Margaret Elliott approached the Harrow pub with her heart in her mouth.
She was about to enter a world dominated by men, their only common interest a shared love of the Ford Capri.
Then in her late fifties, Margaret had only gone along to the Surrey Capri Club’s monthly meeting to thank the chairman for finding a buyer for some pattern wings that were cluttering up her spare bedroom.
Thirteen years later, she’s still going to those meetings, her beloved 1985 Capri Laser the catalyst for a whole new life for a woman who cheerfully admits she cared little for cars until the Ford got under her skin.
“It was quite nerve-wracking entering that pub, one woman among all these men who knew each other,” she says at her Surrey home.
“On a complete high”
“I went in thinking I would say thank you and walk off again. I came home at about 11 o’clock at night on a complete high, and enjoyed it so much I ended up signing on with them.
“They had their bonnets open and were all talking cars. I had my car with me, which was a good introductory point, and the men were saying: ‘Aah, it’s nearly concours’. They were impressed, and I latched on to one of them who took me under his wing and became a great mate.”
Margaret, now 70, often wonders how she got here; how a car she and her husband, Bernard, bought new in August 1985 could change her life so completely.
“I sometimes look at the car and wonder if all this really happened,” she says. “How could somebody with no knowledge of cars and very little interest in them keep a vehicle like this on the road for 30-plus years?
“It’s magical to me”
“It’s something I never expected and it’s magical to me, an amazing machine. I don’t know what I would be doing now if I didn’t have the car – I can’t see not having it in the garage there.
“Looking back, I find it hard to comprehend how I transformed from a perfectly normal 36-year-old who couldn’t even identify the parts under the bonnet into a 70-year-old who meets in a pub once a month with a load of men, attends shows and can get my head under the bonnet and talk technical with the rest of them. I think they consider me to be their mascot!”
It’s an unlikely story that nearly didn’t happen at all, with Margaret and Bernard looking for something small and economical when it came time to sell their Capri 2.0 GL.
“As there were only the two of us we thought it would be sensible to go for something smaller and less thirsty, a Fiesta maybe,” says Margaret, who met Bernard when they were paired up at a dance school in the early 1970s.
“Nothing took our fancy until we got Ford’s latest ‘Cars’ brochure from the garage and our eyes lit upon a picture of a beautiful silver Capri. We went: ‘Aah’, both of us, ‘doesn’t that look lovely?’
“We were smitten”
“We were smitten, and placed our order immediately.”
The car was a Capri Laser, the couple parting with £6,570 to buy their first – and, to this day, only – brand new, factory-fresh car.
Even though Margaret had motoring in her blood – her father worked as a metallurgist at Leyland Motors in the north west before moving the family down south – in those days, to her, a car was merely something to get from A to B.
“If I opened the bonnet I wouldn’t know what anything was or what it did,” she says. “But I was given brief instructions as to what to do and what not to do with a new engine and left to get on with it.
“We shared the car, but I think I had the most use out of it, going to work in it to my job in Leatherhead.”
After getting a job within walking distance, the Capri became a weekend car, the couple – both keen horse riders – removing the parcel shelf to fit saddles in the boot on trips to the stables.
When the Capri was about 15 years old, its future looked bleak because Bernard got a company car.
“He decided it would soon be starting to give problems and cost us money, and said he was thinking of selling it,” says Margaret.
“But by that time I’d become rather attached to it, having been the only person to wash and care for it and having taken it to all its MoTs and services.
“Don’t let it bother me at all”
“He offered it to some mates one day. One of them said yes, but I said I didn’t want them having it, can we keep it? Bernard said only if you tax, insure it, wipe its bottom and don’t let it bother me at all!”
Margaret was told to “run it into the ground”, but in nearly 20 years since she has done anything but.
The car, which has covered just over 62,000 miles, looks almost as good today as when it came out of the factory – and that’s down to Margaret’s remarkable dedication and refusal to give in to the rust that afflicted most cars of the era.
That, and her natural capacity and desire for learning, and for moving outside her comfort zone and engaging in areas well beyond her expertise.
After a while, a change of job for Bernard meant no more company car.
“He had to start buying his own again and the Capri was banished to the drive on the grounds that the newer car was more valuable, and there she stood in all weathers for about eight years, gradually becoming more frayed around the edges,” says Margaret, who has recorded every gallon of petrol she’s ever put in the car in one, small notebook.
“It soon became apparent that she wasn’t watertight so every time there was heavy rain I had to go outside and bail the water out from the driver’s footwell, plus remove the spare tyre to check there was no water in the spare wheel well.”
Holes began to appear around the headlamps, and rust popped up on the wheel arches and sills.
“I tried to tackle some of the issues myself but it wasn’t easy out on the drive – on a slope – and with no aptitude for such jobs,” she adds.
