///The Ford Fairmont Project

The Ford Fairmont Project

Like starcrossed lovers, I shared a dozen year on again, off again love/hate relationship with my old 1983 Ford Fairmont Futura project. In 2012 I finally got the Fairmont mostly together, registered it, and put a few street miles on the car before taking it to NCCAR for a shakedown run.

A late night pre-event thrash the evening prior to the car’s debut event culminated in me walking home at midnight, abandoning the Fairmont in the Wal-Mart parking lot with a hot start issue. I had noted coolant temps creeping north sitting in traffic earlier in the week, and part of my last minute preparations included the installation of a Spectre fan shroud. It clearly did not make the difference I’d hoped for. I walked home to get my truck, tow dolly, and some tools, dragged the car home to cool off and packed it up for a 5am departure, now less than four hours later.

The Fairmont ran well on the two hour ride to the track, though I was afraid heat soak would leave me stranded stopping for gas so I left it running for a quick fill up. After event registration and tech I pulled out my tool bag and an electric fan I’d snagged from my parts pile before leaving, and wired it up with the help of Brannen Cunningham, the guy pitting next to me. The temp gauge did nudge over 220 degrees while waiting in staging, but the electric fan kept enough air moving through the radiator to prevent the car from overheating. Not too bad considering it was nearly 90 degrees and the sun was brutal. So brutal in fact, my iPhone overheated inside the car while trying to take some dashcam video.

The car felt ok during the first heat. The timing equipment malfunctioned on my first lap and failed to record my time. The second lap was a 1:30, which I managed to drop to a 1:26 by the end of the session. Not stellar times considering the fastest lap put down in the morning was a 1:03, but it had been some time since I’d been track, the car was unsorted, and I was having some trouble finding a good line through the back end of the track. Unfortunately that was not my biggest problem. The car began smoking on the second run, and it got progressively worse with each additional lap.

A break in between sessions gave me some time to isolate the problem. The aftermarket valve covers I had installed on the five liter did not have baffles and the sustained high speed, high rpm cornering was pushing oil up through the breather and spraying it on the hot exhaust, leaving a smoke screen like the car from Spy Hunter. Rather than risk spraying the track with oil and delaying the rest of the drivers, I packed it up for the day. Fortunately there would be opportunities for future track days.

The Fairmont was never intended to be a race car. I don’t mean that from the perspective of it starting life as a straight six powered bench seat coupe carrying Grandma to church. I mean I didn’t initially intend for mine to be a race car. In the summer of 2000 my daily driver was a white 1966 Galaxie 500 with a 390 under the hood. It was a pretty solid car, but the time had come for it to get some major attention. The engine was beginning to smoke, it needed brakes, and the front end was one enthusiastically driven exit ramp away from scattering all over the highway.

I originally bought the Fairmont with the intention of making it a daily driver while I took the Galaxie off the road for a proper restomodification. I paid a hundred and fifty bucks for it off the trade line of a shifty buy here pay here dealer, with the knowledge it would need a transmission. I picked up a good used C4 for another Ben Franklin and my then girlfriend (now wife) crawled under the car with me to embark on my first transmission swap.

The C4 swap was a success, but a few weeks later the 200 cubic inch six choked on its head gasket and overheated, warping the head. Not wanting to put an engine in the car too, and with two unreliable cars making it difficult to get to work I made the painful decision to trade the Galaxie in on a new truck. The Fairmont sat in front of my condo with For Sale signs on it until the condo association threatened to impound it and charge me fees. So I hitched it up to my brand new black Dodge Dakota and towed it out to the Virginia countryside, where it was more or less laid to rest in my buddy’s farm field.

Two years later I’d left the condo behind for a house with a proper detached garage. Short on funds, but full of ambition I brought the Fairmont home to build into a drag car. I quickly figured out that Ford doesn’t make drivetrain swaps easy and I was soon in over my head, learning as I went. During this time I was also nurturing a new business, Octane Magazine, a regional motorsports publication. I naively thought owning and running an automotive business would give me more time and access to work on my automotive projects. Instead, I spent most of my time watching and writing about other people’s projects.

