This 1973 2.0-liter survivor is a testament to the Mercury Capri’s goodness
by Brian Lee //
A car is only original once. It’s true for today’s new models and true for this unrestored, two-owner 1973 Mercury (Ford) Capri. Powered by the 2.0-liter single-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine familiar to Ford Pinto owners, it’s owned by vintage racer Ira Schoen, a retired law enforcement official who lives in Virginia.
One of 1.9 million Capris produced in England, Germany, and Belgium from 1969–86, it has just 29,800 miles on its odometer. It also has lustrous brown metallic, all-original paint, a vinyl roof with no imperfections, and an interior with no tears, rips, or cracks. The AM-only radio still works, as do all of the switches and gauges. Even the clock ticks, and the map light works.
What’s more, it has its original Dunlop spare still in the trunk. “It probably has some 1973 air left in it,” Schoen says with a laugh. This car looks like what a potential buyer would have seen on the showroom floor of a Lincoln-Mercury dealership nearly 50 years ago—right down to the tan/brown cocoa mats on the floor, installed as a buyer option. Babied by its original owner and by an even more appreciative Schoen, the Capri fires up easily even after weeks in his climate-controlled garage. “I’ve used new old stock (NOS) parts whenever possible” Schoen says, adding, “If you open the hood, you won’t find a DieHard Battery, but a correct Ford Motorcraft one, as with the correct oil filter.” Only a few parts are the exception.
Not entry-level cars, Capris were marketed in the States in FoMoCo’s more upscale Lincoln- Mercury dealerships, promoted by some snappy advertising slogans—“The Sexy European” and “The car you always promised yourself.” Looking unlike full-size ’70s-era Lincolns and Mercurys, the only other “sexy European” you’d see alongside it in showrooms might have been L-M Division’s bargain-exotic, the DeTomaso Pantera.
Early imported Capris carried the basic, underpowered Ford Cortina 1600-cc engine; later ones used Ford’s durable 2.0-liter “Pinto” unit; and the more powerful ones used 2.6- and 2.8-liter pushrod V-6 engines in the U.S. If you think Ford’s ad was copy extravagant, remember that, geographically, Capri is a luxury resort island in the Mediterranean.
Long a Ford man, Schoen enjoyed a 1965 Mustang while in college in the early ’70s. When Datsun introduced the 240Z, Ira ordered one and waited—and waited. “The dealer quoted me such a long delivery time I began looking for alternatives,” he says. Capri ads caught his eye and he bought his first one, a 1971 two-liter four. He has owned five: a 1973 V-6 and four 2.0-liter models. Ira converted his daily commuter to a race car for Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Improved Touring-B (IT-B) competition from 1986–90. He later dismantled it for parts for his barn-find, race-winning B Sedan/Trans Am Capri.
That red and black Capri is pure race car. But unlike that converted carpool car, this one was a competition car nearly from the start—one with a professional racing history from the SCCA’s 2.5 Trans-Am Challenge and successfully raced primarily in Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) events since 1992.
Schoen came to own this other beautiful metallic brown-and-black time capsule almost by accident. “About 25 years ago, I was trying to decide if my blue ’73 V-6 was worth repairing,” he says. “It looked great, but it needed a large amount of engine work to pass emissions in Virginia.” Ira’s son Ian spotted a newspaper ad for the metallic brown Capri and called his father. “I went to see it and bought it immediately,” Schoen remembers. “I purchased it just in time. The owner was going to give it to his teenage niece, who wanted to repaint it red if he couldn’t find an appreciative buyer. Fortunately, I saved it from a horrible death.”
What got Ford of England and Germany thinking about producing a small, fun-to-drive car like the Capri? Simply put, in 1966, Ford management looked stateside, where happy Ford dealers were selling first-gen Mustangs as fast as Ford could build them. The idea for a smaller European version was proposed and the result was the Capri, marketed at home as a “downsized Mustang.” Introduced in the UK in 1969, it was successful in England and Europe and found favor in America as well. A base 1970 Capri (without taxes) could be had stateside for about $2500. Later models began to cost more as unavoidable international currency fluctuations took their toll. By 1976, a well-equipped V-6 Capri was selling near BMW and Alfa-Romeo prices. Nearly all Capris sold here came from Germany. After that, Capris left the U.S. market but were still made and sold in England and Germany through 1986.
What made the Capri appealing?
New Capri owners received uncomplicated rear-drive coupes with sports car handling and long-hood/short-trunk Mustang looks. Capris were roughly 15 inches shorter than an early Mustang, but offered about the same interior space with a two-plus-two configuration. What else did buyers get over and above jaunty looks, sporty driving, and plenty of value for the dollar? In his comprehensive book, Capri, published by Haynes Motorbooks, English writer Jeremy Walton notes that Capris, like Mustangs, were offered in a wide range of trim options and configurations, allowing buyers to get exactly what they wanted. Walton went on to say that Ford constantly upgraded Capris year after year, making numerous improvements. He compares Ford’s upgrading of its Capris to Porsche, known to pay close attention to product improvement. No small compliment.
