Cologne Ford’s iconic Capris battled with BMW, and often won, but were floored by the Energy Crisis
Words: Paul Fearnley. Photography: LAT
It looked fantastic: low roof line, long bonnet, fat slicks in bulging arches. And it put on a spectacular show: gutsy 3-litre V6 on open pipes, inside front wheel waving high. But the men sawing at its wheel, sweating buckets in their bucket seats, viewed it differently: Cologne Capris were über-tricky on the limit. Even Jackie Stewart thought so: “Jesus, it was hard work.”
Stewart, in his retirement year and busy constructing his third F1 title, had been ‘hijacked’ by his long-term employer Ford to contest selected rounds of the 1973 European Touring Car Championship. He was no stranger to the 320bhp Capri – co-driven by F1 team-mate François Cevert, he had finished second in the 1972 Paul Ricard Six Hours – but familiarity had not bred contentment.
The opening 1973 ETCC round was the Monza Four Hours, and JYS, sharing with Capri stalwart Dieter Glemser, qualified on pole: he was 45 minutes from victory when the camshaft broke. But even this performance on a straightforward track had highlighted inherent handling problems. Next up was the Nürburging Six Hours in July.
“That Capri was really heavy to drive. It had a mind of its own and was a real challenge to catch when it let go. After my first lap I felt like asking the mechanics if all four wheels were still attached. There was nothing progressive about it. Jochen [Mass] and Dieter were really earning their money.”
Stewart wasn’t overly bothered when the head gasket failed early in the second stint. His co-driver Emerson Fittipaldi – touring car racing’s highest-profile pairing? – was even more relieved, this being the F1 champion’s first saloon outing since his Brazilian Beetle days of the late 1960s.
It had been a bad day for Ford: Glemser bust some ribs when his steering failed, the John Fitzpatrick/Gérard Larrousse Capri ended up on its roof when the reassigned Mass was nerfed by a backmarker – and BMW raised the bar with its just-homologated ‘Batmobile’ CSLs which finished one-two-three.
“We’d heard that they’d tested at the ’Ring with a wing,” says Fitzpatrick. “We thought, ‘Well, there’s no way they’ll homologate that.’ But they did.” And it was worth 10 seconds per lap.
There was a new 3.5-litre (out from 3.3) straight-six from Munich too. The Capri, with its glass fibre panels, was still 100kg lighter than its rival, but the CSL now had a 50bhp advantage to go with its independent suspension. Cologne’s days of domination were over – mainly because its creator Jochen Neerpasch had moved on, to BMW.
Neerpasch had founded the company’s German competition department in October 1968 – and the new Capri provided his racing focus from ’69 on.
Success was hard to come by. The 1970 ETCC racer looked purposeful, but the team had a lot to learn about the black arts of saloon car racing. The 125bhp 60-degree V6 2300GT was its base car. Weslake developed light-alloy cylinder heads for it and ZF built a five-speeder to take the power: Weslake claimed 230bhp, Cologne reckoned 200. The season, however, provided a litany of retirements and Glemser’s second in Budapest was the best of a bad bunch.
Highly rated young engineer Martin Braungart was the team’s tech chief: “The car was new, we were new, the engine was new to racing – everything was new. Our biggest problem was the engine; we would go to a test and do only a few laps before it came apart. It was not so easy to solve this problem because we had our own engine department and were also working with Weslake in England.” And a third party was about to enter the mix.
Cologne came under the wing of Stuart Turner, Ford of Britain’s new director of motorsports, and it was clear to him that the fledgling outfit needed help. He sent Boreham’s rally engine expert Peter Ashcroft, a Lancastrian who spoke no German, to Cologne. Although legend has it that neither Cologne nor Weslake liked this intervention, Turner plays it down: “There was never any hostility between the British and German arms. There was a rivalry, yes, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I knew Peter was the right man for the job: a down-to-earth, hands-on engineer.”
It was an inspired choice. All of Ashcroft’s recommendations – steel crank of entirely different design, dry sump and strengthened block – proved major steps forward. The updated V6, fitted with Kügelfischer injection, was taken out to 2873cc (later 2935) and gave a reliable 265bhp from the off.
Meanwhile, Braungart had made improvements elsewhere. The Capri’s live rear axle, never ideal for racing, had been ‘Escortised’: tied down by four radius rods and a Watts linkage. This had a strong British influence – but the niftiest tweak was Braungart’s: the ‘plastic’ leaf spring.
“The standard leaf springs were heavy and made it difficult to adjust quickly the suspension,” explains Braungart. “To reduce unsprung weight – and to better control the axle – we used vertical coil springs; the leaf springs were still there but they did hardly anything and so could be very light. They were protested, but they complied with the law [Group 2].”
All-round disc brakes, wider arches and an airdam were among the other go-faster aids on the new, light, RS2600: aluminium axle and hubs, fibreglass doors, bonnet and boot.
Once the victory duck was broken at the Salzburgring in April – Capris finished one-two-three – the team got on a roll: wins at Brno, Nürburgring, the Spa 24 Hours, Paul Ricard and Jarama took Glemser to the drivers’ title. The manufacturer honours, however, went to Alfa Romeo thanks to the class dominance of its 1300cc GTA Juniors.
Then 1972 was even better for the Capri. Now with 290bhp at 7500rpm, a stiffer shell and even wider arches, they were beaten only once in the ETCC, albeit a painful Nürburgring defeat at the hands of BMW. Mass won the drivers’ title, but once again those pesky Alfas kept the manufacturers’ award beyond the Blue Oval’s reach.
