1973 FORD FAIRMONT COUPE
AN AVIATOR’S CHOICE
JACK FLEMING HAD BEEN A WORLD WAR II LANCASTER PILOT AND, IN 1973, RETIRED FROM HIS BLENHEIM-BASED JOB AS CAPTAIN FOR SAFE AIR. ALL THOSE ADVENTURES, ALL THOSE HOURS OF FLYING WERE FINALLY REWARDED…
During the war, Jack had sat at the controls of those very large aircraft listening to, and always dependent on, the Merlin’s combined 48 cylinders firing away in a very powerful and comforting rhythm. This had given him a love and understanding for the engineering involved. At the end of each risky sortie, he appreciated the fact that the reliability and energy of those massive engines had powered him and his crew safely out and back over enemy territory. Later, after returning to New Zealand, the huge radial engines of his Bristol Freighters only reinforced those feelings.
So, with retirement came a present for himself.
Jack’s son Tim well remembers the day when the selection was made. The coolest dad in town had considered a Valiant Charger, a Holden Monaro, and the Ford Fairmont Coupe. The deal clincher was the Ford’s T-bar shifter, with indicator lights that moved up and down with the selector.
Jack, still a fan of large displacement and multiple cylinders, had chosen the 302 option, with 4.9 litres of Australianmade V8. This produced 179kw (240bhp), plenty for a family car of that era.
The brakes even had a badge on the pedal to remind the user they were ‘power-assisted brakes’ — in 1973 not every car had front disc brakes.
After paying Ted Lucas of Lucas Bros, Blenheim’s Ford dealer, the sum of $5200, the family was the proud owner of a new Ford Fairmont Coupe featuring a brown vinyl interior set off by metallic green exterior. Sometimes the car stylists did
“The coolest dad in town had considered a Valiant Charger, a Holden Monaro, and the Ford Fairmont Coupe”
struggle to get it right.
That purchase price seems incredibly low by today’s standards, and research shows that, for four times that amount, you could buy a very reasonable house in the same area at the time. Nowadays, I guess most Aucklanders can only dream of that comparison. Realistically, it means a car of this level was worth a quarter of the value of your house. But to fill the fuel tank back then seems to have been ridiculously cheap. At the beginning of 1973, petrol was still so cheap that even the Fairmont could be filled for about six dollars.
While the choice of brown vinyl as an interior must be blamed on the Ford stylists, other items were beyond the control of manufacturers, even those as grand as Ford. How was it to know that Egypt and Syria would go to war against Israel? When the dust-up had settled, the world had to get used to much higher oil prices. The results were farreaching, and, that year, crude prices jumped from US$3 to US$20 a barrel. Chrysler and the other US manufacturers were forced to close plants, and more than 100,000 US auto workers lost their jobs.
Here in New Zealand, car dealers were trying to sell machines that, for a while, could only be driven on alternate days. Suddenly, large cars — especially those powered by big V8s — were falling out of fashion more quickly than flared trousers and shoulder pads. But even in these difficult circumstances, Ford Australia managed to manufacture and sell almost 130,000 XA Falcons.
Ford fights back
It was way back in 1960 that Ford Australia had begun Falcon production. It had been losing the sales contest to Holden, and, rather than tackle this race head on with the British Zephyrs, Zodiacs, and Consuls, Ford Australia eventually looked to North America. It found what would become the 1960 XK Falcon, an almost 100-per-cent Us-engineered car.
Ford Australia executives and engineers were actually reworking the British Zephyr in Detroit, and they weren’t keen on the product they were creating when they found the neat and clean XK Falcon, a smartlooking model with a 2.6-litre overheadvalve motor that produced 67kw and would propel the car to 140kph, 10kph more than the competing Holden! The Great Race surely started there.
Australia proved to be too rough and tough on these cars. Parts of the XK simply could not stand up to the harsh Aussie environment. The suspension particularly didn’t enjoy Australian roads, and, of necessity, from then on, Falcons were reengineered until they became as Aussie as a Vegemite sandwich.
In 1971, Ford introduced the XA, which was its first virtually fully locally designed model. The XA Falcon was at first available in sedan, ute, and panel-van variants before the two-door hardtop coupé model was launched. This used the wider frameless doors from the panel van and ute, and specially created rear and boot panels.
Remember that, at this stage on the other side of the world, British Leyland was continuing its tradition of launching lemons with the release of the Austin Allegro and similar, but, down in Australia, Ford — with, admittedly, a bit of help from Ford US — had reworked the Falcon and launched the all-australian XA Falcon. Among its variants was the spectacular Fairmont Coupe (our featured car). It used the floorpan and various panels from other Falcons, and, with great fanfare, this large grand tourer was released onto the market.
The car even used an Australian-built motor. Ford had been manufacturing its six-cylinder engines, but, for the first time, it began also installing Australian-built rather than Us-import V8s into its cars. The 12-slot steel wheels gave the model an aggressive appearance — a look that is amplified on our featured car with staggered rear wheels, wider than the fronts.