The Fairmont spent a lot of time collecting dust in the garage, but would occasionally get some attention in conjunction with an Octane Magazine article or project. One of the first big projects ended up being paint. I initially intended to attempt painting the car myself, but I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. Octane Magazine was gaining momentum and advertisers were beginning to show interest in being involved with the magazine project car. One of the body shops I worked with wanted to paint the car in exchange for coverage in the magazine, a win-win.

I hitched the Fairmont back up to my Dakota and dropped it off at the shop along with a clean trunk lid I scored from a parts car to replace the only rusty panel on the car. I left instructions to stick with a two tone paint job – silver on top, charcoal gray on the bottom, with a black pinstripe separating the colors. The next few weeks dragged by waiting for the call to pick up my fresh ride.

The reunion was a lesson in trust, project management, and getting what you pay for. The car was two tone and silver on top, but with a dark purple bottom split with gold and orange pinstripes. Adding to the half ass job the orange stripe was painted on, but the gold stripe was unevenly applied tape. As it turns out, the painter realized after the car was prepped and half painted that he had no charcoal or black paint, so he used up the leftover cans in the shop. Awesome. Not only were the colors horrible, it was a ten foot paint job at best. If you looked closely the car appeared to have been wet sanded with a brick.

 

 

The Fairmont ran well on the two hour ride to the track, though I was afraid heat soak would leave me stranded stopping for gas so I left it running for a quick fill up. After event registration and tech I pulled out my tool bag and an electric fan I’d snagged from my parts pile before leaving, and wired it up with the help of Brannen Cunningham, the guy pitting next to me. The temp gauge did nudge over 220 degrees while waiting in staging, but the electric fan kept enough air moving through the radiator to prevent the car from overheating. Not too bad considering it was nearly 90 degrees and the sun was brutal. So brutal in fact, my iPhone overheated inside the car while trying to take some dashcam video.

The car felt ok during the first heat. The timing equipment malfunctioned on my first lap and failed to record my time. The second lap was a 1:30, which I managed to drop to a 1:26 by the end of the session. Not stellar times considering the fastest lap put down in the morning was a 1:03, but it had been some time since I’d been track, the car was unsorted, and I was having some trouble finding a good line through the back end of the track. Unfortunately that was not my biggest problem. The car began smoking on the second run, and it got progressively worse with each additional lap.

A break in between sessions gave me some time to isolate the problem. The aftermarket valve covers I had installed on the five liter did not have baffles and the sustained high speed, high rpm cornering was pushing oil up through the breather and spraying it on the hot exhaust, leaving a smoke screen like the car from Spy Hunter. Rather than risk spraying the track with oil and delaying the rest of the drivers, I packed it up for the day. Fortunately there would be opportunities for future track days.

The Fairmont was never intended to be a race car. I don’t mean that from the perspective of it starting life as a straight six powered bench seat coupe carrying Grandma to church. I mean I didn’t initially intend for mine to be a race car. In the summer of 2000 my daily driver was a white 1966 Galaxie 500 with a 390 under the hood. It was a pretty solid car, but the time had come for it to get some major attention. The engine was beginning to smoke, it needed brakes, and the front end was one enthusiastically driven exit ramp away from scattering all over the highway.

I originally bought the Fairmont with the intention of making it a daily driver while I took the Galaxie off the road for a proper restomodification. I paid a hundred and fifty bucks for it off the trade line of a shifty buy here pay here dealer, with the knowledge it would need a transmission. I picked up a good used C4 for another Ben Franklin and my then girlfriend (now wife) crawled under the car with me to embark on my first transmission swap.

The C4 swap was a success, but a few weeks later the 200 cubic inch six choked on its head gasket and overheated, warping the head. Not wanting to put an engine in the car too, and with two unreliable cars making it difficult to get to work I made the painful decision to trade the Galaxie in on a new truck. The Fairmont sat in front of my condo with For Sale signs on it until the condo association threatened to impound it and charge me fees. So I hitched it up to my brand new black Dodge Dakota and towed it out to the Virginia countryside, where it was more or less laid to rest in my buddy’s farm field.

