Ford Pinto/Mercury Bobcat
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
--That Car Guy (Chuck)