The Ford Capri is one of those cars that is difficult to discuss without veering into automotive cliché. Much as it’s impossible to mention the original Mini without also mentioning the Monte Carlo Rally, ‘swinging London’ and Mark Bolan, it’s somehow ordained that each and every article on the Ford Capri must also touch upon it being ‘the car you always promised yourself.’

Having got such hackneyed clichés out of the way nice and early, it’s time to take a look at the ultimate Capri, the BDA-powered, Zakspeed built cars which dominated the DRM championship at the dawn of the 1980s. Fully paid up Retropower heroes…and nothing like the weedy Pinto shod Laser your dad lusted after as a kid. 

Ford was at something of a crossroads in the late ‘70s, at least as far as its motorsport undertakings were concerned. On the one hand, the decade had been a huge success, with high profile rally success courtesy of the Group 4 Escort and a consistent (if somewhat depleted) presence on the F1 grid thanks to the Cosworth DFV. On the other hand, the oil crises of 1973 had served to blunt the company’s taste for traditional, factory backed campaigns, at least at the national level. 

Zakspeed initially campaigned the naturally aspirated Mk2 Escort in Group 5

This was still an era when ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ held sway though, and as such it made a great deal of sense to retain some kind of presence in European tin top racing, in particular the DRM, the Deutsche Rennsportmeisterschaft. Ford of Germany’s solution was to double down on its relationship with the Zakspeed concern, a German race team with which Ford had enjoyed notable success with Group 2 Escorts stretching back to the middle of the decade. 

Running naturally aspired Escorts was one thing, making the jump to Group 5 (introduced as the DRM’s de facto formula from 1977 onwards) quite another. The need for a new race car coincided with the launch of the new, Mk3 Capri. Ford clearly felt that its ‘European Mustang’ (another of those Capri-cliches – sorry) could do with a dusting of motorsport success, and so there was only one car on which the new Group 5 racer was going to be based.

Not that the car eventually cooked up by Zakspeed had anything in common with the common or garden Capris churned out by the million by Ford’s Cologne factory just down the road. Group 5 rules were effectively a silhouette formula and stipulated merely that everything above the wheel arches be as Ford intended, or at least where they intended it to be placed. Everything else was fair game, and Zakspeed set about reworking the Capri with with gusto.

Early versions of the Capri sported a pair of turbos and the expansive rear wing seen here

There was no thought given to retaining the road going Capri’s proportions, not when there were mammoth BBS wheels to house and airflow to sculpt and exploit. The car they eventually created was a far cry from the CFD-honed machines we’ve since come to know, but it was doubtless effective. It can’t have hurt that the rear wing was, and indeed remains, one of the finest ever to grace a race car. 

Not that Zakspeed’s outlandish bodywork revisions were rendered in anything as primitive as steel. Kevlar, GRP and gossamer thin aluminium were the order of the day, with the end result being a car which tipped the scales at 790kg. 

The open-ended nature of the regulations could be seen in the engine powering the Capri, with Zakspeed able to select from any four-cylinder unit in Ford’s expansive, globe spanning range. The trusty Kent-based BDA was therefore selected and pressed into active service, though only after it had been re-engineered and fitted with forged pistons, fuel injection and a pair of KKK turbos. 

Later Capris were forced to run with smaller, less effective rear wings at the behest of Zakspeed’s rivals

The resulting 1426cc engine was potent but peaky, and making use of its 380bhp was a challenge for even the most skilled of drivers, particularly given most had previously been accustomed to either high-revving, small capacity twin cams or lazy, old school V8s. It also had an irritating habit of ‘lunching’ its bottom end, hardly surprising when you consider both the era in which to was built and the power it was making.

There would be further revisions to the engine as the seasons rolled by, among the most significant being the decision to swap from twin turbo to a single, mammoth KKK in time for the 1979 season. Cooling was also improved via the fitment of a veritable battery of intercoolers, oil coolers for both the engine and the rear axle, plus the more obvious assortment of scoops and vents.

The Capri’s initial performances over the course of that debut season were solid if not exactly spectacular, with a couple of podiums and a lone win interspaced with several high-profile retirements. The team’s efforts were mainly focused on improving both reliability and drivability over the winter of 1978. A single turbo arrangement was trialled at this point, the lone KKK unit (now cooled by a pair of revised, enlarged intercoolers) also boasted a Blow Off Valve, and helped bring power to 450bhp.

Success in the DRM’s Division Two soon followed for the Capris of Hans Heyer and Harald Ertle, though it was clear that both the Capri and the team running it were made for greater things. One thing lead to another, and by the middle off 1979 work was well underway on a new, more powerful Capri for Group 5’s premier class, Group One.

The source of the Zakspeed Capri’s power, literally – the BDA

The need to make the car competitive against the likes of the Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo, BMW 320i Turbo and Porsche 935 sent Zakspeed’s engineers scurrying back to the drawing board. The Capri would need to put out at least 600bhp if it was to have any hope of being competitive, so the engineers set about stripping and re-engineering the stalwart Kent engine once more. 

Quite how seriously Zakspeed took the DRM was reflected in how far it was willing to go to be competitive, which for Group One involved the design and manufacture of special, near bespoke aluminium blocks. The engine was also bored to within an inch of its life, with new pistons, crank and rods, and a capacity of 1700cc. Power was reckoned to be 600bhp, a figure that varied depending on boost levels but which was almost certainly on the conservative side.

So the world finally got to see the most brutal Capri ever built. It was raw, uncompromising and incredibly difficult to drive, but it was also fast. So fast that Ford enlisted the help of the man who’d done so much to frustrate them the previous season, Klaus Ludwig. 

Slippery when wet

The 1980 season would be both promising and frustrating for the pairing of ace German driver and crack German engineering outfit. There were victories for the new car in Group One, true, but the team’s rivals lodged complaints with the powers that be pertaining to the Capri’s outlandish aero. A mid-season redesign duly followed, one which eventually saw the Capri make use of the then new concept of ground effect, with extended skirts on both sides.

The revised, ground-hugging aero had a transformative effect on the Capri and helped it surge to the front of the grid once more, but the damage had been done – the 1980 DRM title went to the Lancia Beta Montecarlo of Hans Heyer.

The following season would prove to be the highpoint of the Capri’s career in Group 5, though it still provided plenty of drama and intrigue. Owing to the complex manner in which the championship was structured either Group One or Group Two cars could potentially win, and so it proved; Klaus Ludwig emerged victorious…in the older, less powerful, Group Two Capri.

In fact, Ludwig’s performance was nothing short of a demonstration of Group 5 domination. The Group Two Capri, now making north of 475bhp and want to belch three foot jets of flame at regular intervals, took the top step of the podium at 10 of the 13 races. Ludwig was crowned champion and the Capri, at least in Works form, was pensioned off with indecent haste.

A Retropower Hero? Truly, they don’t come much more heroic.

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