(first posted in 2011)
“It’s about the journey, not the destination”. Tell that to a family of six—one of them seven months pregnant—on the third day jammed into in a black ’62 Fairlane on a sweltering hot day in July, windows closed, glued to clear plastic seat covers. If it hadn’t been for the glamor of the destination (New York City), my father might well have met an early demise at the hands of mutineers somewhere in Ohio. Hey Pop! We’re in America now, where folks ride in big yank tanks; not something European sized. Time for a bit of assimilation! Ford’s decision to introduce the Mercedes-sized Fairlane in 1962 was highly ill-timed, from our perspective.
My father was recruited to the University of Iowa Hospital in 1960, and shortly after our arrival, he bought a used 1954 Ford Mainline sedan (1953 Ford CC here). Six year-old cars back then were already geriatric; but the ’54 Ford V8 baby-blue whale was roomy for a family of six, and did the job, mostly, except for not wanting to break its slumber on cold winter mornings. Who did?
But it was feeling its age, so one day in December of 1961, my father unexpectedly showed up with a black Fairlane four door sedan, bare-bones except for the brand new 221 CID V8 and the Ford-O-Matic. I had very mixed emotions.
Yes, it was a new car; not just factory fresh, but also a totally new creature from Detroit: the first intermediate-sized car from the Big Three. Sure, Ramblers of the times were essentially mid-sized cars, and perhaps the Studebaker Lark should best be considered one too. And it was the remarkable success of the Ramblers that undoubtedly inspired Ford to take the plunge with their new Fairlane.
But I hold a grudge against Ford’s decision; if they hadn’t made it in ’62, we’d have been riding in a full-size Ford for sure. Unless of course he had bought a Falcon…Nooo!
Keep in mind, this was just two years after Ford’s smash success with the Falcon. And just as the Falcon was the basis for the Mustang in 1964, so it also sired the Fairlane. In fact, it would be fair to say that the Fairlane was really just a stretched Falcon, the kind of thing done routinely nowadays.
And just to confuse matters even more, the 1960 Mercury Comet slotted in between the two in length, although it used the narrower width Falcon body, its wheelbase lengthened from 109.5″ to 114″. The Fairlane added another 1.5″ to the wheelbase, and had a bit of extra width. But the Fairlane and Comet sure did look mighty similar. That really kept me scratching my head back then; just what was the relationship of these three? Well, Ford was ahead of the times, and if you wonder where Lee Iacocca got his inspiration for endless variations and different lengths for all of those Chrysler K-cars, here it is. History inevitably repeats itself.
So why wasn’t I as excited as I could/should have been as a nine year old car fanatic when Dad shows up with the first brand new car ever? Let me count the ways, starting with the neighbors across the street. They had a matching brace of 1960 Bonnevilles snuggled up side-by-side in the driveway; a black hardtop sedan for him, and a navy blue wagon for her. I obsessed on them, and had my heart set on a set of 1962s for the Niedermeyer livery. The fact that the car-nut in the family wasn’t even consulted alone was hard enough to take, but that pattern was to repeat itself endlessly, except for two notable exceptions.
Given the fact that we weren’t exactly a touchy-feely sort of family, I definitely had my eye on a wagon with a third seat for a little elbow room. In 1962, my sister was fourteen, my older brother twelve, and my younger brother three. The painful reality is that the Fairlane is roughly about the size of today’s Civic or Corolla. Extended skin contact with siblings was not my idea of how to spend two days straight on our vacation trips to Colorado. And before I forget, nobody ever rode in the front middle. That meant four in the back, along with the fifth-soon-to be; we had to do skin contact; he didn’t.
Our Fairlane was utterly stripped of any excess ornamentation, worthy of taxi-cab service. But in my father’s eye, the cheap seat upholstery was something to be well preserved, so he ordered a set of clear plastic seat covers from Fingerhut, the perfectly smooth ones, not the more expensive ones with raised bumps on them to create channels to drain the rivulets of sweat away. No, that would have been extravagant. We literally had to peel our thighs off those seats in the summer, given the short shorts of the era.
