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50 years of the Ford Capri: celebrating 'the car you always promised yourself' at Silverstone Classic

Simon Arron
The Ford Capri celebrates its half-century in 2019

At its Brussels Motor Show launch in 1969, Ford’s marketeers pitched the new Capri as “the car you always promised yourself” – quite a claim, given that it was essentially just a Cortina in a short skirt and, as with any coupé, involved a degree of compromise.

But if you were eight years old when first you saw one in a showroom (HJ Quick of Altrincham, in my case), chances are that you perceived it as a thing of great beauty, and half a century’s passage hasn’t altered those initial impressions. If your dad owned a Cortina, it was interesting only if it had a Lotus emblem on its flanks (which relatively few did); if he bought a Capri, almost any Capri, he’d entered a whole new realm of cool (although you’d probably have been a bit miffed if he’d come home with one of the 1300 models that mustered only 52bhp).

And that was another thing about the Mk1 Capri, its bewildering range of flavours: 1300, 1300GT, 1600, 1600GT, 2000GT and later 3000 GT, with L, X, R, XL or XLR trim packs that incorporated various options, such as spotlights, Rostyle wheels or sculptured “‘vents”’ ahead of the rear wheel arches, the latter imbuing the car with a sense of added purpose, though in reality they were just bits of plastic. Prices started at less than £900, though if you wanted one with half-sensible performance the 88bhp 1600GT was yours for about £1040 – a fusion, then, of style and relative affordability.

Along with Bentley’s centenary and the Mini’s diamond jubilee, the Capri’s 50th birthday will be one of the central themes at this year’s Silverstone Classic (July 26-28), the annual extravaganza that celebrates motor sporting and automotive heritage. And this, inevitably, means an expansive display of all Capri models, from the car’s genesis through to the final Mk3. More than 1.8 million cars had been produced by the time the final Capri rolled off the line in December 1986.

As is customary at the Classic, there will be track parades to honour cars in the spotlight – and the Capri is no exception. It will be led by D194 UVW, a 2.8-litre V6 limited-edition Brooklands model, the last Capri made and nowadays part of Ford’s heritage fleet. Any owner can take part if they subscribe to the event’s Capri Celebration Package, which includes two adult tickets, plus access to the infield display area and parade (it takes place around the full Silverstone Grand Prix track on Sunday lunchtime).

The Ford Capri ad campaign was a memorable one Credit: © 2009 Ford Motor Company 

In addition to becoming popular on the UK’s by-ways, Capris also established a competitive foothold on the world’s racetracks. Dieter Glemser and Jochen Mass won the European Touring Car Championship title in 1971 and ’72 respectively, at the wheel of their potent Capri RS2600s, and Klaus Ludwig clinched the 1981 Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft in one of German tuning company Zakspeed’s somewhat wild-looking ‘Capris’. In the UK the Capri was a widely used – and successful – option in production saloon car racing, introduced in 1972, and a familiar sight in the mainstream British Saloon Car Championship from 1971 until 1982. Although it scored many BSCC wins, no Capri driver won the title outright as the championship was in those days split into several classes. While the Capri hordes took points from each other, a champion would usually emerge from one of the less powerful divisions.

Capris will participate in one of the classic touring car races at Silverstone – and the trophy will be presented by Gordon Spice, one of the most successful of all Capri racers. After a successful spell in production saloons, he was five times a BSCC class champion and also winner of the 1978 Spa 24 Hours, the last such race to take place on the full, original road circuit. His eponymous team also won with Capris at Spa in each of the following two seasons.

Gordon Spice is one of the most famous racers to helm a Capri 

“I’m not really a road car person,” Spice says. “but I do look back on the Capri with a certain fondness. If nothing else, it more or less rescued my career. I’d gone from racing Minis to competing in Formula 5000 single-seaters, which was a bit of a leap, but I hadn’t been doing too well and was starting to run out of money. Then I received a phone call from a chap named Stan Robinson, who ran a garage in County Durham. He asked whether I’d be interested in racing his Capri – and I never really looked back.

“I have lots of happy memories of Capris because they were such easy cars to drive – they inspired so much confidence. The handling was predictable – and when you know what a car is going to do you can take bigger risks and go faster.”

More than 100,000 people regularly attend the Classic over the weekend’s course – and one of the visitors will be Spice’s former mentor Robinson.

Fans of the Capri will be delighted by those on display at Silverstone Classic this year  Credit: JEP

The Capris will compete in the Historic Touring Car Challenge, for cars that were active between 1966 and 1990, and there will be additional saloon races for what organisers hope will be the biggest-ever field of Minis and the Transatlantic Trophy, which is open to cars of all shapes and sizes so long as they were built before 1966. If it stays dry Ford Falcons will take on Ford Mustangs and Lotus Cortinas; in the event of rain they all risk being humbled by the unparalleled agility of yet more Minis.

And for the first time in the Classic’s 29-year history, there will be separate, dedicated races for Formula 1, F2 and F3 cars. Grand prix cars built between 1966 and 1985 are an annual event staple, but F2 hasn’t previously featured as a stand-alone category. With an ongoing resurgence of interest in Historic F2 (1967-78), organisers expect a field of more than 40 cars – and the entry might yet top 50.

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