Road Test

The Ford Capri Ghia 3-litre and the Reliant Scimitar GTE

Many of us reflected at the time of the introduction of the three-door Ford Capri II models how obviously Ford had cribbed the idea of a three-door sporting estate car from that long-standing Tamworth customer of theirs, the Reliant Motor Group Ltd., who pioneered this concept with the GTE. In the light of this resemblance of recipe, we thought it might be an opportune idea to carry out a comparative test of the latest specification GTE and the similar 3-litre, V6 Essex-engined version of the Capri II in its most expensive form, incorporating subtle design treatment by Ghia.

For Motor Sport the Scimitar represented the return of something of an old friend, for my predecessor as Assistant Editor enjoyed a manual-overdrive version of the GTE as his staff car. On this occasion, we elected to try the automatic Scimitar model, which tied in well with Ford's Press fleet availability of automatic 3-litre Ghias only. We were surprised to learn that Reliant do not buy their automatic gearboxes from Ford along with their engines, trusting instead to a Borg-Warner Type 35 unit, while our Ghia had Ford's new lightweight C3 unit, of course. More surprising, indeed somewhat frightening, for we have yet to catch up with the galloping inflation in the motor industry, were the prices of both cars. We had always thought of the Scimitar as excellent value for money, but found we were basing our impressions on prices recalled from at least two years ago: it now transpires that since June 1972 the Scimitar GTE automatic has risen in price by over £750, from £2,487 to £3,240. Additionally we had thought of the GTE as being an extraordinarily well-equipped car in basic form. Up to a point, yes, yet as tested the total was £3,658 including the list of factory-fitted options as follows: a Philips RN512 radio and stereo cassette player in place of standard radio (£112.32); laminated front screen (£31.59); alloy wheels with steel rims (£90.09); leather upholstery (£76.05); fog and spot lamps (£23.40); tinted glass all round £33.93); electrically operated windows (£50.30). The price of the Ghia Capri was no less surprising, accustomed as we have been to regarding the various 3-litre Capris as by far the best value-for-money performance cars on the market. Indeed that title can still be claimed, possibly, by the manual version of the Capri II 3000 GT (the GXL and E are replaced by the Ghia), mechanically identical to the Ghia, at just over £2,060. But what a colossal premium Ford have put on that Ghia badge and improved appointments: the manual 3-litre Ghia Capri costs £2,609 and the automatic as tested no less than £2,720. More pleasing to report is that Ford had found no need to fit any additional extras to the test car, for the Ghia's standard specification is exceptionally complete, featuring as it does such luxuries as sun-roof, extremely attractive alloy wheels, tinted glass and, like the standard Scimitar, a push-button radio and rear screen wipe/wash. One thing which Ford have not been able to include in the Ghia, and never will be able to do, is that aura of middle-class respectability which the Scimitar GTE exudes, for it has a look of quality, elegance and individuality which Henry Ford's mass-production lines would find completely unviable to emulate. It is a character which makes the difference between respect and diffidence from hotel doormen, car park attendants and what-have-you (and, of course, the neighbours) and most customers with the money available would think the extra premium over the Ghia worth it from these points of view alone.

Then, of course, there is that major structural difference between the Capri and the Scimitar, one which will have a major effect on longevity for those who are concerned about such things. Reliant trust in a glassfibre bodyshell mounted upon a box-section pressed steel chassis with tubular braced crossmembers, while the Capri relies on a monocoque steel shell. Reliant's glassfibre is so thick that lightness cannot have been the reason for its use, rather production considerations. It is extremely rigid, so that there is no distortion to cause the cracks and starring from which glassfibre cars of old suffered, and the Beaujolais red test car showed a complete absence of the ripples along the side panels which used to spoil the writer's regard for the Scimitar. Now that annoying bright strip down the sides has been dispensed with (before, they dispensed with themselves when the rivets retaining the clips corroded away) there is very little brightwork to deteriorate and the fact that the chrome rusted off the bumper bars of our staff GTE was probably as much to do with the neglect it suffered in the hands of its keeper as with bad chroming. However, from observations it would seem that the chromed steel rims of those optional wheels will need especial care and those on the test car were noted to have been coated with grease. The Capri, too, in its latest guise is free from unnecessary brightwork and came in a most attractive new green shade offset by the standard black vinyl roof. Very well finished, it seemed deserving of under and inner-body rust-proofing treatment and Armaglazing of the paintwork to help encourage its longevity in line with the GTE.

