By on October 23, 2017

Image: 1981 Ford DurangoLong before Dodge would apply the Durango name to its midsize SUV offering, Ford used it on a very limited production pickup as it considered a replacement for the Ranchero.

Come and check out a beige, two-tone, Ford Fairmont Futura Hack-job Durango pickup.

Image: 1981 Ford DurangoFord’s Ranchero started the sedan-based pickup segment in the United States, but was at the end of its life as the LTD II and its variants wrapped up for the 1979 model year. General Motors still produced its Ranchero competitor, the El Camino. Now in its fifth generation, the more modern El Camino was finding sales success ever since an updated (and downsized) model debuted for 1978. Ford needed to take action, maybe.

Not wanting to commit to a full production model, Ford started a joint venture with National Coach Works in Los Angeles, which is in western America.

Between 1979 and 1982, National Coach Works took Ford Fairmont Futura two-door sedans and converted them into the Durango you see before you. Production in Los Angeles was leisurely, and estimates say only 212 Durangos left the factory. All came equipped with Ford’s Thriftpower 3.3-liter inline-six engine, coupled to a three-speed automatic.

Image: 1981 Ford DurangoRemoving the rear half of a regular Fairmont Futura coupe, a fiberglass bed and new rear window was installed. As part of the hastily modified nature of the Durango, all rear lighting and the license plate became a part of the tailgate. Because of this, the Durango included documentation warning against driving with the tailgate down, lest a driver incur an accident or roadside police stop.

Image: 1981 Ford DurangoCompared to other examples of the Ford Durango, this one (presently for sale in Texas) is decked out in a more broughamy, luxurious trim. Two-tone paint, whitewall tires, dressy wheel covers, and a sunroof are all part of the package.

Image: 1981 Ford DurangoThe interior features an abundance of wood trim (carved by middle school shop students, from the looks of things). Ultimately, the Durango project didn’t really pan out, and the pickup never became an official part of Ford’s lineup. Pushed to the “little project” corner of the room, the Durango is often forgotten.

Image: 1981 Ford DurangoWith 71,000 miles on the odometer, the dealer is asking $10,995. That seems like a big ask, especially given the condition shown in some of the photos. But the Durango is unequivocally a very rare vehicle, and one with different options than most. Even a Google Images search doesn’t really understand the inquiry. “You mean the Dodge Durango, right?”

Image: 1981 Ford DurangoA confused internet — all a part of a good Rare Rides.

[Images via seller]

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55 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1981 Ford Durango is Neither a Dodge nor an El Camino...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    All came equipped with Ford’s Thriftpower 3.3-liter inline-six engine, coupled to a three-speed automatic.

    Nothing wrong with it that can’t be fixed by a healthy application of Fox Body Mustang parts.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    If you want some prime Malaise Era Car Porn, check out “Mindhunter” on Netflix.

    Tons of pristine late ’70s Novas, Fairmonts, LTD IIs…

    • 0 avatar
      Coopdeville

      In the first 2 episodes I watched them get into the same two-tone yellow and beige Fairmont at the rental agency more than once. Lazy editing or intentional play on the mind-numbing repetition of business travel?

      Or were yellow and beige Fairmonts the ubiquitous rental car of their day?

  • avatar
    Towncar

    I remember reading about these, but I don’t think I ever actually saw one. If there were only 212 for the whole country, no wonder.

    I wondered at the time why they didn’t start with the Fairmont wagon instead. It already had tailgate-friendly lights and sheetmetal at the rear.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yeah but with a wagon they would have had to do something with the extra doors and have a mess with the front ones. The Futura roof made for a nice cut line to make a cab w/o a whole lot of work. I think the thing to do would be to use the rear portion of the wagon quarter panel and wagon tail lights. However that would have interfered with the nice slim bed line on the top.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    “Thriftpower” – back in the days when car companies bragged about their lo-po engines ;)

  • avatar
    JimZ

    those things must have rusted instantly.

  • avatar
    CKNSLS Sierra SLT

    I had the two door coupe version with the same power train. It had a very noisy lifter than would act up every so often. I also remember big panel gaps between the truck lid and rear quarter panels.

    The 70’s were not known for quality automobiles-from anybody.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      I had a Zephyr Z-7, I loved it. It also had the Inline 6. I would love another Zephyr, either a two or four door sedan, or another Z-7.

