Ford wasn’t too far off the mark when it called the Capri “The car you always promised yourself.” Affordable, offered with a wide variety of engines, nice to look at, and not too bad to drive, this can be a pretty good claim to be all things to everyone.
Well, almost. Because if you live in trouble, or just want to get around without fishing everywhere every time it rains, then one model might be ideal – the four-wheel-drive Capri – if only Ford ever put it into production.
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The idea for the Capri all-wheel drive – or 4×4, as the technology used to call it in the past – originated with farm 4×4 vehicles. So it’s no surprise that this prototype AWD Capri made its way through the used mud surrounding the fields of Ford’s Boreham facility in Essex, where the Competition Department was based in the ’70s and for decades later.
You may have heard of Harry Ferguson. Born into a farming family, he made his fame and fortune thanks to his fascination with machines. After becoming the first Irishman to build and fly an airplane, he went on to found the successful Ferguson tractor company with two partners, one of whom was David Brown, who later rose to fame at Aston DB.
Ferguson’s Tractors used a new relationship that kept them stable, and he then embarked on a lifelong quest to add stability to the road car as well. He founded Harry Ferguson Research (HFR) as a way to add AWD technology to passenger cars, along with a later branch called FF which took over the sales of Formula Ferguson technology – and lent its name to the 1966 Jensen FF four-wheel drive.
Their idea centers on two advanced features, four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes. Both are commonplace today, but in the 1960s four-wheel drive was an off-roader preservation with a bit more refinement than the farm machines they often parked alongside, while the first automatic antilock brakes appeared not on cars, but on the Concorde supersonic aircraft in late 60’s.
It was at this time that the UK Ministry of Technology thought that the idea of anti-lock brakes and AWD had a future beyond aircraft and agricultural machinery. Their job is to keep the UK motor industry on the cutting edge (in retrospect, things didn’t go according to plan there, right?), and sponsor the Home Office’s Police Scientific Development Branch to evaluate 22 police-spec Ford Zodiacs converted by HFR to AWD. in 1968.
Police drivers prefer Ford’s oversized automatic transmission and Essex 3.0-liter V6 so that’s what the Ferguson team fitted, along with the exotic Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock brakes for the time. The Zodiac police car was delivered months before the Capri launched in January ’69 – just before the Concorde flew for the first time.
Currently the Capri is inching towards production, so a British-designed Mustang prototype is available to Ford’s Competition Department, led by Henry Taylor, who has two Capri 1600GTs delivered to technicians at HFR. They tore up the prototype’s second four-cylinder engine and put in a V6 Zodiac, complete with automatic transmission and Formula Ferguson AWD, which was installed in 22 police test cars.
A pair of street cars were returned to Boreham, where Ford engineers immediately fitted a head-spec Weslake to produce 160bhp in January ’69, just days after production of the Capri was announced. Rally hero and working Ford driver Roger Clark drove in Croft where – against all odds – he won all three races. The first Capri racer was joined by two, perhaps three, Capri AWD test mules.
All looked good for the AWD Capri in 1969, but just a year later the tide had turned. Roger Clark’s car, alongside another car campaigned by his brother Stan, and another by Rod Chapman, was upgraded with aluminum cylinder heads and fuel injection to produce 252bhp, transmitted via a five-speed gearbox.
But in the next ’70-71 season, the four-wheel-drive Capris failed to live up to the early promise Roger’s car made in that first televised race. Clark hated the weight of cars and began to complain that he needed to spend more time in mainstream rallying with the Escort, rather than the made-for-TV rallycross spectacle, which was done on closed circuits rather than in the open woods.
Clark may not be a fan, but Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO) group – which handles production of the fiercely competitive Ford special road car series – is definitely not deterred. It got serious about the all-wheel drive Capri idea, even installing AWD rolling road testing equipment after three other road Capris FFs were made. Despite the weight of all the Ferguson Formula AWD mechanics and the lackluster 128bhp Essex V6 engine, the cars were shown to the press, who loved them.
But things changed ahead of the competition as the road-going AWD Capri started to gain traction. AVO is developing the mighty RS2600 for circuit racing alongside all-wheel drive cars, and it will race in a much bigger and more glamorous arena. Running around Europe’s eerie Spa and Nürburgring is undoubtedly more in line with Capri’s target aspirations than looking stuck in British mud. And because Ford could sell every RWD coupé it could make, the Capri AWD became redundant for Ford’s marketing and competitive needs in Europe.
That doesn’t stop a enterprising New York dentist who pitched his Capri from thinking that all it takes is all-wheel drive to be a winner in the United States. He struck a deal with Ferguson Formula to build 15 AWD Capris, some of which survive to this day. The idea of the Capri AWD – or at least the technology behind a four-wheel-drive road car – is also of interest to BP which has turned it around to test how fuel consumption is affected by four-wheel drive.
There was enthusiasm outside Ford for the Capri AWD in the press, plus fuel companies that could see AWD road cars have a future and even a farsighted dentist in Manhattan. So what happened, and why did fans have to wait another ten years before they could buy a fast Ford with four wheels, the Sierra XR4x4?
Rod Mansfield, the legendary engineer behind both cars – and so many iconic and high-performance Ford cars – recalls this issue. “The AWD kit really fits in the little Capri and making a production version would be too distracting for the factory,” he said.
“We can justify the special lightweight RS2600s because they can be made in batches and then newer regular versions go down because the RS2600 isn’t that hard for the factory to handle. But installing AWD would require so much off-line rework that it would be impractical to build in any volume.”
The RS2600 and RS3100 are only better as road cars as RS and even better for building on the rear-drive Capri’s overall reputation. Like many other great ideas, AWD is (almost) the right car, but at the wrong time. The five-door Sierra XR4x4 will use the same basic mechanical layout developed by Formula Ferguson tech, but it’s a bigger car capable of packing all the extra bits, like a large transfer box that sends drive to the front wheels, without breaking the boundaries. on as much cabin space as it would in the compact Capri cabin.
That didn’t stop Capri fans, and one more car was modified in the 1980s using the newer Mark III body shell. The Capri is the best as a V6 powered long range cruiser, and would make a great combination with AWD. The Ford coupe was close, but never close enough, to production with AWD. This technology will be featured in many of the iconic RS cars that followed – but not on the Capri.
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