it I grabbed it. I thought it was a better choice than the Mustang II.

  • avatar

    One small correction: The brochure picture shows the 1973 American-market bumpers, still the same small chrome ones (but with impact absorbers) as earlier models. The 1974 model year brought the plastic “ugly five mile-per-hour” color-keyed bumpers to which I think you refer.

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