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

(first posted 2/17/2011)   Let’s face it, honesty is not necessarily the best policy in the car business (or any business, including Wall Street, politics, food processing, and…). GM proved that in the late twenties when they invented planned obsolescence and put the painfully honest Model T out of business. The art of (self) deception has played itself out colorfully over the decades, whether it was fins, horsepower, Broughams, SUVs, The Ultimate Driving Machine for the congested commute, or just endless easy credit. But there’s something about an economic crisis that jolts humans out of their addict’s stupor to reconsider what’s real and what’s not. It never lasts very long, but a few refreshingly honest cars have resulted, none more so than the 1978 Fairmont. Perhaps we should call it the Cold Turkeymobile.

Actually, we could call it so many things, and I struggled with a whole slew of headlines for this CC: The Car That Saved Ford; Ford Builds The Most Widely Adapted Platform Ever; The 1960 Falcon Reincarnated; The New Valiant; Ford Builds A Volvo 240; The Most European American Car Ever; The Most Significant Car Of The Seventies…I could probably keep going for a while. But in the end, the Fairmont’s remarkably blunt honesty is what strikes me most, especially when we consider the times when it appeared.

The mid-late seventies was when the deception game was being played with high stakes: I’ll see your Grand Heritage Elite Bill Blass Custom Mark XXX ReVile with my Classic Supreme Brougham Superb deSade. And Ford’s chips were pretty much all in. Even the semi-compact Granada was born trying to look like a Benz:

And it wasn’t just in terms of appearance and pretentious names either: let’s face it, Ford in the seventies was in a very serious slump, and it showed, even below the skin. It’s a crass generalization, but Ford quality, handling, engine driveability, and a few other aspects were, on average, the bottom of the Big Three barrel. Why?

henry ford II

Leadership, or the lack of it. A very young Henry Ford II did a superb job of turning around a sinking ship right after the war. And through the sixties, Ford managed to put up a hell of a fight with GM. But Hank was getting tired of it all, understandably. The burden was huge, and he had sacrificed his youth for the sake of the family business. And as is not uncommon, he wanted to find a bit of fun and distraction before it was too late. The car business requires constant attention, and Henry’s jet setting and ever younger women resulted in…ill-handling poorly built barges. Of course Henry had his lieutenants, (Lee Iacocca, mostly) but ultimately the fish stinks from the head. And Iacocca was the master of deception.

So how do we explain the Fairmont, which so eschewed everything that the rest of the Ford family of fine cars embraced? Economic crisis. The 1974-1974 energy crisis was the biggest jolt to America’s sense of confidence and optimism since the Depression. There had been other classic recessions, like the nasty one in 1958, but those were seen for what they were: a painful but brief adjustment of the domestic economic supply and demand machine.

But the Energy Crisis was caused by an externality: OPEC’s oil embargo. Now that was a recession of a different color indeed, and not the last. Suddenly the great Brougham Deception looked like it was built on a shaky foundation: endless cheap oil. Time to get real. And so Ford did, proving that they were perfectly capable of it, when the motivation was there.

The Fox platform that underpins the Fairmont can be called utterly pragmatic as well as genius. Unlike GM, Ford was not about to bet the Ford farm on FWD, yet. Let’s not forget that GM’s X-Body program (Citation CC here) was started about the same time as the Fox-Body, but GM’s ambitious effort to re-invent the American car was delayed by its variety of issues that were never properly licked anyway. Ford took the cheap and easy way out, and what a winning gamble that was.

They didn’t have to look very far for what they needed either: Ford of Europe was building perfectly capable RWD cars that handled, steered and braked as good or better than its competition. Ford had been down this road before too: the 1971 Pinto borrowed heavily from the Ford Cortina, except of course for its ridiculous cramped and bulgy body. Unlike GM’s perpetual hubris which convinced itself that it knew better than Opel how to build a small car (Vega), Ford was always more ready to look across the ocean.

I’m not implying that the Fox was directly based on Ford’s European platforms (UK Granada above), but the basic front suspension architecture (struts, rack and pinion steering), size and overall architecture bear a decided similarity. Now we’re thinking semi-globally. Although frankly, the UK Granada looks even better. Well, that’s at least one area where Dearborn did tend to inject their own little brand of hubris…

The point is, Detroit had never built a car quite like the Fairmont: light but strong, conventional RWD for maximum engine/transmission flexibility, crisp steering, and utterly unpretentious. Amazing what a recession can do to clear the mind of distractions.

