Beating ULEZ with a 46-year-old Ford Capri

Can you daily a classic car? Steve Cropley finds out.

We had travelled barely 200 yards, the Ford Capri and I, and just begun a gentle right-hand turn into a roundabout when a rattling sound, familiar but unexpected, transported me back four decades at the speed of light.

Or more accurately, at the speed of thought, which is somewhat slower. The noise was easy to identify: the fluttering sound a leaf fragment makes when it encounters the blades of a two-speed Ford heater fan running on Low.

I’d heard it a hundred times in a Cortina 1600E I owned because, back then, Ford ventilation systems tended to ingest fallen leaves through an air intake grille ahead of the windscreen base, where they soon met the fan. When you cornered the car, the leaf shifted and the sound started. Or stopped. 

My homemade remedy was always to switch to High, hoping the extra blade speed would mince leaves to powder, and occasionally it worked.

Ironically, this sojourn in a 47-year-old Ford wasn’t supposed to be nostalgic. It was spurred by recent changes in the law.

When Transport for London announced that certain cars, 40 years old or more, would be allowed to traverse the new London ULEZ boundaries without paying the £12.50 charge, we fell to wondering how it would feel to commute through London in a car as old as that.

Soon, the proposition widened: could a 40-year-old car do all of its owner’s motoring: country roads, motorways, night journeys, wet travel, suburbs and cities? 

Sure, there are plenty of classic car zealots who make an issue of doing just this (powerfully insisting the greenest car of all is the one you never scrap) but how would it strike someone such as me, cosseted every day by the best the modern car industry can provide?

Ford had just the car for the job – a Capri 1.6L in photogenic mid-blue with black vinyl roof, donated to the company’s Heritage Collection after the proverbial one lady owner had driven it a mere 28,000 miles in all those years.

It was one of several cars Ford keeps in MOTed condition for projects like this. They lent it immediately with no provisos, even though I knew this would add 500 miles to the odometer reading.

Ford used to keep its 100-strong car collection (comprising commercials, concepts, competition cars and a full array of production Fords reaching back to the Model T) in less than perfect conditions in Dagenham but has recently moved the lot to a much better place attached to its vast European parts HQ in Daventry.

The cars are grouped according to age and type by the curator, Len Keen, and his very able wingman Chris Smith, and there’s potential for displaying the collection’s huge array of models, artworks and artefacts.

When it’s ready, probably beyond Easter next year, it will be a great place to visit, though Keen says visitors will need to make (easy) prior arrangements.

The Capri started on the second twist of the key. On the first, I thought it wasn’t going to, having failed to notice the ‘Choke’ sign someone had put next to a discreet black knob snuggling up to the left side of the steering column.

Pulled out, it helped the engine burst immediately into life and settle into that rolling, rich-mixture idle from the olden days that makes the most docile engine sound cammy.

The other big reminder of the past was the stink of the exhaust: a second or two standing behind a 40-year-old carburettor car is more than enough to highlight the many advances in clean-air engineering since.

After a couple of minutes, the engine was quiet and smooth, its single-ohc 1.6-litre considerably less thrashy than my 1600E’s pushrod Crossflow that came immediately before. It sounded docile too, quite right for a bulky-looking blue-topped 1.6 producing a stone-age 72bhp and 86lb ft.

Still, the plan had been to try a car whose power was typical of its era, rather than a V6 that might seem more modern.

I couldn’t help thinking it was as well that this medium-sized coupé (at 4.4m, as long as a Ford Focus) weighed just 1010kg, a full 100kg less than my allegedly light, aluminium-rich 2021 Alpine A110.

My immediate mission was to drive west from Daventry to the Fosse Way, then south down that very familiar road to my home about 65 miles away.

There’s nothing like a familiar road to help you understand an unfamiliar car: immediate impressions were that this car had amazingly good visibility, surprising cabin room (even in the rear) and shallow but thoroughly decent boot space.

Given the problems today’s car makers have with space efficiency, the fact that a Capri had a 16.5-gallon fuel tank was a real surprise.

By the time I’d reached home, I’d sorted out my major impressions. The Capri was an easy car to drive, and fun to be seen in, with spectacularly good visibility that shames most modern cars and immediately proved a huge practical aid to modern driving, especially compared with the Jaguar F-Type from which I’d just stepped.

Its part-fabric seats looked good but lacked the ‘designed’ support we’d demand today and its controls were amazingly simple. Its wipers were noisy but capable and its lights were much more powerful and better spread than I was expecting, but its audio system was crude, not least because we were harking back to pre-FM days.

