The Fairmont: #85
A little over a year ago, about November of 2014, we were deep, deep in the throws of designing and developing the cars, the series, rules, etc. We were also looking at what we could do to attract a wider audience. At one of our frequent evening beer-fueled “micromeetings” we got to talking about all the variations of the Ford “Foxbody” platform. The Mustangs, of course, but the Fairmonts, the Zephyrs, and the Thunderbirds as well. As we discussed the alternate cars that would “qualify” in the Mustang 4 Challenge, even though they weren’t Mustangs, a car caught our eye that fueled this initial conversation. It was a 1981 two-door, four-speed, four-cylinder Ford Fairmont in baby blue with 275,000 miles on it. It was for sale a few hours from our basecamp. Over the course of the holidays, fueled by more beer, too much food, candy, deserts, wine, vodka, bourbon, paint and exhaust fumes, and God knows what else, we saw that the car was still for sale in early January. A quick conversation confirmed that we were on the same page. That happens a lot. It scares some people. We’ve worked together so closely that there’re days it seems we are of one mind. So a little negotiation, and off to Lufkin we went to grab our Fairmont. Unlike all our previous builds, this car drove up onto the trailer under its own power. It was huge. I have an 18-foot open trailer, and the back end of the Fairmont stuck out over the end of the trailer by about an inch. “This is gonna be epic” we giggled.
Back at the laboratory, once we started building the Fairmont out, we had to consider it’s advanced age and mileage. It had been a daily driver until very recently. It had a tow hitch and overload springs. Essentially, it was used as a pickup truck. Lord knows, the trunk has more cubic feet capacity than most current pickups. So we were hesitant with such an old, high mileage motor. We were so worried that we wasted no time in cracking open the head, replacing the camshaft and bolting on a Pinto header.
We consulted one of our many experts about the feasibility and usability of the stock carburetor. We were told it was a “Motorcraft abortion” and were quickly sent a dialed-in replacement Weber. While that was all coming, we sent the car to paint, where we started to sense a pattern with the Fairmont. The paint shop was having some issues getting the car started. They claimed “There was a brown liquid shooting out of the engine” at one point. So they started pushing it around the shop (warning: foreshadowing). This paint job, inspired by the Gulf liveries of Le Mans cars, was our most difficult to date, and we had to leave empty handed more than once. The Fairmont became to be known as “The Fairytale” because we started to question whether it would ever see track time.
We finished up the Fairmont in time for it to make it’s debut race. The “brown liquid” ended up being coolant that had eaten its way through the intake.
We had to fabricate a block-off plate. Upon tightening down the intake, we thought we heard a slight crack. We convinced ourselves that we were just hearing things and moved on (possibly more foreshadowing here). For weight purposes, we opted to leave the original 4-speed transmission in the car, and stay with the 7.5″ rear end. We did give it the steeper 4.56 gear set, hoping it would make the car competitive. And competitive it was. I ran her in her maiden race and with the slightly longer wheelbase, the Fairmont was able to perform cornering feats that the other cars just couldn’t do. It could pass on the outside of a turn that has negative camber. I ran it hard, and I was chasing down the leaders, reeling them in, with only five laps left in the race, when it started stuttering. Badly.
The carburetor was completely gunked up. We ordered a rebuild kit, and plumbed in some in-line fuel filters and found we also had killed the fuel pump. This year Fairmont had a mechanical fuel pump. No big deal, we replaced it.
Resumed testing went great, until we developed a rod knock. One 275,000-mile motor dead. We rebuilt the motor using another bottom end we had. This allowed us to actually finally clean the underside of the car, something we normally do early on, but time, and a month-long paint shop delay, had caused us to skip. From what we could tell, there had been an oil leak that started sometime in the 80’s and had never been resolved. Just more oil poured in, and a filter replaced.
It took four hours to clean the transmission, longer to clean the engine compartment. Ok, that being done, rebuilt engine ready to go, we fired her up and… we had a misfire. The fourth cylinder was showing signs of a really wet plug. We tried everything, but testing showed the fourth cylinder wasn’t generating much heat. We had a 3 1/2 cylinder car. Running out of time, we ran the car in a race, and it didn’t do so well. I did manage to push it so hard that I went off track and started a brush fire. Another first for me. I did struggle with the proper etiquette when one has started a fire on track, but managed to get one’s car back on track. Is it proper to stop and help put the fire out? Do I write a hand-written apology note? Apparently, the proper method is beer. Lots of beer. But I digress.
We were determined to fix the Fairmont’s miss. We fiddled. We fussed. We adjusted the carburetor, fuel pressure, etc. We noticed that the in-line fuel filters got red silt in them pretty quickly.
We vowed to change filters every race. Off to the second race on 3.5 cylinders, and during a practice lap, she started sputtering again. Wait, that was a previous motor. The fuel filter was nasty. We took her home to diagnose again, and she wouldn’t even start at the track. No fuel getting to the filter. We had killed our second fuel pump. We warrantied out the fuel pump. That’s right, race car parts for our cars HAVE WARRANTIES and we use them. We had to wait two days to get a replacement, as apparently mechanical fuel pumps aren’t that common any longer. We get a new pump, and it’s dead. Rinse repeat, dead. I remember that we had removed a fuel pump from the donor engine that the Fairmont now had. We rummaged through the scrap pile, and found it, and it actually worked. We vowed to put in an electric pump at some point.
Wrong. I did some searching, and found a source for a replacement fuel tank for our car. Still skeptical, I figured, what the hell, let’s try it. Our Chief Mechanic and General Grumpy Pants noticed that this replacement tank was 16 gallons. We had only ever been able to get 10 gallons in the Fairmont. Either we had a tank that wouldn’t fit, or we had 6 gallons of shit in the gas tank. The latter turned out to be true. We had a lot of junk below our trunk. Nasty, nasty, nasty.
So fuel tank replaced, fuel lines cleaned, we felt great about ourselves. We had finally fixed the Fairmont. This HAD to be what was the source of our problems. We fired her up and… misfire. Now our Chief Mechanic was beyond pissed. We live near a lake, and I was convinced the Fairmont was going to end up at the bottom of it. The crazy thing was, it acted just like a vacuum leak, but we had vacuum. Or did we? The Chief, who shall be named “please don’t kill the Fairmont,” sprayed some brake clean on the bottom of the intake, underneath where we had put the block off plate. The car responded. We had another hole in the intake, this one was fatal. Fortunately, we’ve been gallivanting around the southwest gathering parts. We had one extra intake that would fit this motor. We replaced it, AND decided to change over from a mechanical fuel pump to an electric one, and install an upgraded fuel pressure regulator. Finally, the Fairytale was complete.