Ford Pinto: The bestselling sub-compact economy car from the 70s & 80s (and its fatal flaw)

Ford Pinto The bestselling sub-compact economy car from the '70s & '80s

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Check out the classic Ford Pinto, a coupe hatchback auto that was super popular, that Ford said proved a small economy car didn’t have to be ugly.

They didn’t have to explode, either — and we cover that below, too.

Vintage 1970 Ford Pinto cars

Vintage 1970 Ford Pinto cars

Vintage Ford Pinto cars for 1971: 3-door runabout

Vintage Ford Pinto cars for 1971

Ford’s new Pinto. The little carefree car. (1971)

Pinto is one little car that can free you from car cares, big and little. From cares about high price and big gas bills. From cares about maintenance and repairs, power and stability, roominess and quiet. The little care-free car takes care of all that.

Sized like the little imports… on the outside. Pinto is only 1.2″ longer than a VW Super Beetle. But it has just as small a turning circle. So it can slip easily into the same kinds of little parking spaces.

But a big car where it counts…on the inside. Pinto’s modern design gives it more overall room inside than the leading import. And getting in and out is easier because its doors are a good half-foot wider.

Quiet, smooth and 25 mpg. Pinto’s little high-efficiency engine is backed by 50 million owner-driven miles. It delivers 75 hp and has averaged over 25 mpg in simulated city/suburban driving.

Pinto takes a firm stand. With a wider stance than any economy import. It’s lower too. So its stable on turns and in high crosswinds. And for better road feel. Pinto has a rack-and-pinion steering system, like in Porsche and Jaguar — something you won’t find in any American car.

Do it yourself and save. Pinto’s manual is complete with pictures and simple step-by-step instructions showing you how to do everything from changing spark plugs and burned out bulbs to checking your manifold vacuum and replacing the bumpers. A special “troubleshooting section” tells you how to spot minor problems. And how to fix them.

Don’t do it yourself and save. When your Ford Dealer handles Pinto’s maintenance, you still save. For example, Pinto calls for regular servicing half as often as the leading import.

No kidding. No changes. Pinto’s styling will last. And its parts will do the same. There’s extra life in dozens of key parts, like Pinto’s heavy-duty drive shaft, ball joints, starter motor, rear axle, wheel bearings.

Priced like the little economy imports. Your Ford Dealer will show you Pinto’s little price is care free. And it includes high-back bucket seats, DirectAire ventilation, 4-speed synchronized transmission, or an optional 3-speed automatic. Don’t forget this better idea for safety: buckle up.

A little better idea from Ford.

New Ford Pinto - May 1971

A little car: ’71 Ford Pinto

Pinto cars 1971

Test driving shows why the Ford Pinto paces sub-compact field (1972)

Ryan Rees, Automotive Editor – San Bernardino County Sun (California) June 29, 1972

There are over a dozen subcompact cars on the market to choose from. After testing most of them, for a comparison review, it is hard to pick one to start with.

During the next several weeks, this column will be looking at the various small cars on the market, and will try to give some kind of guideline for prospective buyers as to the various models’ pluses and minuses.

To begin with, let’s take the Ford Pinto. The Pinto is a runaway winner in the styling category. The Pinto is a great example that a small economy car doesn’t have to be ugly.

The Volkswagen Beetle has become a part of the American scene with its beetle-shell body design. It’s still ugly.

The Chevrolet Vega is a close second in styling, but all the rest either look like boxes stacked on top of one another or a mixture of European, Oriental and American styling.

The Pinto has a graceful, slowing body shell that is also functional. The two-door sedan model is rounded at the back, which provides more headroom in the back seat than, say, the Vega, which has a sharply sloped rear deck on its sedan model.

MORE: 1980s Ford Escort Wagons were the best-selling wagons in the America for years

Pinto has also outdone the others in the optional station wagon model with its sporty Squire option. The Squire Pinto has wood-simulated siding on the outside which makes the Pinto look like a miniature Country Squire Wagon, the big, big Ford station wagon.

Pinto Wagon from Ford 1972

Even without the wood siding, the Pinto wagon has a stylish look. The rear door pops up easily out of the way. With the rear seats folded flat, there is lots of room for hauling small loads.

On the regular Pinto model, the rear door also flips up for easy access. One drawback is that there is no trunk space in the Pinto except for a small area behind the rear seat. You can’t lock anything up in a trunk out of sight as in most of the other small cars.

The window space on the Pinto rear window has been increased by about eight square inches that not only improves the looks, but makes for much better vision out of the rear mirror.

