1973 FORD FAIR­MONT COUPE

AN AVI­A­TOR’S CHOICE

New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents - Words: Terry Cob­ham Photos: Adam Croy

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.

Fi­nal choice

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.

Thun­der­ous drum­ming

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.

Avi­a­tor

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.

Won­der­ful sym­bol

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’.

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