Two rivals brought to perfect pitch in a year-long manufacturer arms race. We let loose in Ford’s secret weapon, and ask what made it great
For many – myself included – the battle for supremacy between BMW and Ford in the European Touring Car Championship is every bit the equal of the Blue Oval’s earlier feud with Ferrari at Le Mans.
True, the ETCC might not have provided a stage with the theatrical grandeur of the most famous endurance race of them all, but there’s no doubt that the competition between the Cologne Capris and Munich’s Batmobiles during the first half of the 1970s was so intense that these Group 2 monsters still represent the zenith for production-based tin-tops.
These were full-house factory efforts with big budgets fuelling extensive development and paying for some of the biggest in the sport to drive them. Jochen Mass, Niki Lauda and Klaus Ludwig all drove for Ford, with BMW fielding an equally impressive roster of big-name drivers.
As ever with homologation-based racing, intelligent and at times creative interpretation of the rules was paramount. Initially BMW stole the initiative from Ford by increasing the capacity of its 3.0 CSL engine from a fraction under 3000cc to a fraction over, the sole purpose of which was to exploit the engine capacity regulations and enable the CSL to run in the over 3-litre class – one up from Ford’s RS2600 Capris.
Peeved at being out-manoeuvred Ford Advanced Vehicle Operations committed to the creating RS3100 Capri road car, of which 248 were eventually built. Thus equipped with an over-3000cc engine the Capri could now be developed to race on equal terms with BMW. Except where’s the fun in racing on equal terms when you can attempt to steal a march on your opponents? This was Ford’s ruthless logic in preparing for the ’74 ETCC season, with the Blue Oval going all-out to create a car to beat the Batmobiles.
That’s why even today the Cologne Capri is one of those cars that possesses true magnetism. Roll up the door of the pit garage and people are drawn towards it from all around the paddock. They come for how it looks and sounds, but mostly because it is the rarest of rare beasts. The factory built just a handful of works cars for the ’74 season, only ever fielding two in ETCC (though Broadspeed would build a further few GAA-powered cars using engines supplied by Ford) before withdrawing its works effort from the ETCC in 1975, this ensuring that the big-banger Capri’s scarcity has always been in direct contrast to its legendary and larger-than-life reputation.
Two of the factory Cologne Capris survived and both have occasional competitive outings in historic meetings, but with values now comfortably exceeding £1m owners are understandably reluctant to risk their cars in the cut and thrust of modern-day historic touring car racing.
So what are we looking at here? Well, to all intents and purposes it’s a continuation (albeit an unofficial one) of those factory cars. Built by acknowledged Capri expert Ric Wood this replica is a faithful reproduction of the factory ETCC machines built for the 1974 season.
Starting with a sound original Capri 3.0 GXL bodyshell, Wood completed the entire build back in 2013/14. The extent of the beneath-the-skin modifications from a standard road car is remarkable. Radiators are repositioned into the rear wheel arches, dry sump oil system tucked in the boot. The rear end is effectively ‘tubbed‘ like a Pro-Mod dragster to accommodate the colossal rear wheels, which put 15in of tyre on the Tarmac. Huge ATE brakes and cleverly re-worked suspension (see Nigel Rees’s accompanying technical analysis for details) complete a suitably extreme Group 2 makeover to the Capri’s stopping power and cornering ability.
The wild wide-arched bodywork does its best to contain the super-wide rubber, while the crude but wonderful front splitter, side skirts and upswept tail generate some useful downforce. It’s a cartoon Capri, but a deadly serious one with a price tag to match: expect to pay upwards of £250,000 for a freshly-built car.
It speaks volumes for what lurks beneath the bonnet that in spite of all the drama of its cartoonish exterior, the main event is the specially developed engine. And no wonder, for few touring cars from any era can boast anything quite so impressive. An extreme development of the ‘Essex’ 3.0 V6, the GAA was commissioned by Ford in the spring of 1972. The firm entrusted the work to Cosworth, who handed the project to Mike Hall – a talented in-house engineer who previously had a hand in designing the DFV and BDA engines. He endowed the GAA with a mouth-watering specification, one that could finally play BMW at its own game by fully exploiting the freedoms written into Group 2 regulations.
First and foremost, the capacity was bored out to 3412cc. The top end of the engine was where Cosworth really went to town, with each aluminium cylinder head featuring twin overhead belt-drive cams and four valves per cylinder. With a dry-sump oil system and fuel injection (initially Lucas, then Kugelfischer), the resulting engine was an absolute powerhouse. Ford had originally set Cosworth a target of no less than 400bhp – a figure the new engine exceeded by 20bhp on its first dyno run. With development the engine would ultimately produce a shade more than 460bhp at a screaming 9000rpm.
