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Celebrating 50 years of the Pinto

The little pony that could. Ford's economy car rolled off the assembly line in 1971 and still holds a special place in the hearts of many old car collectors.

In the fall of 1959, Ford opened a new door for its sales staff with the smart-looking and totally new Ford Falcon compact for the 1960 model year. 1960 also saw compacts from General Motors with the Chevrolet Corvair and from the Chrysler Corp. with the Valiant sold by Plymouth dealers. These cars joined the already-popular Rambler American and Studebaker Lark domestic compacts. Falcon was the sales leader, but through the 1960s, the Falcon grew and put on more weight. By the late 1960s, a new breed of smaller “subcompact” car was coming to market and selling well. Many of the subcompacts arriving in the United States were from Japan, and those little Japanese cars kept taking a bigger piece of the sales pie. In the Spring of 1969, Ford countered with a rebirth of the compact car idea by presenting the Maverick. However, it was not lost on Ford that the new subcompact market was calling. Thus was born the Pinto.

High off his success with the Ford Mustang, Lee Iacocca was a major champion for a new Ford subcompact to meet the growing competition. Some say his enthusiasm for making the Pinto as cheaply as possible would ultimately lead to his departure from Ford.

The new-for-1971 Pinto

Considerable amounts of market research were done by Ford before it began the Pinto project, which started in the spring of 1967. Imported car sales for 1970 had reached a record 1,214,000 units or 13.5 percent of the market! Imports, especially those from Japan, had seen tremendous gains in quality, reliability and customer loyalty and Ford was taking notice. Pinto was designed and engineered to meet those imports on an equal basis. Size mattered, with the new 1971 Pinto placed on a 94-inch wheelbase, which was about an inch shorter than that of its two main competitors: the Datsun 510 and the Toyota Corona, both with wheelbases of 95.3 inches. The Pinto’s axles were even a 1/2 inch closer together than those on the popular Volkswagen Beetle. Bumper to bumper, the Pinto was still the longest at 163 inches, but only by a fraction of an inch compared to the Datsun 510 at 162.2 inches and the Toyota Corona sedan at 162.4 inches.

Pinto presented something not seen under the hood of a domestic-built Ford passenger car since 1934: the return of a four-cylinder engine. Initially supplied to the United States from Ford of Britain, the 1600cc engine had an established record of performance and durability. Starting with a cast-iron block and cylinder head, it featured a thin-wall casting, five-main-bearing crankshaft, solid lifters and a cross-flow head. This engine wasn’t revolutionary, but it was well-proven. Styling was pure and simple with standard equipment featuring all-vinyl high-back bucket seats, “Direct-Aire” ventilation with heater and defroster, rack-and-pinion steering, floor-mounted shifting connected to a fully synchronized four-speed transmission, courtesy dome light and blackwall tires. Initially only the two-door sedan was released, but by January 1971, the Runabout edition with a large hatchback joined the corral. In its initial year, more than 352,400 Pintos were produced, making it another success for Ford. The closest domestic subcompact competition to Pinto, the Chevrolet Vega, also introduced for 1971, saw just under 268,000 units. Dodge and Plymouth turned to Mitsubishi Motors in Japan for the subcompact Colt and Cricket, respectively, but sales were slow, seeing just over 56,000 units of these two models.

Pintos could be dressed up with the Rallye Appearance group that added side stripes; black-out grille, hood treatment and rear panel; and special badging featuring a pony kicking up its rear hooves. Also available was the Luxury Décor group that added rocker moldings, bright trim and upgraded interior materials. For going all-out, a full vinyl top, AM radio, air-conditioning and an electric clock were on the options list, but most popular for many was the optional 100-hp 2.0L engine. Simple instrumentation kept costs down with all gauges contained in two separate pods directly in front of the driver.

More features for 1972

During Pinto’s initial year, there were several running improvements, all of which were incorporated in the 1972 models. A few more amenities were added such as parking brake warning lights, front and rear seat belt retractors and little things such as relocating the headlight dimmer switch.