“I just had to do something”
“I wasn’t proud of the way she looked and I reached the point where I felt I just had to do something.
“I rang around one or two body shops but as soon as the word Capri was mentioned they didn’t want to know.
“I’d go to a garage and they’d say ‘it’s an old car now, you can’t expect that to be maintained, and you can’t expect it to last much longer’.”
But Margaret knew different, thanks to the example of a friend who had kept her classic car running for “hundreds of thousands of miles”.
“I thought ‘if she can keep that going I can keep the Capri going too’,” she says. “Her example showed me that you can keep a car going forever if you want.”
Her problem was a lack of knowledge – it’s hard to argue with seasoned mechanics when you don’t have the expertise to back it up.
So Margaret set about learning everything she could, buying a Haynes manual, and reading magazines and internet forums.
With a degree in Spanish (with French subsidiary) already under her belt, she later taught herself German, and set about learning the language of cars with equal fervour.
“I decided the only solution was to arm myself with as much knowledge as possible so that I could tell when the wool was being pulled over my eyes,” she says.
“Interesting and exciting”
“I like learning something new. A lot of men will know what spark plugs do and what leads do, but it was all new knowledge to me and it made it interesting and exciting. I’ve always liked teaching myself things, which is how I did the German.
“The internet has also been a godsend to me, as I am hard of hearing and am able to sit at the computer with the sound off and absorb everything.
“And the more I got to know and understand about the car, the more I enjoyed it.”
Having found a local garage body shop prepared to repair the wings and sills, minor repairs were carried out, but the rust then continued unabated and it was obvious the car would need further surgery.
By now, Margaret had joined the Capri Club International (CCI), partly to further her quest for knowledge and partly because genuine Ford spares were becoming increasingly thin on the ground.
“Even the local Ford dealership was by now having difficulties supplying them, and not knowing who or where to turn to in time of need, I joined the club,” she says.
“A whole new world”
“Suddenly, a whole new world opened up to me.”
Believing genuine Capri wings were impossible to find, Margaret had bought a pair of patterns, but “the more I looked at them and the more horror stories I heard about the after-market wings, the more I decided only the genuine article was good enough for my car.”
The search took her to the Foray Motor Group, who specialise in locating obsolete Ford parts.
“I didn’t think I’d stand a chance, so imagine my surprise when I received an email to say they’d located a front wing for me and it would be arriving shortly – from Sweden of all places!” she says, finding the other front wing from a UK seller.
Margaret waited until Bernard was away on business to take the Capri back to the body shop for a quote to fit the new front wings and carry out further work.
“I wasn’t sure it would go down well,” she says. “I was almost too scared to tell him when he came home. “When I broke the news his first reaction was: ‘How much?! It’s only a car’. But, having got over that, I think he realised there was no stopping me.”
When it was time to collect the car after the work was complete, she walked to the body shop with the £1,700 for the repair bill in cash.
“I was carrying the money in different pockets around my body so if somebody nobbled me they would only get, say, £200, and not get the rest of it,” she laughs.
It was through the pages of the CCI magazine that Margaret learned of the Surrey Capri Club, and she enlisted the help of the chairman to find a buyer for the surplus-to-requirements pattern wings.
New friendships and experiences
All of which led her to that nerve-wracking trip to the Harrow pub, and another new chapter in her life with the Capri, one that has brought new friendships and new experiences.
Always nervous of driving too far from home, Margaret surprised herself when, shortly after joining the club, she signed up to its outing to the CCI show at Evesham, a five-hour round trip.
“I spent the intervening time worrying about how I was going to get there and back but I certainly wasn’t going to lose face in front of the other club members so I had to do it,” she says.
“Going was easy as we went in convoy but on the way back I got cut off at a busy roundabout in Oxford and that was the last I saw of the other Capris.
“I felt like sitting down and crying, but I said to myself ‘don’t be so bloody silly’, took a deep breath, and kept going.
“That was such an achievement, and I had a big gin and tonic when I got home!”
She also returned home with a gold trophy, and has since made two more visits, earning further gold and silver trophies.
Margaret says she probably wouldn’t be driving now had it not been for the club, and has become something of a specialist parts finder for her fellow members.
“I buy all the lads spares when they can’t find them,” she says. “They come to me and say ‘Margaret, you will never get one of these’.
“I like helping people”
“But I chat with the eBay sellers – I know a lot of them – and I go back the next day and say ‘I’ve got it’. I like helping people.”
It’s not only her fellow owners she helps out with parts – every room of her home is dotted with spare parts, one spare bedroom full of small components, panels and bumpers in the loft, a heater unit in the kitchen and, until recently, an entire exhaust system split between the lounge and another spare bedroom.
“My husband and I have come to live such a crazy existence,” she says. “The parts are an insurance policy – I will be on the internet all evening buying everything I can find!