Ford was required to make 100 engine kits to satisfy homologation regs, though whether the full number were ever made is open to conjecture. What we do know is that beyond the ETCC the GAA found favour amongst the F5000 fraternity, which tells you something of its ferocity.
Due to the age, scarcity and value of GAA engines, Ric Wood has invested heavily in re-manufacturing the blocks and heads. In deference to running costs and season-long reliability this car revs to 8200rpm, though Wood is happy for it to run to 8600rpm. When it was last opened-up for a refresh – with 15 hours logged – it was pristine, so despite being highly-strung they’re tough motors. But then they should be for £55k…
The ultimate antidote to the modern disease for shrouding modern engines in plastic and carbon-fibre covers, this quad-cam V6 is magnificent in all its naked, be-trumpeted glory. With cylinder banks splayed at 60 degrees and a thrashing tangle of belts and pulleys waiting to snag a stray finger, it fills the Capri’s engine bay with anger and urgency. It’s a grumpy old cuss of a thing to start, and needs plenty of time to warm its vital fluids, but once limbered up it responds to throttle blips instantaneously, revs snapping up and down with almost zero inertia. If you’re unlucky or foolish enough to be standing next to its twin side-exit exhausts you will have your eardrums scoured by a remarkable and unmistakable wall of noise. Nothing sounds like a GAA.
Wood has now built a number of these authentic, honest and fully HTP-compliant replicas. This car was his first and follows the aerokit design of the factory cars. Another of his creations – painted in white and green – uses the subtly different Broadspeed-built cars as its blueprint. All can be seen actively racing in top-flight European historic touring car series such as Peter Auto’s Heritage Touring Cup (HTC) and Motor Racing Legends’ Historic Touring Car Challenge championship.
I first got acquainted with this car in 2016, when I shared it with Grant Tromans and enjoyed considerable success in the aforementioned HTC Championship. The car subsequently changed hands last season, but I claimed squatter’s rights and continued to race it with the new owner, Gérard Lopez, once again in the HTC series. With any luck I’ll remain in it this season – a thought that brings me great joy as it is one of the most exciting and rewarding cars I’ve ever raced.
Like any big, noisy car from the Seventies, the Cologne Capri is an intimidating beast. At least until you really get to know it. When this car was acquired from Wood it had an electric power steering system fitted – something certain race series allow, but not HTC. We first took the He-Man specification Capri to Dijon, one of the twistiest circuits on the historic racing calendar. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced a car with heavier steering. I’d expected it to be weighty, but with Wood’s aggressive castor settings (facilitated by the power steering) it was all I could do to get the car turned in. Long corners were like engaging in a tug-of-war with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, while the tight uphill hairpin and rapid direction changes turned my arms to wet spaghetti in 15 minutes. It’s the only time I’ve decided to retire a serviceable car.
With the help of Nigel Rees we’ve since been able to reduce the steering effort to a more manageable level. It remains a truly physical machine, but we can now get the car through the one-hour HTC races with the appropriate level of feel and control to really push hard.
HTC races are a fascinating environment in which to race the Cologne Capri, for not only does the grid feature many of its period protagonists – including one of the rare 24v Batmobile CSLs – but thanks to the span from 1966 to 1984 you also get to mix it with everything from Lotus Cortinas and Alfa GTAs to early Group A cars. As a lover of tin-tops it’s absolute nirvana for me, though I must confess to being regularly distracted by the sight of a 635CSi battling with a Volvo 240T, or a Batmobile trying to fend off a Zakspeed Escort.
It may be one of the older cars on the grid, but in terms of outright pace the Cologne Capri is an absolute front-runner. To be honest, compared to the wonderful but much closer to showroom standard Group A cars it’s a bit of a thug – musclebound body and loudmouth exhaust signalling its intent way before you leave the assembly area. Stealthy it ain’t, but I absolutely love it.
Even after reducing the excessive steering weight the Cologne Capri isn’t a car you can immediately get on terms with. Once you’ve navigated your way through the roll cage and dropped into the low-set seat you begin to get a sense of what’s to come as soon as you rest your feet on the pedals, depress the clutch and do a dry run through the gearbox. Every point of contact with the Capri requires muscle. And I’m talking effort way beyond even the most recalcitrant Italian supercar of the same era. The ZF gearbox is a five-speed, with dog-leg first. The gate is tight and sharply defined, with a short throw and considerable spring bias to overcome. It might only weigh a ton, but thanks to the effort required to steer, shift gears and pump the Capri’s clutch pedal, every lap is muscle-burning reminder why racing drivers of this era always said they stayed fit by driving the cars, not going to the gym.
