Every once in a while, I will have an “a-ha” moment prompted by absolutely nothing, or so it seems. I was born somewhere in the middle of the Ford Pinto’s decade-long run, and was accustomed to seeing plenty of them around on the street as used cars in the 1980s. Even in my own extended family, my aunt and uncle had a Pinto Squire wagon in what I remember to be a light green color. I liked my aunt and uncle a lot and came to associate Pintos with them, especially the wagons. My aunt and my mom looked so much alike at one point that my cousin and I still laugh about how each of us had mistakenly gone up to the wrong “mom” more than once to ask for something, and then were scared for a second when the wrong lady turned around. All this is to say that I was familiar enough with the Ford Pinto, including their reputation for being prone to deadly fires following rear-end collisions, as discussed by the adults around the dinner table.
My aunt and uncle eventually got rid of the Pinto for a Chevy Citation. One could say they jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, but the last time the Citation came up in conversation between my uncle and me, he still maintains that besides the Citation’s rust-prone nature, both it and the Pinto were pretty good small cars for the day. I take him at his word. Getting back to my discovery, it has been only within the past several years or so that it has occurred to me that the “Runabout” model could have been so-named after a little boat! To be fair, Merriam-Webster also defines a runabout as a small, open car (there was no Pinto convertible), but most connotations of this word in U.S. English seem to be nautical, with the automotive definition being used principally in England. The Pinto wasn’t exported in any significant numbers that I could determine, so I’m going with those in charge of naming the hatchback the “Runabout” having thought of being on the water.
It just had never dawned on me before that this might be the case. I had always lumped “Runabout” and “Sportabout” into the same category, the latter being AMC’s appellation for the attractive, sporty, wagon version of their compact Hornet. The “-about” suffix on both names seemed to connote something in action, and nothing more. Example: “What did you do this weekend?” “I was just out and about.” The third Pinto, of course, was the two-door sedan with a trunk and basically the exact same exterior styling and dimensions as the hatchback.
When I think about the Pinto Runabout as a roadgoing, little boat, it suddenly seems very cute in a way that I had never thought of it before. It was certainly small and maneuverable, with its 84.2-inch wheelbase and 169.0″ overall length. It was, however, on the wide side, measuring a full 70″ from door-to-door. A contemporary Toyota Corolla was only 59.3″ wide, by comparison. Ford’s larger Maverick was only half an inch wider. The Pinto did have responsive rack-and-pinion steering, a new-ish feature on mainstream passenger cars that added to its lithe feel, especially in its earlier, lighter iterations.
By ’74, the starting weight of the Runabout was 2,400 pounds, which was up a solid four hundred pounds from the first ’71 hatchback, a full 20% increase. This weight was on par with the concurrent Chevy Vega hatchback, and was still about 250 pounds lighter than a base-model, six-cylinder AMC Gremlin. A standard 2.0L four-cylinder engine provided 80 horsepower, with the slightly larger 2.3L mill adding just two more horses. Most of these cars had the standard four-speed manual transmission. Ford sold over half a million Pintos in ’74, its best sales year, aided by the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo and resulting shortage of gasoline. Of the 544,000 units moved that year, about 175,000 of them were Runabout hatchbacks. The most popular Pinto was the wagon, with over 237,000 sold. The remaining 132,000 units were trunk-backed sedans. Pinto sales fell by over half for ’75, to 224,000 units. Over 3,173,000 Pintos were sold over its ten-year run.
I think of the lyrics to the song “Little Boat”, written by Ronaldo Boscoli and Robert Menascal, and within the context of the Ford Pinto, I have to chuckle a little bit. My current favorite rendition of the song comes from the smooth and inimitable Peggy Lee. It’s not that I can’t see Ms. Lee in a Pinto Runabout, though that thought is hilarious. It’s the contrast of the luxuriousness of her singing and this sprightly musical arrangement against the Pinto’s image as a second-tier beater car provides a truly humorous contrast:
My little boat is like a note
Bouncing merrily along, hear it splashing up a song
The sails are white, the sky is bright
Heading out into the blue, with a crew of only two
Where we can share love’s salty air
On a little paradise that’s afloat
Not a care have we in my little boat…
The thought of two young adults on a date “bouncing merrily along” over potholes and uneven pavement has me suppressing a laugh. And the reference to “a crew of only two” makes me think about just how little legroom was in the rear seat, which basically swallowed your butt into a little, upholstered bucket with your knees much higher than most would probably be comfortable with in the event of an emergency stop. Was dental work less expensive in the ’70s? I’m thinking not, even adjusted for inflation.
Like other contemporary domestic subcompacts, these were best used by only two adults and maybe a couple of young kids. The Runabout designation for hatchback models lasted the entire ten years of the Pinto’s run. I do think the small boat context of the name fits a sporty car like a FIAT Barchetta much better than a Pinto, but the next time I see a Pinto Runabout at a car show (it has been probably decades since I’ve seen a Pinto in the wild), I might smile at the thought of zipping around a large lake at a community park in the summer.
Downtown Flint, Michigan.
Saturday, August 16, 2014.