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The Ford Pinto Turns 40

1971 Ford Pinto

1971 Ford Pinto

I have always identified with the underdog, and at times have taken on the role of the apologist. But this time let’s just say I’m playing the devil’s advocate. After all, no one in their right mind would “really” defend a car that could be defined as a roadside bomb.

Popular Mechanics saddled my client with the designation of one of the “10 Cars That Deserved to Fail.” If my reference to automotive volatility is not a big enough hint, the model I’m defending was named after a horse, and of course, it’s not the Mustang. There was even a Pony option.

Yes, I dare to be in the corner of the Ford Pinto.

The Pinto was Ford’s way of addressing the blossoming subcompact market in the wake of such models as the Ford Falcon and the Mercury Comet. The company’s competitors had introduced the AMC Gremlin and the Chevy Vega and everything looked good enough to roll out. Which Ford did before, some say, testing the vehicle’s performance in rear-end collisions.

If the Pinto’s credentials are not sufficiently established by the Popular Mechanics hall of shame induction, there’s Time magazine’s ranking as number 21 in their “The 50 Worst Cars of All Time” article.

But, hey I’m supposed to be singing the praises of the Pinto.

Consider The Pinto Stampede that is coming to a city near you--Salina, Kansas May 29th; Columbia, Missouri May 30th; Indianapolis May 31st; Cambridge, Ohio June 1st; and ending up the next day at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Pinto devotees will be making their way from Denver Colorado to Carlisle for the All Ford Show. They will be celebrating the Pinto’s 40th birthday.

Norman Bagi of Milford PA will be the “trail boss” for the event, which benefits the Wounded Warrior Project. And if I might enter his statement into the record, "Unlike other rallies that celebrate 'automotive ingenuity' or 'classic styling,' the Pinto has a reputation all its own — one we feel that has been grossly over-exaggerated."

Of course what he is referring to is the signature feature of the Ford Pinto - its unfortunate propensity to ignite when struck from the rear. It was this thing about bumper bolts piercing the fuel tank. But like JFK’s marital fidelity and Mother Teresa’s depression, history looks different after the passing of decades and such is the case with the Pinto.

In a paper published in the Rutgers Law Review in 1991 entitled “The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case,” the popularly accepted fatality figures of 500-900 deaths was scaled way back to the official figure recorded by the NHTSA, which was 27. The author then compared that frequency with other subcompacts of the time--and statistically the Pinto was no more fire-prone than its competitors.

I rest my case.

[Time, Popular Mechanics, Times Herald-Record]
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Comments (34)
  1. Had one just like this. First year, and same color. It was not my car of choice, but it drove me everywhere. I used to get it off the ground on my ride home from high school. I was a little wildie.

  2. That's interesting. Of course the Pinto was crude with it's rear leaf springs and it horrible back seat. I owned both a Pinto Sedan and a Vega notchback. There was no comparison in ride, back road handling, or rear seat comfort. The Vega was way ahead, but my '72 Vega 2300 rusted even worse than my '73 Pinto 2.0. ON the other hand, the Vega got better fuel mileage at 30 overall vss 23 overall for my Pinto, both with 4 speed manual shift.

  3. Just my POV, but can a car "turn" any age when it hasn't been made in so long? Much like Saturns, Plymouths, Oldsmobiles, Edsels, etc, the Pinto died a while back--and I don't mean the many seen by the side of the road--way back then. This is a page 92 story, right next to the car wax ads.

  4. Damien,
    you are a grouchy soul aren't you? Sounds like you never owned one of these "classics"
    I think you missed the whole point of the whimsical story.I had a 73 that i ran the wheels off.
    Had to replace the Decel Valve diaphram too many times, but the little SOB just kept going. Until the shifter fell out one day shifting from 1st to 2nd. Hey, i was practicing power shifting!

  5. It was a great little car for its' day. Had both a Pinto and a Vega. The Pinto lasted longer. My poor little Vega blew it's engine about 35,000 miles. Once the Civics and B210 came into play the American made small cars were done however. As to the article, it was true that the whole fire risk was way overblown and subsequently shown as on par with anything else produced at the time.

  6. I got one for $25, & put 60,000 miles on it, & all I ever bought for it was a battery once. Was a rock solid lil demon.


  8. I"ve proudly owned 3 pintos in the last 12 years. They have all been gutted-out dirt track race cars.They are very popular for the mini stock class.