To go back to one of the alternate headlines, yes, the Fairmont can also be seen as a legitimate successor to the 1960 Falcon, which was also a remarkably clean and pragmatic car. And it came on the heels of the 1958 recession. And it was a huge success, until America’s car buyers drifted off…in more seductive directions.

Not the Maverick (above), I mean, but bigger and better things, like personal luxury coupes. Which meant that when Ford had no choice but to build a Falcon successor in 1970, its solution was to make the Maverick a cramped but ever-so-stylish new body on the tired old 1960 Falcon platform. It did the trick, for those that were so inclined, easily seduced or didn’t yet trust imports. Expedient, but hardly honest.

To appreciate the stark honesty of the Fairmont, one has to really get in, look around, and take it for a drive, because the outside just doesn’t take very long to absorb the full picture: boxy, with superb visibility. Or to borrow that other headline: very Volvo-esque indeed. Yes, that interior is as honest as it gets, for mid-seventies Detroit. This one is the lowest trim level, but still, that dash looks like it could have been borrowed from the English Granada, more or less.

mercury zephyr

And how about that driving experience? Well, my ever so thrifty father had a Mercury Zephyr version, a red two-door, with Ford’s long-lived Lima 2.3 OHC four and a four speed stick on the floor. That required bucket seats, which my father would never have thought to get otherwise. I drove it a few times on visits home, and it was so un-American that the House Committee on Un-American Activities should have had it on their black list.

Ford Fairmont int

There simply was nothing like it this side of a Volvo or…dare I mention more vaunted European brands? To drive a roomy American low-trim sedan yet with decent bucket seats, accurate and light manual steering, utterly devoid of the heavy-engine induced terminal understeer, a slick stick on the floor, decent brakes, and a willingness to be tossed about like a bowl of fresh baby greens. Don’t get me wrong: the basic car lacked the tire size and a a firmer suspension setting to make this a true sports sedan, not to mention some more beans from the 86 hp (go ahead and laugh) four.

But one didn’t dread taking it out for a brisk spin in the back roads, and it just hung in there so willingly and well-balanced, even when pushed to its relatively modest limits, unlike the wallowing Fords of the time. A revelation indeed; Detroit could actually build what somehow seemed so utterly elusive for so long, at least since the Corvair: a true European-type sedan without any European trade-offs, starting with the price.

The Fairmont wagon takes the Volvo comparisons to even greater heights; I’m hard pressed to think of another wagon that comes as close. And so under-appreciated, at least in what its potential could have been if Ford had taken a more Volvo-like approach in cultivating the Fairmont.

No, that couldn’t have happened. Despite a huge first year smash sales success of 461k units, the Fairmont was soon overshadowed by the need to get away from stark honesty again. In 1981, the Granada became a tarted up Fairmont, and the seemingly endless variations on the theme of Fox began. Some of them were more appetizing than others, and thankfully they all sat on those athletic Fox legs, which were hard conceal, no matter what stand-up grille and bustle-back burden was placed on them.

Of course, the Mustang took the Fox’ athletic abilities in another direction, one that seemed to never end and amaze. Long legs, the Fox had.

Getting back to a few salient details of the Fairmont: probably not that many came equipped like my Dad’s; this one, caught at a retirement home, more likely has the old Falcon 200 CID (3.3 L) six which somehow was rated at 85 hp, one less than the 2.3 L four. And this from the company that so prided itself on its racing prowess. Ford somehow always managed to have the lowest hp/displacement ratings in the seventies.

A V8 was also available; the 302 (4.9 L) in 130-139 hp versions, and later the very forgettable 255 version with a remarkable 119 hp rating. Why bother, especially when it only burdened the front end more? The 86 hp four and the stick was the way to row oneself to the shore of modest pleasures. I almost forgot; the turbo version of the 2.3 four was available in 1979 and 1980 only, but that was the rather nasty blow-through-carburetor version that made a bad name for itself. And they were mighty rare in the Fairmont. Now the electronically-controlled EFI turbo from the 1983 T-Bird Turbo Coupe would have been a different story indeed.

Although the Fairmont’s day in the honest glare of sunshine was rather brief, its greatest claim to fame is that it bailed out Ford. In 1979, Ford had a very near brush with bankruptcy, and the Fox body sedans allowed it struggle through the second energy crisis/recession of 1981 just long enough for it to be replaced by the Taurus, another brilliant Ford forged in the depths of crisis. It seems that’s what it usually takes, for Ford as well as the rest of us.

Related reading:

CC1980 Fairmont Futura: Back To The Future

1981 Fairmont Futura Wagon: Dystopian family Hauler?