    • 0 avatar
      2012_117

      My first car was an ‘83 Fairmont Futura with that power train. I remember the engine raced on startup and I had to tap the accelerator to get it to an idle. Shifting into drive without doing that meant unintended acceleration (before that became a thing.) It flipped a Pathfinder that ran a red light and clipped the front end. I was none the worse for wear but mom made me junk it when the local junkyard couldn’t find a replacement headlight.

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus

        You’re describing the typical warm-up procedure for a carbureted engine. It was perfectly normal to run at high RPMs and to reduce to a normal idle after warm-up was complete, with a tap of the accelerator. Attempting to drive the vehicle without the cycle having been completed could also lead to stalling and rough running.

        And, any car will accelerate in that manor if placed in a drive gear while the RPMs are so high. I don’t recommend it, but you can reproduce the occurance by reving the engine in neutral and dropping it into drive with the RPMs up like that. We used to do this on purpose in high school to force a burn out. It is very unhealthy for the car’s drivetrain, and potentially anyone around.

        Most any auto parts store should have had a headlight for it, I have also seen them at Walmart. They’re sealed-beam headlamps that were used on many models before modern flush headlamps (with a separate bulb) became the norm in the later 1980s. Many cars used the same size headlamp as the Fairmont/Zephyr.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      Just look at the glovebox and dash fit….ugh.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    All this talk about Dodges and car based pickups reminds me of a car/truck I used to see quite frequently where I used to live. The guy was obviously a Mopar Man and he decided he needed a car/truck with the Pentastar badge on it. So he used a Diplomat and an ElCamino to make his dream a reality. He did a great job melding the bed of the Elky to the Dippy using the complete inner bed, upper rail, tailgate and bumper with tail lights. I actually saw it a couple of weeks ago when I was traveling in the area where I used to see it on a weekly basis if not more frequently. It is painted Aqua so it does stand out in a sea of greige.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yes he could have found a Rampage if he wanted a FWD but I’m going to assume that he wanted RWD and probably 8 cylinders arranged in a V. I will note that I never saw anything in the bed and mainly saw it in the morning or evening commuter traffic.

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        This is nuttin’ around here someone made a modern Rampage via cutting up a Dodge Neon (though a PT Cruiser would’ve fit this better).

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          I thought about making one with an Aerostar. I’ve seen (via Google Images) ones built using a passenger van as a starting point, but my idea is to start with a cargo van instead. Reason being, the rear doors being side hinged instead of a hatch. I figured that if they were cut just above the middle hinge, they could function far better than a home-made tailgate.

          Yes, they would open to the sides, not drop down like a typical truck, but I believe it would be very useful when loading cargo. You could lift and place the object being hauled directly in the cargo bed without having to put it on the tailgate and then move it into the cargo area in order to shut the tailgate, as you would with a typical truck.

          “Why not just buy a Ranger?”
          Where is the creative fun in that? Anyone can go buy a factory-made truck and look like any number of other owners with that same truck. The point is to be different and creative.

          • 0 avatar
            Ko1

            Another cool thing you could do by basing it on a cargo van is a rampside like the old Corvair pickups.

          • 0 avatar
            JohnTaurus

            Ko1, and excellent observation! I had figured on leaving the sliding door operational, since its track runs below the window line (which is where I’d make the cut). There is a attachment at the top and bottom, but since half of the bulk of the door would be removed, I’m sure the lower attachment could handle it. If not, I guess it would have to be welded shut.

            I would source a passenger van hatch from a junkyard to form the bulkhead behind the seats, giving me ample rear view through the window.

            Plus, the cargo van would have far less interior that would have to be removed to complete the conversion. Many had vinyl seats and rubber floors, perfect for the cab of a truck.

            To complete the workhorse image and to convert to more available tire sizes, I figured on buying four steel wheels from a 2002-era Explorer (the ones with IRS), the wheels used for their spare tire. They’re full size wheels, 16″, and I know I can make them fit because I had alloys from that generation Explorer on my 1996 Aerostar XLT I had before my current Taurus. The stock Explorer tire won’t fit, of course, but I was able to find a size that worked on the van. I would paint them silver to make a very utilitarian look, IMO. :)

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I wonder if anyone keeps official track of model name trading among carmakers. I recall Chrysler having a Lancer, then giving the name to Mitsubishi, and I know Chrysler also had a concept car called Falcon. Apparently GM doesn’t do that – they’ve had concept cars called LeSabre and Eldorado, and they later used those names for production models.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      The original Edsel line up included the Pacer, Ranger and Citation which were all reappeared later, with only Ranger staying with Ford. Studebaker used the names Daytona, Commander, and Cruiser which were all appropriated by the artist now known as FCA. Yes they added a PT which makes that one a bit of a stretch.

