Ford Capri at 50: the classless coupé that conquered the UK

| 24 Jan 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven

It was the first car to come out of an integrated Ford Europe. With its long nose and trimmed rump, it was pretty outrageous in 1969 – though it was designed to have universal appeal via its multiple permutations and personalities.

Shunned by much of society but still with a keen following, the fact that the Capri is so recognisable, 50 years after it was launched at the Brussels Motor Show on 24 January 1969, shows that it made the right impression. Just look at the sales figures: nearly 1.9m were built in 20 years.

Yet what began as so hip could go awry in the wrong hands, from Del-Boy’s lime-green Mk3 in Only Fools and Horses to Terry McCann’s Laser in later series of Minder. John Wayne parking a yellow Mk2 in a skip in Brannigan probably helped the image more than The Professionals’ rather self-conscious ‘S’. But it wasn’t always that way.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
GT sports signature black bonnet, spotlamps and RoStyles

In the beginning, the image was the Mk1, and a GT XLR in bronze with black bonnet, on RoStyles, is still cool. And throughout the myriad models and options Ford managed to nudge the Capri back on message – this is a simple good-looker with enough go.

The Mini, plus Ford’s Cortina in GT and Lotus forms, showed that budget sporty cars didn’t have to be ragtops. Using existing componentry kept the price down, too. The men from Dagenham had been watching the success of the Mustang very closely from ’64, just as Dearborn was looking for results from its European arm.

Sunbeam got there first in the UK with its Rapier, a sharp-looking pillarless coupé on Arrow mechanicals, and even Reliant beat Ford to it in the 2+2 stakes, using its ‘sixes’ in the Scimitar. But Ford’s response was to do it better, and in much greater numbers, with its Colt project.

At the start in 1965, America sent sketches – suggestions – by Gordon Mackray. A later drawing by young English stylist Neil Birtley translated almost unchanged into the metal for the front of the car, the long nose and the (dummy) side scoops suggesting potency and power.

It must have helped that Ford’s UK chief exec at the time, Stanley Gillen, was an American. From early clays, the original Mk1 shape we know and love emerged. Ford had extensively previewed the new car all over Europe, in ‘Flowline’ and ‘GBX’ forms – both Mustang-inspired sleek coupés, with long bonnets and truncated tails. GBX won, and formed the basis of the production version, hockey-stick side pressings and all.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Clean lines of Mk1 1300L, with hockey-stick swage line

The rear was a little more troublesome. The recessed transom with Escort tail-lights was settled fairly early on, but the design was afflicted by a slash-cut side window, leaving rather heavy C-pillars that made the rear passengers feel claustrophobic.

This was fixed only in October 1967, just before production began, with the distinctive radiused half-moon glasses. But the Colt name survived even further, until November; the early silver car in these photos even has some of its parts tagged with the pony name. 

A Capri is far more than a rebodied Mk2 Cortina. For a start, it shares its wheelbase with the Corsair, its rack-and-pinion steering with the Escort – and the rest of the car was fine-tuned so the basic parts worked the best they could. Even though it borrowed most of the Cortina’s suspension, the spring rates were stiffer. They had to be, because the Capri always suffered from limited rear wheel travel of only 6½in from full bump to full rebound.

To control the axle without transmitting into the cabin too much noise, vibration and harshness – Ford’s buzz-word hates of the time – the axle was located on large, soft bushes, plus radius arms.

Like the Camaro, the new coupé had its rear dampers staggered, one in front and one behind the rear axle. The MacPherson strut front worked out successfully, too. Look at shots of aviating early Capris and it’s obvious they didn’t suffer from the terrible bump-steer that afflicts Escorts – but when worn they will shimmy on the brakes.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
1300 likes to rev but struggles (left); 2-litre V4 has a bit more authority behind it

The press was impressed after the launch junket on Cyprus in January ’69. Autocar covered 800 miles on the test routes in the 1600, 1600GT, 2000GT and a special BDA-engined car that never made production, and said that the Capri handled better than any previous production Ford, with light and precise steering.

