Curbside Classic: 1978 Ford Fairmont – The Ur-Fox


(first posted 8/31/2013)     This was a radical car for Ford. If you didn’t live through the ‘70s and remember well all the bloatmobiles that Ford (and, to be fair, GM and Chrysler) foisted upon the American people until then, perhaps all you see is the most boringly styled automobile ever. Well, until the Chrysler K car, anyway.


Sorry, there I go again, being hard on the old Fairmont. It’s a drum I’ve beaten often around here. I have to keep reminding myself of what the Fairmont ushered in at Ford. Previously, their family-sized cars were all long-hooded sedans like this ’77 LTD II. It was the personal-luxury era, and Ford was drunk with it. While the enormous LTD II was sold as a mid-sizer and the Fairmont had a bit of a size-class identity crisis upon introduction (is it compact? is it mid-sized?), truth was that the Fairmont was bigger inside – well, not in width, but given the upright seating and airy greenhouse, it felt bigger inside in every way. And it was a better handler by a mile. Goodbye floaty boulevard ride!


I suppose it’s fairer to compare the Fairmont to the Granada, as they shared similar exterior dimensions. The Fairmont was actually shorter by a few inches. Again, the Fairmont won in interior room and handling – the Granada was the final iteration of the outdated 1960 Falcon platform.


But I knew little of handling at the time; I was 10 when the Fairmont was introduced. All I could go on was styling, and I harbored strong negative opinions about Ford’s 1970s styling direction. I was glad that my dad, an avowed Ford man, switched to Chevy and AMC in the 70s. But Ford’s marketing people teased us for months about the coming Fairmont, and I was growing excited. But when they unveiled it, I gasped – in shock at how plain of a car it was. I asked aloud of Ford, which wasn’t listening, “Is that the best you can do?”


Perhaps it was. Ford wasn’t on the firmest financial footing; by the early 1980s, bankruptcy rumors circulated. The Fairmont helped them live to fight another day.


And that’s because the Fairmont was an instant hit – at least, it was among the working-class families that were my childhood neighbors. Many of my school chums’ moms bought these to chauffeur their broods. And this is the Fairmont they bought – the ur-Fairmont, the base sedan, usually in this tan or in light blue, with plain interiors and dog-dish hubcaps. It’s so plain that it’s homely. And this homely ride was simply everywhere in my Midwestern hometown. Higher-trim Fairmonts were few and far between.


So I spent time in them. The first time I sat down on a Fairmont’s back seat almost sent me into sensory overload. There was room back there. It was bright inside; you could see. I actually felt a little exposed and vulnerable in the Fairmont. My friends’ moms had been driving big-on-the-outside, dark-and-cramped-on-the-inside mid-sized cars – Torinos, Satellites, Malibus. But here came the Fairmont, all roomy and open and bright, with gas mileage their former bloatmobiles couldn’t touch. They took to them like moths to a flame.


The styling sort of set the pace for this era of Ford. The new-for-1981 Escort looked like the Fairmont’s younger brother with its thin upper door frames and crisp corners. The Fairmont began a transitional period between the Great Bloat Era and the brilliant jellybean era of the Thunderbird, Tempo, and Taurus.


And then Ford went and got the Fairmont’s styling right in 1983, when the car was rebadged LTD. It’s amazing how new front and back clips transformed the Fairmont. And am I hallucinating, or did Ford slightly rake the rear roofline? One could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing that this car was the Fairmont of yore.


I’m going to admit another source of my anti-Fairmont bias: the two-door ’79 Mercury Zephyr a college buddy owned, and loaned me frequently in 1985 and 1986. With its 2.3L four and the four-speed stick, it was a serious dog. Its floaty, vague front end meant constant steering to keep the car on the road. But given how often the Fairmont has been praised for its strong (for the times) handling, I have to assume now that my buddy’s Zephyr needed serious front-end work.


And so I hereby pledge to quit ragging on the Fairmont. Besides, I remember well my stepson’s red ’93 Mustang GT, which was tons of fun. Gotta thank the Fairmont for that, as it donated its platform to the Mustang. Maybe the Fairmont wasn’t such a bad car after all.