“It never ceases to amuse me as to how I got into this situation.”
As well as opening up a whole new world of friendships and experiences, the Capri attracts attention wherever it goes, with Margaret often drawn into impromptu conversations with complete strangers.
“Everybody knows them, everybody’s had them or knows someone who has,” she says. “Everybody warms to them, and it puts a smile on your face every time you drive it. It makes you feel somebody.”
There was the time when Margaret was filling up with petrol and became concerned when she was approached by a police officer.
“Police were always picking on Capris because of the boy racers, so I was a little worried!” she says. “He asked if he could have a look at my car, and I thought ‘be nice to him, smile at him’.
“The whole forecourt, everybody, went inside and hid. He looked at me and said ‘it’s lovely to see one of these still on the road, I’ve always wanted one’.
“As I drove away, he stood and waved at me all dewy-eyed. Another time at the petrol station the whole queue waiting to pay was talking about the car and the cashier was becoming impatient as nobody was paying.”
12-hour cleaning marathons
Working on the car in her garage or on her driveway, or undertaking one of her 12-hour cleaning marathons, Margaret is often approached by men clocking the Capri while walking or driving past.
“While at a show, a man approached and said ‘don’t you remember me?’ Well, quite honestly, I hadn’t a clue who he was,” she says.
“He explained that whilst driving past our house some time ago he’d spotted me working on the car in our garage and he’d popped in for a chat.
“Then it all came back to me. But, as I told him, it’s not unusual for strange men to appear at my elbow and frighten me witless when I’m working on the car so the chances of my remembering a single casual encounter from years back were remote to say the least.
“It appears he used to have some spares at home that may be of interest to me and he passes our house a couple of times a week, so he said he may pop in again sometime.”
Even on the motorway, people can’t help snatching a lingering look at the Capri.
“One day I was coming home in traffic on the M25, and a man in a car shouted ‘I like your car’ through an open window,” says Margaret. “Then there was a car that kept overtaking, slowing down, overtaking again, and I looked across and his wife’s filming me.”
Margaret’s car has even inspired others to become owners.
Inspired to buy a Capri
“One day a new member arrived at our monthly club meet,” she says. “He introduced himself as a Ford technician and said that he had been so inspired by a Capri that he used to service that he’d bought one of his own. The car that had so inspired him turned out to be mine!”
Throughout its life, the Capri has been driven whatever the weather, but these days is semi-retired and largely used to attend shows and club events.
Margaret has been invited to parade on the circuit at this summer’s Silverstone Classic, and has driven on the famous banking at Brooklands, with a return visit planned to celebrate 50 years of the Capri in September.
We’ve decamped from Margaret’s home for photographs at Epsom Downs racecourse, a place very close to her heart as well as a beautiful setting.
The roads that snake around and through the home of the Derby are where she first drove a car, her father’s Triumph 2000, and also where she first got behind the wheel of the Capri that now sits on the crest of the downs overlooking the home straight and grandstand.
She owns a leg in a couple of racehorses trained a stone’s throw from the course and, while they may never be good enough to take that famous downhill turn round Tattenham Corner in the Derby, there’s nothing stopping Margaret from taking the bend using a more modern form of horsepower.
“A very special place”
“This is a very special place to me,” she says, standing by a very special car she describes as “like an old mate”.
“It’s been half of my life with this car. It’s just a constant in a changing world, a bringer of friends, a nice hobby, and a way of learning how to do new things.
“This car has been absolutely brilliant, she owes me nothing. If you’d told me when we bought her that I’d still be driving her now I wouldn’t have believed you. I think it’s fair to say that for me this car has been totally life-changing.
“There is such a lot of my history in her and she has so many stories to tell.”
As for the future, Margaret accepts that time will one day run out for this enduring love affair.
“It brought it home to me recently when I had to reapply for my driving licence, and will have to do that every three years,” she says.
“I’ve had one cataract operation, and at any time anything could go wrong with my eyesight. I’m probably approaching the last 10 years of driving, and how many 80-year-old women do you see driving Capris?!
“I’m trying to do as much as I can and enjoying it as much as possible before I have to stop.
“My aim is to keep her in good physical and running order for as long as I can – and, believe me, that’s enough of a challenge for me. But, hopefully, when I am no longer able to drive she’ll still be in good enough condition to hand over to someone who can.”
One thing’s for sure, through the friends she’s made in the Surrey Capri Club, Margaret is perfectly placed to one day find a good home for a car that’s changed her life.
The Silverstone Classic is taking place on July 26-28, 2019, where Margaret has been invited to be part of the event’s 50th anniversary celebrations of the Ford Capri. Adrian Flux is the event’s Official Vehicle Insurance Partner.
Pictures by Simon Finlay Photography.
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