Home » Strikingly Similar, But Completely Different: 1978 Ford Fairmont vs 1981 Mazda 626

Strikingly Similar, But Completely Different: 1978 Ford Fairmont vs 1981 Mazda 626

Sbsd 6 28 2024
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Good morning! For your Friday edition of Shitbox Showdown, we’re rounding out the week with a pair of brown sedans. They have a surprising amount in common, but come from opposite sides of the world.

I didn’t really need to look at the vote tally from yesterday to know which car won. I knew it was going to be the Family Truckster. I mean, the van had pink shag carpeting underneath a chemical toilet. Nobody wants that in their life. It’s a little early in the day, but no sense dragging this one out. The Country Squire wins it by a country mile.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

I had forgotten just how truly awful the actual Wagon Queen Family Truckster really was, until I looked up photos of it again. George Barris did a great job of taking an unappealing (to my eye, anyway) car and making it truly hideous. And lest we forget, the same fine folks that brought you the Family Truckster also gave us the finest rental-spec convertible of all time: the Gran Detroit Farm & Country Turbo–though I don’t think we can blame Barris for that one.

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A lot of people complain about cars all looking alike these days, and it’s true; I have trouble telling the sea of midsized crossovers apart without looking at the badges. But if you look back at cars from any era, they all looked alike. To demonstrate this point, today we’re going to be looking at a pair of sedans from the malaise era, designed and built by different companies on different continents. They don’t really look all that much alike sitting side-by-side, but there are some eerie similarities. And to make things even weirder, they’re roughly the same color, roughly the same trim level, and have roughly the same mileage. Let’s check them out.

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1978 Ford Fairmont – $3,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 200 cubic inch overhead valve inline 6, three-speed automatic, RWD

Location: Gettysburg, PA

Odometer reading: 58,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives well

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Here it is, the one that started it all, the very first Fox-body car: the 1978 Ford Fairmont. Yep, before there was the Mustang GT, or the Lincoln LSC, there was this boxy thing. It may not be sexy, but compared to the Falcon-based Granada that it replaced, the Fairmont was pretty high-tech for the time: McPherson strut front suspension, a four-link rear axle, and rack-and-pinion steering were all part of the Fox platform from the beginning.

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Less new were the Fairmont’s engine offerings. The standard engine was the 2.3 liter four from the Pinto; one step up was this 200 cubic inch inline-six, whose design dates all the way back to 1960. By 1978, it was choked within an inch of its life by emissions equipment, but it’s still a sturdy, reliable engine. This one is backed by Ford’s equally sturdy C4 automatic transmission, and both are in fine shape, according to the seller.

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The Fairmont’s interior features something never seen in any Mustang GT or Lincoln LSC: a vinyl bench seat and a column-mounted shifter. Build quality wasn’t Ford’s strong suit in the late 1970s, but this one doesn’t look terrible: the horn button (at least I think it’s the horn button) appears to have fallen off, and the top of the dash is pretty ratty, but the upholstery looks fine. I mean, for tan vinyl.

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Fairmonts never were fancy cars, but this one looks especially plain: it has dog-dish hubcaps, and no exterior trim at all. It looks for all the world like a government-spec sedan, and in fact when I saw it posted on Facebook, someone mentioned that it reminded them of the cars in the excellent crime drama Mindhunter. This one looks clean enough to use as set dressing in that show–as long as you only shoot it from certain angles. It does have a couple blemishes here and there.

1981 Mazda 626 LX – $3,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0-liter overhead cam inline 4, three-speed automatic, RWD

Location: Ocoee, FL

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Odometer reading: 57,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives well

And here we have another four-door sedan, also with McPherson struts in front and a coil-sprung solid rear axle, also with an inline engine and an automatic transmission – only this one comes from Japan, courtesy of Mazda. This is the 626, known as the Mazda Capella in its homeland. It replaced the 616/618 and rotary-powered RX-2 here in the US, but the 626 was never offered with a rotary.

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In fact, in the US, only one engine was offered, a single overhead cam inline-four displacing 2.0 liters. I had this same engine in a B2000 pickup, and I can practically hear the sewing-machine tick of the valvetrain looking at this photo. The seller says this one runs and drives well, but that’s about all we get. Facebook Marketplace sellers aren’t the most verbose lot, I’ve noticed.

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That engine, unfortunately, powers the rear wheels through a three-speed automatic, which should be illegal in a Mazda sedan. But I suppose it’s the pampered low-mileage automatic versions of these old cars that survive, so maybe we should be thankful to that sloppy, slushy box of boring. As wrong as that dumb T-handle looks sticking out of the center console, the rest of the interior is in decent shape. There are some cracks in the dashboard, and there’s no way of knowing what’s under the seat covers, but for 43 years old, it looks good.

