Capri stole the spotlight

Back in the early 1970s, the sight of the tiny Mercury Capri surrounded by acres of opera-windowed, padded-roofed Grand Marquis Broughams and designer series Continentals on the dealer lot was a lesson in contrast, to say the least.

Yet, there it was, a 2,000-pound weakling vying for attention, just like the rest of the imports of the day.

Of course, imported automobiles had been a burr in Detroit’s backside ever since the first baby boomers learned to crawl. To combat that threat, North American manufacturers devised a number of strategies that included bringing vehicles built by their European affiliates to our shores.

In Ford’s case, the company introduced a succession of Ford-branded British-built small cars throughout the 1950s and ’60s, including the Anglia, Consul, Zephyr and Cortina, plus the German-built Taunus.

But, it wasn’t until 1970 that the company’s more upscale Lincoln-Mercury division would be given its own exclusive import to sell.

That year, the Capri (the name originated from a 1950s Lincoln model) arrived from Ford’s plant in Cologne, Germany. The compact two-door coupe possessed understated lines and a classy, if slightly cramped interior. In short, the Capri (it never actually wore a Mercury badge) seemed the perfect small-car fit that complemented L-M’s lineup of mid- to premium-priced iron. It was also positioned a notch above Ford’s Cortina, a thoroughly competent, albeit budget-priced, import. In fact, both the Cortina and Capri shared the same chassis as well as a 75-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder motor and four-speed manual gearbox.

The Capri opened to an onslaught of promotional fanfare in mid-April of 1970 and was marketed as the “The Sexy European.” Although the buzzy four-banger didn’t exactly speak the language of performance, the car sold reasonably well to folks willing to part with at least $2,300 for a helping of Euro-style ride, handling and fuel economy.

In its sophomore year, an optional 100-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine altered the car’s benign character and made sporty-minded enthusiasts sit up and take notice. An optional three-speed automatic transmission also widened the Capri’s circle of admirers and delighted L-M dealers had the sales figures to prove it.

By year three, the littlest Mercury was on a roll and was given a further shot in the arm in the form of an available 2.6-liter V-6 that generated 107 horsepower and 130 pound-feet of torque.

The V-6 couldn’t have arrived at a better time since increasingly tighter government-mandated emissions regulations were taking a significant horsepower bite from both four-cylinders. The Capri’s original 1.6 was downrated to just 64 meager ponies, while the 2.0 made an equally underwhelming 86.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, new front- and side-impact-protection rules added weight to all passenger cars, including the Capri, which was forced into wearing ungainly front and rear bumpers. To offset the extra bulk, the 1974 edition offered the same 120-horse 2.8-liter-V-6 upgrade that was available on the small Ford Mustang II.

Economic issues were also affecting the Capri. Double-digit inflation in North America coupled with a weakening U.S. dollar was driving up the cost of imported automobiles. As a result, the base price had breached the $4,100 mark — nearly double the car’s original sticker — by the time the all-new 1976 Capri II arrived in March of 1975. The car had grown slightly, displayed cleaner styling with larger windows and had been converted into a handy hatchback. Unfortunately, it carried about 500 pounds (minimum) of added weight, losing some of its nimbleness in the process. To compensate, a new 88-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder became the base powerplant, while the 2.8 V-6 remained optional. Base, Ghia and Sport models could be selected, with the latter available with rally wheels and a special black- or white-with-gold-trim paint scheme and a gold cloth interior.

The Capri II lasted only two model years before Ford pulled the plug on the automobile’s North American production in August of 1977. By then, Lincoln-Mercury dealers were busy selling the subcompact Bobcat, which was their version of the Ford Pinto, plus the Ford Maverick-based Comet compact. The smart looking German runabout seemed hardly missed.

The Capri remained for strictly European consumption until 1986, while the name found new life on this side of the ocean beginning in 1979 as Mercury’s American-made version of the Ford Mustang.

Today, rust and neglect have reduced the original Capri’s numbers to the brink. That’s understandable, considering these German-made gems encouraged spirited driving and would have simply worn out, leaving only happy memories behind.

Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers and Web sites across North America.

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