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Ford Pinto/Mercury Bobcat

Pinto, Gremlin, Vega Ah, the early 1970s. Gas was cheap ... maybe 20 cents a gallon during price wars. The terms "Oil Embargo" and "Energy Crisis" had not been coined yet. We could put a dollar's worth of gas in the car and drive around town all night. Big cars were everywhere, muscle cars were still being made. But there was a storm on the horizon. For about five years, these funny little cars from Japan were popping up, Volkswagen Beetles were everywhere, and even though the Corvair had been a disaster, Americans were turning to smaller cars. The U.S. automakers responded with the first generation of home-grown import fighters.

So General Motors, American Motors Corporation, and Ford Motor Company launched, almost simultaneously, their assault on the imports. GM had the Vega, AMC touted the Gremlin, and Ford introduced the Pinto, somewhat unique to this group by being the only car to have rack-and-pinion steering, which we all take for granted today. All of these little cars were unibody, had rear-wheel drive, and were introduced in the glory days of no Five-Mile-Per-Hour-Bumper or Unleaded Fuel requirements. When the tougher bumpers were required, starting in the 1974 model year, the initial car styles took a turn for the worse as "Guard Rail" bumpers made the cars look heavy and awkward.

Pinto interiorI always thought small Ford cars were trimmed more nicely than their GM equivalents. Rather than hard door surfaces and places for gauges, Ford had padded vinyl doors and needles that actually moved on the dash, though upper door panels were made of hard painted metal. Upgraded interiors offered adjustable head rests, again a feature not available on small GM cars. Cruise control, tilt wheel, power windows, and power door locks were never offered on these American subcompact cars. One thing I liked about the Pinto was the fact that, in either hatchback or sedan form, their profile was virtually identical.

But driving a Pinto was a different experience from other small cars of the time. Even though the cars were light, the Pinto's steering required more effort than the recirculating ball systems of the others, probably caused by the quick turn ratio. Pintos were initially offered with drum brakes on all four corners, which were not as effective as discs. The power-grabbing optional power steering and power brakes were a good idea on a Pinto, even though its compact size suggested that these should have been luxury items, not necessities.

Mercury_Bobcat 2 The Mercury Bobcat, identical to the Pinto save for the hood, grille, taillights, and badges, popped onto the scene in 1975 and died with the Pinto in 1980. Both cars were replaced by the front-wheel-drive Ford Escort and Mercury Lynx, respectively. The Mercury shared the Ford's 94-inch wheelbase and offered the same 2.3-liter I-4 (88 horsepower) or 2.8-liter V-6 (98 horsepower) engines, and the same 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatics. Surprisingly, these cars were light; they weighed in from 2,000 to 2,300 pounds. For reference, a Mazda Miata weighs close to 2,500 pounds.

The Bobcat was available as a 2-door hatchback or wagon, but Mercury did not make available an equivalent to the "sedan" Pinto with an enclosed trunk. Mercury wisely installed the Pinto's deluxe interior as standard trim to appeal to upper-market subcompact buyers.

Ford_cruising wagon Toward the end of the 1970s, large vans became customized beyond reason with shag carpet, mirrors, CB radios, wood cupholders, RV-style windows (some heart-shaped), airbrushed graphics, and other gaudy niceties. Ford decided the Pinto Wagon would make a good economical approach to this trend, so the company gussied up its wagon with graphics, a porthole, raised white letter tires, nice wheels, a tach and gauges, sport steering wheel, spoilers, and some attitude. The custom vans were commonly known as "Sin Bins," and Ford called the custom Pintos "Cruising Wagons." I remember seeing quite a few of these on the road, so they must have been at least somewhat successful.

Sadly, what the Pinto became most famous for its proclivity to a fiery response to rear-end collision. Two crucial elements of the car were poorly designed--the gas tube filler poked directly into the tank, sparking a fire in a serious collision, and the tank itself had very little protection from impact. The Pinto's body structure was also weak; the body cavity would bend on impact and the doors would jam, preventing easy escape. As a result, cigarette lighters shaped like a Pinto were sold in the finest novelty shops. Adding insult to injury, some Pintos came equipped with Firestone 500 radials, which had a nasty habit of band separation and blow-outs. The Pinto became involved in litigations and was a frequent butt of late-night comic jokes. Though the two videos here are short, they demonstrate the bad press the car received, which ultimately led to poor sales, a tarnished reputation, and an early demise.