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The outside looks clean as well; the black rubber five-mile-per-hour bumpers are faded, but it’s undamaged and shiny. The biggest problem is that it’s boring, which is something I never thought I’d say about a Mazda sedan.

And there they are, two cars that come from opposite directions and arrive at more or less the same place. Neither one is what you’d call exciting, but by virtue of being old and now rare, they’re fun to see. Fun to own? Well, that’s a different story. But if you were to choose one, maybe with an eye towards making it more fun, which one would it be? And how would you spice it up? Discuss it in the comments, and I’ll see you all next week.

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(Image credits: Facebook Marketplace sellers)

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Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
10 days ago

If you look up “Car” or “Automobile” in a student dictionary, and there’s a little line drawing of the word being defined, that drawing would be the Fairmont.

John Fischer
John Fischer
11 days ago

That’s not a missing horn button on the Fairmont. Ford put the horn on one the steering wheel stalks on these cars, along with the early Fox body mustangs. The center cap on the steering wheel just popped out since it was held in by springs.

Donald Petersen
Donald Petersen
11 days ago

My first car was a ’78 Mercury Zephyr wagon, the slightly-better-looking four-eyed Fairmont. It was basically History’s Ugliest Mustang, and reasonably fun to drive, easy to work on (except for the cursed 2700VV carburetor), and certainly something that has an absolutely gargantuan aftermarket for speed parts. Mine had a 302, and I’d rather start with that so as not to need to update the front subframe, suspension, and rear end, but whatever, it’s all doable.

My brother had an ’82 626 at the end of his life, left it to my sister when he passed in 1992. I was responsible for keeping it running. That was kind of a pain in the ass back when it was only ten years old; it’d be much harder now. It was comfortable and fun and reasonably stylish, but no thank you.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
12 days ago

Oh this is impossible…a fox body sedan to build an American M5 out of or the 626 to swap in a Miata drivetrain and make a Japanese 2002…both seem like such excellent blank slates…

Joe L
Joe L
11 days ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

I believe this generation of 626 was an easy rotary swap; IIRC, there’s some commonality in the front end with the original RX-7.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
10 days ago
Reply to  Joe L

Oooh another great possibility!

86-GL
86-GL
13 days ago

I already got my late-70s brown fix, daily-ing a beige ‘76 Volvo 242 with K-jet, sports suspension and a stick shift. Both of these are honestly a downgrade from that, so if I’m taking another swing at the malaise era, I want the whole experience.

The Mazda was undoubtedly a better engineered, more reliable, forward-looking design than the Ford, but that’s splitting hairs, and frankly irrelevant by 2024 standards.

Give me the brutal ( but crisp) boxy lines, bench seat, column shifter and dog-dish hub caps!

Beyond that, the simple act of driving an anachronistic appliance ‘for the experience’ gets old fast.

You need to be able to ‘do something’ with the car, and the Ford is the only option with a viable path for upgrades or modification. The Fox platform opens the door for a straightforward 302 and a 5 speed swap, tipping the shenanigan quotient heavily in the Ford’s favour.

Last edited 12 days ago by 86-GL
Ben
Ben
13 days ago

Back in the day, Hot Rod had an article on how to specifically grind/machine the miserable integral intake manifold on that 200’s cylinder head to accept 3 1bbls. I’ll take that one, please.

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
13 days ago

The Fairmont was a barely designed and engineered car in its time, the automotive equivalent of unbranded corn flakes, whereas the Mazda was elegant, refined, plus it had a modern OHC engine. The 626 coupes of this era were especially nice. Mazda all the way.

Chris D
Chris D
11 days ago

The Mazda won’t give you a backache every time you drive it, but the Fairmont certainly will. And the Fairmont steering wheel is a nightmare of cheapskate automotive manufacturer stinginess. I would definitely want a Carfax on either of these, and to look under the seat covers of the Mazda. Either is good for another 100K, if you can stand driving a 3-speed automatic for that long.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
13 days ago

I can’t believe 25% voted for that nasty van…also can’t believe 54% have voted for that trashy Fix Or Repair Daily Fairmont so far. I’ll take the 626 w/ the clean sewing machine engine. I’d spice it up by putting a manual in it

Curtis Loew
Curtis Loew
13 days ago

Fairmont for sure. It’s a fox body mustang with 2 more doors and a backseat you can use with very little weight penalty.

Stephen Reed
Stephen Reed
13 days ago

Congratulations, I actually yawned during this one. 😉

But I chose the Ford. If I’m going boring, I at least want an inline 6 to power my yawns.

John Verlautz
John Verlautz
13 days ago

In the fall of 1982 I took a job selling at a midwestern Ford dealer. It was my second attempt at a “career” after graduating University in the spring.
We had a small fleet of late model Fairmonts on the used car lot, maybe fleet or rental buyback? Bud, the sales manager called them “shitbuckets.” Along with several other models on the lot, Chevette anyone? We had incentives to sell them, and one of the sales guys apparently got every other person he knew to buy one and sold at least a dozen. He was a superstar in those months.
I didn’t sell any, even though I moved Escorts, Rangers, and the occasional Bronco. A year later I had moved on to newspaper circulation. I liked being around cars, but the business? YIKES!