A modern impression from the passenger seat
I strap in to the well-bolstered driver/passenger seat—upgraded from 1970–72—and reacquaint myself with the vintage three-piece lap/shoulder belts. As owner Schoen fires up the slightly raspy-sounding engine, I look around and notice the interior is as showroom-new as the exterior. As Schoen takes to the road, I listen for squeaks or rattles from the Cologne-built unit body and hear none. A little road noise, but you get that in any new car, too. The McPherson strut front and leaf spring/sway bar solid-axle rear suspension gives a firm but not harsh ride and deals easily with road irregularities.
Ira steers into a downhill turn near his house, and the car’s rack-and-pinion steering turns in with precision. “It won’t corner like a modern two-seater will, but it won’t be far behind either,” Schoen says. Remember, this road holding is being done on period-correct Dunlop 185x70x13 tires on five-inch rims. With a curb weight of about 2300 pounds, the Capri is 700 or 800 pounds lighter than a new Honda Civic, so its 100 horsepower provides plenty of go-power. Schoen shifts down a gear and hits the gas with authority, and the car gains speed quickly with the secondary on the two-barrel Weber opening with a growl. “With its somewhat tall final drive (3.44), it will cruise all day at modern highway speeds without sounding strained,” he says. After a demonstration ride including highway speeds, curvy back roads, and stop-and-go traffic (no overheating), I exit the car thinking it would have been an enjoyable alternative for somebody contemplating an MGB GT or Triumph TR-6—with lots more comfort and reliability. Overall, I’m impressed.
Impressed is also what Car and Driver magazine staffers were after road testing a 1971 Capri and comparing it with similar Europeans. Combining their reactions the writers said, “It certainly is no stone, as astonished owners of Fiat 124 coupes, BMW 2002s, fuel-injected Alfa Romeos, and Porsche 914s discovered during impromptu contests.” They concluded, “A Capri will out-sprint these traditional heavies on the enthusiast scene; it will leave them embarrassed in the corners, too.”
Anyone wanting to road race a Capri in the U.S., in amateur or professional competition, did so with no factory or dealer support, but Ford offered extensive professional support in England and Europe in the early 1970s. Through the years a few SCCA amateurs have raced Capris in the Showroom Stock or Improved Touring categories. Schoen’s first Capri racer—the commuter car turned Sunday racer—didn’t have much company. In 1974, a 2.0-liter Capri won the Showroom Stock C national championship at the Club’s annual runoff races at Road Atlanta in Georgia.
The only 2.0-liter Capri to have raced professionally in the early Trans-Am series—no surprise—is Schoen’s current race car. “After getting my fenders battered by SCCA drivers in IT-B, I decided to switch to vintage racing, where NASCAR-style bumping is frowned on,” Schoen says. After learning that this car—the only Capri to have been certified by Watkins Glen historian Bill Green to actually have competed in the SCCA Trans-Am series and later in IMSA sedan class racing—the Virginian snapped it up and its sister car from its now deceased New England owner. That was in 1990, after both had sat unraced and unattended since the late ’70s. Today, thanks to Ira’s enthusiasm, and checkbook, and helped by friend/master-mechanic/fabricator Mark Stockman, the familiar red/black number 711 has been upgraded, making it a competitive vintage race car against some serious competition. It competes on even terms with BMW 2002s, Alfa Romeo GTVs, and Datsun 510s. Thanks to Schoen’s behind-the-wheel ability and Stockman’s professional mechanical skills, it even occasionally finishes ahead of out-of-class cars such as early Porsche 911s and Datsun 240Zs.
Capris as collectibles
Nobody would equate a Ford/Mercury Capri with a Ferrari GTO or a Duesenberg. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and lots of enthusiasts enjoy driving and showing these English/German sports coupes. “I’ve been to shows at Carlisle [Pennsylvania] and have seen a few Capris,” Schoen says. “I know there are a small number of these cars bringing their owners lots of fun elsewhere—after all, Ford/Mercury sold 500,000 of them in the States—but rust took many out, as was common to all makes of cars of that era.” Thanks to dedicated enthusiasts like Norm Murdock of Team Blitz, you can get parts to keep any surviving Capri on the road.
Ira’s original car will stay that way
How much use does this museum-quality car get? Obviously, not much. Local trips and some special vacations are taken in wife Mary’s less-thirsty Mini Cooper Countryman or Ira’s coveted low-mileage 2002 SVT Focus. Trips to a local car show and back-roads drives—weather permitting—are occasionally enjoyed in his stunning BRG 1967 Ford Cortina GT.
So years from now, it’s a safe bet that the survivor you see here will be just as it was back in 1973—original.