Farewell Ford Fairlane

GRIZZLE the dog launches himself through the Ford's open driver's door, jumps over the console and instantly assumes his customary position on the passenger seat. It's not his master's Lancia Flaminia or the Mercedes-Benz GL, but the dog takes for granted that the boss is about to depart.

"That's it, Grizz - take over." The hair is now silver and the walk has slowed, but the deep, commanding voice of Australia's 22nd Prime Minister is unmistakable. "I think he likes the car already," says Malcolm Fraser, smiling at the antics of his beloved Border Terrier.

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To commemorate the end of the Ford Fairlane - after almost 41 years of continuous local production - and to revive a celebrated Wheels story, photographer Ellen Dewar and I have arranged for the former Prime Minister to drive one of the last Fairlanes built.

Thirty-one years earlier, Prime Minister Fraser tested the new LTD for Wheels. Now in busy 'retirement' on his property on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, a more relaxed and friendly Fraser is clearly in the mood to talk cars, politics, American history and, as a keen amateur photographer, to get Dewar's expert advice on Nikon digital camera lenses. Fraser, a car enthusiast since he fell in love with (but couldn't afford), a Lancia Aurelia while at Oxford university in the early 1950s, also wants me to steer his rare and beautiful, Pininfarina-styled 1966 Flaminia 2.8 sedan. One way or another, it's going to be a memorable day.

After coffee and a chat, the conversation turns to the big Ford. And why it's been dropped from the local line-up. "Any global corporation that competes in Australia can't expect to be separate from the world," Fraser says. "They must fit into the world and be able to compete on the domestic and export markets.

"If we're going to be competitive with China and India, we need a better educated population."

Geo-political lesson over, we return to the more mundane.

"One of the problems with the Fairlane has been a lack of legroom in the front," explains the 1.93-metre tall Fraser, who prefers to ride up front. "The seats didn't suit my back."

Terry Comb, his regular Commonwealth driver, arrives in a WM Statesman, now the car of choice for politicians. Comb, a committed Holden man, is nonetheless persuaded to experience the Fairlane from the back seat. Grizzle, who has been asleep on the Fairlane's back seat, has lost his chance for a ride and is left behind.

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After collecting his driver's licence, Fraser slides in behind the wheel of the big Ford, once easily Australia's best-selling luxury car, and we depart. After adjusting the steering wheel and tilting the power-operated cushion, long-legged Fraser is finally comfortable, his head well clear of the roof lining.

"They must have changed the seats; these are much better," declares the former PM.

Down the long driveway he is already analysing the car, and accelerating hard after turning on to the bitumen road. "Got a lot of lift, hasn't it? It would be easy to lose your licence in this thing. What's it like on gravel?"

To answer the question, we're soon belting down a loose-surfaced dirt road. Head back, one arm outstretched to the wheel and the other holding the gear selector, Malcolm Fraser is relaxed, enjoying the task and the chat.

"I don't have to do anything to keep straight." He sounds surprised and impressed, then jumps on the brakes. The Fairlane stops true, without any brake pedal stutter. "The ABS is discreet."

Intrigued by the technology in his new Merc GL, he has been experimenting with the ESP on this same road. Predictably, the Ford gets a full-throttle take-off. The Fairlane lunges forward, wheels spinning, but tracking perfectly. He tries again, this time there's no hint of wheelspin, just rapid forward motion. "Not bad, not bad."

Both men want technical details on the V8 engine - 5.4-litres, sohc, 230kW - and approve of its burbling exhaust note. Comb may be red at heart, but that doesn't stop him criticising the Statesman. Both men dislike the Holden V6's induction roar. "It sounds like a chaff cutter," claims Fraser. Comb also reckons the WM's suspension is too soft, with an excess of body roll. Neither has driven the tauter WM Caprice, which answers this criticism. They agree that the more expensive Holden doesn't seem to be on the Government car list.

By the time the Fairlane is parked, Fraser is waxing lyrical. "I think this is a very impressive car; lovely to drive. It's well balanced and goes much better than I thought it would."

He turned 78 in May, but Fraser still likes a speed. Earlier, he's admitted that while still PM, Holden persuaded him to spend time in a blue-printed VB Commodore, the suspension and steering specially tweaked.