Capris (with knocked-back compression) also contested two rounds of the world sportscar championship, scoring top-10s in the Nürburgring 1000Km and at Le Mans. And Hans Stuck used an RS2600 to dominate the national Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft (DRM).
There was a caveat to this success: Neerpasch had switched to BMW in April – and taken Braungart with him.
“Ford asked me to stay and run the department in Cologne,” reveals Braungart. “But I’m an engineer and didn’t want to get deep into the politics and daily admin of a team. So I went with Jochen. For a company the global size of Ford I have to say that it was very flexible. But BMW was smaller and reacted even more quickly.
“We left the Capri in a competitive state. When you look at its results you can say it was a good car. Jochen and I knew that we had a big fight to beat it.”
After a defeat at Monza, Capris scored wins at the poorly supported Salzburgring and Mantorp Park rounds. But once BMW’s Batmobiles took flight, Ford was scrabbling in the dark. Works CSLs scored a hat-trick at the Nürburgring, Spa 24 Hours and Zandvoort, while the Alpina-run version of Harald Ertl/Derek Bell mopped up the Silverstone TT.
The CSL also put the Capri in the shade at Le Mans. RS2600 won its class in the Nürburgring 1000Km and scored victories in the DRM and non-championship Fuji and Macau Guia races – but it had clearly been BMW’s year.
“I made a big mistake signing for Ford that season,” says Fitzpatrick. “And, what made me really sick was that the day after I’d signed I was in Munich to pick up a road-going CSL. Jochen asked to see me... and there on his desk was a contract for me. I’d had a big argument with him when I was driving the Escort at Jarama in 1971 – he was holding us back during our stops to try to ensure a Capri win – so it had never crossed my mind that he’d even think to sign me.
“The Capri ETCC thing looked good on paper – a works team with good drivers – and it paid well. But it was a very dispiriting year. I don’t really know what was wrong with the Capri. I don’t think any of us did. I liked [new Cologne boss] Mike Kranefuss. He was much more one of the guys than Jochen, but he wasn’t terribly technically minded. Ralph Broad had built a Capri with trick suspension for Dave Matthews to race in Britain and it seemed to work well – but Cologne had nobody of the calibre of Ralph. Neerpasch had taken the best people with him.
“The Capri had terrible roll to start with. To dial this out they made it so stiff that it had no feel. You couldn’t slide it. The inside front was lifting. So was the rear. It looked spectacular, but it felt awful. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t quick enough to be scary, but it was immensely frustrating.
“The engine was reliable though.”
It was also at the end of its tuning tether: 2995cc and 320bhp. Cosworth had been approached in 1972 and given a target of 400bhp. Using Group 2’s ‘100 option’ – building 10 per cent of the usual 1000 examples required for homologation – designer Mike Hall came up with the GAA, a twin cam-per-bank, four valves-per-cylinder conversion of the British-made ‘Essex’ pushrod V6. As usual Cosworth hit its target – the eventual figure was 445bhp. The new Capri racer was based on the British-spec, bewinged and bespoilered RS3100. Its little-bit-extra standard capacity could be extrapolated to 3.4 litres for racing purposes.
This motor was destined for a comprehensively reworked car. Slightly heavier – the glass fibre panels had been struck out by the organisers – but with a better weight distribution thanks to rear-mounted rads, it also had an adjustable, slotted front airdam and a large rear spoiler. The scene was set for another titanic ETCC struggle with BMW.
Then the energy crisis struck.
Everybody was hard hit: BMW pulled out of the ETCC and handed responsibility to its tuners; after a raft of cancellations the series dwindled to six rounds. Ford won the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles thanks to Hans Heyer’s Zakspeed Escort RS1600. In a reduced programme the RS3100 won at Zandvoort and Jarama, but BMW’s privateers did just enough to win the large-capacity category.
Again the Nürburgring 1000Km gave the Capri a saving grace – another Touring Car category win. There were also successes in the Kyalami Six Hours and the DRM (against CSLs and Group 4 Porsche Carrera RSRs).
The bald truth, however, was that this genuine crowd-puller and -pleaser needed – and deserved – a big stage on which to perform. Sadly there was no place for its three-wheeling antics during the Three-Day Week.
Works Capri driver Jochen Mass was on the verge of the ETCC title – and on pole. Star F1 pairing Jackie Stewart and François Cevert were on the outside of an all-Capri front row. But privateers Brian ‘Yogi’ Muir and John Miles were on to a good thing. They had qualified the Malcolm Gartlan-run Wiggins Teape RS2600 seventh – but were keeping their powder dry.
Muir was in the lead of 1972’s lucrative Paul Ricard Six Hours by lap six – and was still there 151 laps later. Not only were Muir and Miles faster than the Cologne cars, they were more efficient, making just two fuel stops to the factory’s three.
“There was a lot of talk afterwards of us having a bigger tank,” says Miles. “But that was bullshit. We had a different engine to the other Capris.” Weslake had discovered that at part-throttle fuel was hitting the butterfly and splashing back. By moving the injectors to the other side of the trumpets the fuel now had a straight path. This gave the engine better mpg.
Miles isn’t sure how the team got hold of the engine. Perhaps Ford was too big, too corporate, to think it was worth trying; perhaps they weren’t told about it.
“But the engine wasn’t the only reason our strategy worked,” Miles asserts. “Brian had learned that by fuelling up first thing in the morning when it was cold it was possible to keep dribbling it in and expand the tank. It also helped that the car was well-prepared and quick: Brian set fastest lap.
“To beat the likes of Stewart gave me satisfaction. Since being dropped from Lotus’s F1 team I had taken a hammering from certain parties. I was still making a living from racing, but not a great one. The 88,000 francs I got were very helpful; they paid for the renovation of my house in Islington.”