      Speak of Ranger before it was its own model it was a trim package on the F-series as was Explorer.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      Actually, “Durango” was used by GM between the existence of this and the Dodge SUV. It was a trim for the S-10.

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    Pontiac had the Safari wagon. Later VW wanted to sell their utility vehicle, based on the aircooled Beetle, in the USA. Unable to use the Safari name, which the Typ 181 was called in the rest of the world, they called it, the Thing.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    “Futura” was a trim level on the Fairmont, but the swashbuckling coupe this was based on was Mercury only, as in the “Zephyr” Coupe.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      It has the Fairmont grille, but the Zephyr’s fenders (vents give that away). The grille could’ve been replaced at some point.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        Right, notice there’s no “Ford” emblems, just the Fairmont grill. There’s never been a “Mercury Ranchero” and it’d have to be called something else, like the GMC “Caballero” (El Camino rebadge).

        There wasn’t a Fairmont “coupe”, it was more like a 2-door sedan, greenhouse glass all-around. Mercury didn’t offer this basic 2-door, only Ford. It went along with the “base” series, Escort Pony and whatnot.

        What I mean is “Futura” trim was only offered on 4-door Fairmonts. They played emblem roulette on this one.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          Mike, I’m sorry but that is not correct. The Futura trim initially denoted the coupe body like this was based on (the equivalent to the Zephyr Z-7). Later in the production run, it was used on other bodystyles of the Fairmont as an uplevel trim.

          And the Zephyr did have a two door sedan, without the swooping roof line and wrap-around tail lamps of the Z-7 and (initial) Futura. I’ve seen them for sale, and I have a 1980 Zephyr brochure (I had ones for other years, but don’t know where they are) that shows it.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          Here is a Fairmont Futura in the coupe style of the Zephyr Z-7:
          https://hudsonvalley.craigslist.org/cto/d/1981-ford-fairmont-futura/6326661901.html

          And another:
          https://boston.craigslist.org/bmw/cto/d/1980-ford-fairmont-futura/6321318430.html

          And another, in terrible condition, and with an engine that inexplicably grew 100 cubic inches! Lol: https://dothan.craigslist.org/cto/d/1979-ford-fairmont-futura/6344469308.html

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            Thanks! That red one is amazing. But it deserves a better V8 transplant than from a Fox T-Bird. Yuk. How about from a supercharged (Fox) ’04 Cobra, with pedals from a Mustang?

            Yeah it’s a lot of money to burn, but still comes in for much less than a new Hyundai Elantra that’ll be worth “scrap value” in 10 years if you keep it in mint condition.

          • 0 avatar
            JohnTaurus

            No argument there. For me, a fuel injected (with Aussie head) Inline 6 would be my choice of powertrain, and it’d be in a Mercury version.

            I’ll have another Zephyr one day. I’d take this one to be my project. Looks solid and who can argue with the price?
            https://saltlakecity.craigslist.org/cto/d/1978-mercury-zephyr/6358038211.html

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          Found a Zephyr two door sedan:

          https://tampa.craigslist.org/hdo/cto/d/1979-mercury-zephr/6346963215.html

          I dunno about $1900, but I like it. Needs some 83-87 Cougar turbines (alloys) on it.

  • avatar

    If I was a Ford guy I’d be interested. The Fairmont/Zephyr were the first of the Fox bodies as everyone here knows. It was also about the best FoMoCo product of the 70s, or at least shares the honor with the ’79 Fox Mustang.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      “It was also about the best FoMoCo product of the 70s”

      Agreed. There isn’t much from the era within FoMoCo that I liked, but my Zephyrs (1983 GS sedan, 1978 Z-7 coupe) were certainly the exception.

  • avatar

    I’ve seen this one in person over a year ago. Its been on the market for years, for good reason. While a solid candidate for a full restoration, that’s precisely what it needs. The interior is completely baked, its filthy and rusty underhood, the transmission BANGS into gear, and there was something wrong with the tailgate (can’t remember what anymore).

    I offered him $1000 because I know he’d blow me out the door (its not worth much more) as I had no interest in another Fox project that was this loaded.

    Pictures tell far from a thousand words.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    Oh my goodness what a hideous little stillborn. And the coolest thing about the Ranchero was the awesome tailgate murals people used to paint on them. You can’t even do that here.

