Vintage Reviews & Commentary: 1977 Ford Pinto – Sabrina Duncan, Your New Company Car Has Arrived

Once upon a time, there was a phenomenally popular TV show called Charlie’s Angels, about three very attractive female sleuths who worked at the L.A.-based Charles Townsend Detective Agency.  For the inaugural season, two of the Angels drove Ford Mustang IIs, while the third drove a 1977 Ford Pinto.  How did one poor Angel get stuck with the non-sexy subcompact?  Well for 1977, Ford had made a series of updates to the Pinto, which they were looking to show off.  So, naturally they included the freshened filly in the deal with producer Aaron Spelling to fill his show with an array of Blue Oval products.  There’s no question Ford Motor Company struck product placement gold with Charlie’s Angels—but how good was the updated Pinto?

First let’s look at some of the Ford-based car casting for Charlie’s Angels.  For the twenty-something heroines, the Mustang II and Décor-package Pinto were Dearborn, Michigan’s vision of the “upscale” small cars that successful young career women would drive.  Never mind that in real-life Los Angeles, California in the late 1970s, young professional types were snapping up Honda Accords, Toyota Celicas and Datsun 280Zs…

But we’re talking TV fantasy land here.  So one Angel, Jill Munroe (played by Farrah Fawcett), drove a Ford Mustang II Cobra II.

Another Angel, Kelly Garrett (played by Jaclyn Smith), drove a Mustang II Ghia, equipped with the newly introduced Ghia Sports Package.

The third Angel, Sabrina Duncan (played by Kate Jackson), drove the mildly face-lifted Pinto, naturally larded-up with all the new model-year ’77 appearance options that FoMoCo wanted to showcase (this shot shows the car looking slightly worse for wear after a run-in with a “bad guy” in a ’75 Mercury Cougar).

The Ford products featured in the show certainly got a lot of exposure.  Charlie’s Angels quickly became a top-10 rated show (pulling in 59% of the total TV audience for its timeslot in the first year).  Plus, the TV series turned out to be the rocket fuel that launched the career of producer Aaron Spelling into a whole new orbit.  His brand of low brow, escapist TV fare caught the public’s imagination, and Spelling churned out hit after hit in the late-1970s and early-1980s, including The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, T.J. Hooker and Dynasty for the ABC television network (which for a time was jokingly referred to as “Aaron’s Broadcast Channel”).  In addition to becoming (in)famous for “jiggle TV,” Spelling also became (in)famous for vulgar real estate displays.

In 1983, in the best Dynasty fashion, Aaron and his wife Candy purchased a stunning estate in ultra-exclusive Holmby Hills abutting the golf course at the Los Angeles Country Club.  The 4.5-acre property at 594 South Mapleton Drive featured a 15,000 square foot mansion designed by noted architect Gordon B. Kaufmann (famous not only for his many beautiful residential and commercial commissions in Southern California, but also for his work as the lead architectural designer of the Hoover Dam).

The house had been built in the early 1930s for The Broadway Department Store magnate Malcolm McNaghten, and was considered a particularly fine example of architect Kaufmann’s considerable skills.  As California Arts & Architecture was to write in 1934, “the architect has achieved a happy result – a large house, but not pretentious, all within good scale,” and it was built with the finest materials and craftsmanship available.  Plus, the mansion had a celebrity ownership pedigree: beloved entertainer Bing Crosby had owned the estate for some twenty years.  So clearly it was the perfect home for the leading Hollywood television producer of the 70s and 80s, right?  But what did Aaron and Candy do with their newly acquired masterpiece?

They demolished it!

Thus Spelling supercharged another notorious trend of the 1980s: tear downs and monster houses.  Obviously, the Kaufmann-designed “little old house” was too small and plain for the Spelling’s family of four, so the new colossus that rose on the site—pretentiously dubbed “The Manor”—was almost 4 times bigger, at well over 50,000 square feet.  Looking more like a gaudy hotel than a home, the vaguely “French”-style monstrosity was shocking even to the denizens of the West Side of Los Angeles, who were normally quite immune to even the tawdriest displays of excess.  “Candyland” was the largest and most expensive residence in Los Angeles, though for a while it seemed like something of a white elephant: after Aaron passed away and Candy decided to sell the property, “The Manor” languished on the market for years until it received an “automotive injection.”

That’s right, there’s a car story in all this!  Petra Ecclestone, daughter of Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone (shown above standing between her father and her mother Slavika—a Serbian supermodel who no doubt married the diminutive multi-billionaire for his looks and charming personality), decided that she needed a little pied-à-terre in L.A.