The Ford factory racing team that year, 1973, won Australia’s great race with Allan Moffat and Ian Geoghegan in a car that at least looked like this one, and Ford and General Motors’ (GM) plan to win and Sunday and sell on Monday certainly worked in this case.
The marketing plan to sell off the back of race success was well founded, but it also had a bittersweet side. The development of these cars was popular with the public, but the new world of high petrol prices and suddenly an awareness that oil was a finite resource,
“In 1971, Ford introduced the XA, which was its first virtually fully locally designed model”
coupled with the idea that these high-powered cars could be deemed unsafe, led the Australian Government to introduce legislation that effectively banned the very powerful variants of the GM and Ford products.
As young Tim Fleming grew up, the family car was much more Led Zeppelin than it was Pink Floyd. Electronica was coming — after all, 1973 saw the invention of the barcode and fibre optic — but this car still hammered out a song supported by the thunderous drumming of that V8. Tim’s affair of the heart with the Falcon was building, as he learned to drive and passed his driving licence behind the wheel of the Beast. The day he passed that test, he was handed the keys and sent in to town to buy eggs and milk. It’s great the things one remembers from those very early independent drives. He borrowed it at times during his teenage years. After several ‘outings’, Jack noticed the white pipe, and commented on that as a way of asking young Tim to slow it down a bit.
Jack used his understanding of the mechanics of the car’s V8 heart to keep it running very sweetly, and, to this day, that is all being extremely well conserved and preserved.
Young Tim grew older and followed his father’s footsteps into the aviation industry. After working as an airline pilot, he now sits at the controls of either a helicopter or a corporate jet by day, and the Falcon has become one of his land-based transports. I guess the multi-cylinder analogy has now gone, as corporate jets and helicopters fly with a whine rather than the hammering of largedisplacement multi-cylinder engines. It’s the emotional attachment that is so strong.
Twenty years ago, he bought the coupé from his father, and the affair of the heart kind of reached its consummation — well, sort of. Since then, the car has been used as a regular drive, although, for the past while, it has been housed at International Motorsport in Auckland, where Nick Williamson and his team have almost finished a complete nut-and-bolt makeover. This has included a complete repaint of the engine and interior on out. The original Tropicana Green was ditched in favour of Emerald Fire — another, but more tasteful, metallic green. This and the replacement wheels give the car a very purposeful look.
Click the bonnet open and the view is equally impressive. In 1973, the motor was not hidden beneath
“Click the bonnet open and the view is equally impressive”
a plastic shroud almost as big as the bonnet as engines often are today. The complete heart and lungs are there to be admired, all gleaming stainless steel, aluminium, and rubber. It looks very meaningful and almost primeval, and gives the impression that those 240 horses are real, with real muscles, lots of snot, and gristle.
This doesn’t mean, though, that Tim has slavishly restored the coupé to its original condition. All the important bits are still there, but the style-less vinyl interior has been replaced with beautiful black leather. This interior is impeccable, and the knittingneedle-fine three-spoke steering wheel, while old fashioned, is a beautiful way of reminding anyone behind the wheel that this is a piece of automotive history.
The classic T-bar shifter is still there, and I’m sure a complete generation of young (and less young) men have visualized themselves casually reaching out, pushing the radio buttons, and then pulling that very masculine lever back into the D-slot before rumbling (or roaring) off down that blacktop.
From a time when Concorde flew for the first time, Skylab was launched, and Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match, Tim’s XA is now worth maybe 20 times what was paid for it 47 years ago (the prize money in that match was US$100K), and it stands as a wonderful symbol to the time Australia made its very own cars.
The factories in Melbourne (and New Zealand) now sit silent. Ford manufactured cars in Australia for 92 years, the Falcon for 57 of those. This makes the Falcon badge the longest-running car badge in Australian manufacturing history. That’s a record it will likely hold forever.
More than 3.7 million Falcons were sold over those years, most of those in Australia, but export markets in South Africa and New Zealand were always a part of the Falcon story as well.
Today, certain models stand out as reminders of an already fading era. The XK, that first Falcon, was a nice clean car that looked as if it went better than it did. Australian roads shook its suspension to bits, but it set Ford on the road to eventually building the Falcon into the brand it became.
Twelve years after the launch of the first XK, the world had changed and so had the Falcon. Tim’s Fairmont Coupe is a wonderful reminder that Ford Australia began designing and engineering its own cars and of the wonderful job it did of that. Now, Tim owns a reminder of both his past and Australian car history. Following that, there were some successful — and, certainly, some less successful — Australian Fords, but, both good and bad, they were local Fords. Today, car buyers once again have the choice of Ford; GM; or various other European, US, and Asian manufacturer products, just as they did almost 100 years ago. The difference now, though, is that, once again, their vehicle will not have been manufactured in this part of the world. Proof of that adage, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.