By Bryan Raab Davis
Ford Motor Co. made headlines when it announced that by 2022, other than the Mustang, its domestic offerings will consist solely of trucks, crossovers and SUVs. These vehicles, with their minimal window area and often funereal interior colors, incite claustrophobia for some. Their reduced visibility makes changing lanes and parking a dicey proposition. Backup cameras and other electronic driving aids have become a necessity, not a luxury. The driver is not connected with the world outside their windscreen; instead, they are often isolated in their high-tech transportation pod, playing a video game called “Commuting.”
The story was different 40 years ago. Our featured “Malaise Machine” is a 1980 Mercury Zephyr Villager station wagon, and it was pitched to the same buyers who today clamor for crossovers: Middle-class families with kids and groceries to haul. Unlike today’s crossovers, the Zephyr wagon, and its Ford Fairmont sister, featured ample glasshouses designed to lend interiors an airy feel. Visibility was superb in all directions. Yes, the “wood” on the dashboard has more in common with the oil in the crankcase than with any tree, but it is warm looking. The bench seats are upholstered in equally mellow “Werther’s Original” toned vinyl. Front fenders don’t drop off to who-knows-where, but instead clearly delineate the car’s dimensions. The car can be placed with precision into the tightest parking spots. There’s a usefully low rear floor for easy loading, another benefit of a passenger car stance.
The Mercury Zephyr and Ford Fairmont debuted in 1978 and were based on Ford’s Fox Platform, a lightweight and versatile unit-body structure. This architecture allowed new models to be scaled for improved fuel efficiency, easier handling and better use of interior volume compared to their predecessors.
Exterior styling of the Zephyr (and Fairmont) is trim and rectilinear with an air of efficiency. The minimal frontal area is a nod to aerodynamics while the grille, brightwork and quad headlamps indicate that Mercury didn’t wish to alienate mainstream buyers. The Villager option brought “Cherry woodtone” applique, bright body side moldings and a few other shiny embellishments to the Zephyr. These components feel a bit like carryovers from a more baroque era of automotive styling. Twin gill-like louvres on the front fenders are polarizing styling elements; some consider them a pointless frippery, while others find them distinctive. This writer falls into the latter camp. The very Teutonic, color-keyed wheel covers are not original, but were sourced from a Ford Granada. The frontal aspect is vee’d just enough to keep it from looking severe. Lower door skins curve down to sills which are nicely tucked in, creating a line that carries through to the bottom of the rear fenders. This is vital, because otherwise the car would be too much of a slab. The roof rack seems fussy on such a clean design, but it adds functionality.
This Zephyr is powered by a 200-cid“Thriftpower” inline six-cylinder engine. At 91 bhp, it mustered only a couple ponies more than the base four-cylinder engine that was rated at 88 bhp. However, it cranked out more torque — 157 lbs.-ft. versus 119 for the four-pot. The six is also inherently smooth running. Also available were 255- and 302-cid variants of the Windsor V-8. There was a turbocharged version of the four-cylinder rated at 122 bhp, but it was only available on coupes and sedans. Our wagon shifts for itself with a three-speed C4 automatic transmission, but a four-speed stick was optional. Shift quality is very smooth, even if the transition from second to top slurs a bit.
On our featured car, selecting the desired gear takes a little guesswork as the indicator needle isn’t precise. Instrumentation is minimal and very easy to read. There are two round dials facing the driver; the left-hand dial has a fuel gauge and idiot lights and the right-hand side an 85-mph speedometer. Top speed is said to be 95 mph and truth is, seeing the speedo needle swung all the way ’round adds to the exhilaration of not actually going very fast. Acceleration is not rapid, but it is smooth. Dashboard turn signal arrows are in their own little diamond-shaped cutouts on either side of the gear quadrant. Should the driver need to sound the horn, they’ll find the button on the turn signal stalk, not the steering wheel hub.
The steering wheel itself is a slim and simple two-spoke affair which manipulates a power-assisted rack. In operation, there’s not a lot of road feel, but the ratio seems decently quick. You wouldn’t describe the Zephyr as tossable, but it’s not totally slack, either. A curb weight under 3,000 lbs. helps keep the Zephyr light on its feet. Rear suspension is courtesy of a live axle on coil springs, and front wheels are controlled with a MacPherson strut system. Suspension tuning errs toward comfort, but avoids floatiness.
A Zephyr wagon embodies a number of qualities that mark it out as a great choice for a collector car. First, it’s a station wagon, a body style that’s downright exotic in the modern world. As a Mercury, it’s an example of a now-extinct marque. It’s not too big, yet is roomy enough to comfortably move people and cargo. Service parts are cheap and readily available, and prosaic mechanical systems mean that a knowledgeable owner can tackle a variety of repair and maintenance chores. Its light weight and modest engine size also mean it won’t guzzle like W.C. Fields on a bender, even if it has one of the available V-8s.
Buying one won’t cost you a mint, either, though it seems like prices are swinging up as it has become common knowledge that Fox-Body Mustang go-fast parts are a bolt-in proposition. As with most cars, seek out the best one you can afford. Make sure interior and exterior trim pieces are present and, of course, check for rust and body damage. Find a solid example and you’ve got a “Malaise Machine” that can handle the daily commute and local car show circuit with equal aplomb.
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