Not all Capris went as well as they looked. For most of its life there was a 1300cc option, but the classic 88bhp 1600GT marks the point where the new wonder-coupé had the go to match its styling. From 1968 the performance option was the 2-litre V4. It’s unwilling to rev, yet it’s faster than you think – usefully torquier and 10mph quicker than the 1600.

Real muscle came in 1969 with the fitment of the Zodiac’s 3-litre V6 Essex engine. This one didn’t want to spin either, but it swept the sub-one-ton Capri along on a tidal wave of torque that more than compensated, making the clunky four-speed gearbox semi-redundant and winning fans all the way.

Best of all, the man in the 1.3 or 1.6 knew that he was driving almost the same car as the big ’un he’d really promised himself. Like the Mustang, the Capri could be had with a bewildering number of options and permutations. Base models didn’t even sport the dummy grilles on the flanks, the ‘XLR’ pack at first being available as three different options, one of which is the Rallye pack that includes the fog/spotlights that are so sought-after today. The single-overhead-cam Pinto engine was already available in the Mk1, but only for the US, in 1.6 and 2-litre forms. You could even have a 1300cc Pinto in the Mk2.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Basic two-dial instrument pack on L (left); 2000GT dash is similar to L, but with six instruments

There’s a delicacy about the Mk1, from the thin-rimmed and light steering wheel to the knitting-needle gearlever on the four-speeder. The footwells are deep, yet you don’t appear to be reclining and you can still see the corners over the long bonnet.

Anything above base model got the six-dial dash, so finding a car such as this 1300L without a rev counter is a rarity, along with the bench rear seat instead of sculpted buckets.

The 1300 is revvy and just about gets along OK, but you have to plan your acceleration, while the 1600s are the same with reasonable performance. The 2-litre V4 has a bit more authority behind it and the V6 is slightly smoother, with a deep-chested loose-bass snarl, and burbles along with fair punch.

Both vees need a little persuading into life when they are hot, though, and fuel consumption of the V6 won’t reach 20mpg.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Capri II makeover gave car a softer look; Ghia put the emphasis on luxury, with plush trim, vinyl top and sunroof; auto standard on 3-litre, manual optional

After 1,159,990 Mk1s had been built in just over five years, it was all change for 1974. An opening hatch and folding rear seats would make the Capri II more versatile, but that was moving the car away from its original appeal group. Perhaps they weren’t ageing at the same rate, because only around a third of the Mk1’s numbers were reached in Mk2 or Mk3 form. 

All cars traditionally spread as they grow up and these changes made the Capri 145lb heavier, as it became 2in wider and gained the same in the rear track to give more boot space, still retaining the old floorpan.

You did get more luxury, with extra velour and deeper-pile carpets, but some of the Mk1’s sharper-edged, slightly dangerous appeal had gone. The 3-litre V6 remained at the top of the pile, but the 2-litre had a Pinto engine, pioneered in Europe in 1.6-litre form on the facelift ‘Mk1½’ car in ’73, and the smaller option remained, too.

Those trimmed eyelids looked very period in the mid-’70s but dated faster than flares. The dash is a lot flatter, you feel more enclosed by more trim and a centre console – the whole interior is busier, though the rear windows opened to help ventilation. And performance is unchanged, but the 2-litre Pinto – never the last word in refinement and sometimes a device of strange harmonics – is revvier and quicker than the old V4. The big news here was that, mid-way through Mk2 manufacture, production of all Capris was moved from Halewood to Cologne.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Four models of Capri, spread across three generations and nearly 20 years

Enter ‘Carla’ in March 1978, the code-name for the Mk3 revision that was seen by the press merely as a facelift, but fitted in well with Ford’s corporate ‘look’ of the time.

Those unhappy shaved eyebrows were changed to sinister hooded quad lights that, along with a deep chin spoiler and a slicker rear with stay-clean back lights, cleverly lowered the whole car visually though dimensionally it was essentially unchanged.

The Pinto versions remained, but the Bosch-injected Cologne V6 was adopted from 1981 for the 2.8i performance version – the first job signed off by Special Vehicle Engineering, where Rod Mansfield, who’d raced Escorts in 1968, was king.

