Ford Capri 2.8i – Rewind Wednesday
We take a look at another former What Car? Award winner. In this case it's the classic Ford Capri – our 1984 Coupé of the Year...
"The car you always promised yourself" was the strapline at the 1969 launch of the Ford Capri. And, by golly, it was. While moneyed men had been splashing their spoils on E-Type Jags and Aston DB5s, the ‘common man’ – after a quarter of a century of austerity in a Britain that had been left brutalised by war – was desperate for some fun of his own. And by the late 1960s, the fun times had arrived: financial and social liberation meant things were well and truly swinging.
Ford gauged the zeitgeist perfectly. Understanding that there was an appetite for something swankier than its conservative Consuls and Cortinas, it looked to blueprint its home-turf success in the US with the Mustang and create a cheap coupé for this side of the pond.
Where it all started
With the greenbacks whizzing round his mind like the wheels of a one-armed bandit, Henry Ford II asked the Mustang’s designer, Philip Thomas Clark, to pen a car equally capable of wooing Europe’s hoi polloi. And Clark did a stonkingly good job. So much so that the Mk1 Capri ended up being a hit across Europe, Australia, Japan and, believe it or not, North America – where, badged as the Mercury Capri, it sold handsomely alongside that iconic Stang.
By the time the last Mk3 Capri – the evolutionary iteration built from 1978 to 1986 – had rolled off the production line, more than 1.8 million Capris had been sold; although, by that stage, its global allure had waned. Coupés, you see, had become old hat, with hot hatchbacks proving a more popular family-friendly performance package.
In its twilight years, Capris were being built solely in right-hand drive for the UK market only. Yes, Frankfurt Fritz and Houston Hank had lost interest and, even here in Blighty, the yuppie elite now deemed it a bit naff, favouring instead the classier Golf GTI. But there was still the blue-collar brigade – which we shall categorise here as a Mr Arthur Fanzbanz of Acacia Avenue – who still yearned for some rugged, old-school Capri charm.
That was thanks largely to its continued appearances in the hands of a couple of macho but equally moribund TV detectives, Bodie and Doyle from The Professionals, as well as the timely installation of the tasty, German-built Cologne 2.8 V6 injection engine. This resulted in some much needed zip for Arthur to enjoy.
Our 1984 Best Coupé of the Year
By 1984, the Capri was living on borrowed time, but that didn’t stop us from voting the car our Coupé of the Year. Not because it was the fastest or best-handling coupé out there, but because it offered so much for relatively little.
Take the Porsche 944 Lux as a comparison – the car that came second in that year’s judging. Yes, it had oodles of badge appeal, plus some visually spectacular flared arches and pop-up headlights. It also had its transaxle layout of front-mounted engine and rear-mounted gearbox – which, in engineering terms, was far superior. But it cost more than £15k.
The Capri 2.8i was just £8995. For that, you got six cylinders to the Porsche’s four and 160bhp to the Porsche’s marginally pokier 163bhp. And, like the 944 but unlike front-driven rivals such as the Renault Fuego and Lancia HPE, the Capri offered proper, hairy-chested rear-wheel-drive thrills, which appealed hugely to Arthur, because he was a ‘proper’ driver who knew how to handle it.
That year, we group tested the Capri 2.8i against the Fuego and Lancia, as well as the Mitsubishi Colt Cordia. And it seemed that, despite the Capri’s rather antiquated suspension layout – it had a live rear axle suspended by cart springs, for heaven’s sake – it could still do the business. “It is ironic that the oldest car here, the one with the seemingly old-fashioned drive and suspension layout, should still provide the best compromise of ride and handling," we wrote. "In a nutshell, the 2.8i is a thrilling car to drive fast.” Nice.
Our praise didn’t stop there: “The Capri’s natural cornering attitude is one of slight but stable understeer; pushed harder the tail can be made to swing out satisfyingly at will.” That’ll keep Arthur entertained.
Mind you, Arthur needed to be careful: in wet conditions, that tail could snap like a scorpion’s if you weren’t judicious. As we noted: “In the wet, beware. A slightly greasy road can turn the 2.8i’s tail-happy idiosyncrasy into a nasty vice that can catch the unwary.” That must be where that old wives’ tale about carrying a bag of cement in the boot of your Capri to keep that mercurial rear end in check came from then.
And what of the performance from the naturally aspirated, mechanically injected V6? Well, that seemed on the money when we gathered the data: “From a standing start, the grippy tyres help the 2.8i off to very impressive acceleration figures indeed: 7.8sec to 60mph and 22.4sec to 100mph. Third gear is good for 108mph, while the top speed, achieved in fifth, is a cool 133mph on the clock.” Take that, you Golf GTI lightweights with your puny top whack of 119mph.
But what’s it like today?
The car you see in the pictures, D194 UVW, is special for two reasons. First, it’s one of just over 1000 swan-song Capri 280 models. Colloquially referred to as the Brooklands, because of the fetching metallic green paint, these came garnished with bigger 15in RS alloys, a limited-slip differential and leather-trimmed Recaro seats. Second, it was the very last Capri ever built, kindly lent to us from Ford’s heritage fleet.
Now, old cars, especially iconic ones from ‘back in the day’ that get spoken about through the haze of rose-tinted remembrances, rarely live up to their billing. And this one, don’t forget, has engineering roots that date back nearly half a century.
You know what, though? Sure, it’s got its faults, and we’ll come to those later, but there’s much to praise about the old gal. By modern standards, the 2.8i engine doesn’t feel that quick, but it’s certainly pokey, revs crisply and sounds saucy enough to make you grin – especially if you wind down the driver’s window for a full earful.
The five-speed manual gearbox has a long throw and doesn’t react well to being rushed, but its light, mechanical action lets you know where you are with it and where you need to go for the next gear.
These days, many cars have independent suspension, which lets each wheel react to bumps individually of the others; it makes for a better ride and sharper handling. Do you recall the earlier mention of a live rear axle? These are so called because in effect you have a solid beam connecting two wheels – in this case, the Capri’s two rear wheels – and when one wheel hits a bump, it disturbs the wheel on the other side, making things… well, lively.
We fully anticipated a jiggly ride and wayward handling, yet the Capri displayed neither. The ride was surprisingly absorbent, even over some pretty challenging roads, and it felt quite stable through corners. With relatively low grip from wheels and tyres that would now be considered small on a supermini, you can still enjoy some of those legendary tail-swinging antics, but at speeds low enough that it’s enjoyable, not fearful.
The steering is good, too. At 3.2 turns lock to lock, it’s quick enough without being nervous and provides reassuring heft around the straight ahead.
So, what about the bad points? Well, even though the low-riding driving position feels great, space-wise it’s pretty tight if you’re on the tall side. Meanwhile, the clutch is as wolly as a Christmas stocking and the brakes… well, they’re frightening.
No anti-lock braking system, of course, which is fine. But it's the inch or so of pedal travel that does nothing apart from loosen your ‘bowel valve’ every time you see brake lights appear in front and have you sticking rigidly to the two-second-distance rule. And even though they work well enough if you really stamp on them, that middle pedal remains a test of faith rather than an exact science.