COAL: A Pair Of Pintos

We’re up to the fall of 1975.  It was time for a big, big change in my life.

I’d graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Economics and History.  Since Dad was a professor of economics at UW, we both felt if I were to pursue graduate studies in economics I’d need to go to another school.  I applied and was accepted at Berkeley and at Yale.  Yale gave me a scholarship for tuition; Berkeley didn’t, so that was that.  I sold my Datsun 1600 to the little brother of a friend—I knew I’d be living in a dorm at Yale, and figured I wouldn’t need a car.  It was the first time in six years I didn’t have a car.

It was a difficult first year for me.  I went from being top-of-my-class at UW to being just another bright, overly-educated student.  Some of my classmates looked down on me for being from a state school rather than Harvard or Princeton.  I also was terribly homesick, since I’d never been away from home before.  Still, I made friends easily and found a wonderful group of people I’m still friends with decades later.

At the end of the academic year, I moved back to Seattle.  Dad had gotten me a job as an intern with the Army Corps of Engineers for the summer.  Since the office was 14 miles away from our house, Dad fronted me $1,000 to buy a car. I checked the local Ford dealership owned by the man across the street and found (almost) exactly what I wanted: A green 1972 Pinto hatchback. The only drawback was it was an automatic rather than a stick shift, but that was OK with me.  It came in a rather ugly shade of green, but it met my needs.  It had a nice, well-kept interior and the hatchback was very practical. Here’s a shot of a similar interior from the web:

The Pinto was intended to be Ford’s answer to the VW Beetle and, along with the Vega and the Gremlin, the first domestic subcompact model. Take that, you pesky imports.  The engineering was rather unoriginal: a plodding, 56-hp 98.6 c.i. four, or an optional 122 c.i. four with all of 83 hp.  I think mine had the 98 inches…yes, it was the 2.0 (122), as the 1600 was not available with the automatic.  That, plus the slushbox, made for, um, leisurely driving.  Mine had no A/C, which back then you didn’t need in Seattle.  On the few days it got hot that summer, I flipped open the rear quarter windows and let the breeze cool things off.  Other than automatic transmission and AM radio it had no extras—just basic transportation.  Which was fine with me.

During that time I lived with my parents, so I can add another couple of family cars.

Again, not my family’s car

Dad remarried to a nice woman in the fall of 1975.  She had a red Maverick four door with the most gawdawful black-and-red checkerboard interior upholstery.  I drove it a few time while on vacation from Yale, and it was quite speedy since it had a V8.  It also handled like a willowy barge.  She said she bought it to replace a Vega she’d previously owned, which died a quick a painful death after the engine overheated and everything kind of melted away.

Dad, on the other hand, had traded his 1967 Electra for a 1969 Riviera.  When I first saw it I was wowed: imagine my practical Dad owning a car with hidden headlights! My joy went away when I got inside.  It had a rather ordinary vinyl interior with no luxuries, and it just felt cheap.  Not like the gorgeous Electra he used to drive.

At the end of the summer of ’76, I headed back to school for my second year in the Ph.D. program.  I gave the Pinto to my brother to replace his car—that was the condition Dad had put on his purchase of my Pinto.  The last I’d heard of it, he’d driven into the ground due to lack of maintenance.  At least he didn’t get rear ended and burst into flames.

In May 1977, I came back to Seattle again for the summer.  This time Dad lent me the money to buy another car, to be repaid at $50/month.  I again selected Bill Pierre Ford as my source, and got a 1973 Pinto wagon. I didn’t fancy a wagon, but the stick shift won me over.

I found this identical car on Someone is asking $8,000 for it.  Seems a tad pricey for me, but to each their own.

Remember, this was the 1970s, so 96-way power adjusting seats weren’t generally available—certainly not on econoboxes like this.  I’m six feet tall and slender, but even so I felt like I was sitting in a bathtub in this car; the seats were very low.  The back seat was horrible for someone of my size! A few times during the years I had this car I had to sit back there, and it was torture.  Still, “Darren” (as I named the car) was very practical.  With the larger engine and stick shift, I remember it being fairly peppy. If you put the back seats down you could haul a decent amount of stuff.

