Ford Capri at 50: why 'the car you always promised yourself' is still a classic car to covet

Ford Capri Mk3 
The last-of-the-line Capri 280 Brooklands near the seafront at Southend

It’s 1972. I’m a well-to-do businessman who likes to look a bit flash, but I need something I can also fit my wife and kid in. Naturally, I drive a Ford Capri, and it’s my pride and joy. The car I always promised myself. 

Now it’s 1978. I’m an undercover copper with a perm down to my shoulders, a tan leather jacket and a chip on my shoulder the size of Deptford. I spot the bloke I’ve been hunting down for the last three weeks; I bring the Capri to a screeching halt in front of him, jump out, chase him across the bonnet and nick him. Job done.

Or is it, in fact, 1983? The perm’s gone, but there’s a chest wig there instead, and I’m off to Southend for a night on the town with the other ’alf. Quick whip round the rides at Adventure Island, buy her an ice cream, pose along the strip in the Capri, then it’s off back home for a bit of slap and tickle. Laaaavely!

OK, OK, you’ve got me. It’s actually 2019, and I’m bimbling around the West Sussex countryside. Sorry. But I can’t help it; the Capri is a car that, within just a few minutes of you getting behind the wheel, puts you right in the thick of the folklore and stereotypes that surround it. 

Lewis Collins looking as tough as you like in his Capri Mk3 during filming of 'The Professionals' in 1978 Credit: Chris Capstick/REX/Shutterstock

Ensconced in the bucket seats, with your legs stretched out ahead of you, an arm on the window sill and the roar of the Cologne V6 engine in your ears, you just can’t help imagining yourself as a flash geezer, a hardened rozzer or an Essex wideboy, or whomever else you might care to mention.

The Capri is now 50 years old, and such is the huge impression it made during its lifetime that it’s one of the few cars most people, even those decidedly uninterested in cars, could probably name. It has transcended mere automotive culture and entered the national psyche. 

In its life, it’s been an object of aspiration, the transport of choice for raffish heart-throbs, a boy-racer’s chariot, a washed-up joke and, finally, a very desirable classic car with more of an emotional draw than most. 

Where it all started: the original Capri, launched at the start of 1969, looked so good that few knew nor cared that it was essentially a Cortina under the svelte lines 

But what is it about the Capri that’s given it such an appeal to so many people? Well, it starts when you walk up to it. It looks sensational – long and low, yet nowhere near as big in the flesh as you’d imagined. The door handles are stiff, metal items, and the heavy doors close with a metallic ‘tang’.

You sit so low the gauges are almost at eye level, peering over a distinctly American-inspired dashboard, through the narrow windscreen – almost like that of a light aircraft – at the swooping, bulging bonnet beyond. 

The engine fires briskly, and with a glorious rasp. The clutch is heavy, and the throw of the gearbox long, but once the Capri is moving it’s easy to drive thanks to power steering and decent, if slightly wooden, brakes.

The Capri during a pilgrimage to Ford's huge site at Dagenham, to the east of London. It was never built there, however, UK production taking place at Halewood on Merseyside 

The car we’re driving is a 280 – the last of the line run-out special, which got unique Brooklands Green paintwork, 15-inch alloy wheels and full leather trim, over and above the standard 2.8 Injection Special on which it was based. Indeed, the example we have here is reputed to be the last ever made.

The fuel-injected 2.8-litre V6 was rated at 160bhp in its day; most Capris struggled to develop that even when new, however. But this is one of those cars in which power seems irrelevant, and all 2.8 Injections feel plenty fast enough; a combination of the crude nature of the suspension, which gets somewhat bouncy on a B-road above a certain pace, not to mention the wayward steering. 

And the noise, of course. Few cars sound like this; richer and more insistent than most V6s, but a little way short of the full-throated burble of a V8. Low down, you get a bassy thrum that switches to an open-throated wail as the revs climb, ever more urgent and addictive the closer to the rev limiter you get. 

The Mk2 appeared in 1974 but had a relatively short life of four years (although the Mk3 was little more than a heavily facelifted Mk2). It was also the first Ford with a hatchback

The Capri is most definitely not a sports car , though; that becomes clear when you arrive at your first series of niggly switchbacks. The steering is vague around the dead ahead, but becomes more precise off-centre; still, it isn’t ideal. Grip, meanwhile, is hard to come by. But the Capri is huge fun regardless, its pliant chassis chatting away to you about what the car’s doing, and what it’s about to do. And its limits are so low that if you do get into trouble, you’re unlikely to do much damage. 

Of course, the legend goes that Capris are uncontrollably tail-happy. This is not entirely true, especially in later cars like this one, with their Bilstein suspension and limited-slip differential. Set the Capri up on the way into a bend, let it settle on to its outer wheels, and feed in the power progressively, and it’ll accelerate through the apex and out the other side without fuss.

Hoof the throttle, though, and it’ll slide wide with relatively little provocation, and at such slow speeds that it’s easily gatherable. This party trick is such good fun and so easy to repeat without drama that it can become addictive, so it isn’t hard to see where that reputation stems from. 

For 1982, the 'Essex' 3.0 V6 engine that had powered range-topping Capris from the start was replaced by the cleaner, Cologne-built 2.8-litre V6 with fuel injection

But you don’t need to indulge in such hooliganism to enjoy driving the Capri. Even just cruising along, revelling in the fabulous noise from that V6, with the window open and the wind in your hair, it’s terrific. Much as been made of the Capri as Britain’s answer to the muscle car, and while it’s perhaps a little short on outright brawn for that, there is a parallel to be drawn simply in the way it makes you feel. 

It is a car that’s on your side, a lovable rogue that’s always got your back; a car you always feel is looking back at you with a wry smile and a twinkle in its eye, and one that’s impossible to drive without breaking into a grin.

And you really can feel the ghosts of Bodie and Doyle, Terry McCann, Del Boy Trotter and all the other characters – fictional or otherwise – who drove Capris back in the day, breathing down your neck. 

At the wheel of the Capri, you can be any one of them you please. Or you can just be yourself, enjoying one of the most instantly gratifying classic cars there is today. 

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