Old Cars Weekly archive – Original print date – March 6, 2008
Story by Tom Collins
California Pinto hits the mark
A half-million-mile vehicle sounds like something that might be claimed by a famed truck company and a prized over-the-road tractor.
When the vehicle under the microscope is not a mighty Kenworth or Peterbuilt, but a humble Ford Pinto, the mileage achievement is even more remarkable.
This Pinto is as fresh looking as the day it rolled off the 1977 assembly line, and today, it gets as many stares in the California car culture as the latest, best and most exotic cars on the sunny Southern California freeways.
To top it all off, this Pinto is a one-owner car. And it’s nearly original. The engine has been replaced twice. The rest of the car is the way Ford Motor Co. assemblers made it.
“On Feb. 1, 1977, I purchased a new Ford Pinto from Thompson-Fauskee Ford in Santa Barbara, California,” says owner Don Ensch.
The $3,800 Pinto two-door sedan came as orange as a ripe California grove Valencia. The paint has held up well, says Ensch.
“The orange paint still shines with the brilliance of the noon day sun,” Ensch said. “The car has always been garaged and has never been damaged.”
“The Pinto has traveled throughout the country and extensively here in the West,” says Ensch. “It averages 26 mile per gallon. It is a simple machine that allows me to perform maintenance work that has been done scrupulously over the years. This has been a major factor in the Pinto’s longevity.”
Ford Motor Co. introduced the Pinto in 1971, the same model year that the Chevrolet Vega premiered. Those small cars joined the American Motors Gremlin, which debuted in the 1970 model year, as import fighting, second family car choices.
The Vega came in a two-door sedan, two-door coupe and two-door wagon, while the Gremlin was offered in a squared hatchback only. The 1971 Pinto came in two models with the two-door sedan and two-door runabout the small Ford choices.
Both appeared to be hatchbacks but only the runabout had the opening hatch. The Pinto wagon was added in the 1972 model year.
Engine choices were a standard British Ford-built 1,600cc that offered 75 hp, or an available German Ford-made 2,000 cc unit that had a healthier 100 hp output.
Ford built 352,402 Pintos during the 1971 model year and more than 2.375 million from 1971 through the 1976 model years.
By the time Ensch bought his Pinto, the standard engine was the 140-cid, 2.3-liter four cylinder that was coupled to a four-speed transmission and a 2.73:1 rear axle.
The original 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine on the Ensch Pinto offered remarkable service, but was replaced at 165,000 miles with another rebuilt four-cylinder engine that made it to 430,000 miles. The car is currently on its third four cylinder that so far has 118,000 miles of service.
It uses the original four-speed transmission and rear axle, both in fine shape according to Ensch.
In the 1977 model year, Pinto premiered with a revised “soft” nose and grille. New aluminum bumpers were in place, as were new and larger tail lamps. A 2.8-liter, 170.8-cid V-6 was an option that year.
The popularity of Ford’s customized vans trickled down to the Pinto in 1977 with the unique Cruising Wagon. It came with a front spoiler, one porthole on each of its panel van style sides instead of windows, styled wheels, a Sports Rally equipment package and a carpeted cargo area.
The Ensch family has a history of good fortune with their Fords. His dad and mother were married in 1923, in Kansas, and set out to live in California—long before freeways and, in some cases, before roads existed at all.
Their new 1923 Model T coupe took them through creeks and rivers without bridges, across dusty plains and over mountain passes as they traveled to Long Beach, Calif., to make their home.
The Pinto has become something of an icon around Ventura, Calif., where Ensch lives, as well as on the Toastmaster circuit.
“It is the ‘car of choice’ for the many other Toastmasters it has carried to myriad Toastmaster events,” says Ensch. “The chauffeur-driven Mercedes, Cadillacs and Jaguars, parked nearby all fade from attention as the orange Pinto captures the moment!”
The Pinto is not valet driven at hotels where the Toastmasters are convening or anywhere else.
“I inform [the valet] there is only one driver for this fine machine — me!”
Ensch has a special memory of the car in the relative cold of California winters.
“I would leave the Pinto parked in the driveway with the windows up. My mother, who did not drive, would spend many hours sitting in the clean and polished Pinto praying her rosary beads and taking comfort from its warmth.”
The Pinto does earn its keep. No “trailer queen,” it has been driven to many locations in the United States and continues to be a handy hauling machine.
“By easily removing the front passenger seat, much cargo space is added,” reports Ensch, who lists tools, furniture and garden plants among the items the Pinto has delivered.
In case you’re ready to pull out a checkbook and make an offer, Ensch says the car is a “keeper” and is not for sale.
“I will always have this fine automobile. It holds thousands and thousands of miles of happy motoring memories for me—memories that only a Ford Pinto could give.”
In 1977, Ford produced 48,863 two-door Pinto sedans during the model run, according to the “Standard Catalog of American Cars 1976-1999.” Don Ensch bought and cared for one of the best survivors of them all.
“The Ford Pinto is the pride of my garage!” he says happily, with many more miles to come.