Article originally published on April 4, 2008
It’s not often that we test drive a car just out of production, but we thought after 48 years and 275,000 sales it was worth taking one last look in the rear view mirror of the Ford Fairlane.
Named after company founder Henry Ford’s family estate in Dearborn, Fair Lane, it was one of the oldest nameplates in the Ford world – even older than the Falcon.
The Fairlane name has been on Australian roads since 1959 but the first models sold were imported from North America.
Local production of the Fairlane began on February 27, 1967, and continued until 7:31 a.m. on January 25, 2008, when the last rolled off the Ford line at Broadmeadows.
Unfortunately, the Fairlane will probably be missed by no one but politicians and rental car drivers. More than nine out of 10 Fairlanes sold went to a government, fleet or rental car buyer.
Early Fairlanes were a crude way to charge more for a Falcon by simply adding more sheet metal to the front and rear of the car. It didn’t cost much more to build than a Falcon, but Ford could charge a lot more because it was marketed as a luxury vehicle.
At the time, it was such a successful formula that Holden copied the idea. In 1968 Holden added a larger boot to the then Kingswood and created a rival Fairlane.
Interestingly, even though Ford came up with the concept, it’s the Holden that survives today in the form of the Statesman. But the only reason the Statesman is still in showrooms is because of an export deal Holden made eight years ago.
Holden now exports more than five times as many Statesmans to the Middle East as it sells locally. Indeed, it may have accelerated the demise of the Fairlane. Holden could afford to invest more and build a better car, outfit it with more luxury and safety features, because it could sell more Statesman through the export deal.
The Fairlane formula has changed over the past 48 years; the difference between the Fairlane and the Falcon on which it was based gradually widened or, to be precise, lengthened.
Ford stretched the floor of the Falcon between the front and rear wheels to create more space in the cabin. Again, this was a relatively cheap way to charge a nice premium. Once again Holden copied the idea.
The Fairlane may have started out as a crude way to make more money, but ended up being a crude way to lose a lot of money. Ford Australia kept the Fairlane alive well past its sell-by date in the hopes that something could be done to reduce sales.
In the end, only 10,086 Fairlanes were sold in the past five years. When you consider that the automotive media was hounding Mitsubishi for selling 11,000 of its 380 sedans in a year, that puts Fairlane’s dire situation in context.
Not that the media completely ignored the Fairlane’s long, slow death. At his monthly industry briefings, then-Ford Australia boss Tom Gorman regularly fielded questions from curious minds, including my own.
Gorman became adept at avoiding the question, coming back with long, convoluted answers or turning it into a joke: “Why, you want to buy one?”
Trying to assess Gorman if a Fairlane was planned for the next-generation Falcon, I asked him if the wagon’s rear door design had been “locked down.” An example of how automakers are cutting costs, the Falcon wagon has been sharing its rear doors with the Fairlane for at least 20 years (and possibly more).
This explains why they look clunky on Falcon wagons (the window lines on the back don’t line up with the window lines on top of the doors) but look neat on a Fairlane.
Gorman’s response: “You’ll love the doors on the new wagon.”
We now know why he said it with a smile: the “new” car is identical to the old one. Ford will sell the old wagon alongside the new Falcon sedan.
In the end, I tried to corner Gorman by asking him how many headlights Ford had ordered for the current Fairlane production batch. The latest models of Fairlane headlights are the same as the Falcon’s but have chrome trim that sits under each – an example of the subtle touches automakers use to charge more money for a car.
Gorman’s response was invaluable. Straightforwardly, he said, “Two per car.”
But the inevitable caught up with Ford after 10 years of declining sales. In May last year the company announced that it would cease production of the Fairlane, but it had known for some time that there would be no Fairlane when the next generation Falcon arrived in mid-2008 After all, she hadn’t designed all the new rear doors.
At the press conference, Gorman said he was “saddened” to make the announcement but it was “an inevitable decision.”
“Each of our brands is like a child in your family and what you want for your children, you want with your brands,” he said. “But not acknowledging the change is equally irresponsible. It’s the right decision, even if it’s an emotional and difficult decision.”
Fairlane sales fell more sharply after the release of the new Statesman in August 2006 and the flash-looking Chrysler 300C arrived in October 2005. He was in a hurry from all angles.
In order to allow journalists to rediscover the Fairlane for its farewell, Ford has made the penultimate Fairlane available for testing. It featured a hearty 5.4-litre V8, six-speed automatic transmission, optional DVD sat-nav, 17-inch alloy wheels and tan leather upholstery. .
With options, he had an RRP of $67,825, a ridiculously high price that the buyers clearly refused to pay. Even the last-built Fairlane, no doubt a historic model, fetched just $48,100 at an online charity auction in March.
Having not driven one in years, I was really surprised by the ride quality of the Fairlane. Its tires were quiet at cruise speeds, the ride was comfortable, and there was plenty of room in the backseat. With the six-speed auto, the V8 was relatively fuel efficient.
But attempts to spruce up the dash (and make it look different from a Falcon), like faux brushed-alloy instruments and glossy black plastics, seemed to suck.
The Fairlane received stability control in October 2005, but no curtain airbags. Usually, luxury cars are the first to have such features, but the Fairlane didn’t get them as it was nearing the end of its life.
There was nothing inherently wrong with the Fairlane except that no one ever paid full price for it. Heavy fleet discounts meant the car could be sold for less as a used car. Anyone unfortunate enough to have retailed a hemorrhagic Fairlane at resale value. Cars have a knack for establishing their true worth – and few appreciated the extra space or old-man image of the Fairlane.
The Fairlane badge could return on a new model in 2012. Ford Australia is currently working with Ford US on sharing a great car for both markets.
“We have no immediate plans to [re-introduce the Fairlane name] but I’ve learned to never say never and never say always,” Gorman said. “I think [there’s a possibility it might] back as part of a wider global rear-wheel drive strategy, but there’s nothing confirmed to my knowledge at this stage.”
Prices from $58,625.
Country of origin Australia.
4.0 liter six-cylinder engine (190 kW/383 Nm) or 5.4 liter V8 (230 kW/500 Nm).
Weight 1775kg to 1850kg.
Six-speed automatic transmission.
Consumption and emissions 10.4L/100km and 248g/km (six), 13.3L/100km, 316g/km (V8).
Safety Dual airbags and front seat-mounted side airbags are standard, but the Fairlane did not gain stability control until October 2005. Head-protecting curtain airbags unavailable. Not tested by NCAP, but it’s fair to assume it would have had a similar four star result as the Falcon as it has the same structure up front.
The Fairlane nameplate never made a return to Australia, despite hints from Gorman that a platform saloon from Ford’s global stable might make its way down.
Sales of Fairlane (and its more lavish sibling LTD) continued to sink through the rest of 2008 (Ford sold 114 Fairlanes and only two LTDs in 2008) giving rival Holden a shot in the arm which continued to sell Statesman ( 1804) and Caprice (1641) in acceptable numbers.
Ford Fairlane disappeared entirely from Blue Oval dealerships in August 2009 when the last of 13 cars sold that year found a new home, ending a historic nameplate that began life in September 1959 when Ford Australia began to assembling American-designed Ford Fairlanes. in the form of knock-down kits from Ford of Canada.
Fairlane’s donor car, the Ford Falcon, lived on until 2016, when Ford Australia pulled stumps from local manufacturing, signaling the end of an era that began with the first Australian-built Ford Model T which is rolled off the Geelong production line of Blue Oval in 1925. .