This journey starts in Cologne, Germany, in 1983. Bob Lutz is the chairman of Ford of Europe. The blue oval is about to launch the Fiesta Mk2. It’s a completely rebodied Mk1. But he knows that the supermini market is about to get very competitive. There’s the Austin Metro, the Fiat Uno, the Peugeot 205, the Vauxhall Nova and the upcoming Renault 5. Ford proposal doesn’t look ambitious enough. As for the XR2, it will only get a 1.6l with 96bhp (with competitors in 3-figures) because they were afraid it might harm the Escort XR3.
The Fiesta Mk2 is launched during the summer. In order to improve the situation, Lutz wants something big for the next Geneva auto show. He asks Ghia, Ford’s design arm in Turin, Italy, to create a roadster. It would be based on the upcoming Fiesta XR2. The result, is the Barchetta concept-car. A superb 2-seater roadster.
The reception is beyond expectation. There’s even a Club Barchetta that demands its launch ! But back in Cologne, Lutz only gets red lights. The traditionnal roadsters are fading. The MG B, the Triumph TR8 and the Spitfire just went away. The Fiat 124 Spidereuropa is on its last leg. For big car manufacturers, there’s no commercial viability for a roadster like the Barchetta. Customers are demanding 4-seater convertibles, like the Golf, the Escort or the Ritmo ones…
Let’s now move to Detroit, in early 1985. Bob Lutz is relocated, to work on the Explorer. But he hasn’t forgotten the Barchetta. He re-purposes the project for an American launch. This US Barchetta would have been sold for $8,000. Meanwhile, there’s a 4 cylinder-Mustang on sale at $7,800. Ford is struggling with it and the last thing it needs is internal competition.
A few month later, Lee Iacocca brings Lutz to Chrysler, as an executive Vice President. At Ford, everything that has been touched by the traitor is carefully thrown-away. And the US-Barchetta rests among the collateral victims.
Yet, it didn’t stay in Limbo for long. A few month later, a delegation of Ford executives is at Mazda’s headquarter in Hiroshima, Japan. The American company had owned 7% of Toyo Kyogo (Mazda’s parent company) since 1979. They bought 20% more and considered taking over the Japanese manufacturer. During their tour, the American’s discover P729, the future MX-5. By 1986, the exterior and interior designs were still in progress. Yet, Mazda had already freezed its architecture: a strict RWD 2-seater roadster. Also, they’re considering a retro design. There’s even a Lotus Elan in the design department! That seems very radical to the Ford guys. If not crazy. Who would buy such a car in the late-80s? At least, the Barchetta was a FWD! There’s always a slight line between craziness and genius. What if Mazda was onto something?
We’re now in Richmond, Australia. Following the Mazda tour, some executives were considering reviving the Barchetta project. Ford Australia produces the Mazda 323-based Lazer. It’s FWD, like the Fiesta, which makes it easier to handle. Also, its platform is longer than the Fiesta. That way, the roadster could be a 2+2. The general public doesn’t like 2-seater cars anymore. They wanted some extra seats in the back, “just in case”. Ghia was asked to update the design. Not in a retro way like Mazda, but with a modern wedge design. Yet, they would use the evocative name Capri. Ford Australia is gunning for a launch in 1989. The same year the MX-5 was to be launched they will show those raw-fish-eaters how to conceive a successful roadster!
But then the Americans come on board. The Capri is a future best-seller and they want to bring it to America. Back in the 70s, Mercury sold the British-built Capri – using the Mercury badge again would be perfect. That brand could use a little dusting. Nontheless, in order to sell it, they needed to install an Airbag, which meant redesigning the wheel and so on. The Capri only goes on sale in 1991 with either a 1.6l 100bhp or a 1.6 turbo 132bhp.
Meanwhile, the doomed-Japanase roadster had become a hit and it got a cult-following. People are enjoying its retro curves and its sporty handling. Compared to that, the Capri looks out-dated, unattractive, cheap (as in cheaply-built) and boring. Ford tries to give the Capri some small-styling tweaks in 1993 and 1994. The sales remain lacklustre while people are queuing at Mazda dealerships! The Japanese won the round and Ford has to pull the plug.
There are cars that, you’re sure, would have done great, had they been given a chance. The Ford Barchetta should have stayed one of them. Because as it was eventually produced as the Capri, following a difficult conception, it turned into a farce. The Barchetta is the car that should have rather not been.