Car of the Week: 1972 Ford Pinto

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Mike Christensen had no idea when he helped his wife Jude track down and buy her little 1972 Ford Pinto that his own pride and joy — a stellar 1966 Mustang — would wind up suffering through an identity crisis.

“When we started showing it, and even to this day, I’ll park it next to my ’66 and I might get a look from people, but then they all just gravitate to the Pinto and she can just spend hours talking to the people and everyone who’s had one at some point in their life,” Christensen says. “And I’m over here thinking, ‘Hey dude, I got a really nice ’66 over here!’ … I feel like a second-class citizen!”

Such is life living in the tiny shadow of the Christensens’ sparkling orange Pinto. It was a bit of a surprise purchase for the Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., couple, and aside from the Mustang getting a little less attention, they haven’t regretted the acquisition for a second.

“I just like that era — you know, disco and everything. I love the ‘70s,” Jude says. “To me, driving it is just nostalgia. It takes you back to a time when we were younger. I never owned a Pinto in the past, but it just gives me a good feeling.”

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Ford cranked out more than 3 million of the gas-sipping Pintos in the 1970s, but attrition has taken a heavy toll and nice specimens are fairly scarce these days, particularly in northern climates such as Wisconsin. Even though they are a die-hard Ford couple, a Pinto wasn’t on the Christensens’ radar. That is, until they spotted one a few years back not far from their home.

“We had the ‘66 Mustang and we were showing that, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’d like to have my own classic car.’ I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew it had to be a Ford, of course,” Jude laughs. “I’m not a fancy person, so I just wanted a nice little car and we happened to notice there was a Pinto for sale [nearby]. I didn’t remember them at all. I just saw that Pinto sitting over there on the street and just thought, ‘This is the cutest little car I’ve ever seen,’ so right then it was like, ‘I want a Pinto.’”

That Pinto sold before they could check it out, however, and Jude figured she would wind up with something else someday.  About a year later, though, Mike spotted one for sale online in San Diego, Calif. This time, they weren’t too late. “We’d never bought a car without seeing it, let alone way across the country,” Jude said. “So I contacted the seller and he was very honest. He emailed us pictures of it and was a very nice guy. I did the financing and arranged for Autobahn to pick it up and bring it back here and here it comes, this big honking car hauler rolls up in front of our house with a little Pinto on top, just like a cherry on a sundae!”

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That was in 2010, and the car wasn’t in the wonderful shape it’s in today, but it was still excellent for an unrestored car almost four decades old. The couple planned to have the car restored so they could show it, and the operation turned out to be fairly painless.

“It didn’t need a whole lot of work. The motor ran really, really well,” Mike said. “I just did a little cleanup on it, a little detailing. The body was solid, but the paint was fried … so we had the body painted in the original Medium Coral paint.”

Mike rebuilt the carburetor, put in a new flywheel and gave the little Ford a tuneup. Inside, the Pinto just needed a little repair to the driver’s seat and a new OEM-style dash cover. With new paint and a set of fresh rubber, it was looking new again.

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Mike does admit to getting a few puzzled looks when he took the car in to get it repainted. “You know the old story, we all have more money in our cars than we will probably ever get out of them, but that’s not the reason we are in the hobby. Everyone I talk to has overspent, but it’s a car they want and they want it done right and they enjoy driving it, and that’s the enjoyment they get out of it.

“For us it was money well spent.”

It doesn’t take much to spend more on a restoration than a Pinto originally cost. The popular Ford compact Runabout models carried a base price of just $2,078 brand new.  The Pinto was available only as a two-door sedan initially in 1971. A station wagon was added for 1972 and the Runabout two-door hatchbacks were also added mid-season. After building 352,402 Pintos for their 1971 debut year, Ford churned out 480,405 copies for the sophomore selling year in 1972. That number grew to a high-water mark of 544,209 for 1974.

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It was exactly the kind of reception Ford President Lee Iacocca wanted when he pushed for the launch of the new Pinto. The company leader wanted a budget-priced — under $2,000 — gas miser than could compete with the growing number of economy models already on car lots and on the drawing boards of the other automakers, including the VW Beetle, Plymouth Valiant, Chevrolet Corvair and Vega, AMC’s Gremlin and various offerings from Japanese brands.

The Pintos featured simple uni-body construction with rear-wheel drive, longitudinally mounted engine and live axle rear end.  Buyers could get either a 1.6-  or German-built 2.0-liter inline four in the first three years before a 2.2-liter four debuted in 1974. A six-cylinder would join the menu from 1975-’79.

Standard equipment included ventless door windows; highback, slim-line bucket seats; all-vinyl upholstery; two-pod instrument cluster; glovebox; interior dome light; floor-mounted transmission controls; rack-and-pinion steering; hot water heater; Direct-Aire Ventilation system; and 6.00 × 13 rayon blackwall tires.

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The Pinto soldiered on through the 1970s and spun off the Mercury Bobcat variant, which arrived in 1975 — one year later after it was available in Canada. Eventually, the Pinto lineup was phased out, along with the Ford Fiesta, in favor of the Escort.

The resilient Ford compact probably could have survived even longer had it not been for the wave of bad press it received from its infamous “exploding gas tank” scandal.  Controversy dogged the Pinto after an article in Mother Jones came out in 1977 claiming a faulty fuel tank design made the Pintos unsafe and blamed the flaw for a series of fiery crashes. The magazine claimed Ford knew about the flaw, but had done a cost-benefit analysis of fixing the issue and decided against making any changes.

The company wound up fighting several high-dollar lawsuits and took a huge PR hit. Since then, various studies and investigations have taken place both defending and criticizing FoMoCo.’s handling of the issue, whether the gas tank design was really any more dangerous than that of other vehicles on the market, and whether the company did in fact cover anything up.

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In any case, the Pinto’s reputation was permanently scarred, which no doubt makes it an even more unique collector vehicle today. “You get a lot of looks. Sometimes she gets a wave or a thumb up, and other times you may just get a laugh,” Mike says.

“That’s OK, as long as I like the car, that’s all that matters,” adds Judy. “I’ve had comments [about the gas tank], but I figure, well, every car has their thing.”

The Pinto has certainly filled the bill as a fun, bargain hobby car for owners like the Christensens, who happily drive their shiny little Ford to weekend car shows around Wisconsin. The couple often caravans with the Pinto and one of their three other hobby cars — the ’66 Mustang, a 1973 Mustang Mach 1 and a 1974 Mustang II.

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“It’s like being back in the ‘70s,” Jude says. “No power steering, no power brakes … But I love driving it.”

Mustang Mike still has a hard time wrapping his head around the popularity of the orange Pinto. And he can be pretty certain that their Pinto will be the only one wherever it goes. “Especially one as stock as [ours],” he says “Even back years ago, guys were stuffing V-8s under the hood and making them into hot rods … To find one in such original condition with original numbers-matching drive train. The car is basically untouched other than the body and a paint job on it.

“Nobody saved them. They were basically disposable cars. Who thought they’d ever be collectible?”

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