The Scimitar GTE remains unchanged since the latest uprated Ford Essex engine was installed in mid-1972, and apart from a new facia and steering wheel, an improved ventilation system, the removal of those sidestrips and the addition of vinyl trim to the centre pillars, there is little to distinguish these latest models from the first GTEs of 1969. On the other hand the Capri II, introduced in April/March, is radically different to earlier Capris, the entirely new bodyshell retaining only a basic resemblance to the old model. Its most important feature is the semi-estate car design it shares with the GTE; in place of the tiny conventional boot of the Capri I (much of which was filled with the petrol tank immediately behind the rear seat) is an open tail area behind fold-down rear seats, access to which is through a lift-up tailgate, incorporating the heated rear window and the steelwork which previously would have formed the boot lid. Like the Scimitar's small tailgate, it is supported by two hydraulic struts and needed slamming to make the test car's catch work. The petrol tank has been moved under the floor, but contains only 13 gallons (noted on an abnormally pessimistic fuel gauge which showed three-quarters-full when full), detracting from otherwise excellent GT capabilities, for with the test car's fuel consumption of less than 18 m.p.g., the range is barely adequate for high-speed continental travel. The same criticism can certainly not be levelled at the GTE, with its enormous 17 gallon fuel tank (with very accurate gauge and a low-level warning light!), Even in this writer's hands, including an hour's queue to escape from the John Player Motorcycle Grand Prix at Silverstone, exactly 20 m.p.g. was recorded, in itself excellent for a 3-litre automatic transmission car, yet certainly easily beatable, while a friend with a manual-overdrive GTE. regularly records 31 mpg.! Thus, petrol remained in the test car when more fuel was taken on after 356 miles. However, the flip-top fuel filler in the centre of the tail panel must surely be dangerously vulnerable in the event of a violent nose-to-tail crash.

The GTE, by virtue of a cleanly-shaped luggage bay and almost vertical tailgate, is far more useful as a luggage carrier when four people are carried than is the Capri, for the shallow space behind the latter's rear seats, restricted in convenience of shape by the wheel arches and the steep slope of the tailgate, proved inadequate even for two people's luggage! There is little to choose between them when the rear seats are folded flat, the resultant spaces being quite vast, though the Capri's larger tailgate makes it possible to load larger objects than does the window-sized opening of the GTE. Another useful common feature (and another Ford crib), is the separate rear seats, so that one person can be seated in the back while the other seat is folded to provide additional luggage space. Incidentally, that same friend of the writer had to spend about £80 to make the rear seats of his GTE suitable for supporting a child's safety seat. The rear compartment of the Scimitar is very beautifully carpeted, while the rear carpet of the Capri contains far too hard plastic rubbing-strips which encourage luggage to skate all over the place. Complaints from owners have led to Reliant introducing a semi-rigid, fold-out tonneau cover to hide the contents of the boot from dishonest eyes, but when the same complaints start to arrive on Ford desks, the problem of covering up their mis-shapen boot will be more difficult.

In many respects the all-black interior of this Capri Ghia was more tasteful than the somewhat ghastly coloured, garish mixture of moulded plastic and real wood which decorated the Granada Ghia tested in last month's issue. The seats in particular were excellent in appearance and comfort, Ford's new synthetic Rialto cloth upholstery being preferable in both respects to the synthetic Beaumont cloth of the Granada Ghia, we thought. The central panels of the doors share this same material, while the lower panels are trimmed with cut-pile carpet which is generally well fitted to the floors. Adjustable headrests are very neatly shaped into the front seats and the separate back seats are similarly styled, but without headrests. Nor do they have an arm-rest between them as the Scimitar's rear seats do. Stowage includes an arm-rest with hinged lid between the seats, another feature borrowed from the Scimitar, a most awkward-to-open cubby-hole with a lid doubling as a picnic tray and map pockets in the backs of the front seats. Very clear instruments grouped directly in front of the driver include a 7,000 r.p.m. tachometer, Ford again following their peculiar trend of not marking it with the maximum recommended revs, in spite of there being no rev, limiter in the engine's ignition system (the Scimitar's tachometer was red-lined at 6,000 r.p.m.), a 140 m.p.h. speedometer with trip and auxiliary k.p.h. calibration, an ammeter, oil pressure, fuel and temperature gauges and a clock on the centre console. Much the same as the 3000E and the German RS 2600 Capri facias—and indeed, the Capri Ghia, like the Granada Ghia, is built in Cologne---this one looks neat, but its switch gear is diabolical. There are no less than five push-on/push-off switches to control the front and rear wipers and washers! When even the cheapest Morris Marina has excellent wiper control on the steering column, Ford continue to spoil a £2,700 car for this ha'porth o' tar. What is more, the windscreen wipers are dreadful in the extreme, in common with every Escort and Capri we have driven. What is the point of all these compulsory safety regulations for new cars when Ford can't even build a windscreen wiper (or improve their aerodynamics) which doesn't start to lift off the screen at 70 m.p.h.! To make matters worse, the test car's driver's side blade left great channels of unwiped water across the screen at any speed. However, in this story the Ford Motor Company has the last laugh, for the complete offside wiper arm flew off the Scimitar when travelling at 70 m.p.h. in pouring rain on a pitch-black clearway dual carriageway . Miraculously the arm stayed on the bonnet.

