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

(first posted 1/11/2018)       For years, and most particularly after the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973, American car enthusiast magazines had been clamoring for Detroit to build more internationally-oriented designs, with pragmatic space utilization and good economy.  For mid-sized cars, the buff books called for U.S.-made versions of the ultra-practical Volvo.  For 1978, Ford Motor Company acted on the input and introduced the first cars to ride on the new Fox platform: the Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr.  Car and Driver, Road Test Magazine and Motor Trend each spent plenty of time behind the wheel of the new compacts—did Ford deliver on the brief?

The new Fairmont/Zephyr replaced the old Maverick/Comet once and for all.  Ford had intended to update the Maverick/Comet for 1975 with the Granada/Monarch (both still based on the old Falcon platform from 1960).  However, due to the ’73 Oil Crisis, FoMoCo opted to keep the Maverick/Comet in production as “entry-level” compacts while the Granada/Monarch were positioned as more upscale “international-sized” cars.  Buyers liked the strategy, but the U.S. buff books didn’t, and the “mini-LTD/Marquis” Granada/Monarch were critiqued for emphasizing style over substance.  But all that changed for 1978.

Car and Driver was quite enthused with the new arrival, hailing the Fairmont as a triumph of the engineers over the stylists.  Nothing truer was ever uttered.  Ford’s own research indicated that the new car was low scoring on “youthful sporty appeal.”  Hidden under the ultra-conservative sheet metal and plain interior was a decent driving car, with excellent space utilization and great visibility.  Even by 1978 standards, however, the car was utterly conventional, with carryover power trains, rear-wheel drive and a live-axle rear suspension.  The Fairmont was also still far behind global automotive best practices—the European Ford Granada had been offering standard fully-independent 4-wheel suspension and available fuel injection for years, neither of which was available on the new Fox-body cars in 1978.

Undoubtedly one of the reasons Car and Driver liked the new Fairmont so much was that the test car carried the 302 2V V8, giving the lightweight car good performance (especially in the context of the times).  However, based on the Fairmont/Zephyr’s positioning as economy transportation, the majority of cars were fitted with one of the smaller engines.  So how were those to drive?

Road Test Magazine reviewed an extremely basic Fairmont 2-door sedan with the 140 cubic inch 2-barrel 4-cylinder and 4-speed manual transmission.

This Fairmont 2-door was about as plain Jane as they came in 1978.  The utilitarian vibe carried throughout the car, from the spartan interior (buckets were required with the 4-speed, but they didn’t recline), minimal instrumentation and chintzy trim to the minimally adorned exterior with dog dish hubcaps and trim rings.  Road Test found the car to be fun in a “nothing-more-than-bare-necessities” kind of way, but this was not a car to fire up the masses.

The volume car of the new Fairmont/Zephyr range was actually the 4-door sedan with the tried-and-true 200 cid 1V inline 6-cylinder.  Motor Trend sampled a Mercury version with this set-up, taking a Zephyr on a cross-country trek from Kansas City (where it was built) to Los Angeles (where MT was based).

Like Car and Driver and Road Test, Motor Trend found a lot to like about the new, functional Ford.  Whoops, Mercury.  Here was another example of bare minimum brand differentiation between Ford and Mercury small cars.  Most people likely couldn’t tell the two apart without reading the badges.  In no way was the Zephyr better or more upscale than the Fairmont, and as such represented yet another nail in the coffin of the Mercury brand.

This benign sedan with a workhorse 6-cylinder really embodies the Fairmont/Zephyr that folks remember (or actually don’t, since the cars were so forgettable).  I had just turned 11 when these came out, and I thought they were about the dullest cars I’d ever seen.  Plus, they always seemed to be the base-trimmed versions painted in one of the truly boring non-metallic colors Ford used back then, including the bizarre orangey-beige “Light Chamois.”

I’d bet 90% of the Fairmonts in New Orleans were either White or Light Chamois or Creme, with nothing more than the plain full wheel covers, if the buyer was feeling really saucy.

So, at the end of the day, could the Fairmont/Zephyr be considered American iterations of the Volvo?  Not really….  At least Volvos, no matter how boxy and non-descript their styling, carried that elusive import mystique.  One could always imagine a Volvo, brimming with beautiful blondes, bombing down a frosty road, ever alert for elk, on their way to a Scandinavian soiree.  And there was also the distinct imagery of American Volvo buyers: tenured professors, smugly satisfied that their Swedish sled was “smarter” than a comparably priced Olds Delta 88.

The square Fairmont/Zephyr, by contrast, just screamed dull and cheap, driven by Seventies goobers trying to play tennis, skinflints and retirees, or by people who were assigned them, like government workers, traveling salespeople, car renters….  Practical, logical, cost effective?  Absolutely.  But in no way enticing, interesting or inspirational.

Over time, Ford would pay the price for such a boring design.  Out of the gate in 1978, Fairmont/Zephyr sales were strong, with 460,981 and 152, 172 sold, respectively.  But the results tailed off from there, and by the end of its 5-year run, the Fairmont/Zephyr was barely limping along, challenged by the headwinds of more interesting and more modern compact offerings.

Even the much-maligned “shrunken LTD/pseudo-Mercedes” Granada/Monarch proved to be more successful over time.  For the 5 years that the 1st generation Granada/Monarch (based on the ancient Falcon platform) was sold, total sales actually exceeded the 5-year sales totals for the Fox-based Fairmont/Zephyr.  Plus, the Granada/Monarch only came in 2-door and 4-door sedan models, while Fairmont/Zephyr also offered a wagon and a specially styled “sporty” 2-door (Futura/Z7).  So while the buff books may have loved the quasi-European and wholly pragmatic Fairmont/Zephyr, American buyers still weren’t fully weaned from American styling cues in a more rationally sized package.

Thankfully, Ford would soon snap out of the frump funk as embodied by the Fairmont/Zephyr.  The competent Fox platform would underpin other successful products including the ’79 Mustang/Capri and ’83 aero Thunderbird/Cougar.  And Ford shed the T-square for the wind tunnel, and became an American aero pioneer in the 1980s, leaving the boring, boxy Fairmont/Zephyr in the rearview mirror, just like car buyers did.

Additional Reading:

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

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