The picture of the Vega, Gremlin, and Pinto is from Motor Trend; the interior picture(s) are from LoveFords.org; the Bobcats are from Wikicars; the Pinto Cruising Wagon is from Barraclou.com.

--That Car Guy (Chuck)

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Despite my well-known prediliction for bad small cars in the 1970s, I've never been able to muster up much affection for the Pinto. It wasn't good-looking or as good a handler as the Vega. It wasn't as endearingly weird as the Gremlin nor did it have the Gremlin's quasi-muscle mystique. And the Pinto just looked kinda ugly. Yeah, I know.

Having said that, I've been seeing an immaculate little two-door Pinto wagon around town, and it does turn my head.

By the way, that second video clip is hilarious.

That green plaid interior . . . aaaah! Help me! My eyes my eyes MY EYES! . . .

Sorry about that. Those of us old enough to remember the '70s still have nightmares about that shade of green

In 1973 mom bought my two sisters a new Pinto to commute to college, just 1.2 miles away. Our beloved 1963 Rambler 770 was getting old so mom splurged and ordered a neat gold "glow" hatchback. Weeks went by and when the car finally arrived it has none of the options, AC, auto, AM-FM we specified. But, the Ford dealer had a loaded one on the showroom floor. White with white vinyl top, blue seats, auto, AM-FW, dual racing mirrors, AC...The works. We'd seen the very same car at another dealer where it had gone unsold, probably because of its silly sticker price.
We enjoyed it. I liked it so much that six months later I bought a new Mustang II. Besides being better looking and having slightly more power, the Mustang was a lot more fun to drive, handling better in most ways. The 74 Pinto got the benefits of the Mustang's reworked suspension, and frugal Ford upgraded the Pinto to get better economy of scale for all the common parts. My sister drove it for about six years, without too much trouble.
A few years later, my first real post-college job was working for a TV station in Boise, Idaho. After a couple of months there driving ancient Pinto hatchbacks (one gearshift lever snapped off in my hand...luckily there was enough of a stub to allow me to make it back into town)they bought three new "cruising Vans" complete with portholes. Instead of the factory stripe package, they added blue, yellow and green stripes to the bright orange paint along with station logos. It was a unique color scheme…or as Groucho Marx once said.. ”That’s no scheme, that’s a conspiracy”. Going out to the car early in the morning actually hurt your eyes, as the painted dash, door sills contrasted sharply with the black seats.
The cars were visible...the whole idea of the scheme. They seem to have lasted well, remaining at the station long after I left.

I heard these cars also rusted quickly, as did most Fords of the early 70s, spawning an 80s Weekend Update joke about a new "disposable car" being developed by bringing back the Ford Pinto hatchback.

I also read in Lee Iococca's book (Iococca was president of Ford at the time) that the gas tank problem was eventually fixed, but not until suffering devastating damage to the company's reputation.

"That green plaid interior . . . aaaah! Help me! My eyes my eyes MY EYES! . . ."

I used to have a sport jacket similar to that interior. Along with matching solid green polyester bell bottoms and brown platform shoes I was quite dapper in the day.

Not being a child of the 70's, I have to ask: was the purpose of those hideous green interiors to camouflage your weed if you got pulled over by the fuzz?

I love the Pinto, they're great little cars
apparently the expoding problem was only really around for 1 or 2 of the mid years, and they fixed it after that
apparently

also, just a little thing i thought i should mention, the AMC Gremlin actually DID offer cruise control as an option, starting in 1975, and before that you could ask to have installed as a dealer-only option.
they also offered an extremely rare vinyl roof option in '76, but it looked pretty aweful

1) I feel duty bound to link to a Rutgers Law review article that purports to debunk the whole Exploding Pinto mythology. It's kind of a dense read but worthwhile.

2) The second clip is from the movie Top Secret! which is an unsung, but incredibly hilarious move that you all should go rent immediately.

3) Green plaid ain't nothin'. My old Buick had green PAISLEY.

4) I like Pintos, but they do represent something of a burr in the saddle to us Mustang II owners. As John B notes above, there was very little Pinto the in M II and much of the Pinto was upgraded with stuff developed for the M II. Unfortunately, the overall look of the two made comparisons obvious.

There's a little Bobcat in what looks like mint condition not too far from me. I think the design of that one, minor though the differences are, seems to hold up better. Cute little car. A friend of mine had a wagon that he drove up to our archaeological field school one year and, unfortunately, ran it into a ditch one night and tore the undercarriage up so bad he had to junk it. Which was too bad because it didn't have much rust (if any, this being the Pacific NW) and would be a great little car today (this was in 1988).