 

 

Two years later I’d left the condo behind for a house with a proper detached garage. Short on funds, but full of ambition I brought the Fairmont home to build into a drag car. I quickly figured out that Ford doesn’t make drivetrain swaps easy and I was soon in over my head, learning as I went. During this time I was also nurturing a new business, Octane Magazine, a regional motorsports publication. I naively thought owning and running an automotive business would give me more time and access to work on my automotive projects. Instead, I spent most of my time watching and writing about other people’s projects.

The Fairmont spent a lot of time collecting dust in the garage, but would occasionally get some attention in conjunction with an Octane Magazine article or project. One of the first big projects ended up being paint. I initially intended to attempt painting the car myself, but I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. Octane Magazine was gaining momentum and advertisers were beginning to show interest in being involved with the magazine project car. One of the body shops I worked with wanted to paint the car in exchange for coverage in the magazine, a win-win.

I hitched the Fairmont back up to my Dakota and dropped it off at the shop along with a clean trunk lid I scored from a parts car to replace the only rusty panel on the car. I left instructions to stick with a two tone paint job – silver on top, charcoal gray on the bottom, with a black pinstripe separating the colors. The next few weeks dragged by waiting for the call to pick up my fresh ride.

The reunion was a lesson in trust, project management, and getting what you pay for. The car was two tone and silver on top, but with a dark purple bottom split with gold and orange pinstripes. Adding to the half ass job the orange stripe was painted on, but the gold stripe was unevenly applied tape. As it turns out, the painter realized after the car was prepped and half painted that he had no charcoal or black paint, so he used up the leftover cans in the shop. Awesome. Not only were the colors horrible, it was a ten foot paint job at best. If you looked closely the car appeared to have been wet sanded with a brick.

 

 

It gets better though. I was suspicious of the shop helper who stripped the car prior to paint. I found it odd that he took the door locks out but not the trunk lock. My suspicions would be confirmed months later when the bondo fell out and revealed my old rusty original trunk. Rumor has it the kid was a tweaker who owned a Fairmont. So, somewhere out there some guy is high as a kite driving a Fairmont with a super clean rust free trunk, and my car looked like a color blind eight-year-old painted it, spilled brake fluid on the trunk, and wiped it up with salt water. Not cool.

With fresh, albeit the wrong paint on the car it was time to prepare for a new drivetrain. All these years later I don’t remember exactly how I came to find out that a Ford small block will not just bolt into a car previously powered by a straight six, but I do recall it being an exasperating discovery. The realization that I would need to swap out the Fairmont’s six cylinder k-member for a V8 member elevated the project from a reasonably simple engine swap to somewhat of a bigger project. So I did my research, located a V8 k-member and control arms out of a 5.0 liter Mustang, and started taking things apart. It ended up being a pretty straightforward swap.

With a new k-member in place to hang the front end on I assembled the rest of the suspension with fresh ball joints and poly bushings, new KYB struts, and Ford Racing lowering springs. A Thunderbird Turbo Coupe gave up its heavy duty sway bar to wrap up the project. Incompatible k-members aside, the front suspension upgrades really are a simple project and factory performance parts from Fox body Mustangs and Thunderbirds give guys building oddball cars like the Fairmont a great parts bin to choose from. Looking back it’s crazy to think it took another decade for the car to run on its own power, but there were bigger challenges to come.

 

 

You might think after the body shop fiasco I’d be wary of trade deals. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well, shame on me. In my defense it was a different shop and a different project, but my desire to see the good in people blew up in my face again. After swapping the V8 k-member into the car I was eager to fill the engine bay. A local machine shop advertising in Octane Magazine had fallen behind on their ad bill and wanted to trade services to catch up. I picked up a 5.0 liter roller motor short block core in the magazine classifieds and dropped it off for a rebuild. The shop promised to return a fresh motor, including ported heads – their specialty. Weeks turned into months, and seeing that the shop was in financial trouble I figured it was time to play hardball. I got my engine back. Most of it, anyway.

