Ford ZA/ZB Fairlane review
All you need to know about one of Australian motoring's enduring icons - Ford ZA/ZB Fairlane.
Ford ZA/ZB Fairlane
In February 1967, after the new ZA Fairlane’s press release gushed: "An Australian-styled and engineered Ford Fairlane will be released in all states by the Ford Motor Company of Australia this week," the belief that it was unique and special to Australia quickly became entrenched.
At a time when coverage of the US market was patchy and the US Fairlane car and nameplate were only months from disappearing up the new US Torino’s exhaust pipe, any chance of challenging this view was slim.
Even today, senior Ford people from that period still claim it was a stand-alone Australian design. Yet the ZA/ZB Fairlane was built on much the same wheelbase as every US Fairlane back to 1962 and the Customlines before that.
It is true that until the HQ Statesman and CH Chrysler by Chrysler arrived, there were no local long-wheelbase alternatives for four years. Holden’s Brougham shared the Kingswood wheelbase and even the extended Chrysler VIP was a long way short. As early as 1958, Ford US was planning to plug the US compact and mid-range segments with the same platform. This was the clincher for Ford Australia to abandon the British Zephyr so that the Zephyr and the US Customline could one day be replaced with local variations of the same car. After the 1966 US Falcon became a shorter version of the Fairlane, it was time for Ford Australia to strike.
Cut away the hype, and the ZA/ZB Fairlane was no more Australian to look at than the VF/VG Valiant Hardtops were, with their imported US body section from the windscreen back. The only ZA styling feature unique to Australia was the grille. Even that was a variation of the coming Torino look, not surprising when local Ford grilles in those days were sketched in the US then translated and tooled for local models by Geelong artisans.
Lew Bandt, the inventor of the coupe utility, was one of these and is credited with the Fairlane’s Southern Cross bonnet emblem and instrument graphics.
Yet the ZA/ZB Fairlane was a clever exercise more because it wasn’t an all-Australian design. To set the record straight, early ZA Fairlanes did feature imported US rear panels, easily identified by the blanks inside the boot to cover the US fuel-filler opening behind the number plate. This suggests that local Fairlanes soaked up excess US rear panels during the US Fairlane’s last days before switching to local manufacture as the Torino came on stream later in 1967. The absence of imported panels on the near identical 1968 ZB Fairlane verifies that scenario.
The ZA’s full wheelcovers, shared with the XP Fairmont, were seen on 1965-66 US Fairlanes and the US Fairlane’s taillight design featured amber indicator sections for Australia instead of clear. All panels were interchangeable with either a 1966 US Falcon or Fairlane. The 1966-67 US Fairlane’s vertical headlight front clip will bolt straight on even if it is completely different to the ZC-ZD front, which is another story.
So why didn’t Ford simply assemble the 1966 US Fairlane and be done with it? Avoiding US exchange rates and high import duty while exploiting an existing production line would shave thousands off the price if it could be done another way. It would also free up Ford’s Homebush plant to build more of the much improved local Galaxie.
The clever part started with the local redesign of the 1966 US Falcon, which had no waist level crease line in the rear quarters. The late Malcolm Inglis, brother of Sir Brian, is credited with extending this crease line through the rear doors and into the XR Falcon’s rear quarter panels, as Ford had done with the US Fairlane and the shared US Falcon/Fairlane wagon rear sections. This made the local XR Falcon’s rear doors compatible with the extended US Fairlane rear panels without change. Because the US Fairlane sedan also relied on blanks between the rear wheelarch and doors to cover the extra wheelbase, the rear doors of the local XR Falcon and US Fairlane were basically the same in this context.
A local four-headlight front was prepared for the XR Fairmont, as for the coming HK Premier. Without the Premier’s formal C-pillar and slab sides, this heavier-looking front overwhelmed the XR Falcon’s more slender lines and was sidelined. Then someone in Ford’s planning department cut up the US brochures for the 1966 Falcon and Fairlane.
In an automotive version of pin the donkey, the US Fairlane tail was pasted to the Falcon front to check if there was enough visual weight ahead of the Falcon’s front wheel arches to counter the Fairlane’s extra wheelbase and longer rear overhang. The mismatch between the local VF/VG Valiant’s local front and the US Dodge Dart hardtop’s big boost in wheelbase and length may not have been an issue for a model badged as a Valiant, yet it would have immediately exposed the first Australian Fairlane as a fraud, not a Ford. Ironically, this very issue would kill the BF Fairlane.
After the XR Falcon’s rakish side profile proved as good a match for the US Fairlane rear as the US Fairlane front, it was then a matter of dusting off the four headlight XR Fairmont proposal. This imposing front, with its intricate grille and quad horizontal headlights and a bonnet subtly tweaked to match, could never be mistaken for a Falcon. Because the last US Fairlane assembled in Australia was the 1964 Compact and stocks continued into 1965, the ZA Fairlane’s front seemed to provide a seamless progression from the US cars. The stacked headlights of the 1966 US Fairlane would have confused the issue and overlapped the stacked headlight Galaxies from 1965. This was the key to the first local Fairlane’s success.
Ford spent big money on re-engineering the local XR Falcon boot to mount the spare flush with the fuel tank before adapting it to the ZA Fairlane. The fuel filler then had to move to the LHS rear quarter, hence the blanks on early US panels. Compared to the shallow US Fairlane boot, it delivered an uncluttered boot with capacity unmatched at this level ready for its role as a big country express.
Ford marketing guru Bill Bourke exploited this by offering a base level Fairlane as a super-sized Falcon with the bigger Falcon six, drum brakes, manual steering, Ford’s first all-synchromesh three-on-the-tree manual and bench seat for a tiny premium over the Falcon.
Even after adding a V8, automatic, power steering and disc brakes, it was perfect for fleets and families who needed full six-seat capacity and boot to match. For the 1968 ZB, the Custom badge was revived for this level, a model that survived until 1976.
This freed-up Ford to present the ZA Fairlane 500 as a striking bucket-seat V8 luxury model that quickly made several expensive US and European models redundant. Compared to the similar Rambler Rebel, it was almost 30 percent cheaper and better prepared for local conditions. The no-man’s land between the stacked-headlight US Galaxie and single-headlight Fairmont V8, recently abandoned by four-headlight Studebaker and Humber models, suddenly belonged to the Fairlane.
Ford Australia did its best work inside. Both levels had a massive dash pad filled with instruments based on the same Lincoln design adapted for local Galaxies. Even the factory radio was built into the dash and shared the same classy knobs as the other functions. With colour coordinated seats, carpet, doors and dash set off by lashings of fake wood, Fairlane-class was a feel good experience even at base level.
For the first Falcon GT, Ford lifted its pleated bucket seats from the Fairlane 500, not XR Fairmont, as if to verify the long wheelbase car’s long distance focus. By 1968, the Fairlane dash pad was applied to all XT Falcons and the GT Fairmont and Fairlane 500 cabins merged closer. In less than two years, combined ZA/ZB Fairlane sales almost topped 20,000, money for jam when so much of it was already in production as a Falcon.
For today’s Fairlane fans exposed to 1966-67 US Fairlanes, the dividing line is not so much the local car’s different grille, but the shape of the front wheel arch. The US Fairlane’s front wheel arch was squared off to match the rear while local Fairlanes had the Falcon’s half-circle front wheel arch. For some, it is an irreconcilable mismatch, for others, it creates a semi-rear spat look that is just perfect. If that was the only compromise needed to kick off a 40-year local Fairlane heritage and keep the Falcon viable, it was worth it.
Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for more unique car reviews and features plus see the latest unique and classic cars for sale.