Forget the talk of ‘legend’ – the Ford Capri was never that good

1975 ford capri mk2
'The Capri's main claim to fame is that it was cheap,' says Andrew English

Am I the only one who doesn’t get it? “The legend is back,” says the copy. But was the Ford Capri really “legendary”?

As the old name is revived with the help of Eric Cantona and a bathos-brimmed video, it’s hard to forget the amused irony of Bob Lutz, the senior manager at Ford’s rival General Motors, upon seeing the “retro-futurist” S197 Mustang in 2004.

They’ve redone the 1967 fastback Mustang?” he said. “Oh boy, I can’t wait to see what they do next…”

But that redesigned Mustang was a proper retro job, unlike the 2020 Mustang Mach-E, which is a battery-electric SUV lacking any credible connection with the original “pony car” other than a badge of a galloping horse on the front.

Now Ford is doing it again with this reborn Capri, which is nothing more than a rounded roof for the Explorer, a battery-electric four-door, four-seat rebodied Volkswagen ID.5, which Ford builds under licence in Cologne. It’s as sporting as watching football from the sofa and as much to do as the original Capri as a holiday in Torremolinos, which, to be honest, was always a favourite holiday destination of the Capri’s heartland audience.

The new Ford Capri
The new Ford Capri: 'a battery-electric four-door, four-seat rebodied Volkswagen ID.5'

If you are under 35 years old, you’ll not remember much of the Capri, built between 1969 and 1986. It’ll be all Bodie and Doyle from The Professionals driving their Capri though cardboard boxes while their boss Gordon Jackson, on gardening leave from Upstairs Downstairs, looks on. Or Terry McCann from Minder, the amiable ex-boxer fall guy to scheming “entrepreneur” Arther Daley, who purchased a 2.0-litre Capri Mk2 for McCann but drove a Daimler himself.

Aimed at mimicking the success of the V8-engined Mustang in the US, the Capri was penned by former aerodynamic apprentice and Chrysler designer Phillip Thomas Clark and based on a unique floorpan culled from parts of the Escort and Corsair. A bit more than a Cortina in drag, then, but somewhat short of “the car you always promised yourself” as Ford’s marketers would have you believe.

It was Ford’s second use of the name of the small rocky island in the bay of Naples in Italy; the first time was on the 1962 Classic/Capri 116E. What’s more, the second Capri wasn’t planned to be called Capri at all, but Ford had battled in vain with Mitsubishi for the rights to the Colt name (Mustang, Colt, geddit?). The name has also been used on the back of a Mazda 323 and a version of the US Mustang, while the 2003 Ford Visos concept car was heavily tipped to be a new version of the Capri.

Dubbed the “everyman’s Lamborghini” by Thames TV’s Drive program, the Capri’s main claim to fame is that it was cheap. In 1969, the base model 1.3-litre cost £890, which was almost £100 cheaper than that year’s 1.5-litre Austin Maxi family hatchback. Mind you, the Maxi was faster, quicker to 60mph and rode and handled better.

A launch event for the Capri in 1969
The Capri was dubbed the 'everyman's Lamborghini' when it launched in 1969 - Mirrorpix

With its live rear axle and leaf springs, the Capri defined tail-happy handling, with many ending their days after spinning into the scenery. The 138bhp 3000 GT, with its Essex V6 engine, had a scary reputation for being more difficult to drive in a straight line than through a corner…

Even the last 2.8i Injection models (1981-86) required careful handling and sensitivity with the accelerator pedal to avoid disappearing stage left, the live rear axle being retained to the end.

And my, how they rusted. I remember trying to change a wheel on a four-year-old Capri and failing to find a single place underneath with the integrity to support the jack. The vinyl trim quickly showed its age (often with cigarette burns) and while parts were cheap, you needed to buy a lot of them to keep your Capri on the road.

This was the 1960s, though. The British population had money in their pockets, and young people were “discovered” as potential profit sources. The Capri was an attainable bit of flash and its transatlantic looks chimed with the times.

Ford Capri mk1
The Capri's American-influenced aesthetic gave it cultural clout in the 1960s

It was finely marketed, of course, but the British public weren’t fools; we all knew what the Capri was and what it stood for. Which perhaps explains the mere handful of celebrity Capri drivers: boxing promoter Barry Hearn, Brian Connolly of the Sweet and Cliff Richard. There’s a story that John Deacon from Queen wanted to buy one, but Freddie Mercury told him it wasn’t rock and roll enough.

These days, there’s a sort of retro chic in the old Capri, but to own one you’ll need to like welding. Consider the white Capri of Harry Styles, which even he left in a lock-up to rot.

And it’s sheer revisionist nonsense to suggest that the Capri had no direct competitors. In 1969, when the car was launched, Motor magazine tested the £1,121 9s 6d 1600GT, which it labelled “not so much a 2+2, more a family foursome”.

It was cheap for a 100mph car, but basic and, as ever with Ford, you had to spend a lot on options to top up the specification. Motor compared it with the £1,034 Triumph Vitesse, the £1,438 Fiat 124 coupé, the £1,198 Lotus Cortina and the £1,405 BMW 160. I’d have taken the Cortina every time…

The Ford Capri Mk2 offered a hatchback, larger interior and greater practicality
The Ford Capri Mk2 offered a hatchback, larger interior and greater practicality

Leaf through the 1969 Motor Road Test annual and, as well as the Capri, there was the delectable Bertone-designed Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV coupé, £2,248-worth of high-speed fun with, according to the testers, “superb” road-holding. With an advanced all-aluminium twin-cam engine and a five-speed gearbox, the GTV was one of the most consummate of two-door coupés. Or the spacious £1,592 Opel Commodore coupé, or the sophisticated £1,661 Lancia Fulvia Coupé Rallye, which also debuted in 1969.

The Capri was an immediate success as affluent young managers added one to their drive and in only five years Ford sold more than 1.5 million, not bad for a niche car. The Mk2 added a hatchback, a larger interior and greater practicality, but by the time of the Mk3 in 1978, the writing was on the wall. Ford’s designers transformed the image with no more than a box of black trim, a set of round headlights and a new bonnet pressing, but the era of the hot hatchback was upon us and the Capri seemed of another age; a bit naff.

Ford Capri Mk3
By the time the Mk3 launched in 1978, the Capri seemed of another age, says English

But what goes around comes around. It was previous Ford boss Alan Mulally who said it was a waste to throw away much loved names, and even the company’s rivals have taken notice. Legacy car makers are grabbing at any opportunity to differentiate themselves from the new wave of Chinese brands. Among others, Alfa Romeo is reviving its Junior name and Opel is looking to bring back the Manta badge.

After Mustang and Capri, Ford seems likely to turn its sights to the Fiesta, too. Jim Farley, the company’s chief executive, recently appeared on Hagarty’s podcast talking, among other things, about the Fiesta and how they could make a more premium compact car. Funny how the company is  quiet on reviving the disastrous Edsel name, or for that matter the Probe coupé, about which one Ford executive recounted: “My wife said, ‘Why didn’t you go the whole hog and call it the Penetrator?’.”

Just one thing they forgot in all this, though. The new Capri will be a country mile from cheap. The most expensive Explorer is £55,275 and the top model VW ID.5 is £55,705, so don’t expect the Capri to be very far from the mid-£50,000s. Not so much the legendary car you always promised yourself, as the car you can’t afford.