Curbside Classic: 1973 Australian Ford Fairlane ZXGLQ-FU Found In Eugene – That Thing Got A FEMI?

(first published 5/13/2012)    Australian cars have been an endless source of fascination for me and so many other American car enthusiasts. It’s an alternate reality down under: the cars look so familiar, yet they’re obviously different.  It’s kind of like running into long-forgotten members of one’s family, but with some kind of a genetic problem. You know they’re kin, but there’s something decidedly…odd.

It’s understandable, as Australia has long become a dumping ground for rejected Detroit designs and technology. None more so than the ZXGLQ-FU Fairlane; as unbelievable as it may seem today, this bulging, melting, rolling carbuncle on wheels was actually designed in Dearborn to be the all-new American 1972 Torino. How it came to be killed off at the last minute and exiled to Australia, where it’s become a living legend with its amazing FEMI™ engine, has been one of the great untold stories of automotive history. No longer.

Before we delve into that, let’s just spend a moment taking this exotic car in, which I’m utterly at a loss to explain how it ended up in Eugene, Oregon. Whatever; in situations like this, its best to just silence the internal dialog, questions and doubts, and  really see this car. If we squint a bit and look at its confused lines and bizarre shape, we can hope to find something trying to emerge. Or is the only thing trying to emerge the cancerous growth of its protuberances? Sadly, its design language has long been lost to history; whatever its creators were trying to say is indecipherable. And always was.

The closest thing might be “I wish I could be a proper genuine big American luxury car, like an LTD, along with some ridiculous hint of sportiness!” Ha! Fat chance, trying to emulate that paragon of design refinement and stylistic masterpiece. The 1971 – 1972 big Fords certainly caused a sensation when they arrived,

with their revolutionary and brilliantly original front ends that simply blew away the finest European designers and inspired Pininfarina’s famous knock-off, the Ferrari 875 Limitido.

Back to reality. On Dec. 31, 1970, Henry Ford II and the lovely Cristina attended a jet-set New Years Eve bash in a castle in Monte Carlo. Unbeknownst to him, the punch bowl was spiked with LSD. Henry being a man of considerable thirst, ingested more than an average dose. Vivid images of Ford’s future product portfolio swirled in his mind’s very expanded eye, and not in a good way. 1972 Torinos, 1973 LTDs and Marquis, and Continental Mark IVs pressed in on him, with even more exaggerated proportions (if that’s imaginable), causing him increasing distress.

But then Henry saw all the future Fords begin to merge in what was initially an amorphous giant blob, a Jabba the hut covered in vinyl. And then it began to take on a new shape, in the form of a monster or dragon, with piercing red eyes behind hidden headlight covers that were in the usual failed open position, thousands of twinkling opera lamps along its flanks of padded vinyl, and a gaping maw that was the size of Mark IV’s fake RR grille a thousand time over. As he stared at it, he realized it had a name and persona: this was the Great Brougham Dragon! And it was Henry’s own creation, having unleashed it in 1965.

But now it was turning on him! Or rather, his company. He could literally see the Great Brougham Dragon devouring Ford Motors year by year, getting fatter and uglier and more obscene as the cars got fatter and uglier and more obscene. And when the beast got to 1979, Hank could see his company being swallowed up whole; gone! Bankrupt!

Henry knew what he had to do: kill it, or it would kill Ford. He rose from his chair, grabbed a giant antique standing lamp, thrust it forwards, and ran  across the crowded room through the crowds of gay revelers and smashed it into the head of a mythical dragon depicted on a medieval tapestry hanging on the opposite wall. It made quite an impression on the guests indeed, and Henry ended up writing a hefty check for the irreplaceable tapestry. But the Great Brougham Monster was slain, laying in a rumpled pile on the floor, sliced into shreds, with shards of glass everywhere.

The next morning, he called a young BMW executive, Robert Lutz, and told him the company was his to run with a clean slate, and that BMW should be the inspiration of all future Fords. The whole Ford future product portfolio for the rest of the decade was cancelled by Henry at the next board meeting. It was called the “Great Ford Enlightenment”, although at Ford headquarters, many thought Hank had fallen off his rocker, especially when he subsequently retired to Taos. But by 1978, Ford surpassed GM. And BMW got out of the automobile sector by 1983, to concentrate on motorcycles. But you know all this.