In January 1972, the sedan and Runabout were joined by the first Pinto station wagons. The wagon became an instant sales success with nearly 101,500 units produced in its premiere season. Americans were taking to small cars and Pinto helped secure Ford’s slice of the pie with more than 480,400 of the 1972 edition going to new owners. The Pinto’s options list also grew with optional front disc brakes, an AM-FM monaural radio and more dress-up items such as a roof-rack for all three body styles. Ford touted how the Pinto was owner-friendly and that most basic maintenance chores could be done in a home garage with basic tools. However, for doing more in-depth repairs, such as changing the head, owners were surprised that some specialized tools were required.

The feds influence 1973 styling

Pinto’s styling and features were left untouched for 1973, except where required by law. New federally mandated energy-absorbing bumpers with front “guards” were installed, which truly did not add to Pinto’s front-end styling. Inside, a new “uni-lock” shoulder and lap-belt setup was also required. Most Pintos in 1973 were ordered with the “friskier” 2.0L package, which was now rated at 86 hp using the new mandated power formulas. Despite price increases, Pinto sales continued to climb, accounting for more than 28 percent of Ford’s overall unit sales! The most popular model was now the Pinto station wagon, the priciest Pinto model, and more than 217,750 came off the assembly line to represent 45 percent of all Pintos sold. Even more accessories were added such as the Sport Accent group which offered the vinyl top in period colors such as Avocado Green and Bright Orange, plus two-tone paint applications. A popular option package was the Squire edition of the station wagon. Faux wood grain panels were added to the sides and rear hatch of the Squire body and there were faux wood interior appointments, too. A wider range of audio selections were also introduced, bringing Stereophonic sounds to the Pinto crowd. For that “sports car feel,” a special deluxe steering wheel was available with genuine leather wrappings. Available this year, but rarely ordered, was a manually operated sunroof. During the 1973 model year, a total of 484,512 Pintos came off the assembly line to take total Pinto production well above the 1.3 million mark since its introduction.

A popular model from the start, the Pinto Runabout was practical and reliable. This 1974 model is fitted with Luxury Décor trim and optional roof-rack.

A popular model from the start, the Pinto Runabout was practical and reliable. This 1974 model is fitted with Luxury Décor trim and optional roof-rack.

More improvements in 1974

For 1974, styling remained basically untouched except for more durable bumpers that grew to the point that the lower intake opening in the front valance panel was blocked, affecting Pinto’s clean, uncluttered styling even more. (To be fair, this was a plague that affected American car styling across the board.) Ford made several improvements to Pinto this season starting with the elimination of the 1.6L engine, making the 2.0L standard. Also moved over to the list of standard features were front disc brakes. In the option column, a new and more potent 2.3L engine was available; it was rated at 90 hp and loaded with a bit more torque and overall pep.

Marketing continued to aim the Pinto toward youthful buyers, and they were responding. While the Pinto might not have had lightning-quick response with 500 hp under the hood, they were reliable transportation that could be dressed to contemporary standards, and they did not break the bank in doing so. Ford also found that a great many families looked at Pinto as a true second or even third car. At this time, the small-car segment of new car purchases was also growing by leaps and bounds due to the first Arab oil embargo, which sent millions of drivers fleeing from 10-mpg land yachts to more economical cars. High mileage had replaced high horsepower and Ford proudly touted Pinto’s mid-20-mpg ratings in advertisements of the day. For 1974, more than 544,200 Pintos were assembled with the Pinto station wagon leading the way. With 237,394 Pinto station wagons sold that year, it was the best-selling wagon in America that year.

