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A 1979 Ford Pinto

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Early Beginnings

The concept for the Ford Pinto began in 1968, when the Ford Company approved the design for a small and simple import fighter. The equation for the Ford Pinto was simple. They wanted a small car that achieved relatively high gas mileage with a price tag of around $2,000 dollars. Ford also needed a small car like the pinto to offset the high gas mileage of its other models.

1971- The beginning of a Classic

The first Pinto came only in 2-door sedan form, with a 3-door hatch back coming later in the year. Ford continued to keep the price low by offering only a small list of standard features. Slim bucket seats coated in vinyl provided minimum comfort while the dashboard included a 2- pod instrument cluster, glove box. Other interior features included a dome light, Direct- Aire Ventilation system, and floor mounted transmission controls. On 3- door hatchback models, there was a folding rear seat and colored key carpeting on the floor and door panels.

Power came from a standard 1600cc-inline ohv four-cylinder engine and a four-speed transmission that was constructed in Britain. Pinto buyers could opt for a German built 2000c inline SOHC four cylinder as well.

The Pinto was almost an immediate hit from the beginning with several thousand units sold within weeks of the introduction. The Pinto was so mundane yet so popular that it was described as "a car noboddy loved, but everybody bought." However, the honeymoon would soon end and Ford would learn the hard way about the Pintos many imperfections.

Trouble from an unlikely source

In November of 1971, Mrs. Lilly Gray purchased a brand new 1972 Pinto. However seemingly from the day of purchase the car was a nuisance and had to be taken to the shop on a faily frequent basis. Six months after the car was purchased, Mrs. Gray and her son were driving on a California freeway. The Grays were traveling at approximately 60- 65 miles per hour when they encountered heavy traffic. The Pinto slowed and changed from the outer to the middle lane. It was at that moment that the car stopped. (It would later be determined that the floater had sunk and cause the engine to be flooded.) A few seconds later, a car swerved to avoid the broken down car. However, merely a second later, a Ford Galaxy did rear end the Pinto at speeds of about 50 miles per hour. The Pinto (as you may expect) burst into flames. Both occupents of the Pinto exited a few moments later. However they were both burned severely. Mrs. Gray was burned so extensively. Her son was also burned severly. She later died. He would experience a continuous battle with surgury for the next 20 years.

Above: A 1975 Pinto bearing an ominous message.

Naturly, Ford was sued and the Grays were awarded 125 million dollars in damages. It was later determined that the placement of the fuel tank behind the rear axle of the car caused it to burst into flames upon contact. To fix the problem would have amounted to about $15 dollars per car, a pultry sum even in Pinto terms. Read the entire Pinto case from 1981 at this link.

Ford denied the allegations but the damage had been done. By 1974 and 1975 the Pinto's sales drastically decreased.


Harsh Competition

If being know as having an explosive tendency was not enough, Ford had yet anther barrier to overcome if it was to again return the Pinto to it's former glory. Chevrolet introduced the Vega about a year after the Pinto. The concept behind the Vega was dramatically similar to that of the Pinto. It was relatively low priced and came with a similar list of features. Better yet, its fuel tank was more properly placed and obviously seemed safer than the Pinto did.

The 1970's also were the rise of several Japanese import cars such as Honda, Toyota, and Dautsin (now Nissan). These cars almost immediately popular sellers for their low costs and good reliability. (That's why you don't see that much of them on the Junk Car Museum.) Both the Pinto and the Vega were hardly alternatives to this and their sales were further weakened.

1972 and 1973- the "worry free years"

With more pressing concerns, such as a serious propensity for combustion, Ford could only make minor changes to the '72 and '73 models. The only significant change was a new 2- door wagon and a larger rear window, not to mention the close examination of the fuel tank placement.

Change is on the way

With new guidelines on the way for bumper safety, Ford modified the bumpers on the Pinto in 1974 which in turn lengthed the cars about a few inches. The bumper could be found plain on regular Pintos but could be spiffed up a little bit with a black stripe with the Deluxe Decor Package. Classy- especially for a pinto.

