12 July 2016

The many lives of Ford’s Capri name

What’s the first car you think of when you hear the name “Capri?” It’s probably Ford’s compact European sports coupe sold in the U.S. through the Mercury franchise in the 1970s. Collectors of a certain age, though, might think also of Lincolns from the 1950s. Or, maybe you know someone who had a 5.0-liter Capri from the 1980s. For younger drivers, a little Australian-built convertible from the 1990s might spring to mind.

All would be correct. Perhaps no company has used one name on such a diverse array of cars, from different countries, as Ford did with Capri. See how many you remember.

1950-1959 Lincoln Capri
Carmakers today denote different trim levels of one model with a tossed salad of letters. Variations on “SE” and “EX” seem to be popular. In decades past, though, different trim levels of otherwise identical cars became different models. Lincoln was right on trend in 1950 when it added a deluxe coupe called Capri to its top-rung Cosmopolitan line. Perhaps naming the car after an Italian resort island later inspired Packard to call its top-line convertible Caribbean.

Lincoln liked the Capri name enough to make it the top-line model when the all-new 1952 models arrived. The Lincoln Capri gained fame and performance cred by sweeping the podium in the stock class in Mexico’s La Carrera Pan Americana road race in 1952 and 1953 and taking first and second in 1954.

When Lincoln shuffled the deck for its beautifully restyled 1956 line, Capri became the base model, with the new Premier positioned above it. That strategy continued for the 1958-1959 models, though for 1960, the last year for those leviathans, the base car was once again just “Lincoln.”

1962-1964 Ford Consul Capri (Great Britain)
If Ford could have a “personal car” in the U.S. with the Thunderbird, the company’s British arm figured the concept might work in Europe. Based on the dowdy Consul compact, the 1962 Capri was a small (170-in. long) pillarless hardtop coupe wearing a mishmash of U.S. design cues, complete with vestigial tailfins. Imagine a 1960 Ford Starliner coupe in three-quarter scale, and you’re close. This Capri was a sales dud.

1966-1967 Mercury Comet Capri
For 1966, the Capri name bounced back to the U.S. for Mercury’s Comet as the first upgrade level over the cheapo “202” model and below the Caliente and Cyclone). Basically, it meant full carpeting and some extra chrome trim.

1969-1986 Ford Capri (sold in U.S. by Mercury)
Ford’s European branches got their own version of a ponycar for 1969, and if Mitsubishi hadn’t already owned the Colt name, it would have had a horse logo, too. Instead, it inherited the Capri name.

Like the Mustang, the Capri was based on a low-priced Ford sedan, in this case the British Cortina. Built in England and Germany, the Capri was a looker, mimicking the Mustang’s proportions but with its own style. Credit goes to its American designer, Phil Clark.

The Capri was a smash hit across the continent. In Britain, it was marketed as “the car you always promised yourself.” When the German-made version arrived in the U.S. for 1970, it was billed as “the sexy European.” The U.S. auto media liked it but felt the first year model’s Pinto 1.6-liter four banger was underpowered. A spunky 2.0-liter four arrived for 1971, and then the 2.6-liter “Cologne” V6 in ’72 (later, 2.8 liters).

The Capri was timed perfectly for the American market’s embrace of smaller sporty coupes. Mercury dealers had to be thrilled to have such a youth-oriented car as its Cougar bloated into a luxo barge. By 1974, Capri had new competition from within Ford – the Mustang II.

A 1976 redesign turned the Capri into a sleek hatchback, renamed Capri II, but U.S. imports ceased in late 1977. The Capri carried on in Europe until 1986, while in 1979, American buyers got a very different car with that name.

1979-1986 Mercury Capri
The Capri badge was not absent from Mercury dealers for long, resurfacing on a clone of the 1979 Fox-chassis Mustang. The flat, squared off nose, an attempt to connect the American Capri to its European predecessor, was markedly different than the Mustang’s sloped front end, and the Capri had unique blister-style fenders. The Capri came as a hatchback only and even got its own unique “bubble back” glass hatch in 1983. The Mustang’s optional 5.0-L High Output V-8 became available, but the Capri was dropped after 1986. There was no factory convertible, but specialty maker ASC/McLaren made a batch.

1991-1994 Mercury Capri
You just can’t keep a good name down. A new and drastically different sort of Capri appeared in Mercury dealerships for 1991. It was once again an import, this time a small 2+2 front-drive convertible (although the rear seats were useless but for small children, pets and small packages) built in Australia and based on Mazda 323 bits. The XR2 model had a 132-hp turbo engine and was quicker than the contemporary Mazda Miata.

1 Reader Comment

  • 1
    Jim Koscs Barnegat, NJ July 22, 2016 at 18:11
    Since I wrote this article, I found additional research suggesting that the British Ford Consul Capri was sold in the US, branded as a Ford. The source says 1,400 were sold here. A couple have popped up on Bring a Trailer.

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