All seemed ok when I got the small block home. The block and heads were freshly painted and I knew it had a fresh double roller timing chain because the timing cover was missing. It also had no oil pan, revealing a nice clean bottom end. With the help of a few buddies I accumulated the missing pieces and put it all together. Soon after, work and the stuff of life got in the way again. Though the small block was mounted in the new k-member, more than a year would pass before I got around to dropping a distributor in, wiring up the ignition, plumbing the fuel system, and making the necessary connections to actually run the engine.

When that day came I closed my eyes, crossed my fingers, and twisted the key. The engine fired, roared to life, ran for a minute and died. The starter would click and strain, but could not turn the motor over. I put a breaker bar on the crank bolt to turn it by hand. I couldn’t budge it. I pulled the spark plugs, and my heart sank. Every plug on one cylinder bank had been smashed. I pulled the heads to further investigate and found all four cylinders on that bank full of ferrous chips and what appeared to be plastigauge. It also revealed the pistons, which had been notched to clear oversized 2.02 valves. They appeared to have been notched by a six-year-old with a chisel. The worst part of this debacle was that the shop that did the work had since shut down, leaving me no recourse.

Discouraged, I rolled down the shop door and forgot about the car for a while. Again.

 

Though the Fairmont sat idle in the corner of my shop, I didn’t. I had a few other projects various states of completion to occupy my time while the Fairmont frustration wore off. I was also flipping cars, and parting out the occasional junker, which gave me access to some of the parts I needed to get the Fairmont back on track. Those parts included a low mileage 302 with a nice little cam and a good used T5 transmission.

The T5 was a great find. Completing a trifecta of bad trade deals, the rebuilt C4 in the car, built by yet another Octane advertiser would not engage park. More significantly though, in the ten years since I’d purchased the car my racing interests shifted from drag racing to autocross and road racing, and the manual transmission would be a better fit for that type of driving. The overdrive gear in the T5 would also be more forgiving of the 4.10 gear I stuffed in the 8.8 rear when the plan was to drive the car a quarter mile at a time. Further complimenting the road racing theme were FRPP lowering springs, KYB shocks and struts, and a pair of caster/camber plates I’d installed at some point in the years prior.

 

When I finally got motivated to get the Fairmont running, it came together reasonably quickly. I put a new Zoom stage 2 clutch in the T5, dropped the combination in the empty engine bay and wired it all up. With some minor adjustments on the Holley carb it ran pretty well, though I was never able to get it all completely dialed in. The car ran good and sounded great, but always smelled rich. Even when tuned to read lean on the AFR gauge you could smell the fuel in the exhaust. I experimented with timing settings, carb spacers, and a better flowing intake in the never-ending search for more streetable power, but it always stunk.

I wish I could say the story of my Fairmont had a happy ending. After twelve years working on the car, and finally getting it running strong, our relationship came to an abrupt end. As much as I enjoyed driving the car, it was the wrong time in my life to own it. Twelve years was too long.

A variety of circumstances led to the decision to sell the car. Building the Fairmont was an incredible automotive education, particularly in the last year of finishing it. I enjoyed the build, and I really enjoyed driving it. At the end of the day though I had a car that stunk so bad my wife hated me putting the kids in it, had no heat or air or defrost, got ten miles per gallon on a good day, set off every alarm in the parking garage when I drove it to work, and I was terrified to let my newly licensed kid near. It basically was the car I wanted when I was 25, which is exactly how old I was when I started it.

I am glad that I was able to see it through, and proud that I was able to get it out on a racetrack a few times before I had to let it go. Sadly, the old Fairmont did not go to a good home where the details will be finished, and the car cruised to shows or flogged at track days. It went to a guy building a hot rod pickup who planned to strip the drivetrain, gauges, and interior and crush what’s left. The car deserved better than that, but sometimes life just gets in the way.

So long Fairmont. We had fun while it lasted.

2017-09-23T02:22:03+00:00By |Auto Projects|0 Comments

About the Author:

I'm a lifetime car guy with a broad interest in just about any type of self-propelled machinery, and racing. I have a soft spot for under-appreciated marques, which often gets me in trouble with oddball projects.

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