Though the lack of low-down grunt comes as a surprise to the 3-litre fan, the motor spins a little more eagerly, with a crisper exhaust note. And, with yet stiffer spring rates and anti-roll bars, the 2.8 handles well in a vintage kind of way. Even on 205/60 tyres grip is not limitless, and the more you stick your boot in the more the tail comes out.

On Specials you’re aided and abetted by the limited-slip diff and power steering to help keep the plot as sideways as you like in a nicely predictable way.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Capri at 50: Mk1-3 driven
Limited-edition Mk3 280 Brooklands features Recaro seats and three-spoke sports wheel; injected 2.8 Cologne V6 gives strong performance

Twenty years after the coupé’s launch, just 1038 of the run-out versions of the 2.8, the 280 Brooklands, were built, the principal difference apart from the colour being that they rode upon seven-spoke wheels with slimmer 195/50s which if anything helped the handling. A few 280s were autos.

A dwindling section of the nation’s car lovers mourned. Capris always had their devotees and they are determined to preserve those that are left, many club members owning more than one. One of our band here drives nothing but Mk1s.

Such departures from mainstream styling are rarities now. Ford, like everyone else, has to personalise its cars with the generic folding steel top that is becoming an option of just about every family hatch and saloon. The Capri was something completely different.   

Thanks to

Ford Capri Mk1 factfile

Sold 1969-’74

Number built 1,159,990

Construction steel monocoque

Engine all-iron 1298cc pushrod ‘four’, single carb, 52bhp @ 5000rpm, 70lb ft @ 2500rpm (1300); 1598cc, twin-choke carb, 84bhp @ 5400rpm, 92lb ft @ 3600rpm (1600GT); 1996cc V4, 92bhp @ 5500rpm, 104lb ft @ 3600rpm (2000GT)

Transmission four-speed manual, driving rear wheels via 4.125:1 diff (3.55:1 1600GT)

Suspension: front MacPherson struts rear live axle, leaf springs, radius arms, staggered telescopic dampers

Steering rack and pinion

Wheels & tyres 41/2x13 steels, 155x13s (1300L); 165x13s (1600GT); 5x13in RoStyles (2000GT XLR)

Brakes discs front, drums rear

Length 13ft 113/4in (4262mm) Width 5ft 43/4in (1646mm) Height 4ft 41/4in (1275mm) 

Weight 2018lb (915kg, 1300L); 2031lb (921kg, 1600GT); 2115lb (959kg, 2000GT)

0-60mph 22 secs (1.3); 13.4 (1600GT); 10.6 (2000GT)

Top speed 86mph; 98mph; 107mph

Price new £1167 (2000GT XLR)

Price now £10-15,000

Ford Capri II 3-litre Ghia factfile

Where different to Mk1

Sold 1974-’78

Number built 402,612 (all IIs)

Engine 2994cc V6; 138bhp @ 5000rpm, 174lb ft @ 3500rpm

Transmission three-speed auto, 3.09:1 diff

Wheels & tyres 51/2 or 6x13 alloys, 185/70x13s

Length 14ft 3/4in (4288mm) Width 5ft 63/4in (1698mm) Height 4ft 3in (1298mm) Weight 2580lb (1170kg) 

0-60mph 10.5 secs

Top speed 117mph

Price new £3132 Price now £7-10000

Ford Capri Mk3 280 Brooklands factfile

Where different to Mk2

Sold 1978-’87

Number built 324,045 (all Mk3s)

Engine 2792cc V6, Bosch K-Jetronic injection; 160bhp @ 5700rpm, 162lb ft @ 4200rpm

Transmission five-speed manual, driving rear wheels via 3.09:1 LSD

Steering power-assisted rack and pinion

Wheels & tyres 7x15 alloys, 195/50x15s

Brakes vented discs front 

Length 14ft 41/4in (4376mm) Height 4ft 51/2in (1359mm) Weight 2712lb (1230kg)

0-60mph 7.9 secs

Top speed 127mph 

Price new £11,999

Price now £14-17,000 (2.8i) / £20,000+ (Brooklands)

View all Ford Capri classic cars for sale in our classified listings section


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