By Brian Earnest
Nostalgia can show up in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors. For Rob Lewis, of Appleton, Wis., it’s big, loud, and wears Highland Green.
In a nutshell, his 1968 Ford Fairlane 500 fastback is just pretty much everything Lewis was looking for when he went looking for a fixer-upper hobby car a few years back. He was looking for something that took him back down Memory Lane to high school days. He also wanted something a little unique that a lot of other guys didn’t already have in their garages.
“I had a ‘69 Fairlane back in high school and I was looking for a similar car. That one was one was actually a notchback and I couldn’t find a good example of that,” recalls Lewis. “Then I ran across this one on eBay and called the guy a couple times. The car was in Minneapolis. The guy had bought it in Arizona and brought it back to Minnesota … So I flew over there and drove it back. I had asked the guy if it could make it back 6 hours on the trip home from Minneapolis and he said, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ I just drove it home.
“It’s a real throwback when I drive it around. Other people get more excited than I do when I pull up to a gas station [laughs]. ‘Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in so long … ‘My brother had one’, or ‘I had one of those in high school.’ There are a lot of people out there who remember them, but there’s not many around. And I really wanted something different. When you go to a car show, everybody has a Mustang … but when you go to a big show with this, there might only be one or two. Not many people have them.”
FAREWELL TO THE FAIRLANE
The mid-size Fairlane was a fixture of the Ford lineup right from its introduction for the 1955 model year, but by 1968 the end was in sight. Ford tabbed the Fairlane and Fairlane 500 models to get major restylings for the ’68 model year, but the move didn’t do a lot for the nameplate’s longevity, and by 1971 Ford moved on with a renewed emphasis on smaller models like the Pinto and Maverick.
The 1968 Fairlanes were certainly among the best-looking to date, with a full-width grille and horizontally mounted quad headlights. On the sides was a single horizontal feature line running from stem to stern. The tail lamps were vertically arranged rectangular units with a centrally located backup light. Ford lettering was stretched across the trunk lid.
The Fairlane was Ford’s base trim level for 1968 mid-size models and included a 200-cid/115-hp six-cylinder or a 302-cid/210-hp V-8. They also came with chrome windshield moldings, chrome rear window moldings, chrome rain gutters, chrome side windows, chrome horn right, front and rear armrests, a cigarette lighter, and vinyl-covered rubber floor mats.
The Fairlane 500 was the middle trim level for ’68, one notch below the Torino, and featured special 500 trim and moldings, color-keyed carpeting and a choice of four nylon and vinyl upholsteries. There was also an aluminum dividing bar on the tail end of the trunk lid, and a horizontal dividing bar in the middle of the grille. The Fairlane 500 script appeared on the rear fender, ahead of the tail lamps.
The Fairlane 500 grew in 1968 to 201 inches in overall length, although it remained on a 116-inch wheelbase. The menu included include a two-door hardtop, two-door fastback, four-door sedan and convertible. Pricing ranged from as low as $2,543 for a six-cylinder four-door sedan up to $3,020 for a 302-powered convertible. For those wanting a brisker ride, engine options included a 390, 427 and 428 Cobra-Jet and Super-Cobra-Jet later in the production run.
With a 302 onboard, the Fairlane 500s were fairly modest performers, perhaps looking a little quicker than they were. Top speed on the 302 models was measured at about 116 mph with an 8.6-second 0-to-60 mph time.
A SOLID SURVIVOR
Lewis says his car wasn’t exactly a pristine beauty queen when he tracked it down in Minnesota in 2012, but it had one important quality going for it: It was rust-free. On top of that, it was a four-speed, which made it a perfect candidate for a restoration.
“When I bought it, it had probably 60 percent original paint on it,” he says. “It didn’t look too bad, and it didn’t have any rust at all. It was bought new in Colorado and had been in Arizona most of its time, as far as I could tell. It had an Arizona title. But it needed work. It was faded and dirty under the hood and just generally neglected.
“I went through everything on the mechanical side: new filters, gas line, brake lines, fluids. I gradually went through everything. Of course, it needed new tires. The tires on it were 15 years old, that’s why it was a little nerve-racking driving it back [from Minneapolis].
Lewis started restoring the car’s interior right away during the first winter he had the car, installing new upholstery and carpeting and sprucing up the dash. He turned to Geiger Auto Body in Neenah, Wis., to take care of the paint, bodywork and glass. The engine rebuild that followed was handled by Tiry's Race Engines of Ripon, Wis.
“It came with an old parts store 302 and I was going to redo that even though it wasn’t original, but the engine was already .60 over,” Lewis noted. “The engine shop actually supplied a new engine. I think the the only thing original is the crank [laughs]. It’s not a new block, it’s different used block. It’s .40 over now so it’s a 308 with all new internal parts, pistons, push rods, lifters. They ported and polished the heads. It’s got an aftermarket intake, which was on it when I bought it, and I put a new carb on it and new electronic ignition system. It’s got a Flowmaster exhaust on it, which sounds pretty healthy. I actually have a lot of people ask if it’s a big-block, but no, it’s only a little 302! I told the engine shop that I don’t care if it has 600 hp, but I want it to sound like it does!"
The Ford still has its original four-speed transmission, brakes and rear axel “as far as I can tell,” according to Lewis. His research showed that the car was special ordered by Goodro Ford, a dealership in Denver. It arrived wearing distinctive Highland Green, and Lewis said he has never really considered changing the color. “ I like that color. It was actually a ’68 color and the same color as the ‘Bullitt’ Mustang. I liked it and wanted to keep it like it was originally.”
Lewis knew it would take several years to get his Fairlane 500 restored to his own expectations, and also knew he’d need plenty of help along the way. He decided in the beginning to log all his experiences with the car on a blog (www.fairlaneguy68.wordpress.com), which he says has helped him feel more connected to like-minded enthusiasts and Fairlane fans around the country.
“You start working on it and you sort of forget things, so I started a blog and kind of kept it up over the years,” he says. “One of the previous owners of the car found my blog and sent me some pictures of the car when he owned it in the ‘90s. That was pretty cool. I’ve had a lot of interesting contacts from my little blog. I get a lot of questions. One of my most frequently viewed blogs is about how to take the dash apart. Apparently, a lot of people have trouble taking that dash apart.”
For the most part, Lewis says he is done tinkering with the looks and drive train on the car. He’s turned the car into exactly what he was hoping for — a great-looking driver that gets him anywhere he wants to go in style.
“About the only thing I’ve done to it recently is I bought some 15-inch reproduction wheels. The originals were 14s, but these look like the wheels that came on it," he says.
“I drive it a lot. It had about 140,000 miles on it when I bought it. Of course, it’s been completely gone through, but it’s probably got about 165,000 on it now. I wanted something that was drivable and not sit in the garage and look at it. I wanted to take it out the road and drive it, and I do. I drive it about 7,000 miles a year.”
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