  9. I"ve proudly owned 3 pintos in the last 12 years. They have all been gutted-out dirt track race cars.They are very popular for the mini stock class.

  10. Correct me if I am wrong. But didn't the Pinto give birth to the FOX Mustang platform? And doesn't that make it kin to one of the most sucessfull Automotive platforms EVER? I owned one. And when it was done on the street. It kicked butt on the racetrack! The 2000CC and 2.3 were anvil tough engines! Period!

  11. This is in response to the posting by Joseph E. Willett II. To the best of my knowledge, the Pinto platform was used to create the Mustang II generation spanning from 1974 to 1978. The FOX Mustang platform used from 1979 to 1993 was based on the Ford Fairmont that first went on sale in the 1978 model year. As for the referenced 4-cylinder engines, while the 2.3 liter North American motor was not bad, the much more desirable 2000CC engine came directly from Ford of Europe. This sweet motor continues running in numerous Ford cars in Europe, most notably the old Cortina and Sierra as well as the European Escort, Focus, Mondeo and others. Parts are still readily available to this day both new and used. Lots of memories...Cheers.

  12. I had a 1977 Pinto. It was a base model, no radio but did have the sunroof. I ran it until the engine froze up due to an incredibly cold winter in 1984. I then pulled out the original 4 cyl/4speed and dropped in a V6 with a stick from a 1974 Mustang II. A few years later I "rebuilt" the 2.8L V6 with a few non-stock options. When I was done I had a Pinto that would run sub 14 second 1/4 mile at ~112 MPH but still get 30 MPG on the highway. I have owned a T-Bird, a couple Taurus SEL premiums and now a Hyundai Azera Limited but still miss my little Pinto. I had lots of fun with that car.

  13. My '71 sedan was built on 10/03/70, so it would be older than 40 now, almost 41.When it had 94k miles on it,the previous owner had the block bored and put in oversized pistons an Erson camshaft, Mallory dual-point ignition and a Weber carb. It was unholy fast off the line and could destroy the dreams of Vega owners in just over 13 seconds.
    I have owned 5 Pintos and driven 6 others. The 2000cc was the engine I learned all the basics on, what an amazing little mill, what great little cars.
    I wish I still had one, but they are getting pretty rare. Never did blow one up, but the rear brakes do tend to fall apart if driven down lumpy roads. That was my only beef with them.

  14. The date of manufacture on the '71 was listed on the bill of sale from Ford, which the guy saved. The original price was $2235.
    It was called a Sedan because it had a trunk instead of a hatchback. The one in the picture is also a sedan, just like my beast.
    My '75 hatchback was a "3 dr. cpe." according to its Az. title. I found that pretty amusing.
    The other 3 were all '74 wagons with auto trans. Surprisingly, they got better mileage than the fastbacks. That may have been due to maturity and more reasonable driving habits.

  15. I owned a 74 Vega GT, my wife had a Light Blue Pinto Station Wagon with the wood trim. Both were decent until the cam lobes wore out on the Pinto, rust and oil burning engine in Vega. Rebuilt both, but put steel sleeves in Vega engine and they were handed down to family members for the next several years.

  16. Best winter beater I ever had, '73 with a '71 2300cc,big holley 2 barrel with a header. Drove from '75 -'79 until there was too much snow coming in the doors

  17. I had an '80 hatchback. It was silver with a black stripe. It was the most dependable car I've ever owned. It survived a hurricane, 3 years of abuse at the hands of a 20 something idiot and a general lack of maintenance. The only thing I did to it was brakes and plugs. Total cost, $250(purchase price) + $16(brake pads) + $5(plugs). I sold the car for $300. Anyone badmouthing a pinto probably never owned one.

  18. I agree with jd anyone who never owned one has pretty much no idea. I bought my 1978 wagon in 1986 with 102,211 miles on it for $600.I still own and drive it today. It was hit once from behind at a stop,hard eneogh to push me into the car in front of me,push ther core support back,oine shock made a dent in the floor in back.It took a little work to get it back on the road,that was in 1996. Needless to say,it didnt explode. I did read the wagons have the gas tanks mounted further towards the front.

  19. 1976-1979 The US Army Military Police used them as squad cars when I was stationed in Germany. They took a beating but they ran. It was fun putting a bad 6' foot soldier in handcuffs into the backseat. I don't think they thought that one through. They were replaced with the 4 door Mavericks.

