COAL: 1975 Ford Pinto–Fecal Brown Freedom

(first posted 12/22/2012)     In the summer of 1986, I was home after my freshman year at engineering school when my Aunt Betty offered me a job driving for the courier service she owned. I told her that while I’d love to take the job, I didn’t have a car to get there. She responded, “I have an old Ford Pinto that you can keep for the summer. I was going to have you drive it for deliveries most of the time anyway.” Ah, sweet nepotism.

I drove that car all over northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan, running papers and small boxes to manufacturers. It was a great summer job, even though an old Pinto was neither a stylish nor, in this case, particularly reliable means of delivering anything.

The car’s color masked a fair amount of surface rust, but color couldn’t change the fact that most of the undercarriage was badly rusted. The floor pan had rusted through around two of the three bolts securing the front passenger’s seat, but my girlfriend was kind enough not to complain about how her seat bobbed considerably at every bump.

Our biggest customer was AM General, which made military Hummers. (I got to ride in them a time or two, which was a big thrill.) I ran papers among their Mishawaka, South Bend and La Porte plants all the time. I liked the La Porte run because it involved a long, straight and fast stretch of Indiana State Road 2 seldom visited by the Indiana State Police, if you catch my drift. On one run, the whole back end of the car suddenly started shaking violently. Instantly, dust and rust bits filled the cabin. As I slowed down, the shaking diminished. As I pulled over, it became a rhythmic “whap” that was clearly coming from the right rear corner. It turns out that my frugal aunt had put retreaded tires on the Pinto. Most of the tread on the right-rear tire was gone, and as it spun, the loose tread beat the bejebus out of the fender.

Fortunately, a good spare was stuffed in the uselessly tiny trunk, but when I cranked the jack into place against the car’s frame, the metal crumbled away. I couldn’t find a solid piece of frame anywhere so I could lift up that car. Thankfully, a previous driver had squeezed a bumper jack into the trunk and soon I was on my way.

The Pinto offered the La-Z-Boy driving position that was typical of several early 1970s cars: One leaned back deep in the seat, feet way out in front. It only served to magnify the Pinto’s low-to-the-ground stance, and it seemed like most other cars towered over me. Despite being a small car, the Pinto was fitted with a full-sized Ford steering wheel that rubbed my thighs no matter how I positioned my legs. Fortunately, the manual steering was light and easy once the car got rolling, and the wheel was easy enough to manage.

My Pinto had the 2.3-liter Lima engine, a version of which ended up in the 1980s Thunderbird TurboCoupe. Mine must have been mistuned, since it would accelerate right up to 30 mph from a dead stop without my touching the gas pedal. In sharp contrast to its overeager throttle, the Pinto’s brakes were vague and unassisted, so stopping could be a real adventure. After running many just-turned-red lights because I couldn’t get the Pinto stopped in time, I learned to take it slow in town and watch upcoming stoplights as far as I could see.

I also couldn’t back up the car, because its reverse gear had been stripped somewhere along the way. You’d think that would have taught me to always park so I could drive forward to get out, but I ended up pushing that car out of a parking spot about once a week. One client’s office was on a hill, and twice–meaning I didn’t learn the first time–I pulled into a space against their building only to have to push my car out later and then chase it down the hill. Have you ever caught a 3,000-pound car, rolling backwards and gathering speed, by an open door and tried to climb in?

Late that summer the car’s cooling system crapped out. After every trip of more than about ten miles, the radiator spat its contents through the overflow hose and onto the ground. I carried water everywhere with me until Betty finally put her in the shop for repair.

Really, this car was more hassle than it was worth; still, I loved it beyond all reason. It was the first car that was “mine” in that I didn’t have to share it with my dad and my brother. It also was part and parcel of a job that gave me a tremendous amount of freedom. The Pinto and I explored the highways, stopped at the 7-11 for Big Gulps, listened to top-40 music on WLS, soaked up sunshine all day–and I earned five bucks an hour for the privilege. That was great summer job money in 1986!

That’s why even all these years later, I get excited when I see a Pinto that’s still on the road. In idle moments I even occasionally troll eBay Motors’ Pinto section. Maybe one day I’ll find one in good nick.

All photos except the one of the engine are of my Pinto.