1970–77 Ford Capri: The sexy European

How does a car launch and lead a new segment, sell a half-million copies, and then fade into obscurity? That’s the American story of the Capri, a small, svelte, European-built Ford sport coupe introduced in the U.S. in 1970.

Nearly a half-million Capris sold through 1977, yet just a fraction of those remain in use. Enthusiasts with fond memories of these cars are paying more attention and looking for good ones, according to Norm Murdock, who founded the Capri Club of North America. Murdock races a Capri in SCCA F-Production, and his Team Blitz is the key supplier of Capri parts in the U.S.

Inspired by the first Mustang’s success, Ford of Europe—a merger of the British and German operations—adopted a similar formula for a smaller car suited to its market. Called “Colt” in development, the car debuted as the Capri in 1969, built in both England and Germany. Ford had borrowed the name from an Italian resort island and previously used it on Lincolns in the 1950s, an oddball British coupe in the early 1960s and a 1966–67 Mercury Comet trim line.

Just as the original Mustang had inherited its mechanicals from the pedestrian Falcon, the Capri was based on the British Ford Cortina Mk. II, a small sedan that had been sold in the U.S. until 1970 in relatively small numbers. The Capri rode on a 100.8-inch wheelbase and, at 168 inches long, was about 20 inches shorter than a 1969 Mustang.

Like Mustang, the rear-drive Capri used a solid rear axle with leaf springs but had a more modern front-end, a MacPherson strut suspension with rack and pinion steering. The Capri’s long-hood, short-deck proportions mirrored the Mustang’s, with pony-car-inspired lines penned by American Ford designer Philip Clark, who had worked on the mid-engine Mustang I concept car and designed the Mustang’s famous logo.

Naturalized citizen

A hit in Europe, Capri sold more than 150,000 units in its first year on the continent. Meanwhile, Ford was readying its Pinto subcompact for American in 1971 and elected to import the German-made Capri for its Lincoln-Mercury dealers, with sales starting in spring 1970. Here, however, the sporty coupe wore no brand badge; it was simply “Capri.” Marketing materials stated the car was “imported for Lincoln-Mercury.”

Ford may have thought it was giving Mercury dealers an “economy car” to compete with the likes of the Volkswagen Beetle. The Capri, however, was the first of an emerging segment of slimmed-down sport coupes that would invade Mustang’s territory and even help reshape the original pony car’s future.

Savvy marketing efforts for the innately appealing Capri were anchored by an enticing tagline: “The first sexy European under $2300.” The base price included 13×5-inch steel Rostyle wheels with radial tires and front disc brakes. The standard interior had a bench-type rear seat, while the optional Decor trim package included a front center console with clock and divided rear seats that mimicked the front buckets, with a folding armrest between them.

In Germany, Capri offered several engine choices, including the 60-degree “Cologne” V-6, but Ford offered only one in North America for 1970, the British “Kent” 1.6-liter pushrod four that would also be the Pinto’s base motor. Predictably, performance for the American-spec 1970 Capri fell short of the excitement promised by the “sexy” looks.

With 71 horsepower and four-speed manual transmission, the 2100-pound Capri mustered a pitiful 20.3 seconds at 66 mph in the quarter-mile in Car and Driver’s hands. Still, the Capri impressed with its style and agility, and some 15,000 were sold through the end of the year. Car and Driver said, “the car is essentially what the new wave of ‘performance’ cars should be: lithe, lively, and susceptible to driver inputs.”

Revving up performance

Ford began to rectify the Capri’s performance deficit for 1971, adding the optional British-built 2.0-liter overhead-cam Pinto engine, rated at 100 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque. The performance boost came just in time, as Capri had new competition from the Toyota Celica and GM’s Opel 1900 coupe, the latter sold by Buick dealers and, later, renamed Manta. Capri led the segment, which Car and Driver called “supercoupes,” selling 53,000 in its first full year here.

The Capri gained momentum for 1972, when the spunky 2.6-liter Cologne V-6 joined the line, offering 107 hp and 130 lb-ft of torque (net ratings). An ad for the V-6 announced: “The sexy European, now in a more passionate version.” The 2.0-liter four dropped back to about 85 hp thanks to lower compression, and, like the V-6, offered an optional three-speed automatic transmission. Capri Sales passed 80,000 for the year.