"There were no speed limits then and it would pull maximum revs in top gear. That car was beyond reproach."

He admits to achieving unmentionably quick times in the Commodore between Melbourne and Nareen, the family's former country property. On a recent garden tour of Italy with wife Tamie and his sister, who lives there, Fraser's one extravagance was to hire a Mercedes S-Class and driver in Tuscany. Nobody much worried about speed on the autostrada, until Tamie noticed they were going "a bit fast". The speedo needle hovered over 220km/h.

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Time for the Lancia, a beautifully engineered car that's powered by what was the world's first production V6 automotive engine. Fraser slides behind the wheel and cranks the engine over. After a few seconds it splutters for an instant, then fires up, sucking through the Weber carby.

"You might think I went up here this morning to make sure it would start for you," he says. "But I didn't. That's the way the Lancia always starts."

After an engine rebuild and body restoration, the Flaminia now has the satisfying patina that comes with regular use. The engine was rebuilt 5000km ago, but while showing us the car, Fraser discovers a couple of bubbles of rust on the leading edge of the bonnet. He's not happy.

After lunch at a local cafe, it's my turn. For a 42-year-old car, the Lancia is a wonder. After sliding my legs around the FB/EK Holden-like dog-leg of the wrap-around windscreen, I pull out the choke (remember them?) turn the key and the V6 is alive. The oily feeling column gear change slides between the gears, the overall gearing is low ("the coupes were higher geared for maximum speed") and, with the strong bottom-end torque, provides old-fashioned top-gear flexibility. The loudest noise is from the engine fan, another giveaway to the car's age, the brakes are heavy, visibility in every direction is fantastic. The Flaminia is ageing gracefully.

"I don't think I'll ever sell it - though never is a big word. I've put too much into it, really," Fraser confesses. Where I ask, did this passion for cars - and especially Lancias - come from?

In early '50s England, the next best thing to an expensive Lancia was a Jowett Javelin, an advanced British sedan powered by a flat-four engine. Fraser knows his stuff. "The Javelin's handling balance was second only to the Lancia and helped me earn a reputation as a driver. I took the Jowett on an Oxford university car club event during one winter. I remembered to let a little air out of the tyres to help the grip on the slippery roads. MGs were climbing over the stone walls on one corner and I hoped I wasn't going to follow on the black ice. I didn't touch the brakes and somehow made it."

The Jowett company failed, and a few years after returning to Australia, Fraser bought his first Lancia. Later came a Super Sport Zagato Flaminia with the trademark double-bubble roof, a 1.6-litre HF Fulvia and a Flavia 2000 sedan, Tamie's much-missed wheels in Canberra. "I don't know why I sold it," Fraser admits in sorrow. "Lancias always had the sort of road holding and braking balance that interested me.

"I know where you can get a very good Gamma coupe for $15,000," he adds. It's more an invitation to join the small band of Australian Lancia-isti, but the Gamma, developed by Fiat after the Italian giant paid one lira for Lancia in 1969, has an appalling reputation for reliability. It's only then I dare own up to having sold my 1.3-litre Fulvia coupe before returning to Australia. It's too painful to reminisce, so I change the subject to SUVs.

Why does he drive one? Easy, today, the Frasers pull a boat. He has done his research. After 400 metres in a BMW X5 the ride was "too stiff and harsh"; the Landcruiser's diesel V8 "noisy" and the cabin doesn't have enough leg room up front; nor is he impressed with the air suspension on the Mercedes ML. Having tried all the big SUVs, Fraser chose a Merc GL320 CDI. He insists on demonstrating the power-operated third-row seats that fold neatly into the floor and the spacious driving position, and he enjoys the 3.0-litre diesel's responsiveness. The other car in the household is Tamie's bright yellow Audi A3, the replacement for an Alfa 164.

After four hours of driving and chatting, we depart. The Fairlane sets off for Sydney - averaging 9.3L/100km up the Hume - and I'm left to ponder Ford's failure to establish export markets for this car. This decision, confirmed by Dearborn, forced Broadmeadows to cancel development of the luxury sedan at FG styling proposal stage. Fraser's right: if Australian car manufacturing is to continue long term, our cars must be designed and engineered for export in significant numbers.

Farewell Fairlane was originally published in the June 2008 editon of Wheels

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