Ford pitched the Capri as a sporty European car when it was introduced to the U.S. in 1971, and then plonked it down in Mercury showrooms as if it wasn’t a sports car at all. Middle-aged Cougar buyers in white belts and shoes were mystified, but the Capri was arguably the best of the European Ford divisions’ offerings at the time. The long hood, short deck sports coupe was a lot closer to being a successor to the first Mustang than the Maverick and Pinto, which were also introduced that year.
After the success of the 1964 Mustang, Ford U.K. and Ford of Germany wanted something that would fit their own sense of scale. Ford had based its Mustang pony car on the basic Falcon. The Europeans used the British Ford Cortina as the donor platform for the Capri, but its European chassis tuning made it a good-handling small car. 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. But it was lightyears better than Ford’s US compacts.
The Capri that U.S. buyers got was assembled in Germany, but powered by Ford's 1600cc Kent four-cylinder from the Cortina. Apart from the fake side vents and the puzzling “hockey stick” side trim, the Capri was looked like a 2/3-scale pony car.
As usual with captive imports there was a problem. The Capri weighed 2,200 pounds and the Kent engine generated only 70 bhp. Mercury marketing meant that a lot of cars had feeble automatics, so performance was underwhelming. The same combination would doom the Merkur almost 20 years later.
Things improved a year later when Capris became available with Ford's 2.6-liter Cologne V-6, rated at about 120 hp. This gave the car power to run with the Alfa 2000 GTV and BMW 2002 tii, though handling was still lacking. The most popular motors were the 2-liter and 2.3-liter OHC fours also found in the Pinto and base cars pushed Capri sales into six figures for several years. Either '72 or '73 V-6 models are the most desirable Capris today. With smaller chrome bumpers and fewer smog controls they weigh less, and the engines themselves were less strangled by emissions regulations.
Ford of Europe adapted to the 1974 bumper laws with some of the best integrated urethane-covered bumpers. It also tidied up the profile, cleaning off the hockey stick and fake vents and boosting the 2600cc V-6 to 2800ccc to try and maintain some performance. A practical hatchback was also added. Creature comforts like an effective factory air conditioner and alloy wheels joined the options, along with an upgraded interior. When sales slowed, Ford resorted to "special editions," marketing "White Cat" and "Black Cat" versions. Exchange rates ended the importing of Capris in 1977 and Mercury dealers were relieved to instead get version of the Fox-bodied Mustang.
Capris were sold in Europe until 1986, with some ferocious 3-liter V6 RS 3100 versions. However the most exciting Capri was the South African Perana, 500 of which were sold in 1970-73. Fitted with a 302 V-8 and a 4-speed, 0-60 came up in 6.1 seconds and top speed was 142 mph. It would be easy to duplicate here.
Attrition, rust, and teenage owners finished off most Capris, and outside of California, they are hard to find. When shopping, rust in the sills, door jambs and floors are deal breakers. Mechanically, the cars are robust and cheap to fix and the 2.8-liter Cologne V-6 was used in the Mustang II. Trim and other obscure items may be more problematic.