A one-off race car in street car clothing: Mercury’s 1980 Cosworth Capri

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1980 Mercury Cosworth Capri. Photos by David Newhardt, courtesy Mecum Auctions.

After a one-year absence, the Capri returned to Mercury dealers in 1979, this time as a badge-engineered Fox-body Ford Mustang. To promote the model’s sporty nature and highlight the performance potential of a four-cylinder engine, Mercury borrowed a page from Ford’s playbook, building a race car-inspired, Cosworth-powered show car. Never considered for production, just one 1980 Mercury Cosworth Capri was built, and on January 12, this unique piece of Ford history will cross the auction block, part of the Waterford Collection at Mecum’s 2019 Kissimmee, Florida, sale.

1980 Mercury Cosworth Capri

Concerned that oil supply shortages and rising gasoline prices would dramatically impact sales of the third-generation Mustang and second-generation Capri, Ford shifted its performance focus away from V-8 engines and towards turbocharged four-cylinder engines. While buyers could still get a 302-cu.in. V-8 in the 1979 Mustang and Capri, period advertising emphasized the 2.3-liter turbo four as the engine of the future, serving up “V-8 performance without sacrificing fuel economy.” The forced-induction fours were quicker than the V-8s, too, likely because their lighter weight offset the modest reduction in horsepower. (The V-8 was rated at 140 hp, with the 2.3-liter turbo four rated at 131 hp.)

1980 Mercury Cosworth Capri

It would take more than just slick advertising to sell this idea to a fan base long schooled in the adage, “there’s no replacement for displacement.” Ford intended to take the turbocharged four-cylinder Mustang racing, so it turned to McLaren to build a pair of IMSA race cars, along with 10 road-going examples as a proof of concept. There was talk about these Mustang M81 models going into limited production, but their cost was said to be in the $25,000 range, or five times the cost of a base Mustang.

The Cosworth Capri, then, was Mercury’s answer to the Mustang M81. Like the race-car M81 variants, the Capri used a 1.6-liter, double overhead-camshaft BDA engine from British tuning firm Cosworth, but unlike the Fords, the Mercury would do without forced induction. In Formula Atlantic trim, the Cosworth engine produced over 215 horsepower, so de-tuning this for “street” use – and greater reliability – posed little challenge.

1980 Mercury Cosworth Capri

The dry sump BDA engine in the Cosworth Capri was fed by a pair of Weber 45 DCOE carburetors, exhaled via a custom two-inch dual exhaust, and sent torque to the ground through a five-speed ZF manual transmission and a nine-inch, limited-slip rear differential. Even without turbocharging, the engine produced a claimed 186 horsepower, enough to propel the 2,500 pound car from 0-60 mph in around six seconds, on the way to a top speed of 147 mph. Though hardly exceptional by today’s standards, such performance was stunning in 1980, particularly from a tiny 1.6-liter four installed in a production car body.

1980 Mercury Cosworth Capri

Underneath, the Capri received Koni shocks and a “competition suspension,” which, combined with the three-piece, 15×8 BBS wheels and Firestone HPR tires, allowed the Cosworth Capri to corner at better than 1.0 g. Inside, Recaro seats replaced the production chairs, while a custom dash and Stewart-Warner gauges reminded onlookers that this wasn’t the same Capri found in dealer showrooms.

1980 Mercury Cosworth Capri

So, too, did the aggressively flared fenders, rear brake ducts, air dam and functional hood vents. Though it would have been relatively easy to cast new fenders and quarter panels from fiberglass, Ford turned to Ron Fournier to craft the modified panels out of steel, and the car is represented in Fournier’s how-to guide, The Metal Fabricator’s Handbook. It appeared in AutoWeek magazine, too, as well as on period Ford Motorsport postcards.

Ford did go racing with its McLaren-built turbocharged four Mustang in 1980, but the birth of the turbo era predicted by the automaker never materialized. In 1981, reliability issues forced Ford to temporarily halt production of the 2.3-liter turbo four. It appeared again – in refined form – in 1983, but by then the big news was the return of the 5.0-liter, high-output V-8, available in both Mustang and Capri models.

1980 Mercury Cosworth Capri

Even the Capri went racing, in 1983, when Lyn St. James ran a 331-cu.in. V-8-powered Mercury in the SCCA’s Trans Am series, but with little success. As for the Cosworth Capri, its ended up in private collections once its time in the spotlight as a show car was done. Last offered for sale in 1995, the one-off creation – today showing less than 500 miles on the odometer – has been owned by the consignor for the past 23 years.

The Kissimmee sale takes place from January 3-13, 2019, at the Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida. For additional details, visit Mecum.com.

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