The planned new 1972 Torino was of course cancelled, the outgoing version was carried over one more year, until the all-new 1973 Ford Torino was ready. It rocked the world, with its clean, tight lines, and advanced engineering.

The 1973 LTD was replaced by the similarly clean and progressive Galaxy.

And the new 1974 Falcon replaced the Maverick. The design mandate for all of them was to be at least five years ahead of the European competition, never mind the American ones. Amazingly, they pulled that off. And the rest is history.

Which that explains this abomination. Yes, it’s hard to believe or imagine now, but this is what Ford had planned to compete with in what soon became the best selling size of cars in the US.  The Great Ford Enlightenment spared us at the last moment, but the tooling had been ordered, the dies were cast (literally), and so the whole kit-caboodle was shipped off to…you guessed it: Australia. Never again would an oversized, overweight wallowing barge of a “mid-sized” car sully Ford’s US showrooms.

Fortunately the Ozzies are a resourceful bunch, even with Detroit’s rejects. The marshmallow suspension received the obligatory strengthening and triple shocks at each corner to make it outback-compatible, although no one will ever accuse the ZXGLQ-FU Series Fairlane of being a fine-handling machine. One can only do so much with a car that was designed with the bad old Ford mantra of a quiet soft ride at the expense of any handling prowess whatsoever. What those poor bastards in Australia had to put up with, trying to tame this flopping beast with its ridiculous “love handle” overhangs into submission.

But it was under the Fairlane’s vast hood where Ford Australia’s engineers really pulled out all the stops. Having been denied V8 engines forever, they were well versed in the magic that proper breathing could bring to the wheeziest of Dearborn’s feeble sixes. The Falcon six cross-flow Ozzie head was already legendary on the track and street. But the Fairlane/almost Torino was an obese turd, weighing some 4000 lbs or more, thanks to Dearborn’s relentless efforts to make it ride as quietly and softly as a Lincoln. The little Falcon block just wasn’t going to cut it. Australia begged for “the long-stroke six”, meaning the 250 incher tall-deck six, since there was no more use for it in the US. In a cruel joke, Ford did send a “long stroke six”, but it was hardly what the Australians had in mind.

In a dusty warehouse, someone uncovered the tooling for the G and H series flathead six, the engine that couldn’t be built until Henry Ford’s dementia was so advanced he couldn’t count spark plugs anymore. Old Henry wouldn’t countenance a six, ever since his failed Ford Model K of 1906. The G series six finally appeared in 1941, and in many ways, it was a better engine than the flathead V8, but it just never got its due recognition or caught on with the hot rod set. By 1941 there were millions of Ford V8s available for chump change, and hot rods parts for it were ubiquitous. But with a massive 4.40″ stroke and 226 cubic inches, it had a healthier torque curve than the V8, peaking at 180 lb.ft. at all of 1200 rpm! Just the ticket for the Ozzie Fairlane! Here’s a long stroke six for you guys; hardie-har-har!

This was just another kick below the belt that Ford Australia was by now well used to. So if given lemons, make lemonade. Stump-pulling off-the-line torque is nice, but this was 1973, not 1941, when the six had been rated at 90 hp. More power had to be found somehow. The down-under solution was brilliant, utterly unique, and baffled engine experts around the globe. It still does.

The intrepid Ford Australia engineers created a new cylinder head for the flathead 226 six that simply astounds, given that it seems so improbable, if not downright unworkable. One of the engineers had gotten his hands on a foreign car magazine and read something about the advantages of four-valve heads. Given that the article lacked pictures, and the concept was unheard of in Australia, the engineers were on their own in figuring it out.

The only solution they could see in creating a four-valve head was to take a classic two-valve hemi head (blatantly ripped off from Chysler) and slap it (with an offset) on the flat-head six; hey, it had twice the number of valves, so it had to be twice as good, right?  The best of a Chrysler hemi and a Ford flathead all rolled into one! Making the manifold plumbing and valve gear all work was a bit of a nightmare, especially for a pushrod engine, but where there’s a will there’s a way. The Ozzies do have a rep for being deft plumbers, with the best flushing loos in the Southern hemi-sphere, even if they can’t get them to swirl in the right direction.

