Ford wasn’t too far from the mark when it called the Capri “The car you always promised yourself”. Affordable, offered with a wide range of engines, great to look at, and not so bad to drive, it could lay a pretty good claim to being all things to all people.
Well, nearly. Because if you lived out in the sticks, or simply wanted to get around without fishtailing everywhere each time it rained, then one model might have been ideal – a four-wheel drive Capri – if only Ford had ever put it into production.
The idea for an all-wheel drive Capri – or 4×4, as the technology used to be called in the old days – has its genesis in farmyard 4×4 vehicles. So it’s no wonder that this prototype AWD Capri is at home tearing across the rutted mud surrounding the fields of Ford’s Boreham facility in Essex, where the Competitions Department was based in the Seventies and for several decades later.
You’ve probably heard of Harry Ferguson. Born into a farming family, he made his fame and fortune thanks to a fascination with machines. After becoming the first Irishman to make and fly an aircraft he moved on to setting up the successful Ferguson tractor company with two partners, one of them being David Brown, later of Aston DB fame.
Ferguson’s tractors used a novel linkage that made them stable, and he later set off on a lifelong quest to add stability to road cars too. He set up Harry Ferguson Research (HFR) as a way to add AWD technology to passenger cars, along with a later offshoot called FF that took over selling the Ferguson Formula technology – and lent its name to the four-wheel drive Jensen FF of 1966.
Their idea centred around two advanced features, four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes. Both are commonplace today, but in the 1960s four-wheel drive was the preserve of off-roaders with little more refinement than the farm machinery they were often parked alongside, while the first fully automatic antilock brakes appeared not on a car, but on the Concorde supersonic aircraft in the late ’60s.
It was at this time that the British Ministry of Technology thought the idea of anti-lock brakes and AWD had a future beyond aircraft and farm machinery. Their job was to keep the British motor industry at the cutting edge (in retrospect, things didn’t quite go to plan there, did they?), and sponsored the Home Office Police Scientific Development Branch to evaluate 22 police-spec Ford Zodiacs converted by HFR to AWD in 1968.
Police drivers preferred the large Ford’s automatic transmission and the Essex 3.0-litre V6 so that’s what Ferguson’s team fitted, along with exotic-for-the time Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock brakes. The Zodiac police cars were delivered in the months before the Capri was launched in January ’69 – just before Concorde flew for the first time.
At this time the Capri was inching towards production, so prototypes of the British-designed equivalent of the Mustang were available to Ford’s Competitions Department, led by Henry Taylor, who had two Capri 1600GTs sent to the technicians at HFR. They ripped out both prototypes’ four-cylinder engines and stuffed in the Zodiac’s V6, complete with auto transmissions and Ferguson Formula’s AWD, as fitted to the 22 police test cars.
The pair of road cars were returned to Boreham, where the Ford engineers promptly fitted race-spec Weslake heads to deliver 160bhp in January ’69, just days after the production Capri was announced. Rally hero and Ford works driver Roger Clark raced the car at Croft where – against all odds – he won all three races. The first Capri racer was joined by another two, possibly three, AWD Capri test mules.
All was looking good for the AWD Capri in 1969, but just a year later the tide had turned. Roger Clark’s car, alongside another campaigned by his brother Stan, and another by Rod Chapman, was upgraded with aluminium cylinder heads and fuel injection to deliver 252bhp, transmitted through a five-speed gearbox.
But in the subsequent ’70–71 season the four-wheel driven Capris failed to deliver on the early promise shown by Roger’s car in that first televised race. Clark hated the car’s heaviness and began to complain that he needed to spend more time in mainstream rallying with an Escort, rather than the made-for-TV spectacle of rallycross, which was conducted on closed circuits rather than in open forests.
Clark may not have been a fan, but Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Operations (AVO) group – which handled series production of specialty Ford road cars with a competition bent – clearly wasn’t deterred. It started getting serious about the idea of an all-wheel drive Capri, even installing AWD rolling road testing equipment after another three road-going FF Capris were made. Despite the weight of all the Ferguson Formula AWD mechanicals and the lacklustre 128bhp of the Essex V6 engine, the cars were demonstrated to the press, who loved them.
But things were shifting on the competitions front just as the roadgoing AWD Capri began to get traction. AVO was developing the mighty RS2600 for circuit racing alongside the all-wheel drive cars, and it would race in a far greater and more glamorous arena. Hurtling around Spa and the daunting Nürburgring in Europe was undoubtedly more in keeping with the Capri’s target aspirations than to be seen plugging around in British mud. And because Ford could sell every RWD coupé it could make, the AWD Capri was becoming redundant to Ford’s marketing and competition needs in Europe.
That didn’t stop an enterprising New York dentist that was rallying his Capri to think that all it needed was all-wheel drive to be a winner stateside. He struck a deal with Ferguson Formula to build 15 AWD Capris, several of which survive to this day. The idea of the AWD Capri – or at least the technology behind four-wheel-drive road cars – was also of interest to BP which had one converted for it to test how fuel consumption was affected by four driven wheels.
There was enthusiasm outside Ford for the AWD Capri amongst the press, plus fuel companies that could see AWD road cars had a future and even a far-sighted dentist in Manhattan. So what happened, and why did enthusiasts have to wait another ten years before they could buy fast Ford with four driven wheels, the Sierra XR4x4?
Rod Mansfield, the legendary engineer behind both cars – and so many of the iconic high-performance and iconic Fords – recalls the issue. “The AWD kit was really a tight fit in the small Capri and making a production version would have been far too disruptive for the factory,” he says.
“We could justify special lightweight RS2600s because they could be made in batches and then the later regular versions came down the line because the RS2600 wasn’t difficult for the factory to handle. But the AWD installation would have required so much off-line reworking that it would have been impractical to make in any volume.”
The RS2600 and RS3100 were simply better as RS road cars and even better for building the overall reputation of the rear-drive Capri. Like so many good ideas the AWD was (almost) the right car, but at the wrong time. The Sierra XR4x4 five-door would use the same basic mechanical layout developed by Ferguson Formula technology, but it was a larger car that was able to package all the extra bits, like the bulky transfer case that sent drive to the front wheels, without encroaching on cabin space as much as it would have done in the compact Capri cabin.
That didn’t stop Capri enthusiasts though, and one more car was converted in the 1980s using the later Mark III body shell. The Capri was at its best as a V6-powered, long-distance cruiser, and would have been a terrific combination with AWD. Ford’s coupé came close, but never close enough, to production with AWD. The technology would feature in many of the iconic RS cars that followed – but not in a Capri.
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