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Replacing the Capri: False Starts & Bad Ideas

Ford has always had a problem with the Capri. From its launch in 1969 to its demise in 1987 there were three versions of the Capri.

Except, that's not really true: there was really only one because underneath the slightly altered metal, nothing fundamentally changed.

For a good reason. Each time during that near-20 year lifespan that Ford considered reinventing the wheel with a new car, Old Henry came to the unavoidable conclusion that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

So when the Capri finally died in the late 80s, Ford faced a problem. Because the car had stayed true to the faithful, it hadn't moved on. But the rest of the car market had. Everyone wanted hot hatches.

At this point Ford could have reinvented the Capri, much like it recently has with the Mustang Mach E. But that would have upset the diehard enthusiasts, who had got used to a car that fundamentally never changed.

So they didn't reinvent the Capri. They just tried to make new and better ones. That weren't called Capris, for reasons nobody has ever quite understood. Here we go.

Ford Probe

Lets cut the Ford Probe some slack. It's become a motoring whipping dog, thanks largely to that name.

But forget the name for now. The Probe was, on paper and in the metal, a worthy Capri successor. Born into a much more sophisticated motoring world than that of the Capri's 1969 launch, it needed to be competitive. Where the Capri was simple and basic, the Probe was at least of its moment: it was based on a Mazda 6 chassis, which while not the last world in finesse, was decent enough. It also used a Mazda 2.5 V6 engine, which was also reasonably pokey. All good so far: the Probe definitely took the game to the competition far better than the Capri ever did.

And yet... there's how it looked. Instead of picking up styling cues from the venerable Capri - in other words, the bit of the old car definitely worth saving - the Probe was an entirely new and not entirely pleasant design. Perhaps it could have worked, but the need to serve markets in both Europe and America meant that it ended up looking too big and bloated for European buyers.

Ford also didn't bother to mine one of the Capri's ace cards: the ability to personalise your car with options and different trim specification. There was one Probe, with different engines.

The elephant in the room here, of course, was the name. Ford had already sold an earlier Probe in the US, a late 80s car that was originally meant to replace the Capri and looked a lot more like one. So it's not really the fault of the team behind this car that they went with an established name. Their problem was to sell the car in Europe, where Probe doesn't work in many, many ways. Which shows the folly of trying to sell a car across continents.

European buyers were left with the impression of a Ford that was really a Mazda that looked like it should be cruising Hollywood Boulevards not wheelspinning outside McDonalds. Ford sold 15,000 here in three years, far less than the 20,000 a year they expected.

All of which is a shame, particularly because the idea that European buyers didn't want coupes in the 90s is a bit of a myth. VW, Fiat and Vauxhall all built and sold good coupes in respectable numbers throughout the 90s. Even plucky Rover spotted an opportunity and created the Rover 200 'Tomcat' coupe. In this company the Probe was an odd-looking, dynamically-outclassed car with a horrible name.

Ford Cougar

With their second attempt to replace the Capri, Ford must surely have thought they had the job in the bag. First off, the name: Cougar. Fierce, predatory, fast. Also the nickname given to sexually acquisitive older ladies, but we'll let that one go. Not a great name but not a bad one either.

Then there were the underpinnings. Instead of reclothing a passing Mazda, Ford looked in-house and based the new car on the Mk2 Ford Mondeo, a car much-praised for its ride and handling. Admittedly, by the time the Cougar was launched in 1998 the original Mondeo was a bit long in the tooth and dynamically outclassed. But then the original Capri was never the last word in handling finesse.

So it had an okay-ish name, an okay-ish chassis and some decent engines. You can almost hear the Ford executives high-fiving themselves.

In fact, the suits felt sufficiently confident to launch the Cougar at Silverstone with Dennis Hopper of Easy Rider fame in attendance and Steppenwolf's Born to Be Wild on the boom box. Only the actual presence of Alan Partridge could surely have made that scene more Partridgian.

The problem was the way it looked. In an attempt to get the project past the bean counters in Dearborn, the Cougar once again had to appeal to both European and American buyers. At a time when their tastes were still wide apart. The designers did try to spice up the bland Mondeo underpinnings, but the strange cab-forward design didn't suit the coupe styling. It all felt a bit half-arsed. Inside the impression was the same - a strange mix of aging Mondeo saloon bits and sporty surprise and delight touches that were neither sporty, surprising or delightful. The overall effect was unremarkable, particularly at a time when the competition from Alfa Romeo and Fiat was so stylish.

And that's a shame because unlike the Probe, the Cougar drove quite well. Yes, it was better suited to a freeway than a B-road, but it handled tidily, was comfortable and also reasonably quick. Despite its slightly aged underpinnings, it held up well against its rivals.

Still nobody bought it. It lasted just two and a half years on the UK market and only 12,000 sold. It's not really hard to see why. Unlike the Capri, you couldn't make your Cougar distinctive. It looked odd, like it wanted to be sporty but was a bit too scared of it. It was less Dennis Hopper, much more Alan Partridge.

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Ford's miss-steps with the Probe and Cougar don't quite nail what really went wrong in the drive to replace the Capri. Because it seems that Ford didn't really want to replace it at all.

By the mid 80s the Capri was only really selling in Britain, rejuvenated by the fuel injected 2.8 litre Cologne engine. For Ford the car had become an anachronism - a simple, dated design that looked very retro compared to the new XR4 and XR3. With its futuristic new Sierra, Escort and Granada models, Ford Europe was aiming for a new, sophisticated buyer in this era of new technology. And the firm seemed to decide that tarting up humdrum models was a far more lucrative way to win hearts and minds than developing a new stand alone car. And it probably was.

Then there was the Capri's longevity. By continuing to make essentially the same car for 18 years, Ford embedded in buyers the notion of what a Capri should be like. It would be simple, customisable and look great, with a very distinctive profile. Any variation from that formula risked alienating buyers. So replacing the Capri was not an easy task.

And another thing. By the late 80s hot hatches like the Golf GTI and even Ford's own models like the XR3 and XR4 were nibbling away at the Capri's market. So when the Probe was launched Ford needed transatlantic volume to justify tooling up. This resulted in cars like the Probe and Cougar that were fudges, unhappy blends of American and European tastes that inevitably failed to meet either satisfactorily.

Ford also lacked suitable shared underpinnings with which to make a new car economically viable. Where VW, Vauxhall and Fiat pioneered platform sharing, creating decent, shared oily bits that made the Corrado, Calibra and Coupe financially possible, in the early 90s Ford lacked this. Where these firms targeted different markets with distinctive models based on the same platforms, Ford opted to make the same car to serve every market. Even the Cougar of 1998 was just a reclothed Ford Mondeo.

So there was a lot riding against the Capri. But it is still a shame that Ford's fumbling with the ball produced two cars so ill-equipped to carry the car's flame. If our experience at Great Driving Days is anything to go by, the Capri remains one of Ford's best-loved cars. It closely rivals our E Type as the most popular car on our fleet. So we can only hope that one day Ford will see fit to replace it.

Until that day we'll make the most of the original.

Graham Eason, Great Driving Days.


You can hire our 1987 Ford Capri 280 Brooklands from just £59 per day. FIND OUT MORE

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