What better choice for a cozy family home than “The Manor”?  So Petra bought the place for a mere $85 million (it had been listed for $150 million) and set about redecorating it for her husband, James Stunt and their two children.  Out went all of Candy’s 80s-style decorating excess, to be replaced with 21st Century-style decorating excess.  So now, rather than looking like an ostentatious medley of over-the-top Pierre Deux furnishings in a Parisian brothel, the interior of “The Manor” presently looks like an ostentatious medley of over-the-top Christopher Guy furnishings in a tacky London nightclub.

But enough about Petra’s palace, we’re talking Pintos!

And in 1977 Ford was trying to enhance the Pinto’s plebeian bones with some visual enhancements and added features in an attempt to make it feel “new” even though it wasn’t (a bit like Petra’s refresh of “The Manor”).

The September 1976 issue of Road Test Magazine took an advance look at the updated 1977 Pinto. The editors noted the minor appearance changes, with a new sloping grille and headlamp surround plus new bumpers, taillights and an optional “all glass” hatch for the Runabout.  Hardly earth shaking stuff, and it certainly couldn’t disguise the aging design, which was entering its 7th model year.  Actually, this was a deliberate strategy on Ford’s part—they specifically stated that only “real” enhancements would be added year-by-year to the Pinto, in an attempt to emulate Volkswagen’s strategy with the Beetle.  Unlike the VW Bug, however, the Pinto was not known for its robust construction and high quality materials.  Oh well, at least it was cheap…

… Or maybe not.  Part of the Ford’s Pinto plan for 1977 included adding all sorts of pricey options and packages.  The humble economy car could now be tricked out with Décor Packages inside and out, a Sports Rallye Package (including suspension upgrades and a tachometer plus ancillary gauges) as well as those Seventies’ favorites, the half-vinyl top and wire wheel covers.  Even loaded with options, Road Test acknowledged that the Pinto was still no Mustang (of course, neither was the Mustang II), but felt that the car was at least more fun-to-drive than previous versions.

The editors at Consumer Guide also reviewed the new Pinto for Auto ’77.

Like Road Test, CG also found the Pinto’s minor improvements to be worthwhile.  The best features of the car were its economy and simplicity: with the standard 2.3L 2V 4-cylinder and 4-speed manual, the Pinto achieved 26 mpg city/37 mpg highway, putting it ahead of all other U.S. produced small cars in fuel economy, with the exception of the Chevrolet Chevette.  In fact, Consumer Guide opined that the Pinto was the best American subcompact available.  But that is a loaded statement, for several reasons: 1) the Subcompact Category was narrowly defined by Consumer Guide, which also ranked additional small cars in the booming “Minicar” Category 2) almost all of the imports outranked the Pinto in both the Subcompact and Minicar segments and 3) the primary domestic subcompact competitors were the Gremlin and Vega—so a very low bar!  In Consumer Guide Auto Test 1977, the following charts were included for both the Subcompact and Minicar category:

When looking at the comparison tables, suddenly the Pinto didn’t really look so good after all.  The majority of imported products outranked the Ford (only the ancient VW Beetle and quirky Subaru GL ranked a bit lower than the Ford), and the new Minicar segment offered more efficient/economical products like the VW Rabbit and Honda Civic.  An old design from 1971 was really pretty stale by 1977, though at least it offered proven mechanicals and a low base price.

For FoMoCo and Charlie’s Angels, however, there would be no imports (Ford’s German Fiesta never made the cut to become an Angel’s wheels).  So, the 1977 Pinto was assigned as Sabrina Duncan’s company car.  After all, since Sabrina was positioned as the “smart” Angel, then it was logical for her to drive the “thrifty but stylish” Runabout.  Was that a good thing for Sabrina?  How did she fare in the company car derby when compared to Jill Munroe and Kelly Garrett with their Mustang IIs?

Well, maybe Sabrina didn’t fare as badly as you would have thought.  According to Consumer Guide in their review of the 1977 Mustang II, Ford’s “sporty” car left a lot to be desired.  For starters, the Mustang II base 2.3L 2V 4-cylinder and optional 2.8L 2V V6 were exactly the same engines offered in the Pinto (though the Mustang II could also be ordered with the 5.0L 2V V8).  But the Mustang II’s variation of the Pinto platform made the car heavier, and fuel economy suffered—so it was no economy champ.  Nor was the Mustang II a performance champ: CG reckoned that the GM sporty coupes (Camaro/Firebird) were far better choices for buyers seeking power and handling.

“Performance” packages like the 2+2 Cobra II (which could be had with any Mustang II engine, including the 4-cylinder!) were far more “show” than “go”—hence the need to add Jill Munroe!