Inside, the Pinto has more shoulder room than any small car in the field. The Mazda is a close second in this field and also takes the comfortable seat title with Pinto second.

There is plenty of legroom in the Pinto, both front and rear. The bucket seats in front and the near bucket seats in the rear make the Pinto a four-passenger compact.

The instrument panel on the Pinto is clean and simple but I have to wonder about the emergency brake location between the seats. Most European-built cars have the emergency brake in that place and Ford seems to have just followed blindly along. There is plenty of room under the left side of the dash for the release handle.

DON’T MISS: See Ford assembly lines from 100 years ago, mass-producing Model T cars

Vintage Ford Pinto cars for 1972

The Pinto four-speed transmission is desired over the three-speed automatic because of better acceleration and response.

With an air conditioner and an automatic transmission, the Pinto is very sluggish on starts. I found that it was much better to start out in first and shift through the automatic manually for better acceleration around town.

The four-speed is standard and I think it is a lot better. It’s not hard to handle, even for the wife who may not think so. My wife preferred the four-speed to the automatic after comparing the two.

The Pinto offers two engine sizes: a 1,600 cc and 2,000 cc four-cylinder. The 1,600 has an overhead valve design and the 2,000 overhead cam. Of course, the 2,000 is stronger, and if you order air conditioning, it’s almost a must.

ALSO SEE: AMC Pacer Wagons from the ’70s: The compact hatchback with a unique design

A couple of other points I liked best about the Pinto were the low seating arrangement in the car. In the Pinto, you sit down low, close to the ground, which gives a feeling of added safety. You don’t get the feeling that you’re sitting on a box inside a bigger box as in some other models.

The front seat belts are fairly easy to locate, The rear seat belts are located in the interior side paneling for easy access since they retract into the side but the clip remains outside for easy location.

Another thing is the sporty options and paint effects that can be added on to the Pinto to give it a more sporty look.

The sub-compacts are designed for economy, and the near $2,000 price tag most carry is for a stripped model with few frills. However, with the Pinto, there aren’t too many frills that you need. Carpeting is standard, the four-speed transmission, racing side mirror, disc brakes and cloth-woven seat fabric are all standard.

For my own personal tastes, I liked the Pinto best of the so-called sub-compacts, It has the sporty styling, ease of handling, comfort and options that I look for in a car.

Vintage Ford Pinto cars for 1975

ALSO SEE: Look back at the 1973 Ford Mustangs

1975 Ford Pinto cars

New Ford Pinto MPG (1975)

34 MPG. $2769. The country’s best-selling sub-compact economy car now has a new model with higher mileage at a lower price than the leading foreign car.

MPG: These three letters can change your mind about looking to the imports for good mileage. When you see them on our newest version of America’s best-selling sub-compact, you’ll know you’re looking at a car that beats even the VW Beetle in price as well as EPA test mileage.

You can buy the new Pinto MPG now —at no increase in price—and get the same kind of standard equipment that makes the regular Pinto so popular: rack and pinion steering, 4-speed manual with floor-mounted stick, overhead cam 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine with solid-state ignition, front disc brakes, and more.

Best of all, Pinto MPG comes with the same type of Lifeguard Design Safety Features found in our full-size Fords including side door beams, protective bumpers, and many others. (If there’s one thing more important than better mileage, it’s peace of mind when you’re driving.)

New Ford Pinto MPG (1975)

Vintage Pinto MPG

High mileage with a wide choice of models — priced lower than any foreign wagon.

New Ford Pinto MPG 1975 cars

Ford Pinto for ’77

YouTube video

Classic 1977 Ford Pintos

Classic 1977 Ford Pintos

DON’T MISS: ’77 Ford cars & trucks: See 25+ of the latest and greatest Fords from 1977

1979 Ford Pinto cars

1970 Ford Pinto cars

Compare the 1980 Ford Pinto

It may be America’s best small car value

Join the Pinto family. Introducing the 1980 Ford Pinto. Take a close look — you might want to join the Pinto family — over 2-1/2 million strong and growing!

  • 3-door Runabout
  • Squire Wagon
  • 2-door Sedan

Better ideas for the 80s. FORD.

Vintage Ford Pintos from 1980

Compare the ’80 Ford Pinto

Have you noticed how many multi-car families are all-Pinto families? To live with a Pinto is to know it and love it.

1980 Pinto car

Explosive charges about the Pinto cars & fire danger due to a faulty design

Nader, Mother Jones magazine say Ford sold Pintos it knew to be defective, dangerous (1977)

Article from The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) August 11, 1977

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader and a magazine charged Wednesday that Ford Motor Co. officials sold Pinto cars for six years although they knew the car’s fuel tank could rupture in rear-end crashes.

