Sure, we can argue about it, but we’re probably going to end up agreeing that the Ford Capri was the definitive car of the 1970s, in the UK, at least. The dates match; first sold in ’69, the Capri’s sales started to slump in the late seventies, though it struggled on to 1986 in the UK, two years after it has been killed off elsewhere. It had the right looks for the decade that taste forgot; the curvy, Coke-bottle styling was straight from Detroit. The Capri was intended to copy the sales success Detroit was having with the Mustang too, and create a pony car for Europe.
But the timing was way off. Just as the Capri was going on sale here, recession and spiralling oil prices were killing the US muscle car stone dead. But this just made the Capri yet more representative of its time; under that long, glam-rock bonnet, the engines and transmissions were the automotive equivalent of the three-day week. Mechanically, the Capri shared much with the Ford Cortina, described by CAR magazine as ‘a calculated attempt to sell the public ordinariness’ and ‘one of the least exciting automobiles a major British manufacturer has had the courage to launch since the middle fifties.’
The Capri didn’t improve on it much over its three generations. Depending on where and when you bought it, your Capri might have had as little as 70bhp and no more than 138bhp until 1981, when the range-topping three-litre Essex V6 was replaced with a fuel-injected, 160bhp lump. Ironically, it was even sent to the States where it sold tolerably well for while in straightened times despite – or perhaps because of - its pencil-neck engines. Leaf springs meant the ride and handling wasn’t much better, but at least it was light; seventies austerity standard equipment and a laissez-faire attitude to safety meant your Capri probably didn’t weigh much more than a tonne, flyweight by today’s standards.
A few were brave enough to give road-going Capris the go to match the show. The South Africans gave it the V8 it deserved, dropping in the 5.0-litre V8 used in the Mustang to create the sadly little-known, low-volume Perana . In the UK, in its final days, the Tickford Turbo coaxed 205bhp from the 2.8-litre V8.
But if the standard cars were so terrible, why did we love them so much? Some smart TV product placement deals helped, as did the fact that it made a wicked looking race car which drew some famous names. Hill and Surtees raced a beautiful RS2600; Lauda and Mass campaigned a RS3100 in which the latter won the ’72 European Touring Car Championship, and the Zakspeed cars based on the MkIII were all wings, skirts and scoops, looked sharp enough to draw blood and won the predecessor to the DTM in 1981.
But ultimately, we loved the Capri because it did capture a bit of the Mustang’s mojo: while it might have been less than stellar to drive, it was still a desirable, affordable blue-collar hero, and that was about all you could expect at the time.