Few cars experienced the fall-from-grace that was the late 1960’s Mercury Cougar. After an exceptional first generation which included being voted Car of the Year by Motor Trend in 1967, the Mercury Cougar lost all vestiges of performance. The bloated, mid-70’s models were more land yacht than gentleman’s muscle car, and this continued into the early 1980’s. But there was still a small sliver of performance alive in the Mercury brand, base don the then-new Fox body platform. It was called the Mercury Capri.
The Mercury Capri was instantly recognizable as a Mustang variant. It shared the same shape, dimensions, weight, and engines as the Fox-based Mustang. But it was not destined to last, as it lacked the history and following of the Mustang.
The first Capri was actually imported from Europe and marketed as a compact car during the early 1970’s, as emissions and fuel economy standards came to be. It was equipped with a pitiful four-cylinder engine and eventually a V6 and was restyled as a hatchback in 1976. After a brief hiatus in 1978, the Capri returned, this time as a Mercury, finally giving the brand a performance car once more. The Cougar had been upsized to a full-size car during this time, loaded with “luxury” and lengthened to the proportions of a yacht. The Capri made many allusions to its forefather in a slew of special editions though, despite its attempt to be a distinctly different kind of car.
The first special edition Capri was the Black Magic, produced from 1981 to 1983. As the name suggests, these cars colored black, with gold striping, gold TRX wheels, and a distinctive gold cat’s head ahead on the front fender, alluding to the Cougar that came before. There was also an all-white version called “White Lightning” or “White Magic”, though these cars were much rarer. Both cars got black seats with body-color insets (either black or white).
A third version called the Crimson Cat was a thinly-veiled reference to the Cougar as well, which begs the question…why didn’t Ford simply call the Capri a Cougar and play up the history? In all likelihood the car would have sold better and lasted at least a second generation. The Crimson Cat had all the exterior accruements plus black seats with red insets; less than 1,000 of these cars were ever produced.
Perhaps the most significant Capri though was the 1984 RS, essentially a Mustang SVO with a four-cylinder turbocharged engine. This very rare car came with heavy duty suspension upgrades like 5.0 sway bars and a 3:45 rear end gear ratio. Today it remains one of the most sought-after Capris in the market, and was available in only two-tone Charcoal/Silver paint. At the time, these were the fastest “muscle cars” on the road, and even returning surprisingly good gas mileage
Then there was the ASC McLaren special edition Capris. In 1984, Ford partnered with American Sunroof Company to produce special convertible and “coupe” Mustangs and Capris. These cars received enhanced ground effects, tail and headlight covers, and honeycomb wheels. The coupes were equipped with a special camshaft that bumped their horsepower up significantly, and these were among the fastest cars on the road in 1986.
The convertibles meanwhile had just two seats and, despite the McLaren name, little in the way of actual performance improvements. The ASC/McLaren Capri also cost as much as the then-new Lincoln Mark VII, which shared a showroom with the Capri. The high price and lack of dealership-backed warranties for the ASC cars ultimately contributed to its dismal sales of less than 1,000 units in three years of production. The Capri was discontinued in 1986 as the Cougar moved to the Fox-body platform, cannibalizing the Capri’s sales further, and Ford saw no need for two of the same car.
An Australian-built, Mazda Miata-based Capri returned in 1990 with an available turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Despite being rear-wheel drive, it never caught on with consumers, and within a few short years it too was discontinued. There has not been a Capri for nearly twenty years now.
Today, the Fox-body Capri is a rare sight at car shows across the country, and many Mustang enthusiasts remain shockingly ignorant about the history of this car. The Capri, and Cougar, and likely forever retired, but it is important to remember the supporting players to the Mustang’s ever-rising star. And who knows, Ford might surprise us by bringing either name back one day. Just don’t count on it.