Nader urged an immediate recall of three million Pintos now on the road. A Ford official said the allegations were “distortions and hail truths.”

Nader appeared at a news conference to support charges in the September-October issue of Mother Jones, a West Coast-based magazine with 150,000 subscribers.

THE AUTHOR of the article Mark Dowie, also at the news conference, said Ford President Lee Iacocca was in a rush to start pro-during the subcompact Pinto in 1970. 

He said the company ignored tests showing the tank was susceptible to gas leakage after an accident because it was too close to the rear bumper.

In Miami, University of Miami civil engineer and collision expert, Dr. William Fogarty, agreed that the Pinto is badly designed. Fogarty said the Pinto gas tank can easily explode during collisions even at low speeds.

Fogarty became aware of the Pinto’s crash performance during a government-financed, seven-year study on auto safety. He is now involved in further research on the effectiveness of airbags.

TAKE A LOOK: See the original 1977 Mother Jones article about the Pinto here

Mother Jones 1977 - Pinto deadliest car in America

“AS EARLY as 1973, after studying accident reports on the Pinto, I urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have the cars recalled for modification,” he said.

Fogarty investigated a Pinto accident in Dade County in 1972. The car’s gas tank exploded, causing fatalities, after it was struck in the rear by another car.

“The car belonged to a rental company,” he said. “When I spoke to the manager, he told me it was their third Pinto lost through fire in six months.

“Obviously, when this kind of thing happens, there is something seriously wrong with the car. The car is badly designed, a potential deathtrap.

“I would not drive one, or buy one for somebody I loved.”

“THIS IS a story of corporate callousness at the highest level of Ford Motor Co.,” Nader said. “Lee Iacocca knew the fuel tank was in a very vulnerable position and could be ruptured and cause fires in rear-end collisions at 20 to 21 miles per hour.”

He said Ford should voluntarily recall all three million Pintos with vulnerable fuel tanks and install tanks with inexpensive fuel cells, Nader said a fuel cell is a tough nylon-rubber bladder that fits inside a metal tank and would not spill gasoline if the outer tank was ruptured. He estimated the cost of the repair to be $11 a car.

Pinto owners should “go to their dealers and demand a recall, as Cadillac and Oldsmobile owners did when they found they had Chevrolet engines,” Nader said.

MORE: See 35 vintage car wrecks from the days before seat belts & airbags

Explosive charges about the Pinto cars 1977

“IF FORD does not do this voluntarily. the Transportation Department should order a recall,” he said. He also called for a congressional investigation.

The 1977 models would not be affected by any recall. The article said Ford modified the 1977 Pintos.

In Detroit, Ford vice president Herbert L. Misch said: “We are examining in detail the allegations made in the article. which contains distortions and half truths and will comment further when we have completed our analysis of them.”

Dowie said the information for his article came from Ford documents which he had obtained. He estimated that more than 500 persons have died in Pinto fires since the car was introduced in 1970.

He said that company documents show every rear-end crash test conducted by the company at more than 25 miles an hour resulted in a ruptured fuel tank.

JOAN CLAYBROOK, head of the Transportation Department’s National Traffic Safety Administration, said she was “extremely concerned over the issues raised in the article” and that the agency has asked the magazine for its files on the Pinto.

“Based on that examination. we will open an investigation if the evidence has substance,” she said. She added that the agency has tested one 1977 Pinto under federal rear impact standards and it passed.

Dowie said his estimate of more than 500 deaths was arrived at this way: The Pinto accounts for 2 percent of auto registrations. There are 3,500 auto crash burn fatalities a year. Therefore the Pinto accounts for 2 percent of them, or 70.

The car has been produced for eight years. Eight times 70 is 560. Nader said that Ford used political influence on the Nixon and Ford administrations to delay fuel-tank safety legislation for eight years. He said that under the Carter Administration, he has noted a marked increase in the recall of autos with defects.

DON’T MISS: Look back at the old Ford Ranchero pickup trucks from the ’50s, ’60s & ’70s

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. The Pinto was an artifact of the “bad old days” of US car manufacturing in the 1970s. Probably the best thing about them was the advertising, showing young people having fun with their “care free” cars. In truth, these cars were bad — badly conceived, badly designed, badly built. I knew people who owned Pintos in the ’70s, and within a couple of years they were completely broken down and rusted out (the cars, not the people). It wasn’t until the mid-80s that the US auto industry finally got its act together to compete on quality. Today, I own a van that is 10 years old with nearly 100,000 miles that looks like new and runs like a top. That would have been unheard of in the ’70s.

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