A 2.8-liter V6 engine was introduced for 1975 as standard equipment on all models but the wagon. In 1976 the Ford Pinto Stallion package was introduced. It included features that would be more popular with a younger budget conscious audience.

1977 brought a Cruising wagon option, which was again targeted to a younger audience. That year also brought changes in headlights as well as an entirely made of glass rear door.

1979- Changes in the Works

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Ford Pinto received its first major redesign. The grille lost its egg shape and became more rectangular. The Mercury Bobcat received a distinctive Lincolnesque grille which was also rectangular. Engine choices included an 82 horsepower inline- 4 and a V- 6 with 103 horsepower. Automatic and Manual transmissions were available in both integral forms. The ESS model, which was introduced for that year brought black accents to the pinto exterior.

End of an Era

New competition had finally though made its course. As imports began to take center stage as the fuel misers, the Pinto's sales decreased dramatically. Since the Pinto was still based on late '60s components many buyers opted for more modern designs. Though it had been years since the Pinto explosion issue had faded from the car world, the damage had been done.

Pinto's Successors

In 1980, Ford dropped the Pinto name and replaced it with the more modern Escort in 1981. Like the Pinto, the Escort came first as a 3- door sedan and later on in the year, as a 5- door wagon. The Mercury Bobcat was replaced with the Mercury Lynx. The Lynx was designed to be a more upscale version and came with a longer list of standard and optional features than did the Escort.

Since fuel was more important than power, the Escort did not come with a 6- cylinder engine. The only engine available for 1981 were a 72 horsepower inline 4. Later engine choices would consist of inline 4s with power reaching upwards to 115 horses.

In 1987, the Escort EXP joined the line. It consisted of more Mustangish styling and a slightly faster engine. Buyers, however, saw right through the copycat styling and sales for the Escort EXP were low. 1987 also brought an end to the Mercury Bobcat with a new Tracer replacement. The Tracer further built on the upscale concept with items such as cloth seating among other things.

The Escort and the Tracer were both redesigned in 1991. The Tracer wagon was discontinued and left the line to include only a 4- door sedan. The Escort continued with the 2- door hatchback, however it was only sold with sportier engines and suspension. It was ironically the only version that received the then new and modern antilock brake system. The other models, the four-door sedan and the 5 door wagon came with less agile and exciting 4s.

1996 brought yet anther redesign. This time, horsepower from the inline 4s was increasing to 120. Like its earliest ancestors, the Escort and the Tracer were again out flanked by the imports and even some of the new domestics such as the Dodge and Plymouth Neon. Talk of killing the cars or starting from scratch emanated our of many car magazines. The Escort wagon had been dropped in 1996, leaving the sedan to fend for it self. Talk of killing Mercury was also becoming a real possibility. The Pinto line was seemingly doomed.


In Europe, where small cars have always been "the thing" since gas prices will set you back as much as a day's wage to fill up a mid sized car, Ford was selling a popular car labeled the Focus. Built off a new platform, the car had become the "European Car of the Year" for 1999. In America, the Escort and the Tracer were eking out a meager existence. Ford realized that it needed a small car to replace the Escort. The Focus, though decidedly European in both styling and character seemed perfect to fill the small car gap. In 2000, Ford brought the Escort over. It was an immediate hit. The Focus came in three body styles

Above: A 2002 Ford Focus Wagon

3 door hatchback, four door sedan, and 5 door wagon. Focus was such an immediate hit that it immediately became one of the top ten best sellers. Ford introduced a four wheel drive version for 2002 that was designed to go off road as well as several other performance models. Standard features abound in the Focus as well as sever neat options. Ford has not announced plans to replace or redesign the Focus for at least the next 3 years. If it ain't broke don't fix it. Maybe Ford finally has it.


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