The other Mustang II direction was “luxury” as embodied by the 2-door hardtop with the Ghia Sports Package, featuring a vinyl-landau top, luggage rack, upgraded interior and exterior trim and lacy spoke wheels.  So Ms. Garrett simply got a mini-brougham.

How much was ol’ Charlie paying for his Angels’ company cars?  Actually, even when loaded up with extras like the cars on the show, the gap between the Pinto and the Mustang II wasn’t as large as you’d expect.

1977 Pinto & Mustang II Prices (Adjusted)
Pinto Runabout Mustang II Coupe Mustang II Hatch
Base Price (4-cylinder) $3,353 ($14,040) $3,702 ($15,501) $3,901 ($16,335)
2.8 2V V6 $282 ($1,181) $282 ($1,181) $282 ($1,181)
5.0 2V V8 N/A $234 ($980) $234 ($980)
Selectshift Cruise-O-Matic $248 ($1,038) $248 ($1,038) $248 ($1,038)
Selectaire Air Conditioner $437 ($1,830) $437 ($1,830) $437 ($1,830)
Tinted Glass $49 ($205) $49 ($205) $49 ($205)
AM/FM Stereo $161 ($674) $161 ($674) $161 ($674)
Power Steering $125 ($523) $125 ($523) $125 ($523)
Power Brakes $57 ($239) $57 ($239) $57 ($239)
Cobra II Package N/A N/A $514 ($2,152)
Ghia + Ghia Sports Group N/A $815 ($3,413) N/A
Interior & Exterior Décor Group $286 ($1,198) N/A N/A
Sports Rallye Package $84 ($352) $101 ($423) $54 ($226)
Half Vinyl Roof $125 ($523) std. Ghia N/A
4-Way Manual Driver Seat $30 ($126) $30 ($126) $30 ($126)
Wire Wheel Covers $112 ($469) N/A w/ GSG N/A w/ Cobra II
Estimated Price with Key Options $5,349 ($22,398) $5,977 ($25,027) $5,810 ($24,328)

 

The tricked-out Pinto rang the register at around $5,349 ($22,398 adjusted) while the tarted-up Mustang IIs were only a bit more, with a loaded V6 Ghia being approximately $5,977 ($25,027 adjusted) and the V8 Cobra II going for about $5,810 ($24,328 adjusted).  Of course, for Charlie’s Angels, FoMoCo was paying the bills to place the cars.  Buyers in the real world, spending their own money, typically didn’t spring for quite so much optional equipment on these subcompacts.  The average Pinto in 1977 probably sold for closer to $3,900 ($16,330) while the average Mustang II was likely closer to $5,000 ($20,936 adjusted).  However, keep in mind the import competition at the time: remember that the Honda Accord with automatic stickered for $4,295 ($17,984 adjusted), the Toyota Celica GT started at $4,599 ($19,257 adjusted) and the Datsun 280Z sold for $6,999 ($29,307 adjusted).  Even with added options, accessories and the inevitable dealer price gouging, the Japanese were hard to beat on price, while offering superior features and build quality.

When the 1977 model year came to a close, it was clear that buyers weren’t particularly impressed with either the Pinto or Mustang II, as sales dipped considerably versus 1976.  Despite the nose job, Pinto sales tumbled 30%, from 290,132 to 202,546.  Trim packages didn’t help the Mustang II either: sales declined 18% from 187,567 to 153,173.  As for sales of the models driven by the Angels: Pinto Runabouts, like Sabrina’s, sold 74,234 compared with 29,510 Mustang II Ghias like Kelly’s (Ford did not break-out sales data for Jill’s Cobra II package, though the similar “sporty” Mach I sold a mere 6,719).  So for single model sales popularity, if not overall desirability, Sabrina’s Pinto was the champ.

Whatever the debate between the Pinto and the Mustang II as the vehicle of choice for the Angels, there’s no question that Sabrina’s Light Orange Runabout saw plenty of action.  It is seen here with the Angels on a road trip to jail (to solve a case of course!) in the seminal “Angels in Chains.”  The episode featured a women’s prison filled with buxom young female inmates, who could toil in the fields or don evening gowns and work at a cathouse run by the warden for the exclusive benefit of prison suppliers.  Naturally the Angels saved the day, including rescuing a character player by Kim Basinger (who was at the start of her career).  So bad… but so good—Aaron Spelling was clearly strutting his producing powers!

For a boy (me) entering puberty during the run of Charlie’s Angels, the show had a profound impact.  I can’t say it did anything to enhance my low opinion of Ford’s small car lineup from the late 1970s.  But the series sure helped me appreciate…ahem…other things, making it “must see TV” for me and my buddies.

So as Charles Townsend would say (over the speaker box) at the end of every episode: “Great work Angels!  Thanks for a job well done.”