I don't know about you guys, but I really dig the yellow, orange, and red stripes -- it's very 80's Toyota. I think I can use that to make my AE86 fresh...and to the max.

The Pinto could have been, and should have been, the modern replacement for the Deuce Coupe. It was light, mechanically about the same, much more aerodynamic and way way more comfortable. In fact, the seating position was like you were sitting in a million-dollar sports car. One of these with a crate 350 and the suspension fixed would be not only a fierce sleeper but a bundle of joy to drive.

I learned how to drive in a Volkswagon Beetle. When I was seventeen, my father bought a brown Ford Pinto. It was a huge step up from the Beetle. I did have two big complaints about it, though: the back end was so light that on bumpy roads it would skitter around--very disconcerting to the uninitiated. The second problem was that cotter pin at holding the link assembly at the bottom of the gear shift lever had a tendency to shear off, leaving you unable to shift (my dad thought it was my crappy driving until the mechanic said it was one of the most common repairs he did.)

About a year after buying it, I was driving home after visiting a girl and the engine stopped. We had it towed and found out that the the timing shaft had sheared off inside the engine block. Turns out there were a whole lot of other things wrong with that engine. My dad junked it and bought a Dodge Champ (which worked for about four years until my Mom hit someone who ran a stop sign. Another Champ replaced it only to burn to the ground a few years later--turns out Mitsubishi engines had a tendency to do that.)

The weirdest part about this is that despite the immediately obvious horribleness of the Pinto, my dad bought a Ford Reliant, which made the Pinto look like the work of geniuses.

When I hear the word "Reliant", all I can think of is "KKKHHHAAANNN!!!!"

The Pinto was very light. So light, in fact, that a twelve year old boy could push it on his own while his fat ass father sat in it and steered. I know this for a fact.

I had a '74 Pinto with a rusted-out driver's door I replaced. It was an OK car and fun to drive. It leaked oil out the rear main and I had to replace the starter 3 times (I got good at that job) I also had to replace the timing belt.

I drove that car into the ground and replaced it with a "79 Pinto with the 2.3L engine. That car was a blast. I took it to Florida on a couple of occasions and it gave me absolutely no problems although I did have to replace the clutch at 120 K miles.

Vegas, OTOH, were absolute crap. I had a buddy pay to have his stolen for the insurance money it was so bad.

I loved the Pinto. We didn't have one, but our neighbors did. It was their first new car (they always had beaters - Dad was a mechanic). It was the mom car and she took me and her kids everywhere in it. Whenever I hear "Making my way back to you babe.." song, I think of Mrs. Dale driving us to Friendlies after dinner for a Sunday (she loved that song.) She used to get her hair stuck in the door (she was tall) and a couple of seconds out of the driveway we would always here the door open and close and she pulled her hair in.

I love the Pinto for the same reason I love the Duster, the Swinger/Dart and the Malibu station wagon. Lots of great childhood memories.

I used to think, when I grow up, I am getting a Duster! Ha ha.

Early Pintos were great. Comfortable, roomy (in front) and lots of fun to drive. The engines were stout and responded well to modifications.

Something that's been forgotten today is that when the Pinto was introduced the base price was $1,995 - the last sub-$2,000 new car sold in America.

And yes, the "exploding Pinto" myth is mostly just that. They were no more or less likely to explode than other cars of similar size, price, and vintage. The same applies to the Corvair: while it had its issues, the whole "Unsafe at any speed" thing was purest slander. The Corvair has the same suspension design and handling characteristics as the VW Beetle, but of course a budding crusader wouldn't get any traction attacking the cute, counter-culture Beetle. But Evil GM? You bet.

I wonder if "Mythbusters" ever did the Pinto myth?

Ah, memories...

In 1978, I picked up a 1977 Pinto wagon, brown, no graphics, relatively plain-Jane. Don't ask what I had traded in for--most likely I will burn in some circle of hell for that--but when you're in your mid-20's, newer was always better, right?

I have relatively pleasant memories of that car. Never mind the automatic transmission crapped out (reassured by the folks at AAMCO that it was a feature of the breed), I remember that that goofy thing seemed to have no problem with snow--and we're dealing with Buffalo winters, remember--and, what was even better, I had the whole rear deck filled with a pair of 1X3 foot speakers hooked up to an AM/FM/cassette deck, and even better, a CB radio to boot. Perhaps that might explain all those rebuilt alternators, but, hey, I was young and stupid.

