Lemon Wedge - Ford Capri SA30

Most people would agree that the Mazda MX-5 is one of the greatest cars ever made. By taking small British roadster theme and applying the radical concept of building it properly, Mazda created an icon that a handful of companies have tried to take on over the past 30 years. It’s earliest opponent came from an unlikely source: Ford Australia. .

As a major shareholder in Mazda at the time, Ford was aware that the MX-5 was coming. The sensible thing to do would have been to re-skin the MX-5. Their utterly illogical response was to independently develop a rival model using Mazda mechanicals borrowed from the mundane 323 hatchback. This was Ford in the 1980s, remember. This was a company whose offerings on each continent were totally unrelated to each other. The American Taurus, Australian Falcon and European Scorpio shared absolutely nothing. Ford’s plan wasn’t to build a good sports car that complimented Mazda’s offering, but rather to build something approximating a sports car on a platform already in production in Sydney, release it before the MX-5 and try to cannibalise it.

There was method to Ford Australia’s madness, however. Under the Button Car Plan, Australian car exports were rewarded through export credits. The credits could be used to import cars duty-free or to avoid penalties for failing to meet minimum production numbers. By building Capris and exporting them to the US and New Zealand, Ford Australia could import the Telstar and Festiva without tariffs.

The Capri was first revealed as a concept in 1988. The exterior was designed by Ghia and the interior by Giugiaro. At the time, it was generally well-received and the car’s launch was hotly anticipated. Ford was desperately keen to release the Capri before the MX-5. As development progressed, that seemed less and less likely. Production was initially slated to begin in November 1988, but the launch was pushed back six months due to compulsory airbag laws introduced in the US. The Capri had to be re-engineered to accommodate them. The law wasn’t due to come into effect until 1st April 1989, but was announced in 1984. The Mazda 323 platform the Capri was based on predated the announcement of this law, so the Capri’s floorpan needed to be altered. Later in 1988, early quality issues arose in the new EA Falcon, diverting Ford Australia’s resources. The Capri’s launch was pushed back further, and then again to avoid launching in the US winter. Meanwhile, the Australian Dollar had begun to rise against the US Dollar. More trouble followed in early 1989, when a Ford executive admitted that the Capri may be cancelled over quality concerns. Prototype Capris had reportedly failed to meet Ford’s internal quality standards and the company was struggling to find solutions. In hindsight, the early reveal was a mistake.

Despite all the delays, in April 1989, the Capri was still on track to beat the Mazda MX-5 to the Australian market. The exchange rate was falling again and an August launch in Australia seemed achievable.

The Capri eventually launched in Australia at the end of 1989 with a starting price of $23,300 for the atmo 1.6 and $27,800 for the turbo. For comparison, the MX-5 with the same NA 1.6 litre engine cost $29,550 in 1989. The only cheaper convertible available in Australia in 1989 was the Suzuki Vitara. The Capri had a massive price advantage over the MX-5 and that was important for attracting people who simply wanted a convertible and didn’t care if it didn’t have any substance as a sports car. Ford knew it would never attract sports car purists. The majority of pre-orders were for automatic transmissions, and standard features included tennis racquet holders in the doors.

The Capri turbo was well-received in in early reviews. Wheels magazine was impressed the straight line performance, the lack of torque steer and the handling on smooth, flowing roads. Scuttle shake was an issue over rough surfaces, and it lacked the agility of it’s closest rivals, the MX-5 and Honda CRX.The NA model, with it’s 66kW single cam engine wasn’t so well received.

Based on the popular Laser with a proven Mazda B series engine, it should have been well-made. However, Ford’s woes didn’t end when the Capri started rolling off the Homebush production line. The US launch was scheduled to coincide with the northern hemisphere summer, yet meeting target production volumes for Australia was proving hard enough. Ford had planned to build 170 right hand drive Capris a day. It could barely 40 percent of that volume, with cars having to be finished by hand. 3600 LHD Capris were required for the US launch to supply America’s 1800 Mercury dealers.Ford’s production struggle was evident in the build quality of the finished product. Early Capris were prone to roof leaks, the scuttle shake was diabolical, and the interior felt as cheap the budget hatchback it was based on. A damning investigation conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation cemented the car’s reputation as a lemon.

US sales began on 19th July 1990. The American motoring media was quietly impressed with the Capri. A Motor Trend journalist wrote “we might find Americans’ love of things Australian will soon extend from Mel Gibson and Koalas to cars from down under”. “The Capri is the comfortable, practical cruiser of new-age convertibles, asking it to play the role of the boy-racer misses the point of the car”.

