End of the Line

Ford of Germany produced the last European Capri in December 1986, one of 1036 RHD Capri 280s now in our showrooms. We watched Cologne’s production euthanasia of a coupe almost as old as Porsche’s 911. A concept which started life 1.88 million examples ago with the 1969 advertising slogan: “Ford Capri: the car you always promised yourself . . . from £890.”

November 1968, Halewood, Merseyside. Ford operations manager Stan Cross signals that production of Ford’s new four seater coupe, the Capri, can begin.

December 18 1986, at the Koln-Niehl Rhineside complex, we are among a small British party scanning automated lines loaded with Fiestas and Scorpios, looking for the Capri which will provide the final digit in 18 years production of 1,886,647 examples.

Officially, our 1986 search is fulfilled by a Capri bearing the chassis plate GG 11896J. Its bonnet and flanks are plastered with special warnings to the Teutonic and Turkish workforce that require no specialist German language comprehension. “Archtung Pressetest!!!” reads the most flamboyant.

As for all the other fastback Fords making the last trip along the overhead gantries and down amongst the spraybooths, this, numerically the last Capri, is one of 1036 specials badged as 280 that have been ordered by Ford of Britain to end sales during the spring and summer of 1987.

Contrary to many of the wild rumours and premature obituaries printed for fully five years before the model died, these Capri 280s are conventional 2.8-litre V6s in a rather dull metallic green coat of paint emotively marketed as Brooklands. Beneath are no mechanical surprises. As ever the Capri runs on a leaf-spring live rear axle which is drum braked. The front has MacPherson struts and ventilated disc brakes to restrain an official 160bhp, enough for a measured 125mph.

The only mechanical change of significance lies in posh Pirelli P7 rubber, of 195/50 VR dimensions, resting on seven-spoke 7in rim RS alloy wheels.

Other specification changes to earn the 280 appellation are the adoption of leather trim with a burgundy red striping for seats and door inserts, plus the inevitable stripes and badges.

I try to track down the last Capri to leave the lines. For sure it is not the highest numerical number on display. Even when we leave the plant that night there is a bodyshell which has been taken off the lines and parked in one corner, whilst others are still awaiting completion at the end of a two-shift day.

The manager of employee involvement, Herr Muller, confirmed that the last Capris could not be completed before December 19. He also underlined the fact that LHD production of the Capri had ceased officially on November 30, 1984, which was why only British journalists were present.

Although the Capri was perhaps the production model to exemplify Anglo-German Ford commercial and competition co-operation, its biggest production years were in the early seventies, with the original two-door body. Production peaked at over 200,000 from the plants at Halewood. Cologne and Saarlouis, some 238,914 being manufactured in 1970.

By 1975, output of the Capri II in the three-door outline had halved those figures, Britain losing production to Ford in Germany from October 1976. Output continued to fall in Capri II guise, the German market feeling that it was a soft personality coupe unworthy of a place on the Autobahn grid.

Output in 1978 was just 69,112, but the mildly restyled “Mk3” body arrived that year to put some aggression back into the appearance. Sales figures responded briefly with 1979 output over 85,000.

The downward spiral continued with virtually half that number for 1980 (41,753) to the point where RHD Britain was the only substantial market for the Capri: in 1985 only 9,262 were made.

As you would expect, the first two-door body (one can hardly say original, as there was a Capri-Classic coupe series of 1962-64) was the sales sensation, and provided the bulk of international motorsport success. For the record, Ford of Britain made 7,573 Capris on the Classic saloon base; Ford of Germany made 882,264 Colt-coded Capris from December 1968 to October 1974, and just 318,758 Capri Ils between December 1973 and January 1978.

Just as the 1968 Escort debutant was aided in its commercial career by a heavy sporting workload, the Capri was asked to tackle a variety of motorsport tasks. Indeed its pan-European launch was accompanied by the spectacle of Roger Clark thundering a then unavailable 3-litre V6 around Croft.

Doubtless many Britons will remember that Ford went on to support three Ferguson-equipped 4WD Capris in TV rallycross even of 1970-71. All were equipped with the British “Essex” version of the V6, but factory developments in association with Weslake yielded 3.1 litres, Lucas or Tecalmit fuel injection, and outputs beyond 200bhp.

Altogether 17 prototype 4WD Capris were assessed by various Ford departments between 1968-71, and there was a serious attempt to get a production vehicle authorised for the fledgling Ford Advanced Vehicle Operations plant in 1970.

Rallycross was not the only rough road sport Capri faced. Ford of Germany had a shiny and recently-opened competition department under former Porsche driver Jochen Neerpasch (whose father was a Ford dealer outside Cologne) who aimed the Capri 2300GT at the adventurous rallying programme. Right from the start Weslake at Rye in Sussex became involved in modifying the totally German V6 engine range.