But there were also those memories of cruising around with my future ex-wife (and she had a 1973 Nova, so there's some memories there as well). But all in all, rotting floorboards aside, the damn thing just kept on going. Fast forward to 1986, where the veritable wagon was traded in for a 1986 Nissan pickup. (Trade-in value? Ya think?)

I know it sounds fairly positive, but I have horrid memories of a Mercury Mistake, er, Mystique, that would prove to be much worse than any problem the Pinto ever threw at me...

Once upon a time, I had the unique "pleasure" of driving a loaner 1976 Bobcat MPG wiht an automatic transmission while my car was in the shop. It was a truly unigue experience in that the smog-control-choked engine feeding the "high-mpg" rear end through the automatic transmission could barely get the car out of its own way and pulling out onto busy streets or making a pass took considerable strategy and planning. My car at the time was a 1971 Mercury (Ford of Europe) Capri 1600 and while it had it's share of problems (Oye! Did it ever) it was a better car than the the comparable Pinto 1600 with better gas mileage and a lot safer fuel tank.

Oh, that's interesting, Warren, I had a Ford Contour SE that was an absolute delight to own; still kicking myself that I was careless enough to wreck it.

My first new car was a Grabber Green '71 Pinto hatchback. Bought it for $2375 cash when I was in the service. It had some quirks, but I liked it. Gave the Colonel a ride in it one day and he said, "What you have here is a tin can filled with plastic." Didn't bother me a bit as I thought, "Heck, it doesn't pretend to be anything else. That makes it more honest than 99% of everything else on the road."

There was a heat shield over the exhaust manifold that would sort of bark at you at certain RPMs during acceleration. Took awhile to find that and come up with a fix. Also, the points had to be regapped at least once a month. Distributor cam must've been rough. The points would slowly close up, timing would become greatly retarded, and performance would go to h*ll.

Also, one of the overhead cam lobes started to self destruct at about 45K miles. Probably due to running the valve lash too loose on the 2.3 engine. Figured out where the racket was coming from, replaced the rocker arm, dressed out the lobe with extra fine emery cloth and ran it with no further problems until I scrapped it due to rust in the early '80s.

The car got 28 to 29mpg regularly with its little 2 barrel (Weber?) carburetor. I thought this was great after coming from a gas guzzling '66 GTO.

It wasn't a bad car at all. I really liked the crisp little 4-speed transmission and the rack & pinion steering. The Vegas were better looking, but their engines were serious crap. After the Pinto, I bought nothing but Fords until 2003.

Thanks for this article. It brought back memories.

Ah, That second video, from the Val Kilmer classic, Top Secret. Skeet Surfing, anyone?

Oh, my Pinto! (And the Three's Company, Tuborg Beer, Monty Python, Commodore and Louis Ruickhauser at a plexiglass table!)
All that I had when landing in USA in NYC from Eastern Europe in the USA in 1982 was about $20 and three clean shirts (my mother's advice - and yes, I had pants & socks), and a few phone numbers. One of those phone numbers worked well for me - a job, and a Pinto! (the brown Pinto, a $600 value, to be paid $50/mo, no money down). The car was heavy, underpowered, steering was a strong helmsman's job, breaking was quite capricious - yet it moved me earnestly ahead for a couple of years. As far as "sin bin", my poor Pinto wouldn't have qualified for this term - but I was really jealous when seeing those Mercury bobcats with Volvo type of wide rear, one piece hatchback.
Ford Pinto in nostalgia lane...

I LOVE Pintos. My father acquired two via car auctions in the 70's. I learned to drive in the Pinto, and in fact, took and PASSED my drivers test in a Pinto during the early days of the record busting Buffalo blizzard of 1977. My favorite Pinto story from that time: Parked on the street to attend a friend's party. Snow accumulating at a fast rate. After the party went to get into the car, could not unlock the car. Very friendly guy tried to help and used up all of his lock de-icer. As we were contemplating setting out for a late night convenience store to get more de-icer, a firend walks up an questions why we are trying to get into his car. He also had a Pinto, and both being snow covered...well you can understand the mistake.

Heh. The Pinto was a dream compared to the Vega. I owned a vega panel van (really a station wagon with steel side panels rather than glass). That damn engine! If the overheat light came on you had two options. A) Immediately turn off the engine. Or B) Get as far as you could and figure you were headed for a heads job at the machinist. I got really good at replacing head gaskets on that overhead 4cyl.

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Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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