The sentiment was echoed by Road & Track. “For those who will settle for nothing less than a pure sports car (and are willing to live with the consequences), only a Mazda Miata will do. For those who want the same pleasures of open-air motoring (and are willing to live with different consequences) it must be the Capri”.

Initial US demand outstripped expectations. 1700 Mercury Capris were sold in the first two weeks, with an additional 14,000 examples on back-order. Dealers were charging more than the list price for both atmo and turbo models. Demand tapered off dramatically when the same build quality issues that occurred in Australian Capris surfaced in American models.

In 1990, Ford had only managed to sell 8072 Capris in the US and 4500 in Australia. This was well below the 38,000 cars a year target. Things were so dour for Ford Australia that their future as a manufacturer was under a cloud. Louis Ross, Ford’s executive vice-president of international operations issued warnings to Ford Australia and the Australian government that if quality didn’t improve and tariffs were lowered to 15% as planned, the 1995 Capri and Laser replacements would not be built in Australia. Things were slightly better for the Falcon. Ford’s Dearborn headquarters had devised a plan to replace the Taurus, Falcon and Scorpio with localised versions of a single model. Irreconcilable differences (including whether the car should be front- or rear wheel drive and how big it should be) saw the Americans go in a different way. The 1998 Falcon, was at best expected to be a locally assembled from European components.

1992’s SC update followed the EBII Falcon and the and the range was restructured to match it. Ford was obviously keen to leverage off its new relationship with Tickford, the company behind the acclaimed Falcon S-XR6. The TX3 become the XR2, available in NA and turbo form. Tickford soon followed with the two-seat Clubsprint Turbo. It was a concerted effort to address the Capri’s shortcomings and arrest a sales slide both in Australia and North America.

In 1993, Ford released the final SE series Capri. Wheels magazine pitched the SE Capri XR2 Turbo against the Mazda MX-5 Classic. The XR2 Turbo was considered the best model in the Capri range sitting between the uninspiring Barchetta and Tickford’s overly stiff Clubsprint. The more powerful Capri was, as you’d expect, faster in a straight line, but the lighter RWD MX-5 offered superior handling balance and could carry noticeably more speed through corners. Ford had worked to improve the Capri’s handling, but it was still flawed. The steering was slow, rubbery and wooly off-centre. The chassis felt composed on smooth, flowing roads, but was upset on more challenging roads, with a bobbing nose, inconsistent steering feedback, and a lack of damping control and structural rigidity. Brake fade was also more prominent in the Ford. Despite improvements with the SE, the Capri’s interior still lagged behind the MX-5’s in terms of both design and quality. The conclusion they came to was that anyone tossing up between the two should opt for the Ford. It was sufficiently exciting, more practical, and cost $11,000 less. While a reasonable effort, it was still something of a hairdresser’s car. The MX-5, meanwhile, was the real thing.

By this point Ford had long since sorted out the roof leaks and other issues, but the lemon image still lingered. A second generation was inevitably cancelled. Lowering tariffs saw the Laser become a fully imported model. Ford Australia was lucky to get the AU Falcon over the line, mostly off the back of there being no viable alternative. The 1996 Taurus had received a cold reception in Australia and the Crown Victoria was simply too big.

Despite everything, the Capri outsold the MX-5 in Australia, and in some months it did the same in the US. However, it failed to meet the ambitious 30,000 sales per year target. 66,294 cars were built when production ceased in 1994. 9787 of those were sold in Australia, and many of them are still going, thanks to the robust Mazda mechanicals.

The Capri did a huge amount damage to Ford Australia’s internal reputation. A decade passed before Dearborn allowed them to develop another a overseas market car, the Indian Fiesta. Fortunately the Fiesta experience went much more smoothly than the Capri now Ford Australia is an important R&D centre for Ford globally. Their most high profile product to date is the current model Ranger/Everest.

Despite nailing its design brief, the Capri represents a low point in Ford Australia’s history. The Capri is often listed among the worst cars ever made in Australia, but does it deserve to be? It was the first Australian car to be exported to the US in significant numbers, after all.


Richard the edition 100

the looks are beautiful

06/06/2018 - 10:43 |
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Very interesting read, mate - I wasn’t aware of the Tickford model. It seems ironic that it was doomed by being too successful in the wake of its launch

06/06/2018 - 10:56 |
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Blade noir

Would a Capti be a good project car or track car?

06/06/2018 - 11:19 |
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Mini Madness (Group B squad)(Furrysquad)

that is not a ford capri as far as im concerned

06/06/2018 - 17:11 |
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Can i call it a ford Capri sun?

06/12/2018 - 05:31 |
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Advanced Handling Flags

I see these every once in a while… for the longest time I had no idea what they were

06/12/2018 - 16:58 |
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