Curbside Classic: 1978 Ford Pinto – Disappointment As Necessity

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The sight of this denim blue Pinto wagon amounted to redemption of what was rapidly turning out to be a very crappy Saturday about a month ago.  Embroiled as I was in an ugly, fruitless–but seemingly unavoidable–political debate with a friend, and with my weekend plans set to be rained out, this very fine CC at least offered something in the way of compensation.  It really was a perfect car for the occasion, memorable as a depressing yet inescapable part of daily life for millions.

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It didn’t matter that its Washington State vanity plate–“Disco78”–wasn’t in keeping with the actual spirit of the Pinto, it at least correctly identified the car.  Without it, all I could tell was that it was a pre-’79 and a post-’73 wagon.  I’d like to think most of us can do better job of describing this late ’70s domestic subcompact than the cute buzzwords chosen for this car’s license plate, though “LOVECNL” might be an apt descriptor.

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If it was “disco” one were after, a contemporary small car buyer would have been safer with something imported–or possibly life across the Atlantic.  The late ’60s-inspired Pinto was definitely more Neil Young than Sylvester, let alone Giorgio Moroder.

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But a ’78 Omnirizon wouldn’t scream “free spirit” as loudly to undiscerning bystanders and in that sense, this car has much more cachet in 2014 than the cars with which it competed.  It’s actually hard to say much about the Pinto as an actual car compared to the Chrysler L-body, let alone yesterday’s Fireflite, but in terms of cultural significance, as the misplaced reference on the vanity plate shows, it arguably has both those Mopars beat.

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That might actually have something to do with the choice made to drive this car across the country and whoever did so would be well advised to keep it somewhat sheltered over the coming years.  The novelty of four distinct seasons wears off for motorists unfamiliar with rapidly forming potholes, winter driving with all-season tires on a lightly laden open-diff rear driver (automatic, in this case) and ungalvanized sheet metal.  Unless Disco78 has plans to high-tail it back to Washington soon, the next stop for this ol’ pony after two or three Indiana winters is the glue factory.

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Or perhaps not: many Pintos grumbled unhappily into the mid ’90s in this part of the country, so they’re rather long-lived little critters, at least more so than the early Escorts which replaced them and the Vegas with which they went head-to-head.  And with its subdued color scheme and factory-correct trim, it deserves to be kept around (if that is indeed the original radio, I’m impressed).  Perhaps the original owners’ musical tastes were defined by studious indifference, making this car difficult to identify with any subculture.

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It’s also meant that, much like the Pinto itself, mainstream broadcasts (dominated these days by Clear Channel Top 40) have also become an unavoidable necessity, along with the sound of powertrain laboring alongside more inspired traffic.  Being a wagon with an automatic, there’s some likelihood of a Cologne 2.8 resting under that somewhat patinated blue hood.  If not that 90-horsepower V6, then a 2.3-liter Lima unit managed eighty-eight–that puts the move from mini-Mustang to mini-estate (and even mini-sportvan) into perspective.

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This lightly optioned example avoids such tackiness, but inflation could’ve been a factor. For 1978, Pintos like this one were $4000, which was a bit more than Nova V8 money, and it was also Fairmont wagon money. Sales were naturally down to 190,000 from a peak of about 545,000 in 1974 (with 290,000 sold in 1976).  More money for a slower, older car wasn’t a path to popularity, but the decline in the fortunes was most likely because the mere sight of the small Ford, with its slight coke-bottle shape, was getting old.

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Unfortunately, retirement wouldn’t come before its masters mandated a round of plastic surgery and two more tours of duty.  Usually such drawn out deaths are accompanied by miniscule sales, price cuts and increasing obscurity. Such wasn’t the case for the Pinto.  Sales remained near 1978 levels as prices rose further.  It would appear familiarity with such a popular, well-exposed model worked in its favor, making it an icon of acquiescence in the face of mounting disappointment.   Whether or not that makes the Pinto’s life uncommonly dignified or a depressing spectacle is up to you, but it’s helped secure this car’s charm for over thirty-six years.

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Related reading:

Curbside Classic: 1971 Pinto – 1971 Small Car Comparison No. 4

Curbside Classic: 1978 Ford Pinto V6 – The Car I Didn’t Buy

Curbside Classic: 1980 Pinto Wagon – The Pinto’s Long Colorful End