Vintage Road & Track Review: 1978 Mercury Zephyr-Ford Fairmont – A Boxy New Dawn

Everything remains the same until it doesn’t. Detroit’s Brougham era had gone undisturbed for a good number of years, guided by the wider and longer mantra. And while Detroit had a few products that bucked that trend, it was mostly business as usual. Then, it all was upended in a few years. Without that context, it’s hard to understand the automotive press’ excitement with Ford’s new 1978 Mercury Zephyr/Ford Fairmont duo. But excitement there was, for a car that was as plain and honest as could be.

Granted, it took the ’70s hellish mix of inflation, energy crisis, and regulations for Ford (and Detroit) to quicken change. But amongst the pundits, there had been worries since the mid-60s about Detroit’s future. Import sales had been steadily increasing, and it seemed Detroit was ignoring automotive trends happening elsewhere at its peril. The arrival of Ford’s new Fox platform twins was a sign the company wasn’t blind to those changes and that Detroit could adapt to world tendencies. There lies the relevance and hype around the Fairmont and Zephyr twins.

After the style-over-substance Brougham era, what made the Zephyr/Fairmont special was the way they had been designed and developed. As a comparison, GM’s new downsized A-Bodies were reviewed in the same R&T issue, which they found to be the same old stuff, just shrunken in size. Successful but utterly conventional. Meanwhile, the Fox body twins incorporated many of the traits of the imports, adapted to American consumption; a light unibody platform, a compliant and responsive chassis, and a space-efficient passenger-oriented package. The clean flanks and styling were modern and efficient, if dull. Honest could be another way of describing it.

R&T’s Technical Analysis is indeed extensive, going deeply into the technology behind the new models. Computer modeling was used on the unibody’s development, with plenty of wind testing to achieve good fuel mileage and a quiet interior. McPherson struts found their first use on a domestic, attuned to American needs (mainly, to handle the additional weight of an 8 cyl.). Passenger capacity, comfort, and an airy cabin were also among the project’s main objectives, and the Fox platform fulfilled them. With caveats, R&T did some road testing of the pre-production models and found they didn’t handle like any previous domestic-built Ford. Not sporty by any means, but “a large cut above the usual softly sprung, underdamped, ponderously steering American sedan.”

Not all R&T saw was positive though; if a buyer chose a 4-cyl. stripper, it was going to be a spartan and unfulfilling experience. And while the interior was very effective in keeping passengers comfy, its ambiance was close to that “of a taxi.” Part of the penalty of offering the models as low-cost as possible. Finally, in terms of hardware, there were no novelties; engines and drivetrains were known Ford quantities. This was just as well; there was only so much Ford could afford and risk to change at once.

In resume, the Zephyr/Fairmont twins were a stepping stone towards more groundbreaking products. A few elements were missing, but Ford was on solid footing towards its golden Aero ’80s era.


Further reading:

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

Curbside Classic: 1978 Ford Fairmont – The Ur-Fox

Vintage Review: 1978 Ford Fairmont/Mercury Zephyr – Functional But Flavorless

Curbside Outtake: 1978-83 Mercury Zephyr – That Very Rare Clean Design