It only had a cheap AM radio, but I bought a do-it-yourself FM kit that I jury-rigged so I could get better music. That became important when in the fall of 1977 I convinced Dad that I needed the car back at school.  Yale allowed only two years in the graduate dorms, and I knew I’d be living off campus.  He was not at all thrilled about my driving across the country, but I was young and stupid, so I talked him into it.  I found a guy on a ride sharing service at the University of Washington to go with me, so off we headed from Seattle to New Haven.  It took us four days, and having FM radio was a blessing in the middle of the country:  Driving along we could have rock and roll (rider) or Motown music (me) instead of the farm report and country music (which neither of us cared for).  The next year I made another round trip between Yale and Seattle for summer jobs.  Darren did good by me.

Hiking on a road trip Rick and I took the summer of 1980.

In May 1979, I moved back yet again to Seattle, this time for an extended stay.  I was driving by myself, so it took five days rather than four. I got a job with the National Marine Fisheries Service.  Part of my job was to complete my Ph.D. dissertation, since the topic was in their mission area.  I also moved in my with my partner Rick, with whom I’d been in a long-distance relationship since 1976.  That, in and of itself, was something of an achievement.  We could only afford to call once a week between New Haven and Seattle, and we actually wrote letters. In cursive script. On paper.  No Skype, no text messaging, no email.  Darren the Pinto did well for us the next year and a half.  We drove all over Seattle, and took a few road trips to Mt. Rainer (pic above) and Vancouver, BC.  We had only one issue: a clutch bearing had to be replaced. Rick didn’t own a car, so we used it for shopping and road trips and for my commute to work.  It was a fun time for us.

As I mentioned earlier, I’d bought Darren the Pinto from Bill Pierre Ford in north Seattle.  This was because Bill Pierre lived across the street from my parent’s house and was a family friend.  When I was living there I’d park on our side of the street by the front door so I wouldn’t block my folk’s cars in the driveway.  One morning I came out and found my car’s rear fender smashed to smithereens.  And a note from Mr. Pierre:  “Call the dealership to get this fixed. I’ll give you a loaner”.  When I took the car in they said “Oh, Mrs. Pierre had another accident?” Apparently this happened a lot.  They gave me a 1978 Ford Thunderbird to drive for a week. It was sybaritic luxury with every option included.  Alas, it handled like my dad’s boat with no engine running.  And it guzzled gas, about 8 MPG on my daily commute.  I was glad to turn it back after my car was repaired.

Graduation, with my dear friend Elise. At least this time Dad didn’t have a heart attack before the ceremony.

By the summer of 1980, my dissertation was complete and I had my Ph.D. in hand. I got a job at the University of Rhode Island as an Assistant Professor.  Rick agreed to come with me, so we loaded up everything we owned in a U-Haul van and trailered the Pinto behind us.  I put the car on ramps and disconnected the driveshaft prior to the trip.  We made the trip without incident, and ended up in Kingston, RI, where the University is located.  We found a charming cottage to rent nearby, unloaded the van, reconnected the driveshaft, and moved in.

Rick had trouble finding work, so he enrolled in URI to get his nursing degree.  Living on one income was tough, so we kept the Pinto going as long as we could.  Finally, in 1983, the clutch went out again as he was driving to his first job in Providence.  We got it fixed, but decided it was time to shop for a new car.  On the way to Providence to go to to the auto show the timing belt let go.  I guess Darren knew we were looking to replace him.  I sold the car to a colleague for $300, and we then purchased our first new car! More about that in my next installment.

COAL № 1: Buicks Aplenty; a Fiat, and a Pontiac • The Early Years.

COAL № 2: 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban • Dad’s Biggest regret

COAL № 3: 1965 Buick Sportwagon • My first car

COAL № 4: 1967 Datsun 1600 • The first car that was legally mine

Further reading:

David Skinner’s post on the Fastest Pinto Ever Built

CC on the 1973 Pinto Wagon