Eyeball vents are included in the Ghia's facia and the rear quarterlights are openable, but with sensible use of the steel sunshine roof and the tilting facility which it offers, usable on the move even in rain, ventilation proved no problem. This car had very poor heat control, however, blowing very cold or very hot. Window winders are manual, with no electric option, a heated rear screen is standard and the rear screen wiper, with a washer fed from a large bottle in the spare wheel well, was more reliable than the front wipers, but rarely necessary except after being parked in the rain. The Scimitar's two-speed rear wiper/washer on that near vertical window was absolutely essential to clear rear vision in rain or on damp roads.

The smell and feel of the optional leather in the test Scimitar and the attention to detail of the trim gave this car a more immediate air of opulence than the Capri Ghia. Yet we found the Capri's slightly oversoft seating much more comfortable than the almost vintage style, short-backed, hard seats of the Scimitar. In the GTE one sits very high up, looking down on the bonnet, with the non-adjustable steering wheel low down and too close to the thighs, the waist-line is high and feet disappear into deep, narrow foot wells dictated by the downward swoop of the chassis and a wide transmission tunnel. In spite of unforgiving upholstery, the GTE rear seat occupants are at an advantage to those of the Capri, who suffer from severely restricted head room. Knee room is very tight in both cars, but adults can be carried without too much discomfort. Access to the GTE rear seats is most difficult and unbelievably in this day and age the tip-up front seats do not lock in the down position.

The GTE's rocker switches certainly wouldn't win a Design Award, but they are more convenient than those of the Capri, the clear Smiths instruments serve all the same functions as those in the Capri, except that the ammeter is replaced by a voltmeter, there is a lockable cubby-hole, and though there is a bright array of warning lights noting the functioning of the thermostatically controlled electric fan, brake-pad wear, brake fluid level and low fuel warning, there is no light to remind one that the heated rear screen is switched on. While two lights in the "boot" of the Capri have three-position switches so that their courtesy action can be used or dispensed with, the single light in the rear of the Scimitar can only be operated manually. Additional safety features in the GTE include a roll-over hoop, neatly merged into the lovely cloth headlining, and the spare wheel mounted ahead of the engine, where the spare tyre gets very hot, the engine being mounted well behind the axle line and much more difficult to work on than the Capri's.

Both cars are datedly conventional in having live rear axles, that of the GTE being more modern in having coil spring damper units as the suspension medium and trailing arms and a Watts linkage providing location. The Capri relies on soft, semi-elliptic cart springing and double-acting shock-absorbers mounted fore and aft of the axle; a rear anti-roll bar replaces some of the roll stiffness lost by reducing the spring rates on the Capri II. Wishbone front suspension with coil springs, telescopic damper units and an anti-roll bar is fitted to the GTE and the familiar McPherson struts with coil springs, anti-roll bar and track control arms are retained on the Capri II.

Softening the Capri 3-litre suspension has not helped the handling, for the car feels less taut, rolls more and, maybe because memory is comparing the automatic test car with experience of manual, and thus more sensitive to on-the-throttle handling, Capri I's, this Ghia seemed to understeer more. Another point which should be remembered in both handling and performance contexts is that the 3-litre versions of the Capri II have gained over 300 lb. in weight compared with the 3-litre Capri Is, which is bound to make a substantial difference. If understeer is an initial trait with the Ghia, it is not an embarrassing one, for at high speed the handling becomes almost neutral and can be pushed into safe oversteer if one is brave enough. Automatic or not, there is enough bite at the wheels with a heavy right foot to kick the tail round on slower corners and traction is very poor in the wet, stressing the need once again for a limited slip differential in these big Capris. Ford's choice of those beefy looking Pirelli Cinturato CN36s, in 185 HR 70 x 13 size on the 5-1/2 J alloy wheels, is a wise one, for they are tremendous tyres under any conditions. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between this latest 3-litre Capri and the Capri I is the ride comfort; the softer springs have made the previously choppy ride into an almost luxurious one. On a less satisfactory note, stability in cross winds at high speeds was noticeably poor, perhaps a little worse than the old model, and this is one production car which would benefit from the fitting of a front spoiler— or a re-design—to prevent the front end going light.

