“Do you remember the ’85 Ford Spectron mate?”
Might seem like a strange question to most of you but my mate Damien - hot rod builder, qualified panel beater, visionary and confidante when it comes to frivolous, nonsense car purchases - calls me often with similar discussion starters.
“Yes, I do remember the Spectron, but we didn’t have enough money to buy one of them back in the day, mate. We had the tradie-spec Econovan. With very sketchy rear seats that my father installed. From a wrecker. Mini Minor I think they were. One white, one red, bolted into some two-by-four, which was then bolted into the floor. And it had lap belts.”
My response was something like that, but I couldn't remember the last time I had seen one on the road - Econovan or Spectron.
Safety was clearly all the rage in 1985, then. Family first and all that. In any case, we definitely couldn’t afford the bells and whistles Spectron back then, but I just assumed Damien had seen one on the road. Hence the phone call.
“It’s yellow. With those, so-bad-they-are-almost-cool ’80s decals. One owner. 192,000km. Drives like new. It’s a time warp.”
Okay then, so he’s bought it. That’s what I was thinking as I was listening to Damien - who had become an overnight expert in all things Spectron as us car tragics tend to do when we spot something interesting - roll off a list of its strong points. He’s the only person I know (aside from my father), with more cars than me so it would be no surprise if he had, in fact, added a van to his motoring menagerie at home.
And then came the kicker.
“I want it. I really do. But I can’t buy another car. I’m trying to sell about five at the moment, and I’m working on a bunch of others, so it would be stupid for me to buy this one. It’s a steal. It’s one owner. Nearly immaculate. Runs like new. You should buy it. You need to buy it. Wait ’til you see it!”
Now, I’ve done plenty of rash things involving cars before. I once flew to Melbourne with a mate, picked up a hire car, drove three hours south and collected an ’83 Toyota Sprinter with 400,000km on the dial that I had seen three bad photos of, and then proceeded to drive it back to Sydney after depositing the hire car back at Melbourne airport. Didn’t miss a beat mind you. It is a Toyota, after all.
However, my Spectron effort could take the cake. Keep in mind, I already had four cars and five motorcycles, before I added a van I didn’t need to the equation. Having not seen (or indeed even ever thought about) the Spectron, and on the word of Damien, who may or may not have sent me some photos at that point, I put the money in his account and bought it.
I couldn’t even get to it for a week at the earliest, given a bunch of CarAdvice work commitments. No matter though, he’s the kind of guy who drives your car for a few days and fixes everything that might be wrong with it, then gives it a detail into the bargain. He could keep it for a month for all I cared, if he was going to treat it with that kind of attention to detail.
And so, on a whim, with no need for an eight-seat, 34-year-old van, I became a Spectron owner. Only the second Ford I’ve ever owned, after a hideous little Escort panelvan I was saddled with many years ago, but a Ford I was strangely excited to spend some time with.
When did mid-’80s cars become cool? Are they cool? I have no idea, but I couldn’t wait to take it for a run.
Take a look at it. It is as good in the flesh as it looks in the pictures too. The colour is so ’80s it hurts, the decals are perfect and there’s something about the way it’s been used but looked after that gives it authenticity. It’s earned its stripes, so to speak.
It’s the great back story we all search for with an old car too. One owner, purchased from a Ford dealer on the South Coast of NSW, serviced to the book every 10,000km from day one, 192,000km when I bought it, and the only colour combo you’d want.
It’s got a crack in the passenger side rear view mirror and one centre cap missing - and that’s the extent of the damage.The steering wheel has faded to a weird grey colour as well, but that’s not a major concern. I’m not sure Spectron parts are thick on the ground though, so it might take some time to sort those issues out.
I’ll get to the cabin in a minute but I’m not surprised by how well it runs. It’s testament to what happens when you look after an engine, service it regularly, use quality oil and filters and don’t thrash it. At idle, it’s so quiet and smooth, you think you’ve stalled when you roll to a stop. It runs beautifully even up to redline, and it doesn’t blow a puff of smoke. It is effectively like driving a Spectron would have been in 1985 - a genuine time warp.
The only mechanical issue I needed to rectify was the clutch. It was starting to slip and was only going to get worse. Normally, I’d change that myself but I was travelling a bit for work and the guys at Thomson Ford in Parramatta (where we collect our Ford press cars) were very keen to step back in time.
I ordered a new clutch, they sent the flywheel out for machining and while the gearbox was out, one of the resourceful mechanics turned up some new nylon shift linkage bushes for me because you can’t buy them anymore.
Problem solved. The gearbox won’t match a Porsche 911 manual for precision or speed of shifting, but it’s sweet now even around town. Keeping in mind these vehicles were built when there was far less traffic on the road, it deals remarkably well with the cut and thrust of modern city snarls. One thing you do notice, is how much slower off the mark any old car is once you point it into 2019-spec traffic.
You’d be surprised how many people still take their old vehicles back to manufacturers to be worked on, too. Mario, the service manager at Thomson Ford, told me that they get Fords dating back as far as the ’60s semi regularly. In the event that you don’t have the time or the resources to do the work yourself, you’ll often find a wealth of knowledge in dealer service workshops, too. As I did, with the mechanic who took it upon himself to make the shift linkage bushes for me. Mario had worked on Spectrons when he was a mechanic himself and he knew exactly what the issues were when I started explaining them, making the process of getting the repair squared away as easy as possible.
The 2.0-litre, carb-fed four-cylinder is impressive for the time really, and does a good job hauling the brick on wheels along, even at 110km/h. The five-speed manual is now pretty good too. A little notchy when it’s cold, but it warms to the task nicely and it’s a real daily drive option if you want it to be. The steering isn’t perfect, in that it can be a bit vague, but a wheel alignment, balance and overall check is next on my list. The brakes are pretty good too, discs up front, drums out back.
Infotainment is present in that it has an AM/FM radio and at least two speakers. They both seem to be working, but that’s as good as it gets. Every dash light, switch, control and idiot light works though. That was a pleasant surprise, given the electrical gremlins I’ve had with nearly every old car I’ve ever owned. Funnily enough, there’s no storage to speak of - either cup/bottle holders or for a large smartphone - 1985 huh?
The cabin is undeniably simple though. Wind up windows in the front. Sliding windows in the rear, and precious little technology means there’s hardly anything to go wrong. There is a beeper to remind you that you’ve either left the headlights on, or the key in the ignition. That’s as high tech as it gets.
Safety? It has seatbelts. That’s about it. Up front, you are the crumple zone, and if you haven’t driven an older car like this, you’ll be staggered by how close you are to the sheetmetal. In the driver and passenger seats, you’re basically leaning against the door skins, it’s that narrow.
Park it next to a new HiAce and you realise how bloody small it is externally too. Still, there’s an enormous amount of room in the second and third rows, and the visibility is incredible thanks to the basically non-existent pillars (there’s that notion of safety again).
The reason the cabin is in such amazing condition is due to the fussiness of the original owner. When we found the Spectron, it had sheepskin seat covers, and at each seat space, there was a tea towel located underneath that. Crazy. The floor was covered in rubber matting that had been secured at the edges, by removing the chrome trim plates and then returning them into position to hold the rubber close against the carpet. This van has been lovingly cared for to a level you don’t see some genuinely collectible cars respected. Hence the amazing condition.
So, there it is. My latest acquisition. I have no idea if I’ll keep it, how long I’ll keep it, or what I will do with it. I do know that I love driving it, and it’s an amazing time capsule, that has been used, but sympathetically - which is exactly how all vehicles should be treated.
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