Pintos explode, sales drop for 1975

In Pinto’s fifth season, styling retained the same look that it had featured the previous season, but there were some changes under the skin that made a big difference. The standard powerplant was now the 2.3L inline four-cylinder engine, still mated to a fully synchronized four-speed transmission. For those looking for a bit more power, Pinto now offered the 2.8L “Cologne” V-6 engine as an option. Rated at 90 hp, it was a strong performer that was still economical to operate. Initially, this engine could only be ordered with the Select-Shift automatic transmission and required the optional power front brakes. Pinto’s amenities remained about the same as in 1974 with a couple of interior trim changes and exterior paint selections. Despite these new improvements, Pinto sales saw a steep decline, down to 223,763 cars — a nearly 59% decline. Several reasons contributed to this drop, such as the saturation of the small car market. Pintos were well designed and durable and with nearly 2 million in circulation, but their attrition numbers were lower that larger domestic cars.

The other reason for the decline in the Pinto’s popularity was a bit more ominous. In 1972, Lilly Gray was merging her Pinto onto a Southern California freeway when she was rear ended by a larger vehicle moving about 30 mph faster. The collision resulted in a ruptured gas tank of the Pinto, consuming the vehicle in moments. Ms. Gray died of her injuries and her 13-year-old passenger was severely burned. This was very bad press for Ford and during a resulting lawsuit, the plaintiffs discovered a memo from Lee Iacocca stating “safety doesn’t sell.” That was icing on the cake for the jury, and it was also the final straw for Henry Ford II.

For 1975, U.S. Mercury dealers received a subcompact to sell with the release of the new Bobcat. Featuring unique front-end styling and taillamps, the Bobcat shared everything else with the Pinto. The Bobcat had first been seen in Canada during 1974 where Mercury dealers had found wide customer acceptance. However, Mercury customers in the United States were a little more resistant to the subcompact cars, even though Bobcats featured more comfortable seating and quieter interiors due to additional sound-deadener.

A 1976 Pinto MGP is birthed off Ford Motor Co.’s Metuchen, N.J., assembly line. The Pinto Pony MPG had an EPA mileage rating of 38 mpg on the highway and 25 mpg in the city. A Mercury Bobcat follows the Pony MPG on the assembly line.

A 1976 Pinto MGP is birthed off Ford Motor Co.’s Metuchen, N.J., assembly line. The Pinto Pony MPG had an EPA mileage rating of 38 mpg on the highway and 25 mpg in the city. A Mercury Bobcat follows the Pony MPG on the assembly line.

More safety for the 1976 Pinto

Moving on to 1976, Ford continued to tout the Pinto’s reliability and economy of operation, as well as acknowledging new safety features. Up front, a new egg-crate grille housed new and brighter turn-signal/parking lamps. Headlamps were highlighted with bright metal surrounds and bumper guards became an optional item. Safety side marker lamps were also seen for the first time. The three basic Pinto body styles continued, but there were some rather wild options available such as a Squire edition of the Runabout featuring faux-wood trim on the exterior and interior as seen on the Pinto wagons. Probably the most eye-catching packages were the Stallion editions. Finished in silver metallic, they featured blacked-out hoods, grilles, window and headlamp surrounds, plus custom mag wheels, dual sport mirrors and bright Stallion decals on the fenders. Dealers were encouraged option up Stallions even more by ordering them with the V-6 engine, a sunroof and, of course, a stereo system for the groovy sounds of the day. Ford continued to tout Pinto’s fuel-sipping economy and new this year was the Pinto Pony MPG package. Priced at $2,895 (about $130 below the base sedan price), these MPG models were pretty bare-bones Pintos with cheap interior fabrics, less trim and the replacement of several items that were standard on the basic models. Pinto sales climbed nearly 30 percent over the 1975 sales total, recording 290,132 units produced.

As a result of on-going litigation, in 1976 Ford issued a recall of more than 1.5 million Pintos and about 30,000 early-production Bobcats to better secure and fortify the fuel tanks in these cars.

1977 saw new Pinto front-end styling. By this time, Pinto wagons, such as this Squire edition, were America’s best-selling station wagons.

1977 saw new Pinto front-end styling. By this time, Pinto wagons, such as this Squire edition, were America’s best-selling station wagons.

