The cars we loved.
There was a time when Americans were not sure what to make of small cars. The big three seemed even more clueless. A wave of small cars led by the VW Beatle and later Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic swept the coasts of America. In the Heartland, small cars were still an oddity until the first of two fuel crisis prompted Detroit to take diminutive motoring seriously.
The results were almost laughable in retrospect. Not that the Beatles and Corollas of the world were much better – they just had a better grasp of what the American motorist wanted in a small car. America responded with the Gremlin, Vega and others – larger cars that were cut down hastily to “sub compact status. Of the Big Three, Ford’s entry into the subcompact realm may have been the most controversial if not the fastest to market. It took a record 25 months to go from drawing board to production (quite a feat in a pre-digital era). The rear wheel drive Pinto was like no other small car from Ford. Considered a two door four passenger sedan, it was smaller than the Falcon, formally Ford’s smallest car. Unlike Chevrolet with its Vega, the Pinto was a true hatchback without any pretense of looking like a standard coupe. AMC’s Gremlin was similar, except it lacked the sleek profile with its almost upright station wagon hatch. Mercury sold a slightly more upscale version called the Bobcat (as upscale as a Pinto derived car could be).
At one point Ford considered the European Escort, but decided to develop in-house. It did use a Ford of Europe sourced four-cylinder engine nicknamed the “Kent”. It was solid, reliable and cheap from a wing of the company that had more experience with small engines. Naming conventions for the new subcompact would stay with a horse theme, in hoping to evoke the Mustang. Horse breeders will tell you that Mustangs and Pintos are very different in temperament, and such was the case with the Pinto car. Ironically, the Pinto was more advanced in some ways compared to the Mustang of the time. It was certainly lighter and engineered with economy in mind.
At only 2,3000lbs. maximum, Ford took considerable care in trying to make the Pinto as light as possible. Lee Iacocca, then president of Ford, insisted that the Pinto be fewer than 2,000 pounds and cost under $2,000. By using a stamped under body platform with uniformly wielded outer sheet metal, the weight target was met in early Runabout models. It was one of the sleeker shapes coming from Ford at the time with a better aerodynamic profile than the Mustang Hardtop. The slumped rear end suggested a hatch, but that feature was not available in the Runabout model. Its trunk gave way to fold down rear seats. The hatch which came a bit later eventually would have a full glass door. The Runabout and hatch models were joined by a two door wagon.
The two door hatchback would become the most popular Pinto model type. Its appeal was extended with various sport appearance packages like the 1976 Stallion. Other versions capitalized on trends of the seventies (van culture, surfing etc.). A California dealer went so far as to sell a modified turbocharged Pinto called the Pangra. Its sloped front end with pop up headlights was an attempt at European flair, but came off looking kit car like. There was no denying the performance. It was able to reach 200 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats during prototype testing. Production cars were not likely to achieve those speeds, but with a modified Koni suspension, new console and Recaro seats, they handled better and were more comfortable than any stock Pinto.
Speaking of popularity, buyers could not get enough of Ford’s little carefree car in the early years. After a year, Ford had sold over 100,000 by 1971, peaking in 1974 at over 544,000 units. The Pinto would become a regular sight on popular TV shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and Charlie’s Angles. Facelifts in 76’ and 79’ would update the overall look, but sales were on a steady decline (but still high) after 1974. The price also rose, reaching to over $5,000 for a fully appointed Squire wagon in 1980.
The Pinto was motivated by a range of four-cylinder engines during its run from a 54 hp 1.6L to a 88 hp 2.3L. Starting in 1975, a German built 103 hp 2.8L V6 (from the Capri) was used in sportier models. Acceleration was for the most part sluggish for all but the V6 powered cars, but fuel economy was good, with any engine. Common gripes from the motoring press were centered on the suspension and standard drum brakes. Road & Track even cited the brakes as having a “serious deficiency”. Ride quality was fair on smooth roads but with a multileaf semielliptical spring suspension, conditions degraded on rough surfaces. Despite all the effort Ford put in trying to make the Pinto the ideal car for the time, simple quality control issues were not resolved. Buyers complained of door handles coming off and plastic bits breaking. As it turned out this would be the least of Ford’s problems.
As appealing as the Pinto may have been, it will forever be associated with the controversy centered on gas tank fires caused by a design flaw that Ford knew about but ignored. The issue became a high-profile media issue as several court cases resulted in Ford paying for damages. Ford reluctantly recalled the Pinto to have dealers install a plastic shield to protect the gas tanks from potential fires due to collisions. By now the Pinto had become very popular, even as the fight over exploding gas tanks played out in the national media. Rapidly advancing foreign competition had begun to outpace the some of the best efforts from Ford, GM and Chrysler. Ford responded by selling the smaller and more modern engineered German sourced Fiesta alongside the Pinto, for those needing an even smaller car. The Pinto stuck around until 1980, at which point it and the Fiesta was replaced by the new Escort “world car.