That Christmas, my present was a new wrist watch. After a few weeks, my skin underneath it started turning greenish-blue, like the verdi gris of weathered copper. And the back of the watch was all tarnished. As was his role in my life, my older brother clued me in: the el-cheapo watch was a free spiff from Fingerhut for having bought that set of plastic seat covers. As if I needed another reminder of the old man’s thrifty ways.
It gets worse. My dear father’s quirks were about as outsized as his talents. He had a severe issue with drafts, especially around his neck. And he was always cold; rarely would you see him without a cardigan (or two), even in the summer. So only the front windows were allowed to be opened a tiny crack, even on the hottest summer days. The back windows: rolled all the way shut, least some turbulence be created. Air conditioning? What’s that? So that’s how we spent two days each way driving to Colorado every summer, and on other trips. But it gets worse yet!
In 1964, we were all almost three years older and much bigger, and my mother was seven months pregnant, and we all crammed in for a three day torture session to the New York World’s Fair, a blistering sunburn on a Long Island beach, and then back again. If a child was forced today to endure what we did on that trip, jammed into that hot black Fairlane and the resulting expressions of emotions it engendered, particularly my father, the Child Protective Services would have cut that trip well short, somewhere in Ohio at a gas station, I’d say. Father, somehow I still found love for you , despite the miserable cramped black Fairlane you tortured us/yourself with. Didn’t you know you could buy a full-sized wagon for just a few hundred dollars more? Maybe a year-old one even, given your thrift.
He finally (almost) tumbled to that in 1965, when the Fairlane was traded in on a 1965 Dodge Coronet eight-seat wagon; technically still a mid-sized car, but a huge improvement. Since its arrival roughly coincided with my sister’s departure from the family fold, skin contact issues took a huge step forward. Kids today have no idea what we endured back then. And kids in the Depression would undoubtedly have thought us to be spoiled babies. And so on…
Enough Niedermeyer family carma. The 1962 Fairlane had a good debut, but not anywhere near the success that the 1960 Falcon had been. But then that was a monster, selling almost a half million in its first year. Nevertheless, it was another coup for Ford in its ability to expand at the expense of GM in the early-mid sixties, by expanding into niches that hadn’t been exploited fully yet. But when GM unleashed its A-Body assault in 1964, the Fairlane quickly became a runner-up.
Undoubtedly, the Fairlane was developed and built on the cheap, given its Falcon bones. The only noteworthy thing was its premiere of Ford’s brand new small-block Windsor V8. Why the hell Ford chose to build it in a tiny 221 cubic inch (3.6 L) version, with a modest 145 (gross) hp is hard to fathom. By mid-year, the larger 260 CID version already debuted as an option. And a year and a half later, the definitive 289 replaced them all. Ford liked to keep the boring machines guessing.
The little 221 was a smooth and tidy mill, but it was no more powerful than the Chevy 230 or the Chrysler 225 slant sixes, and because it had eight small cylinders, it intrinsically had a less favorable torque curve. After 1963, the 221 inch V8 was gone; an oddity of Ford history. But the fact that our stripper Fairlane at least had the little V8 was its redeeming grace. That badge on the front fender meant more to my self esteem during that difficult period in my life than my father will ever know. I might not be who I am today because of it. Thanks, Dad!
My sister used to come to pick me up from grade school every Wednesday to drive me and a friend to the all-city orchestra rehearsal. On the one slightly longer stretch of road near the school we would goad her to floor it. She obliged, but we had to floor and kick-down our imaginations to experience some sort of actual visceral accelerative sensations. With the two-speed Ford-O-Matic, the little V8 whispered rather than bellowed its efforts to accelerate the fairly light 2800 lb sedan.
The Fairlane may have tortured us on long trips, but it never complained. It served its three years faithfully, and the seats were still like new under the clear plastic seat covers. Not that it made a difference at trade-in time; bargaining was not one of Pop’s talents either.
This forlorn Fairlane 500 sat in front of an old house near downtown, owned by a couple of young sisters who live in the upstairs apartment. I know this because it had a For Sale sign on it, and I talked to the guy who lives below them. He was tired of looking at it, and told me that they would probably take anything for it, since the next stop is the junk yard if no one steps up. He encouraged me, eager to rid himself of the eyesore.
I thought about it briefly, but then I remembered that other saying: you can’t go home again. And even if I could, I’m not so sure I’d want to.