After flicking the ignition and fuel pump toggles all that remains is to push your left forefinger into the squishy black rubber starter. You don’t need to pump the throttle as the GAA has Lucas fuel injection, and having been pre-warmed by the mechanics it catches quickly. Once strapped in with helmet on and adrenaline gland squirting away merrily I defy anyone not to give the throttle a few rhythmic crowd-pleasing stabs.
With so much rubber on the track – slicks, don’t forget – it takes a lap for the Capri to wake up the compounds and really find its feet, but from then on it truly comes to life. You can sense the engine is quite heavy, not to mention relatively high and over rather than behind the front axle, so while it initially turns in enthusiastically, if you simply rotate the car and squeeze on the power it will push wide of your chosen line.
One look at the rear tyres suggests the tail should be unstickable, even with more than 450bhp on tap. Initially this proves to be the case, rear end gripping resolutely as you pour on the power from apex to exit. Of course this tends to push the front end more, especially once you feel the limited-slip differential hook up. All of which leaves you in a quandary as to how you make the Capri feel less flat-footed.
The trick – and I was as surprised to find this as I suspect you’ll be reading it – is to hustle the car as you would an older, less grippy touring car. I hesitate to say chuck it around like a Lotus Cortina, but the principle of working the tail harder than the front-end is remarkably effective. So long as you agitate it just enough on the way in then pick the throttle up with sufficient confidence you can neatly divide the directional labour between front and rear axles.
Once this penny has dropped nothing has the one-lap pace of the Capri. At least nothing in HTC. With fresh tyres under you and the added focus of a qualifying session ahead of you it’s a hugely exciting car to drive to its limits. You go for it from the first flier of the session, headlights blazing, exhausts blaring. That X-rated body language and paddock presence is amplified tenfold when mixing it with other traffic, and because the car is known for its raw pace people tend to give you a wide berth.
The car might have speed to spare, but extracting it isn’t easy. There’s so much to do, so many fine balances to strike in order to keep the engine on song (the fireworks aren’t lit until around 6000rpm) and hold the chassis in its sweet spot that you’re fully absorbed by the process. A process that’s intensely physical, yet requires precision and finesse to execute well.
Strangely, when you’re absolutely on the limit a certain calm seems to descend over the car. Yes it’s incredibly noisy and hot as hell, but once you’ve formed that all-important bond the Capri can be beautifully poised and almost playful in the way you can work it into a corner on the brakes, then shimmy it through on the power and leave two big fat black lines in your wake.
Of all the circuits we visit with HTC, Spa is by far the best for the Capri. It devours the long straights and slices through the fast corners such as Pouhon and Blanchimont, while Eau Rouge is a chance for the spectators to hear the GAA at full cry, its ear-splitting shriek ricocheting off the pine trees all the way down the Kemmel Straight and into to Les Combes. That said, after my ignominious arm-related retirement at Dijon in 2016 it was especially sweet to return last year with Lopez and prove the big Capri also works on tighter circuits by bagging pole, the win and fastest lap.
In a race situation the Capri fills you with confidence. You have the firepower in a straight line, you have the corner speed and you have the stopping power. What you don’t have – at least compared to the smaller, lighter and more nimble BDA Escorts – is their ability to change direction and adjust their cornering line. This leaves you vulnerable through some of the more technical sections, but what’s ahead of you doesn’t tend to stay there for long, while what’s behind you only ever tends to get smaller.
Over longer distances – the kind that characterised the ETCC – I can see how the Escorts would have been harder to keep at bay. The Capri will hang together for an hour being driven flat out, but HTC’s race formats belie the fact the Capri is right at the limit on reliability. Hardly surprising when you consider it runs the same ZF gearbox, ‘Atlas’ rear axle and crown wheel and pinion as the Mk2 Escorts, despite weighing 200kg more and transmitting an additional 200bhp through 5in-wider rear slicks. No wonder they could be blisteringly fast, but frustratingly fragile. Ironically, although the RS3100 Capri had the wherewithal to dominate the factory-built 24v Batmobiles, the ’74 ETCC title would go to a Zakspeed Escort…
Despite falling short of its championship-winning objective the Capris were rightly revered. In the years since, the original factory-built Colognes have rarely come out to play, further cementing their unicorn status. To now have the opportunity to see and hear such magnificent cars in anger is one of the many reasons why historic racing is a modern motor sport success story.
And to have the opportunity to race one? Well, that’s a dream. One that brings immense pleasure and an even greater respect for these extreme Group 2 machines – some of the most exciting and charismatic racing cars ever built. Not everyone agrees with race-legal replicas such as this, but when they serve to keep such a fabled car’s mythical reputation alive for future generations to enjoy, what’s not to love?