--> A Little Respect for the Ford Pinto... Please

A Little Respect for the Ford Pinto... Please

Copied from the Ford Racing Enthusiasts News Room HERE! The Ford Pinto gets a little respect in 2011 as well as "put it into proper historical context."

By John M. Clor / Ford Performance Group

CARLISLE, PA (June, 2011)

Early arrivals took aim at the swap meet and car corral for bargain shopping on Thursday, while others witnessed the arrival of The Pinto Stampede following its 1,600-plus mile journey from Denver, CO, to Carlisle, PA. Some two dozen of the infamous little ponies came onto the grounds at about 6:30 p.m. to cap their cross-country drive, and were joined over the course of the weekend by nearly 40 more Pintos, pushing the on-site Pinto count to nearly 70 as they raised $7,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Enthusiasts involved in The Pinto Stampede, organized by Norm and Louise Bagi, and the 40th gathering put together by the Pinto Car Club of America (PCAA), believed that they'd be overlooked by corporate Ford, given the car's checkered past. But Ford Racing and our Ford Performance Group enthusiast outreach program was there to support Pinto loyalists! We awarded Ford "Certificates of Appreciation" and a special commemorative hatpin for those who participated in the Pinto's 40th Anniversary Celebration (with the most Pintos in one place since the last cars left the factory). Plus we even threw a "Pinto Pizza Party" for owners after a Saturday parade downtown and ensuing street festival.

So why all this for the Pinto, you ask? Well, first, to show that we support all Ford enthusiasts! And second, because few people - even Ford people - really know enough facts about the little car to put it into proper historical context. So, perhaps a little Ford Pinto history is in order here:

Ford fans shouldn't discount the contribution that the Pinto had made in Detroit's early battles against the imports. Forty years ago that sales war was being waged mostly on the ever-growing subcompact front, with VW's Beetle the champ among an expanding number of imported models. After Ford's first two "import fighters," the compact Falcon and Maverick, successfully began and ended their runs mostly in the '60s, they were considered more by buyers of American cars than buyers of imports, which had grown to 16 percent of total U.S. car sales and nearly 40 percent of the trend-setting Southern California market by 1970. It was apparent that if the Big Three were to stem the import tide, true subcompacts were needed.

Detroit's first shot across the import bow was fired by the now-defunct American Motors, which introduced its little Gremlin on April Fool's Day, 1970. For the 1971 model year, GM had the Chevrolet Vega, and Chrysler could counter only with the Dodge Colt, built in Japan by Mitsubishi, and the Plymouth Cricket, built in England by Austin. Ford's answer was the Pinto, a chunky two-door fastback introduced on Sept. 11, 1970. Developed as Project Phoenix, it began life in the mid-'60s codenamed the "G-Car," with a transverse inline four mounted in the rear. In part to speed development, that chassis layout was discarded for a conventional front-engine, live rear-axle design, but the overall bodystyle was retained.

The result was a Euro-American blend in a Beetle-sized package using engines from Ford of Europe subsidiaries. Pinto came with the 1.6-liter (98 cid) 75-hp inline four from the British Cortina; optional was the 2.0-liter (122 cid) SOHC 100-hp four from the German Taunus. Both cast-iron motors came mated to European four-speed manuals, with Ford's three-speed Cruise-O-Matic optional only with the 2.0-liter.

Pinto was offered initially as a two-door sedan, but Ford responded to concerns over miniscule trunk space with a hatchback "Runabout" in mid-'71, sporting a fold-down rear seat. In '72, a two-door station wagon was added, a version which proved very popular. But as in its previous responses to an import threat, Ford's biggest competition came from Chevrolet, and Pinto's came from Vega.

Though smaller (94.2-in wheelbase vs. 97), lighter (1,949 lbs vs. 2,146) and less technically daring than Vega, Pinto had a mechanical advantage that rested in its well-proven European powerplants and rack-and-pinion steering. It also carried classic Ford styling cues in a more American-looking package, while the Vega had a more foreign look similar to a Fiat 124. Vega and Pinto sparked inevitable comparisons, and the press tended to be more impressed with the Vega. Yet Road & Track wrote that while Vega is "by far the more interesting design... Pinto happens to be the more pleasant car to drive in everyday use." It also said that while a standard Pinto may not be as quick as a standard Vega, "thanks to a quieter and smoother engine, a superior gearbox, somewhat greater comfort for the driver, and better finish throughout, it is subjectively the nicer car." And the magazine editors liked the 2.0-liter (for $82 extra) model Pinto with front disc brakes ($32 more) even better.

Ford's new Pinto drew more than 350,000 buyers in its very first year. It then went on to outsell the trouble-plagued Vega in every single model year afterward. Continually refined with mechanical upgrades and better trim, Pinto saw just two face-lifts - in '77 to a "soft" slant-nose look, and in '79 with a "shovel-nose" to incorporate the new, square headlights. When stricter, power-sapping emissions laws hit, Pinto received a new, U.S.-built 140 cid 2.3-liter four (in '74) which served it until the end, and lived on in later Fords. Pinto even offered V6s - a 2.6 liter (for '75) and 2.8 liter (1975-79).

The Pinto, however, is all-too-often remembered by a few highly publicized fuel-tank fires from rear-end collisions involving some early models and subsequent fatalities. While Chevy's Corvair was the first car killed by safety critics, Pinto was the first to be killed by the media, who had a veritable field day with sensationalist crash reports after Ford became involved in criminal litigation - despite the undeniable fact that most any of the compact cars from that era were subject to the same laws of physics as the Pinto, and some even had a higher incidence of fires in rear-end collisions!

Sanity prevailed and Ford was eventually acquitted, but the media hounds had already wreaked havoc on the car's reputation. Although Ford recalled about 1.5 million 1971-75 Pintos to revamp the filler-neck design and shield the gas tank from impacting against the differential in a severe rear-end collision, there was no stopping the bad press. Worse still, a Ford actuarial table leaked to a self-proclaimed consumer protectionist publication sparked an ethics debate on the cost of large-scale auto recalls vs. that of settling wrongful death lawsuits. That prompted some would-be do-gooders to paint Ford as the epitome of what's wrong with corporate America - while completely ignoring the fact that such cost analysis is an everyday, ongoing part of big business, especially in the health care and insurance industries, to this day.

Pinto's sales sagged during the years it faced legal troubles, but rebounded again in 1979-80 thanks to the oil crisis increasing demand for inexpensive, fuel-efficient cars - all while opening the door for a wave of new front-drivers. For enthusiasts, Pinto's 2.0- and 2.3-liter engines were the basis for SCCA racing series, and hot-rodders soon popularized swapping V-8s into Pintos for both the street and strip.

When it was finally replaced by the Ford Escort for 1981, Pinto was labeled by one auto journalist as a car "nobody loved, but everybody bought." Love it or not, more than 3.1 million people liked it enough to buy it - and Pinto galloped off as the decade's only true domestic subcompact sales success story. (To put that in perspective, Toyota recently celebrated its "success" for reaching 1 million sales of its Prius Hybrid over the last 10 years, yet Pinto sales more than tripled that in the car's own 10-year run!)

The 2011 Carlisle Ford Nationals proved that scores of former owners remember fondly the Pinto's place in their motoring past. It's unfortunate that the public's polluted perception has since become reality for the poor Pinto, which was otherwise a winner as an inexpensive, fun-to-drive, domestically produced economy car. As Ford celebrates the modern design, safety, fuel economy and technology of its freshest subcompact entry, the 2011 Fiesta, a legion of faithful Ford owners celebrated Pinto's 40th Anniversary, recognizing their fun little classic as an American small-car pioneer.