  • avatar
    ajla

    1980 and 1981 were some rough years.

  • avatar
    scottcom36

    I’m not advocating chopping up a rare car, but man wouldn’t this look good with a Fox LTD front clip installed.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      I’m afraid I cannot concur.

      But, everyone is entitled to their opinion. To me, the Fox LTD was far more stodgy and ugly than the Fairmont/Zephyr. I am partial to the Zephyr, although I’d like to use a more modern Mercury grille (cut to fit from a late-style Grand Marquis grille, with the Mercury logo in the middle), and dispose of the pointed nose. The LTD/Marquis nose was just horrible to me. Always hated those cars, plus many came with the 3.8L V-6 instead of my beloved Inline 6. I’m glad the Taurus put them to rest.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        Bunkie Knudsen didn’t spend much time at Ford after putting beaks on Pontiacs at GM, but those noses seem to have lasted longer at Ford than he did.

        • 0 avatar
          JohnTaurus

          At least they were toned down quite a bit from a few years before these models.

          I never liked that look. I’ve attempted to think of a way to get rid of it on the Zephyr, short of major rhinoplasty.

          Maybe I could use a Fox body Granada front clip, with the Mercury waterfall grill (as I described from a late model Grand Marquis). Talk about a needle in a haystack. I bet if I ever found one (Fox Granada) in a junkyard, it’d be somewhere out west.

          • 0 avatar
            Proud2BUnion

            As a life-long Ford fanatic, I always enjoy the accurate, insightful comments you post!
            As a hard working 17 year old back in 1982, I purchased a two year old Futura. 30k miles, total piece of junk- but I still loved it! The best thing was the optional full instrument dash- same as the Fox Mustang, 2.3 Lima with a 4 speed and factory sunroof. In hindsight I should have got a Turbo Mustang like my best buddy. Black with the lime green hockey stick stripe & giant green snake on the hood . It was also a unreliable piece of junk. Sill awesome tho.

          • 0 avatar
            JohnTaurus

            Proud2BUnion,

            Thanks man! I really appreciate that. The year you bought your car is the year I was born! Ha

            I would’ve thought a 2.3L/4spd would’ve been pretty reliable, but it certainly was not “the best of times” for quality automobiles, from any mainstream manufacturer.

            I would *have* to swap in a full instrument cluster into my future Zephyr project. It was always on the list when I was planning to build my ’78 Zephyr Z-7. I really regret having to give up that car, but life happens.

            I was friends with a guy who built custom cars, and he had me talked into reversing the doors (rear hinged) and doing a tri-tone paint job to accentuate the weird, oops, I mean *unique* lines of that particular car. I still would like to do some of that stuff, its something that will stand out in a car show or similar event.

            Anybody can throw shiny paint on, and a small block in, a ’55 Chevy, but I desire something more unique and original (besides just for the sake of being a Ford guy, like you). Reverse opening doors, a fuel injected Inline 6 (with a head sourced from Australia) coupled to a 5 speed manual or an overdrive automatic, and the fact that it isn’t a typical model to customize to begin with really appeals to me. I think it would attract more attention than your typical hot rod. Easy, cheap, and popular among the traditionalists? Nahh, but none of those are the point.

            Thanks again for the compliment and the story of your car.

    • 0 avatar
      DurangoRich

      scottcom36 – that is *exactly* what I am planning to do with my Fairmont Durango. I think the slant of the LTD nose will go well with the slope of the pickup bed sides.

      Yeah, they’re really rare but mine is in such condition that it’s not worth restoring to stock and since it is likely to be my one and only project car I am going to do with I want to with it.

      I have a fuel injected 5.0 and 5 speed to go into it as well.

  • avatar
    gkhize

    Putting a front clip from a Fox Mustang GT along with the 5.0, wheels, and cheese grater tail lights would perk this thing right up.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    The fail is epic on this one. However, a Transit Econoline might just work in there modern times.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      The key to the success of the Ranchero and El Camino was that they were originally compact 2-door wagons: an open bed hauler with a carlike ride. I’ve seen a few cab-over 1960s econoline cargo vans converted to pickups, so a truck base might be the way to go – they’re not making BOF 2-door wagons anymore.

  • avatar
    CRConrad

    Oh, so that’s where Los Angeles is!

    Thank you, I’ve been wondering so frightfully.

  • avatar
    dtremit

    Odd bit of trivia: I believe Ford manufactured the dashboard for the original Dodge Durango.

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