The result was the legendary FEMI™ (F-head hemi) engine, although it did take a while to get it running properly. Or at all, actually. In order to do so, the hemi’s ports had to be reversed, which complicated manifolding manifold. The result was intakes and carbs on both sides of the engine, which in the case of the HO twelve-SU carb version was quite a sight to behold. Never mind synchronizing them. But eventually, things were (sort-of) sorted out; just don’t ask about thermal efficiency, BMEP, or fuel consumption. But it had a highly distinctive exhaust sound. What else is there?

The definitive QSTL-GKHT BO FEMI F4 226 engine, installed in the Fairlane SRL-GTO-SS-GTX-HOT coupe did what it could to motivate the big beast in Australia’s Touring Car Championships. But for all of the FEMI’s radical cylinder head, twelve carbs, and flatulent exhaust, the Fairlane was consistently spanked by the Leyland P-76. Not an easy humiliation to swallow.

The Fairlane fastback coupe was a typically crude home-brew attempt by the Australians to craft a sporty coupe body out of the Dearborn-designed sedan, as the only Torino coupe contemplated by Ford for the US market was a longer-hooded brougham-esque monster, also killed by the “Great Ford Enlightenment”, an event that has also come to be know as the Great Brougham Genocide.

Now there’s more to the story of the FEMI™. Obviously, the full-on version would have been too wild for the tame sedans and utes. The flathead soldiered as the base engine, although updated a bit to make 110 hp. Given the lack of FEMI™ badges on our featured car, that’s what’s likely lurking under its long hood. Hey, don’t laugh; Chevy would soon be fielding a V8 in the US with 110 hp.

But there were also two intermediate stages that used the FEMI™ head, but didn’t fully utilize the full potential of its breathing. The SEMI-FEMI™ used the hemi’s intake valve, and the flathead’s exhaust. The other two valves were just not actuated. It developed between 120 and 135 hp, and was a popular step up from the flathead.

A more ambitious undertaking was the BI-FEMI™, which utilized a valve deactivation scheme whereby the extra two valve came on line as the engine passed its torque peak, to improve its top end. It proved to be a troublesome machine, and has been generally avoided. An even more ambitious undertaking, dubbed the CROSS-FEMI™, involved various activation cycles of all four valves, to allow the full range of possibilities, from pure flathead operation, mixed, hemi and full FEMI™. It never quite made it to production, probably thankfully.

The interior of the ZXGLQ-FU Series Fairlane is a disaster, a dark cave much more cramped than the car’s overall size and weight might suggest. The US Torino that was built in its place had substantially more usable space despite being a full two feet shorter, never mind its BMW-esque design. But what were the poor Australians supposed to do about it? Sucking Detroit’s rear teat, as usual.

The Fairlane story is a long one, that hasn’t ended yet. Ford’s neglect of its Aussie ops became endemic; essentially they were cut totally off from any more technology or design transfers, cut loose to sink or swim. How about treading water? This has resulted in Australia’s famous living fossils, none more so than the Fairlane. Here is an almost-new 2010 model of a Fairlane ZZZZYX Series, shot and sent to us by our intrepid Bryce. As you can see, its evolution has followed a curious path, kind of like the platypus, which it rather resembles.

In what can only be seen as a sign of defiance, the Australians picked up the whole Brougham theme that had been so totally eradicated from Dearborn, and embraced it wholly. The fact that there were several warehouses full of Brougham badges to be had for the cost of shipping may have played into it initially, but it doesn’t take a psychologist to see what’s going on down under, especially as they’re still at it forty years later.

But for us enthusiasts, Ford Australia’s parallel reality automotive evolution offers a wonderful glimpse into what could have been our own reality. Imagine actually living through the Great Brougham Epoch before it was cut short. And seeing cars like this on the streets in your town. A scary thought indeed, but then horror has always had a certain appeal.