The decent ride comfort surprised me at first. Then I remembered how very many cars of this era gave a superficially good account of themselves while driving at five-tenths, after which their shortcomings became more and more apparent.

The Capri was just like this: flat-riding and pretty composed on average roads, with a tendency to lose body control as soon as you pressed on a bit. The rear leaf springs, a Cortina throwback, were particularly poor, both for axle location and wind-up, and because they actually steered the car over bumps.

One powerful impression that grew over my 500-mile, six-day sojourn was that the stellar efforts of modern suspension designers in the latest cars have done more than we think to protect road builders from even more vociferous criticism of some truly terrible roads.

In particular, the Capri had crude, unassisted steering that was further hamstrung by a steering wheel with the diameter of a shoelace and gearing that did absolutely nothing to sharpen it at the straight-ahead, something we nowadays take for granted.

The brakes were safe but spongy and their power assistance didn’t have the intuitive qualities that were built in a decade later when Ford discovered ‘driving quality’. 

Chuck in an engine whose 1970s-era power and torque could barely deliver a 14sec 0-62mph time and you have a car you’d hardly describe as sporty, except for two saving graces.

The first of those was the Capri’s looks and colour. People who saw it loved it. They enjoyed the shape and the Capri ethos. Those young enough not to know what that Capri stood for (it was Ford’s “car you always promised yourself”) simply saw it as a cool car.

The second advantage was a sublime gearchange-clutch combination. This car had a gearlever action whose lightness, slickness and perfect definition I remember vividly from my first four-speed Caterham Seven (albeit with a slightly shorter gearlever and hence a shorter throw between ratios).

But the feeling was there. Add an ideal clutch stroke and engine flywheel weight that combined to make slick, quick gearchanges a delight.

The Capri did quite well on the motorway, given that in your first five minutes you’re conscious that in today’s world it lacks one or two high ratios.

Perhaps the absence of a tachometer (a characteristic of the L model) was helpful; you were only aware from the engine note that it was pulling more revs than you’d nowadays prefer to use at around 70mph.

Road noise built up steadily from 50mph so that, when cruising with the traffic, you had to start raising your voice to converse.

Yet, oddly, it never felt oppressive. Still, I did go everywhere at 65-70mph, which might not please everyone, even if experienced UK motorway travellers know you can spend so little time at elevated speeds that relaxing on motorways costs you little in time.

I’m aware that the above contains a fair bit of carping, but that’s not the end of the story. The Capri’s restricted width, which made manoeuvring in traffic easy and made ‘taking a line’ through B-road corners usually possible, added fun to our progress.

So did the car’s decent grip on its pretty Rostyle steel wheels and 13in Dunlops. Sure, the cornering roll feels a bit uncontrolled in today’s terms but there was grip too.

The Capri experts I encountered queued up to warn me about the model’s endemic tail-happiness, but I understand this was mostly restricted to the V6s.

I found you could pitch the 1.6 into bends, admittedly fighting the rim effort that built so much with speed, and surprise many a modern.

I’d call this Capri a fun car rather than a sporty one, though I imagine more powerful, more expensive and later-built Capris have driving qualities that better match their looks.

And so to the big question: would it be possible to live with this car as a daily? In many ways, the answer is yes. At no stage did the 1.6L feel as if it wouldn’t start or handle modern traffic (putting aside pretty sluggish 20-50mph acceleration) or cope with modern roads, even in the streaming wet that dogged most of our days with it.

It comes from a maker whose spare parts are easy to find, and which insurers know well. Body deterioration is something an owner would be wise to guard against (cars of this era rusted far more than they do now) but it’s also possible to protect them well with modern coatings. Undoubtedly, the Capri would be a rewarding car to be seen in.

It would be far simpler to own than, say, an old Ferrari or Porsche, and might also be more liked by those admiring it from the kerbside. Then there’s the price: they vary widely but you can buy the best for around £20,000 and pick up resto projects for under £10,000.

My own main reservation would be the dynamics. Today’s base Fiesta, Clio or Yaris has far nicer brakes, steering and body control.

I drive cars largely to enjoy that stuff and suspect you do too. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t speculate seriously about how a Capri like this one would fit my own stable.

I suspect its role would be as a classic that’s uncommonly easy to own, gets a good reception wherever it goes, and is sufficiently practical/cheap/reliable to be used often. Besides the visual impact, honesty is its major trait, as with most Fords.

Source: Autocar

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