Tuesday April 2, 2019
Imagine that you’d hailed a lift in a passing Tardis and the Doctor had kindly deposited you at the 1972 Earls Court Motor Show, together with sufficient funds to purchase a reasonably priced coupe that was not a Ford Capri. Asides from making a gripping episode of Doctor Who, it is a scenario that requires no small amount of consideration. Of the British motor industry, the MGB GT and the Arrow-series Sunbeam Rapier had somewhat different images while the Volvo 1800ES and the Reliant Scimitar GTE were too expensive. As for the various products of Alfa Romeo, BMW and Lancia, they were rather too exotic, but that still leaves us with six interesting choices:
1967 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe
There is a select group of cars that have a natural presence, and the Fiat definitely belongs in this category. The original 1.4-litre Sport Coupe was launched in 1967, a year after the 124 Berlina, with Mario Bonao’s coachwork disguising the fact they had a floorpan in common. By 1970 the facelifted bc-series had twin headlamps and a 1.6-litre engine option, and two years later the final cc-series had a modified grille and came in either 1,592cc or 1,756cc form.
On paper, a 1.8-litre 124 Coupe – especially when fitted with Cromadora light alloy wheels – would have been an ideal competitor to a Capri 2000 GT, but the Fiat and the Ford seemed to occupy different worlds. The latter belonged in the world of visiting the Golden Egg in Woking every Saturday and trying to look like Tony Anholt in The Protectors while the former conveyed an air of genuine sophistication. As Car noted in 1975, the Fiat was ‘brimming with all the brio that makes the better Italian cars all, the more enjoyable’.
1971 Morris Marina 1.8 TC Coupe
Three initial points. A) The Marina’s styling was not unaccomplished, especially given that A) BL intended it to “stop-gap” model B) it was brought to production in under three years and C) In 1973 the Morris Marina was the second best-selling car in the UK. British Leyland did hope that at least some potential buyers of a mid-range would instead opt for the 1.8 TC Coupe which shared its engine with the MGB, with a rev-counter and “sports wheels” as standard
A 1971 five-car group test by the Motor concluded that the Marina was the ‘easy winner among this quintet if you want maximum accommodation in a coupe of sorts’ and that it was ‘very good value indeed’. In the same year, Motor Sport in the same year pointed out enough positive points – ‘the 1.8 TC version has an excellent performance above 2,000 r.p.m’, ‘The gear-change is good’ and ‘The interior arrangements and controls deserve high marks’ to hint at its potential. Indeed, the Marina was yet another BL product that was launched in a rush and had Project ADO28 debuted in 1972; this might have allowed for time to deal with the initial suspension issues. As it was, the TC Coupe represented somewhat of a missed opportunity.
1970 Opel Manta A
Or a coupe version of the Ascona A, although the Manta’s debut in September actually predated its saloon counterpart by several weeks. At that time, the Opel brand was relatively unfamiliar in the UK, and any example of the first-generation Manta would have seemed faintly exotic; the sort of coupe for a chap or chappess who would not instantly faint when confronted with the wine list.
The Manta of choice was, of course, the 1.9-litre Rallye RS, costing £1,475 in the UK and gaining the proud owner a matt black bonnet, a 102 bhp power plant and a maximum speed of 110 mph. Meanwhile, the test from Motor Sport is a further reminder of how remote 1971 now appears:
“The Opel Manta, likewise an eyeable fastback 4/5-seater, is better balanced in appearance and I think it is perhaps fair to say that whereas the Capri looks and feels a man's car (I nearly wrote a cad's car), the Manta, light as to response and controls, is somewhat more effeminate.”
Absolutely no comment.
1971 Renault 15 and 17
The 1970s was the era when imported cars really began to be seen in considerable numbers on British roads, and by that time many drivers who were contemplating a new Capri also looked at the 15 and 17. Renault’s previous offerings in this market were the rear-engine Floride and Caravelle, but the 1971 Paris Motor saw the debuts of their first FWD coupes. The entry-level 15TL boasted a 1.3-litre engine while the range-topping 17TS had a 1,565cc plant in Bosch fuel injected guise and a five-speed gearbox. There was also the three-door coachwork some three years before the arrival of the Capri II, the splendidly comfortable seats and, with the 17, that dynamic if almost unreadable, instrumentation. Formidable!
1970 Toyota Celica A20
When the Celica made its bow at the 1970 Tokyo Motor Show it was as a 2+2 version of the equally new Carina saloon - but that is to underestimate the impact of its appearance. Toyota hoped that the Celica would appeal to budget-conscious Camaro and Mustang drivers in their US export markets while in the UK it instantly caught the eye of those who craved a “Yank Tank” as well as the Capri. The main engine choice for the European market was a 124bhp 1.6-litre twin-carburettor unit, and although the 1600ST version was £64 more expensive than a Capri 1600 XLR at £1,351, it had a top speed of 105 mph as opposed to 96 mph.
When Autocar tested a 1600ST in late 1971, they concluded that it was a ‘very well-made and exceptionally well-equipped sports coupe which will do a lot for the Toyota image in this country’. Further praise such as ‘such good value’ and ‘no rival at the price’ only enhanced the Celica’s appeal, and it is easy to appreciate why any surviving example attracts such attention at events and shows. And my own favourite detail of the A20 has to be the dashboard finished in imitation rosewood – a truly early 1970s touch.
1971 Vauxhall Firenza
Sales copy of previous generations is so often a window onto a lost world – e.g. when Vauxhall informed its customers that ‘The forward thrusting bonnet peak emphasises the spirited characteristics of the Firenza’. Yes, this more than a coupe version of the 1970 Viva HC, it was a car for an utterly hip and groovy individualist, be it in (not especially rapid) 1,159cc form or in more potent 2-Litre SL guise. Naturally, you would wish to specify the latter with optional “Starmist Metallic” paint and Ro-Style wheels, in case other habitués of the A32 Little Chef regarded you as a square.
However, the Firenza was yet another car in need of further development. The 1971 Motor group test mentioned above thought the Vauxhall was ‘basically a very good car indeed’, but it suffered from a lack of refinement from its running gear and a ‘penny-pinched specification’. By 1972 the 2300 Sport SL joined the line-up snd its seven-dial fascia was deemed a vast improvement on the layout of the cheaper models – a Viva-style strip speedometer did not enhance the Firenza’s sporting image. In that same year, Motor described it as ‘an extremely good car’ and noted the Vauxhall’s ‘outstanding low speed torque’ – i.e. here was an interesting and low-key alternative to a Capri…