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

(first posted 8/8/2012)    Sometimes history really does repeat itself.  Consider the Fairmont Futura:  Both the car (in concept) and the name had been in showrooms before.  Both times, it had the same job to do, and it did it well.  Like its namesake, the Falcon Futura, the Fairmont Futura would do its thing in a modest and competent way until being more-or-less replaced by another car – the Mustang.

In 1960, Ford brought us the Falcon.  It was an honest little car.  A simple car.

In 1961, in a Ford Motor Company that employed a rising star named Lee Iacocca, the honest little Falcon got a little flash, and the Falcon Futura was born.  It is amazing how a few simple bits of trim made the plain-Jane Falcon almost stylish: Bucket seats, chrome console, three little “venti -ports” on its flanks, and a little red, white and blue “Futura” logo.  Suddenly, the dowdy little Falcon became acceptable to a different demographic, at least until the Mustang arrived.

Fast forward to 1978, when Ford brought us another honest little car – the Fairmont (CC here).  Why was this car called the Fairmont and not the Fairlane?  Or better yet, the Falcon?  I have no idea.  The 1978 Fairmont was the 1960 Falcon reincarnated, albeit with updates.  Plain, unadorned shape?  Check.  Sound but undistinguished mechanicals?  Check.  But this time, Ford would not wait quite as long before putting a little personality into the car.   Probably because Lee Iacocca was still running the show at Ford during the Fairmont’s development.  Whatever the reason, midway through the Fairmont’s debut year came the Futura.

I just can’t let go of the name thing.  Ford refused to recycle a well-known name for the car line, but pulled out an old name for the sporty model?  Maybe in 30 years we have just become accustomed to everything being called a Sport, a GT or a SSEIRFDXR4TISVOETC.  To me, the Futura name was a welcome blast from the past, and one of the few Ford names that was never sullied by a bad car.  So Futura it was.  Or was it Fairmont Futura.  Looking at the ads, I can’t tell.  Let’s move on.

Ford was alone in coming up with a unique sporty coupe that was quite different from the regular  two- door sedan.  Because the age of the convertible and two-door hardtop was long gone by 1978, this was how Ford chose to add a little Thunderbird-inspired spice to the lives of those who liked sporty, two-door cars.  This was quite an expenditure for a single model, when you think about it.

It would have been cheap and easy to tart up the regular two door Fairmont, so Ford should earn some extra credit points for this car’s unique body.

Is there a single company that has been more enamored over the years with the outsize B pillar on a coupe?  From the original 1955 Crown Victoria to the 1977 Thunderbird, to even the big Bronco (here), Ford was the home of the “basket handle” roof that seemed to get most of its support (visually, if not actually) from the central B pillar, while wispy little A and C pillars served largely as places for the windows to attach.

The Fairmont Futura coupe took the concept and made it the central focal point of the car.  Maybe this is why the Futura may be the best looking of all of the early two door (larger) Fox cars – instead of taking the traditional dimensions of a 1960s two door hardtop and shrinking them down to a smaller size (like the 1980 Thunderbird), the Futura went with a roof concept that defied easy comparison to an earlier generation.

Is it just me, or did Ford miss the best looking variation of this body – a new Ranchero.  The roof treatment of this car just begged for a resurrection of the little ute.  Although there was the halfhearted semi-custom joint-venture Durango (here), a proper Ranchero would have been a fabulous and memorable addition to the lineup.

The new Futura staked out some real estate that would become pretty crowded in Ford’s pasture.  Within a year, there would be the new Fox body Mustang, and the following year would bring a Thunderbird that was little more than a Futura in a bad tux.  We would also have a Capri and a Cougar.  By 1981, unless you picked an Escort or an LTD, you were getting a Fox – Fairmont, Granada, Thunderbird or Mustang, take your pick.  While the Mustang had a unique niche, the original Futura coupe would be the most honest and straightforward car of the lot.  No putting on the dog for the honest little Fairmont.  Which was probably its undoing.

I have always found this car kind of appealing, but had more or less forgotten about it when I came across this one.  This car reminded me how much I once liked these.  It is funny that when you can go to any car show and see late 70s Malibu with a V8 and rally wheels, the Futura is never represented.  This car ought to be a staple of Foxphiles at the car shows, with a 5.0 HO and all manner of Mustang-sourced chassis upgrades, these should have been universally popular with the hot rod and light custom crowd.  But they do not seem to be.  Maybe it’s because Ford never had any decent rally wheels.

I am guessing at the year on this car.  These are not really easy to identify, as they were largely unchanged during their entire 1978 to 83 run.  It is not a ’78 or ’79, because those years put some ventilation louvers low on the B pillar.  What was it about FoMoCo and body louvers in 1978-79?  I, for one, was happy to see them go.  I prefer my cars with smooth flanks.  Gills are for fish.  If the wheels on this car are original, I believe that 1980 was the last year for these, so there we are.  I do not recall seeing many of these with this style of alloy wheel, and ditto with the gold paint.  Somebody’s grandmother picked out a nice car.

Being 1980, the preppie-plaid seats were, of course, available.  I might have chosen a more subdued option, but 1980 is getting to be long enough ago that the plaid has its charms.  The vinyl on the seats does not seem as faded as elsewhere, but this could be a materials issue as easily as it could be from a seat-ectomy.  The piles of empty Dr. Pepper cans, however, do not really do much for the ambiance of this particular interior.   Isn’t this what Cavaliers are for?

Mechanically, these were all over the place.  Four, six or eight cylinders, as well as automatic or stick shifts.  The six (the venerable 200 cid/3.3L ) and the V8 (302/5.0L) had even spent time under the hoods of Falcons.  The V8 was of the magically disappearing variety, starting out as the old 302, then shrinking to the unlamented 255 (4.2L) for 1980-81, and disappearing altogether in 1982-83.  And how many of you remembered that for 1980 only, the Fairmont could be had with a turbocharged 2.3?  I certainly did not.

By 1983, the Futura name was on all Fairmonts, but the car was being squeezed out of the Ford lineup.  You know that the end is near when the brochures tell you what a great value the car is.  The Fox-body LTD offered sedans and wagons, and the new aero Thunderbird provided the attractive coupes.  Then there was the Mustang that was, by 1983, starting to catch its second wind as one of America’s favorite sporty coupes.  The role of the small value sedan would henceforth be filled by the 1984 Tempo.  Once again, the Futura was done in by the Mustang (this time with an assist from the Thunderbird.)  In the words of Yogi Barra, it was deja vu all over again.  It is sort of ironic that the Futura was the only one with no future.

The poor Futura is all but forgotten now, which is such a shame.  It really was an honest little car.  But who says an honest car can’t have a fun personality?