The Anglo-German competition link was to continue throughout the car’s factory competition life, with today’s Ford of Britain competition manager Peter Ashcroft working in Cologne to enhance the Capri’s reliability. Cosworth supplied a 24-valve, 3.4-litre V6 for the racing Capri RS3100 of 1974-75.

A pair of 1969 German-entered Capris debuted on the Lyons/Charbonnieres, for which part of the stage mileage was at the Stuttgart-Solitude circuit. At this stage the Fords utilised 2293cc V6s with a covey of Zenith carburettors assisting the production of 170 bhp at 6500 rpm. Both cars finished in the top ten.

Capris continued with a mixed diet of rally and hillclimb events, contesting the Tour de Corse (now famous as a World Championship event) with 2.6-litre 2600 GT models with Lucas fuel injection.

Sensation of that season was the Ford Taunus 20M RS winning the East African Safari Rally. This totally unexpected victory prompted Ford management to send the Capri in search of Safari honours in 1970. A trio of 2300GT models was despatched but none of these 190 bhp “sand racers” finished.

During 1970, the racing Weslake-Fords progressed only in terms of speed, the GT models ditched in favour of that classic homologation special (later a commercial success) the RS2600.

This Capri derivative, designed in Britain and built in Germany, used a stretched V6 of 2600GT origin and was first built in bumperless form to obtain the minimum possible race weight. Later on it took on all the mainstream options and Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection (the first production European Ford so equipped) and approximately 4000 were manufactured, in LHD only, from 1970 to 1974.

Equipped with this racing base for homologation, Ford suffered some initial V6 failures before settling down to dominate the 1971-72 European Touring Car Championship seasons in terms of outright victories and driver championships.

In 1971 the RS2600 took Jochen Mass to the German title, Dieter Glemser to the European, and Mass to a saloon car series victory within the Springbok races.

The following season was even better, with 2.9-litre/320 bhp RS2600s romping to titles in Finland (ice racing for Makinen!), across Europe (Mass), Belgium and Germany (Hans-Joachim Stuck). At Le Mans the Capris scored a 1-2 class win, and finished eighth and tenth overall.

The 1973 season was the end of the Capri RS2600. It could only equal the BMWs until the CSL grew wings and 3.5 litres during July; thereafter BMW won consistently. Ford came back for more in 1974, armed with that Cosworth four-valve-per-cylinder V6 and a rear air dam for the RS3100 homologation special (made in hundreds rather than thousands). Yet the fuel crisis and the advent of the Capri II wiped out any Ford enthusiasm for a real fight, particularly as BMW was also largely absent from European Championship rounds.

Ford was never so serious about the Capri as a factory entry again. Capri II raced in the July 1974 Spa-Francorchamps 24 hours, built by Ford at Boreham and boasting drivers like Walkinshaw and Fitzpatrick. No worthwhile result ensued, and Ford of Britain resorted to merely backing the Group 1 efforts of 3-line production racers in Britain.

Tom Walkinshaw won the 1974 class title with a works-backed “Mk 1”, the 3000 GXL the author drove at Spa with Nigel Clarkson and which Prince Michael used on the 1973 Tour of Britain…

Men such as Gordon Spice, Vince Woodman, Chris Craft, Andy Rouse and Stuart Graham carried the Capri on toward 1980. Spice was by far the most successful in terms of class titles (1975-80) with his 200-220 bhp examples.

In 1981 the Capris were beaten for class honours in the British Championship by the Rover V8s (that man Walkinshaw. . .), but very nearly beat these newcomers with the Woodman/CC Racing equipe in 1982.

Since the advent of Group A in the UK (1983) the Capri has not been competitive in either 3-litre or 2.8-litre form. In fact it would have been possible to win with a 3-litre, but Ford no longer sold them, so there was no commercial competition impetus.

Considering that the original “pony car”, Ford’s Mustang, is still produced and qualifies as the world’s biggest-selling coupe (over 5 million by early 1986), one might have thought a trans-European market could have supported a replacement Capri of greater technical merit. There are absolutely no signs that Ford has this in mind.

Europeans, particularly the huge German market, demand the kind of all-wheel-drive turbocharged sophistication seen in cars from Quattro coupe to Mazda 323. Stepping into a Capri Special in the eighties, even if it had the Turbo Technics horsepower and brakes optionally offered through the 1986 Ford network, simply showed how far we have come in Europe since Audi’s Quattro debut in 1980.

Today the “hot hatchbacks” of the Escort RS/Golf 16-valve/Peugeot 205 GTI school have performance to equal Capri’s V6, and chassis to match.

To foresee the coupe future, the way Volkswagen go with the Scirocco (possibly the car, along with Opel’s rear-drive Manta, to wound Capri sales mortally) portends how mass-produced coupes will be in Europe.

As a confirmed coupe user — a quartet of Capris, one Lancia Beta, one Alfa Romeo GT, one Honda CRX —I mourn the absence of a Ford alternative at the right price.

RIP Capri. JW