In Europe, the Capri was building an impressive racing trophy case, including winning the Nurburgring 24-hour race in 1971 (the famous Mercedes AMG “Red Pig” took second), the European Touring Car Championship titles in 1971 and 1972, and a class win at Le Mans in ’72.

Reshaping the pony car market

Mercury Capri II ad
Mercury Capri II Ford

Testing the 1972 V-6 Capri, Motor Trend wrote, “BMWs, Fiat 124s, Audis, and even Mustangs become fair game on curvy roads.” For 1973, Capri gained a 5-mph front bumper—still slim and chrome-plated—along with interior upgrades. A TV spot, showing Capri passing a number of European cars on a mountain road, touted its status as the second best-selling European import, behind the Volkswagen Beetle.

The Capri sold over 113,000 that year, compared to 59,000 Celicas. Both models no doubt took a bite out of traditional American pony cars; Ford built just under 135,000 Mustangs for 1973. The Capri’s success in the U.S. helped validate Ford’s decision to introduce a smaller Mustang II for 1974. The Chevy Monza (plus Buick Skyhawk and Olds Starfire clones) followed in 1975.

The original (Mk. I) Capri design continued in North America for 1974, with heavier, body-color 5-mph bumpers, along with a new optional engine. An improved 2.8-liter Cologne V-6 replaced the 2.6. The 1974 Mustang II used this new engine, as well.

Capri skipped the 1975 model year in the U.S., with Mercury dealers selling leftover ’74s until the redesigned Capri II arrived mid-year as a ’76. The new car had already been on sale in Europe since 1974. Slightly longer and wider, the Capri II debuted a slick hatchback design that increased trunk room, especially with the rear seats lowered. Ford’s “Lima” 2.3-liter four became the base engine.

Trim levels expanded to four—Base, Decor, S, and luxurious Ghia—and weight approached 2800 pounds. The S models included the distinctive “Black Cat” and “White Cat,” featuring gold-color wheels and trim. The 2.8-liter V-6 continued with 109 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque; Road and Track clocked 0–60 in 10.6 seconds and the quarter-mile in 18 seconds at 77 mph in a four-speed car. An automatic-equipped test model was considerably slower. The magazine called the four-speed model’s $4700 price reasonable, given the period’s high inflation.

If you wanted a faster Capri, Rokstock, a tuner in Oregon, offered a turbocharged conversion with up to 200 hp. Its full RSR Turbo package also included reworked suspension and a body kit—for about $7000 over the cost of the Capri! Road and Track recorded a 16-second quarter-mile at 93 mph.

Production of U.S.-spec Capris stopped in summer 1977, but Mercury dealers got another Capri, a lightly disguised Mustang clone, for 1979. The European Capri, meanwhile, continued through 1986, with the German plant building cars exclusively for Britain in the final three years. Capri production over 17 years totaled nearly 1.9 million, which makes the 500,000 sold in the U.S. over seven years all the more impressive. In 1991, Mercury dealers got yet another Capri, an Australian-built, Mazda-based convertible.

Today, a 1970–77 Capri in top condition could fetch over $10,000. At the Bonhams Greenwich auction in June 2017, a 1977 Capri II Ghia V-6 with 27,000 original miles sold for $15,950 (including fees).

But that was a unicorn. Finding a good Capri is a challenge, according to Murdock, who thinks there may be a couple thousand still on the road in America. He is optimistic, however, that the number of restorable Capris could perhaps double that number. Murdock races a Capri in SCCA F-stock and SVRA Vintage and owns four ultra-rare RS 2600 race homologation models, including one imported for Edsel Ford II in the early 1970s.

“It’s actually easier than ever to restore a Capri,” says Murdock, who explains that parts availability, including body parts, is good. Some cost less today than they did in the late 1970s, thanks in part to a more favorable exchange rate.

Next week, part 2: Murdock reviews the current market for Capris and offers tips on buying.

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