The Capri's quite-low-geared rack-and-pinion steering felt very heavy, if reasonably precise, during the test (power-steering will soon be available), yet a brief re-acquaintance with it for photographic purposes during our tenure of the Scimitar made it feel as light as a Herald in comparison. Indeed, the GTE, for which power-steering is not available, felt extraordinarily heavy and unwieldy, a real bicep-building car and becoming noticeably dated in its handling characteristics. To be fair, the rack in this particular car felt sticky and inconsistent, so may not have been truly representative. It rolls much less than the Capri, being much more stiffly sprung, albeit without the ride becoming too uncomfortable, although bad roads create some harshness, steering disturbance and can cause the tail to hop. Handling is at its best at high speed on fast roads, when the GTE becomes nicely neutral and very stable, the latter attribute being true also in straightline motorway work. At lower speeds, particularly in the wet, there is a fair amount of understeer, which can quickly change to oversteer on particularly slippery surfaces which the heavy steering does not make easy to correct. Indeed, while generally handling and roadholding of the GTE is superior to the Capri, enabling higher speeds in comparative conditions, in bad weather conditions the Capri is more predictable and more easily controllable, even though its steering is lower-geared. Perhaps a change to the low profile 70 series CN36 Cinturatos in place of the GTE's 185 HR 14 normal profile Cinturatos would improve matters.

The GTE's feeling of heaviness is reflected in its performance too, the Capri being very noticeably livelier, yet on paper the GTE at 23.4 cwt. is supposed to be a mere 40 lb. heavier than the Ghia. Ostensibly the engines are identical, but Reliant claim 135 b h.p. net at 5,500 r.p.m. to Ford's 138 b.h.p. net at 5,000 r.p.m., while both record the same torque figures of 172 lb. ft. at 3,000 r.p.m. Exhaust systems no doubt cause some differences, the Capri using fabricated three-pipe manifolds feeding into separate exhaust systems from each bank, while the GTE relies on the old cast-iron Zodiac manifolds to feed its twin pipes. On the other hand the GTE does not lose power to a mechanical fan, while the Capri does. The GTE's higher gearing would also have an effect, and maybe the Capri's C3 gearbox gives less power-loss; whatever, the GTE engine certainly was not as responsive as the lively one in the Ghia. In fact this sporting estate felt very little quicker than the Granada Ghia we had a few weeks ago, except at the top end, where it would keep going all the way up to close on 120 m.p.h., as would the Ghia.

One thing Reliant should think very carefully about is throwing away the jerky Borg-Warner automatic gearbox in favour of the new Ford C3 box, a vastly smoother unit in all respects. Both cars have disc/drum braking systems with servo assistance, those of the GTE being far superior in feel and performance, though even they could be made to fade in one heavy braking application from 100 m.p.h. Central handbrakes were satisfactory in both cases.

For smooth, fast travel in motorway conditions the Scimitar is far superior, just a little wind noise from round the Triumph 2000-type opening front quarterlights interfering with the healthy rumble from the V6. But the automatic model is far less relaxing than the overdrive model with which we have more experience: at 70 m.p.h. the latter is ticking over at a mere 2,750 r.p.m., compared with the automatic's 3,500. Good sound insulation prevents the engine becoming too obvious under acceleration and the thick glassfibre is effective in preventing drumming and vibration. Frankly, the Capri Ghia can hardly be described as excessively noisy, though the engine sound is harsher and more road and obscure noises penetrate the interior.

While the ubiquitous Ford 3-litre V6 provides the motive power in both cases and the sporting estate car theme is common, these cars remain quite different in characteristics. The Scimitar justifies itself on a one-upmanship, quality basis, but is less agile, heavier to drive and has less performance. As a long distance touring car it is superb, however, and superior to this most expensive of the Capri range, though we prefer the overdrive GTE. For everyday use in traffic and town conditions (except for parking, when the rear three-quarter panels are a nuisance), the much lighter to drive Capri was preferred. There are cases for and against each, apart from the financial consideration, but if performance and driving fun were the criterions we would much rather spend the money saved by buying a manual Capri Ghia instead of manual or automatic GTE on having the Capri suspension and engine modified by Broadspeed.—C.R.