1977 Ford Pinto
1977 Ford Pinto. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

The 1971 Ford Pinto was part of the second attempt by the Big Three (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) to counter rising sales of small imported cars. The first was the 1960 compact Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Chrysler Valiant. But as these grew bigger and/or more powerful they again opened up a gap for the imports at the bottom of the market. By the late 1960s those “pesky foreigners” were thriving once more.

Thus for 1971 the small Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto arrived. Chrysler couldn’t afford to develop a small car so it offered “captive imports” from its overseas partners in Britain and Japan. The industry called these smaller models subcompacts.

For GM and Ford it was like history repeating itself 11 years later. While the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair had a rather exotic air-cooled, horizontally opposed, rear-mounted, six-cylinder engine, Ford’s 1960 Falcon was a thoroughly conventional front-engine, rear-drive, conservatively styled car. Enthusiasts loved the Corvair’s daring engineering, but more people bought Falcons.

For 1971 GM’s Chevrolet Vega again brought some exotic engineering: an all aluminum overhead cam engine with pistons running directly on silicon hardened aluminum cylinder walls. Unfortunately for Chevrolet, who inherited the design from GM Engineering, the engine was noisy and prone to overheating and leaks.

Ford did what it had done in 1960. Its 1971 Pinto was conventional, with little daring or innovative engineering although it did boast an overhead camshaft, and pioneered rack-and-pinion steering in American cars.

The Pinto was a pleasantly styled, unit construction, rear-wheel drive two-door fastback that could accommodate four passengers, although the rear ones had a rather cramped knees-up seating position. A hatchback Runabout model was introduced mid-year.

The Pinto’s 2,388 mm (94 in.) wheelbase was 33 mm (1.3 in.) shorter than the popular Volkswagen Super Beetle’s, while its 4,140 mm (163 in.) length was 30 mm (1.2 in.) greater. At only 1,273 mm (50.1 in.) high the Pinto was towered over by the tall obsolescent VW’s 1,501 mm (59.1 in.). Trunk space of the VW, the bob-tailed Pinto and its identical corporate sister Mercury Bobcat was quite limited.

Ford tapped its international operations for the Pinto’s major mechanical components. The standard engine was a 1.6-litre 75-horsepower, overhead valve four from Ford of England’s Cortina. Optional was a 100-horsepower 2.0-litre Ford Taunus single overhead cam four built in Cologne, Germany. A German four-speed manual transmission was standard with an American three-speed automatic optional. Somewhat surprisingly the Pinto didn’t have standard front disc brakes (the Vega did), although they were optional.

Performance of the 925-kg (2,040-lb) two-door could only be termed modest with the 1.6-litre engine. Road & Track (12/’70) recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 20 seconds.

The Chevrolet Vega with its much larger 2.3-litre engine sprinted to 96 (60) in 16.5 seconds in spite of hauling 122 kg (270 lb) more weight. The sprightly Datsun 510 showed them both a clean pair of heels with a time of 13 seconds. The Pinto’s top speed was 125 km/h (78 mph), about equal the Volkswagen Super Beetle’s, and 16 km/h (10 mph) slower than the Vega’s.

With the optional 2.0-litre engine the Pinto became a much better performer. The four-speed’s zero-to-96 (60 mph) time dropped to 11.4 seconds and top speed jumped to 164 km/h (102 mph) (R&T 6/’71). They also reported a 1/2 mile-per-gallon fuel economy improvement with the larger engine.

Ford again proved that conventional engineering would outsell the exotic, at least in the economy market. It sold more than 350,000 Pintos in the first model year compared with just under 270,000 Vegas, and continued outselling it every year until the Vega was discontinued in 1977.

The Pinto honeymoon ended abruptly in 1972 when Californian Lily Gray’s stalled Pinto was rear-ended by another car. The gasoline tank ruptured, filling the car with fumes that ignited into an inferno.

Gray died a horrible death and a young student passenger, Richard Grimshaw, required extensive surgery. Ford appealed the subsequent lawsuit all the way to the California Supreme Court, but ended up paying Grimshaw US$6.5 million. It was the beginning of more than 100 lawsuits which cost Ford many millions of dollars.

The problem, according to Robert Lacey in his exhaustive 1986 book, Ford: The Men And The Machine, stemmed from “thrifting,” pinching pennies on design. For a few dollars per car the Pinto’s gasoline tank and protective system could have been much safer, but for cost reasons, Lacey said, Ford laid itself open for what subsequently happened. Ultimately the tanks had to be made safer anyway.

The Pinto, a mixed blessing for Ford, was replaced in 1980 by the more modern front-wheel drive Ford Escort.

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