1977 sees a Pinto facelift

Seeing the most notable changes since the Pinto was introduced, 1977 saw a major redesign to the front-end styling. A “soft” front end and color-keyed plastics that were more resistant to impact damage were employed. The egg-crate grille was down-sized and dual turn-parking lamp units were installed on either side of it. Headlamps were recessed with the surrounds returning to body colors. Interiors were freshened with new materials, colors and patterns. To the rear of the car, the taillamps were redesigned and the hatchback on the Runabout models could be optioned as a one-piece glass cover instead of the original-design metal frame with mounted window. New interior fabrics were used with one of the most striking combinations being bright plaids representative of those days of disco enchantment. Ford continued its market strategy of aiming the Pinto to the economy buyer with the MPG Pony edition, but it also began targeting a more affluent crowd with a new line of “Cruising” panel wagons featuring colorful stripe kits, a front spoiler, styled steel wheels, sport mirrors and the addition of “bubble” porthole side windows. It is interesting to note that when the Pinto Cruising wagon was released, Ford offered an Econoline van version, too. Pinto sales slid a bit in 1977 despite the recurring appearance of a sharp white-and-orange Runabout with the Luxury Décor Trim on the popular TV show “Charlie’s Angels.” Actress Kate Jackson, who portrayed detective Sabrina Duncan on the show, drove a snazzy Pinto through several seasons. Just 202,549 Pintos were produced for 1977, which included 22,548 early-production 1978 models that were marketed as 1977s.

Aimed at younger buyers, the Pinto Cruising Wagon featured attractive graphics and the first factory porthole window on a Ford since the 1957 Thunderbird. Pictured is a 1977 Cruising Wagon.

Aimed at younger buyers, the Pinto Cruising Wagon featured attractive graphics and the first factory porthole window on a Ford since the 1957 Thunderbird. Pictured is a 1977 Cruising Wagon.

Internal competition for 1978

Engine and transmission choices remained unchanged for 1978. By this time, America had gotten used to the higher fuel prices that hit around 1973, but by 1978, Pinto was starting to wear a little thin. Ford also had a new smaller car that was coming on scene — the Fiesta — and the company was biding its time with the Pinto.

Exterior styling also remained the same for 1978, but there were a number of cosmetic changes in terms of colors, stripe kits and décor groups. The new Rally Appearance package included a blacked-out front spoiler and exterior moldings similar to 1976’s Stallion edition, including the Stallion’s dual sport racing mirrors and gold accent tape stripes in several harmonizing color selections. Luxury Décor interior groups were offered for those wanting a more pedestrian-level ride, and the Cruising Wagon made its return while offered in both Standard trim and Deluxe with colorful stripes, styled steel wheels and other items. Mid-1978 saw the introduction of a sedan delivery model, the first from Ford since 1965. Also new for 1978 was the Rally Appearance package that included upgraded wheels, a “Sport” steering wheel, in-dash tachometer and a full assortment of gauges plus a front stabilizer bar for better handling. Bright plaid interiors were still offered as were most all other Pinto accessories. One innovation was the “Air-Roof,” a moonroof fitted with a removable glass panel for those pleasant sunny days or warm clear nights for gazing at stars. Engine and transmission choices were unchanged with the 2.3L inline four still standard or the respectable 2.8L V-6 mated only to the Select-Shift automatic transmission.

During the 1978 model year, Ford introduced a sub-subcompact with the new Fiesta, seen as one of Ford’s first “world cars.” Customers looking for even better mileage and lower prices gravitated to the Fiesta, and Pinto production numbers fell to just under 189,900 units. Most popular with buyers were the base two-door sedans, with many of those likely fitted with the Pony MPG economy package.

In its last two seasons, the Pinto saw its instrument cluster update a bit with a rectangular pod housing the gauges and warning lights in front of the driver.

In its last two seasons, the Pinto saw its instrument cluster update a bit with a rectangular pod housing the gauges and warning lights in front of the driver.