  20. Check out the real Ford Pinto story by reading Corporate Crime Under Attack. Find at:

  21. Corporate Crime Under Attack? Really? A perspective of lack of perspective? The Model T couldn't be sold today. Not enough safety requirements. Nor should reference to a book published in 2006 marketing about corporate marketing of 1970. Different times. The late '60's to mid'70's were a watershed time for US automakers. Mandatory seat belts & emission controls. Safety glass was still new. Bumpers capable of sustaining 5 mph hits without damage hadn't been mandated yet. Catalytic converters didn't exist until 1975. Leaded or unleaded gas kept gas(-rationed) stations busy.Glass, rectangle headlights weren't yet allowed. With requirements changing every year, designing a car was like hitting a moving target.

  22. I had a 1972 Pinto, white 2 door with green interior, no air, just an AM radio on it. Kept it 20 months, drove it 40,000 miles and was still a good car when I sold it to buy a new 1974 Ford Gran Torino Elite. Only problem with my Pinto was tires. Wore out the original 6.00X13's and the replacement 6.50x13's by 22,000 miles. Replaced with Michelin Radials and they still looked new at 40K miles. It was pretty hard to enter and exit due to it being so low to the ground, but I'd love to get into one now. Mine had the 1600cc engine with 4 speed tranny.

  23. Would gladly buy a pinto today-esp a wagon. tough little cars.BTW-the saying around the dirt tracks is---Old Pintos never die-they just go racing--

  24. I'll never forget the old Pinto my dad had when I was a kid. He gutted it, and dropped a 289 in it. The light weight of the car with that engine was definitely hauled. Only wish he could have put in the 302 as he was planning before he had to sell it.

  25. I had a love affair with Pintos from the late 70s to the mid 80s. A friend and myself dealt with them and even started a side business buying, selling, parting out and selling parts in Ca. We modified them with my turbo 2 liter being the hottest. That little 4 cylinder was very tough. 5 main bearings and a really strong block took all you could throw at it. They were even running 9s in the 1/4 mi. with them with more mods than I did to mine. If they were taken care of with regular oil changes and the like, they would run forever. If I could find a rust free one now, I'd buy it in a heartbeat! I miss mine a lot. I also never believed the hoopla about the fire hazard with them, either.

  26. without the Ford Pinto Engine BRISCA F2 (British Stockcar Association) would off never became the formula it is today we would probley be runing the old Ford 1300 engines

  27. I had a red 73 Hatchback. With little 50 US slotted mags in back and 60 US slotted mags in front. Cranking tunes, 8-track,and as I called it later , my moon window in back. IT was a good car to pick your girlfriend up when thier parents were home. But there was as much room as a backseat could give you in the woods. Had more fun in that little hatchback,than any Chevy Van. Sweet,

  28. It's been so long ago when I owned one, I can't recall what year it was, but it was a very simple station wagon with practically no options. I bought it used from a dealer, who said it ran like a sewing machine. I don't know if it was the "clackity-clackity-clackity" sound from the valve train that told him that, but I knew the cam lobes were going flat. That was poor maitenance by the previous owner and not a Ford design error. After I overhauled it, which is about as easy as overhauling a Briggs and Stratton lawn mower engine, it ran like new, if not better. Wish they still made them. Also. if I remember right, the Esslinger midget racing engine originally came from the Pinto and is still one of premier midget engines raced today.

  29. My brother rolled his first wife's Pinto in 1976.

  30. The only "good" thing that came from this was the 2.3 LIMA that eventually got the SVO 205 HP in 1985. My 1986 2.3 SVO has 115K and still runs strong. You can get about 350hp out of the stock LIMA SVO engine.

  31. I owned 4 of these cars and all went the distance rust was the enemy still running when they hit the junk yard. We need more of these cars today. Note# the Chev Vega was junk with its aluminium head that warped when you ran it more than a couple of thousand miles......I replaced many wyhen being a mechanic

  32. I owned 4 of these cars and all went the distance rust was the enemy still running when they hit the junk yard. We need more of these cars today. Note# the Chev Vega was junk with its aluminium head that warped when you ran it more than a couple of thousand miles......I replaced many wyhen being a mechanic

  33. My family bought two 1980 Pintos. When you are a teenager with wheels, it does not really matter what you drive. I did pass on buying one of them when I started college however.

  34. had a 72 pinto wagon i drove for 10 years. Sold it for what I paid for it. Put a starter and a head on it/ did the work myself for about 100 dollars!. took multiple trips to the midwest with no problems!

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