The cars we loved.
The Mercury Bobcat was the twin of the Ford Pinto. It was Mercury’s first compact car, showing up for some reason in Canada in 1974, and America a year later. As a Mercury, it was slightly more upscale than the Pinto, with its own grill and exterior trim. It was smaller than the Fords Maverick, but larger than the Beetle or Corolla. The Bobcat, like the Pinto was offered in three door hatchback and wagon styles. Mechanically, the rear-wheel drive Bobcat was identical to the Pinto, sharing the same unibody construction, live rear axel suspension and 2.3 L inline 4 cylinder OHC engine. The engine’s horsepower rating changed every year, from slight improvements and from big changes in how horsepower was measured. By the time the Pinto go it’s larger 2 liter 4 and eventually a 2.8 liter 6, the horsepower rating had gone no higher than 88. For the sake of this entry, I’ll just refer to the Bobcat, even though it applies to the Pinto as well.
The Bobcats main competitors were the Chevrolet Vega and AMC’s Gremlin, but the real competition was emerging from Europe and especially Japan. A super stripped down version of the Pinto and later the Bobcat could be bought new for less than $2000!although the Bobcat was not as innovative as the Vega, it’s smaller engines won praise from the press. That praise later turned to scrutiny, as the Pinto’s biggest claim to fame would be the safety scandal that emerged in 1974. The rear mounted gas tanks of many Pintos were exploding when impacted. It was later found that Ford knew of this problem and did nothing about it. The strange way that the Pinto was designed with separate interior and exterior teams working separate from each other might have been the cause, but it was determined that Ford design was not safe from the beginning and that the company was interested in profits over safety (acording to Ralph Nader). Contrary to what the media implied with the deaths of hundreds, in reality only 27 people died in rear impact fires caused by the exploding gas tanks.
Strangely, in a gangster like move of defiance, Ford never officially recalled any Pintos or other Ford cars that had similar problems. Media attention swelled, but diminished as the seventies went on. Despite all the hoopla about exploding gas tanks, sales remained good throughout the Bobcats life-cycle, mostly because sales of the Bobcat were significantly less than the Pinto. The Pintos popularity spawned a van like wagon by 1977 or which there was a rare Bobcat copy. There were other factory appearance packages, but never a performance package like what was offered in the Vega. The Pinto and Bobcat began to resemble each other by the last refresh in 1979 to the point that the “sporty” versions of the cars were almost interchangable.
Bobcats fastback shape and compact size made it a favorite in the American market (for awhile anyway), but the competition was much better and slowly sales fell off until the end in 1981. Ford, realizing that it’s compact offering was slipping began to supplement it’s small car offerings with the smaller German sourced Fiesta. Later the new Ford Escort (Mercury Lynx), replaced the the Pinto/Bobcat and Fiesta. The Pinto/Bobcat will forever live with the distinction of being one of America’s worst cars from its worst automotive decade.