Pinto gets a facelift for 1979

Another front-end redesign was seen for Pinto’s ninth model year starting with all new front-end sheet metal featuring a sloping hood with contoured fenders that presented smoother lines. The headlamps for 1979 had transformed into rectangular boxes flanking the restyled grille made of high-impact chrome-plated plastics and featuring three horizontal bars or a rectangular mesh background. The Pinto Pony was still the price leader with a black plastic grille rather than chrome, as well as other basic amenities. The “standard” Pinto featured bright grille work as well as bright window surrounds, protective color-keyed vinyl body side trim, tinted glass, AM radio, rear-window defogger, full wheel covers and the Deluxe bumper group. New for 1979 was the Euro-Sport or ESS package. Similar packages were also offered for the 1979 Fairmont and Granada, but the Pinto version really stood out with a black-out treatment to the side drip-rail moldings, window surrounds, lower rocker panels, front grille and hood as well as the rear taillamp panel. It also featured blacked-out dual sport racing mirrors and styled steel wheels. The ESS package could be ordered from the factory on the sedan and Runabout models, but several dealers also created their own unauthorized versions for the standard station wagon.

1979 also saw the return on the Pinto Panel wagon, still available with the Cruising stripe package that included color-keyed styled steel wheels, window surround black-out treatment and a blacked-out grille. New this year was this same treatment being offered on the Runabout, which could still be ordered with the standard metal frame hatchback door or the optional all-glass unit. Pinto’s accessory list continued to grow with new audio systems, improved air conditioning and stylish “Lacy Spoke” cast-aluminum wheels. A mild redesign to the entire dashboard and instrument cluster was appreciated. The standard sedan, Runabout and station wagon were all well-appointed in base version, while the price leader continued to be the Pony package which deleted several items such as bright window surrounds. The Pony did include the basic AM radio and a rear window defogger. These items gave customers a $329 reduction over the base sedan price, and new for 1979 was Pony Station Wagon with similar savings. Pinto production saw a slight up-tick for 1979, climbing to just over 199,000 units with sedans, including the Pony edition, leading the charge.

1980: Pinto trots into the sunset

For 1980, the Pinto’s final year, Pinto was taken down a notch. Any hint of performance was gone with the deletion of the optional V-6. The remaining 2.3L inline four was given some slight improvements in mileage performance as the nation was gripped by the oil embargos of the late 1970s.

Ford touted that there were “three ways to up a bargain” with the Pinto two-door sedan, Runabout and station wagon. While styling was unchanged from 1979, the décors were updated with stylish two-tone treatments available. Most notable was the Rallye Appearance Group available on the Runabout, the Cruising package for station wagons and the Runabout with all-new graphics this year, plus the ESS package for sedans and Runabouts. Pony continued to be the lowest-priced edition while the Pinto Squire wagon had seen prices jump up to $4,637 with many topping out well above the $5,000 mark with “out the door” bottom lines. With increasing competition for smaller imports and Ford’s own new little Fiesta, the decision to discontinue the Pinto was a private affair. However, the Pinto’s final year still saw an impressive production figure of 185,054 units.

Pinto owners have lots of fun with their cars. One example is Southern California’s “Disco Pinto,” owned by actor-comedian Rip Taylor.

Pinto owners have lots of fun with their cars. The "Disco Pinto" was created by the Great Autos of Yesteryear for the Disco Obispo show of 1999. It is owned by Mike Parente.

Pinto was Ford’s first domestic foray into the world of subcompacts and just as it had revolutionized compact engineering and styling with the Falcon back 1960, and the sport compact market with the Mustang, it had pulled off a pretty peppy little subcompact. Sure, the Pinto may have been the brunt of numerous jokes, but today it is becoming a highly prized automotive icon from the 1970s. Like the Model T Fords from the early part of the 20th Century, quite a few people driving cars today probably had their first experience behind the wheel of a Ford Pinto. 

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