Curbside Classic: 1981 Ford Fairmont Futura Wagon – Dystopian Family Hauler?

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Well, not really.  “Dystopian” maybe not be the most apt descriptor of a car which sold well, formed the foundation of the Mustang’s 1980s revival and remains well-loved by most of us here at Curbside Classic.  But with a name like “Futura,” dour styling and a debut right before “Gas Crisis II,” it might have seemed like an unfulfilling new normal for a portion of customers trading in larger, more traditional cars.

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For most Americans, though, they were honest, affordable customizable machines with good stamina.  As this particular example sits here at the curb, thirty-three years later, Futura might’ve actually been quite the apt moniker.  While it’s been in front of this house, full of its owners’ trash, for several months, Fairmonts were regularly seen in daily use well into the ’90s, so they are in the running as some of the most durable cars of their era.  Possibly some of the most rust-resistant also.

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1981 was the final year of the Fairmont wagon–which was folded into the new Grenada line-up for ’82–as well as the first year the Futura label was extended to sedans and wagons in the form of an option package.

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I wasn’t alive in the late ’70s, but I imagine these cars were a very big surprise when launched after years of highly decorated designs from the big-three.  Much like the 1981 Chrysler Ks, they wore their frugality quite openly and like those cars, reskinned, spiffier variants came on line after a few years, to the relief of those customers who feared the cars were the portent of a penitent automotive future.

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If anything, this is one of the more indulgent Fairmonts.  I previously thought Futura was a model name exclusive to the original Crown Vic-inspired coupe variant of the Fox, but as the full console and gauge package seen here show, it enabled the addition of some rather exclusive options in the workaday wagon world, if not functioning as somewhat of a touring package in and of itself.  That must make this car somewhat uncommon as, indeed, most Fairmont I remember were sedans with vinyl bench seats.

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From this angle, you can see why it made sense to bring the blue oval badge back with the Granada “replacement;” these cars were somewhat generic looking, though certainly not unattractive.   Chrysler similarly gave the Pentastar logo greater billing as the ’80s wore on.

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By 1981, the optional V8 was the 255 CID (4.2 liter) unit, not the 302.  Given its high trim level, it’s possible that this wagon is so equipped.  Otherwise, this likely has the 3.3 liter six unless some masochist decided to order it with the 2.3 liter four.  I don’t know which engine would be best/worst.  I’m inclined to say the 255 would be the best of a series of bad options, and the 3.3 liter six doesn’t exactly have a great rep next to Chevy’s straight-six and Chrysler’s slant-six, though neither of those were notably sprightly by that point.  It’s also possible both the six and the V8 weigh about the same amount, as I’ve never heard any complaints about the latter burdening the front end of the similar Mustang, so I suppose it’s safe to bet the 255 was the ideal engine.  I won’t claim to have a solid answer; I’ve never driven any of these.

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The nearest I’ve come was the Tempo, which used a cut-down version of the 3.3 six, so not close at all.  That car, conceived during the near-bankruptcy which Ford survived on account of the early Fox-chassis variants, was built on a stretched Escort platform and was a rotten device.  It nevertheless replaced the Fairmont, with aero styling which must’ve fooled more than a few car buyers at the time.  Until then, late ’70s Fords were coming out wearing an ultra-conservative look, and from this angle, an Escort and Fairmont wagon looked much the same.

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I think I prefer this Fairmont’s rather chaste appearance over many of the aero Fords, with the exception of the Taurus and Merkur/Sierra.  The ’84 Thunderbird never did much for me, with its long overhangs, and these days, it doesn’t have quite the quaintness of this car.  Actually, Ford’s late ’70s styling efforts were some of the best in the domestic industry, with cars like the F-150 and Town Car retaining their respectability until their replacement.  It’s a look that, in my opinion, worked best on the Fairmont two-door sedan and on the Mustang until 1993.

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It was thoroughly appropriate to the upcoming decade and on this wagon, with its enormous glass area, it remains appealing.  Even crouched down next to it, the low belt line made it possible for my camera to pick up this car’s low-back buckets with their famously useless Detroit headrests.  Ford was the first to offer customers something better to replace these in family-friendly models, but it would have to wait a few years.

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The Fairmont managed to hang around until 19851986, though in Granada and then LTD form.  As a child, it was very confusing, since they all shared the same doors, proportions and many interior bits.  I knew how GM branding worked, but I couldn’t figure out why the same Ford had so many different names.  Our featured car was likely well-kept on account of its generously ordered options and ergonomic correctness and even today in rust-free from, it’s fully serviceable.  One can hope it gets rescued by a Fox-chassis fan (of which there are plenty) and is given new life.  It’s hard not to have such utopian expectations for a modern classic which shared so many components with well-regarded, athletic siblings.

Related reading:

Curbside Classic: 1978 Ford Fairmont – That Very Rare Honest Car

Curbside Classic: 1980 Ford Fairmont Futura – Back to the Futura

Curbside Classic: 1980 Ford Thunderbird – The Fabulous FUBAR Edition