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
13 days ago

I want the Mazda –

As for the Fairmont – The horn button is on the turn signal stalk, Remember?

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
13 days ago

Agent Holden Ford just called and said that he’d rather spend holidays with Ed Kemper in a cabin by the lake in the woods, than driving a Fairmont again.
I concour. Mazda it is.

Chris D
Chris D
11 days ago
Reply to  Argentine Utop

A strangled 1960 design six-cylinder from the dark days of Ford manufacturing… so many red flags!! That would be like choosing to eat only baloney sandwiches and wear beige Walmart shoes and Kmart underwear for the next ten years.

Church
Church
13 days ago

I had extensive experience with Mazda 323s from that era and they were pretty fun and nearly bomb proof, so I vote 626. Needs a manual, for sure.

Griznant
Griznant
13 days ago

Guy in my hometown had the later “LTD” Fox-body and put all the guts from a Turbo-Coupe in it including 5-speed and the wheels. In 1992, that car was absolutely unreal as a sleeper. I think this Fairmont has the same overall look of that car and aftermarket parts would be easy to come by. The Mazda just seems like a headache to find parts for and ultimately a car that would be hard to upgrade.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
13 days ago

My vote goes to the Mazda as I’m betting it will be nicer to live with and use less fuel.

Along with Martin, Dutch Gunderson, Lana and Sally Decker
Along with Martin, Dutch Gunderson, Lana and Sally Decker
13 days ago

Fairmont. That era 626 is not exactly zoom-zoom. The Fairmont isn’t exactly either, but it would be easier to make it so.

Last edited 13 days ago by Along with Martin, Dutch Gunderson, Lana and Sally Decker
Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
13 days ago

I completed my high school Driver’s Education in a Fairmont just like that, in the mid-1980s. My high school owned two of them for Driver’s Ed, and there was also a two-bay industrial garage for the Auto Shop classes to service them. (My god, remember when public schools had budgets for stuff?!?)

I can’t say I learned to drive in the Fairmont (that was mostly my dad’s ’75 El Camino), but I did qualify for my first driving permit in it. So it’s a part of my automotive history. Having said that, I thought they were as dull as dishwater. Even when they were introduced in ’78, I remember being struck by how little effort Ford put into the styling. (The Fox-body Mustang was another matter, kid me thought it was totally rad.)

At this very same time, my mom owned a Mazda GLC in the same color brown as that 626, with the same automatic. The 626 had a significantly nicer interior, but that was out of her price range. And I have to admit that this was probably Mazda’s most boring era in terms of exterior styling. But the following year, Mazda blew everyone away with the all-new 626. I wanted that notchback sedan so bad.

Last edited 13 days ago by Mr. Fusion
Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
13 days ago
Reply to  Mr. Fusion

“…my mom owned a Mazda GLC in the same color brown as that 626, with the same automatic.”

It also had the same doors.
Yes – the 626 and GLC sedans used the exact same doors.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
13 days ago
Reply to  Urban Runabout

I call bullshit on 626 and GLC having same doors. I looked at GLC (FA4 and BD) and 626 (CB), and they don’t have same doors…

Tartpop
Tartpop
13 days ago

My family had a 78 Mercury Zephyr 2dr with this engine but a 3 speed manual on the floor. But, I’m going Mazda because, well it’s a Mazda.

Baja_Engineer
Baja_Engineer
13 days ago

I want the blank canvas for an 302 / T-5 swap.
I’d leave everything else alone except for some wider Cooper Cobra or Radial T/As

Andrew Pappas
Andrew Pappas
13 days ago

C: All of the above.

LS ALL THE THINGS!!!!

Peanut
Peanut
13 days ago

My parents bought a Fairmont around 79-80. Red with white vinyl interior. The interior b-pillars were also white, but if you scratched them with your fingernails they were orange-brown underneath similar to the color of this car. It had a lot of orange-brown showing by the time the car died.

Isis
Isis
13 days ago

I guess the 6cyl? I don’t want either of them.

Carter Young
Carter Young
13 days ago

My dad had a white Fairmont as his commuter car to drive the ten or so miles between our house in Huntingon Beach, CA and the McDonnell Douglas rocket factory in the same city. White, AM radio, no AC (don’t need it in beachside Orange County). My brother and I called it the FBIMobile. I believe it was Road and Track magazine which gushed over the Fairmont when it came out, comparing it to a Volvo. Well, our main family car was a Volvo 164 (my favorite car ever in our family stable), and the Fairmont was no Volvo.

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