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

Curbside Classics takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test. First posted here in 2011.

Few cars are more polarizing than the Pinto. Commonly derided for its exploding gas tank and general crappiness, other folks found it to be cheap, fairly reliable transportation with a variable fun quotient, depending on its configuration. Sometimes cars develop their reputations later in life, but the underdeveloped Pinto was pretty much an open book right from the beginning. A children’s book, at that. The Pinto should have been called the Foal; it was a baby car.

Although its incendiary qualities weren’t yet recognized, C/D‘s editors were very disappointed with its Lego-car structural integrity and build quality. “We can see it reviving all those terrible old Ford (Model T) jokes, like ‘What time is it when one Ford follows another Ford down the road? (answer: ‘tin after tin’)”. Actually, the Model T was made out of very high quality steel, so the joke is more than a bit ironic.

Ford’s quest to keep weight and price low, (and possibly a rushed timeline) contributed to the tin can effect. “Whenever you hit a bump, the steering wheel whips around in your hands and the whole car rattles and rustles like a burlap bag full of tin cups. Self destruction seems only moments away.” As in when a GM X-body with locked rear brakes plows into that cute ass-end with its vulnerable gas tank .

I guess I was too young in 1971 to fully grasp the Pinto’s structural deficiencies. I was too busy grasping the steering wheel and stick shift of a 2-liter, 4-speed version through the narrow, snaking, river-hugging Jones Falls Road. Of all the Fords I was being paid as a seventeen-year old dealership car jockey to shuttle to the distant body shop down this road. That particular Pinto configuration was the most fun (the Mach1 Mustang had it beat except on the tightest of curves). Apparently I wasn’t the only one to appreciate the Pinto’s handling qualities:

The rack-and-pinion steering and the shifter for the four-speed transmission are light and direct and the whole car bites into corners as though it knew what it was about.” Helps explain why the Pinto had a successful career as an SCCA Class B racer. Although not with the venerable “Kent” 1.6-liter pushrod engine that was in C/D‘s test Pinto. If they had tested the optional German OHC 2.0 version, the Pinto might well have moved up a notch in the rankings. The British engine was a noisy and gutless little lump, despite its pedigree in past (and future) Euro-Fordmobiles. In this version it made all of 75 (gross) horsepower, resulting in a very un-frisky zero-to-sixty time of fifteen seconds, only a hair quicker than the venerable slug bug.

But it wasn’t just the acceleration; the Pinto with the 1.6 engine failed in the key freeway cruising test: it was a buzz-bomb. Detroit had (mostly correctly) identified the imports’ one major weakness: unpleasant cruising on the freeways at higher speeds. The tiny engines long favored in Europe and Japan due to their different conditions were not conducive to the American way of driving.

That’s why Detroit responded with six-cylinder compacts in 1960. But they defined a new larger “compact” class, rather than competing directly with the smaller imports. And now, with the import wave turning into a tsunami, Ford and GM were determined to take them head-on. And quiet comfortable freeway cruising was the one chink in the imports’ armor they sought to capitalize on.

The Gremlin sure excelled in that particular category. Unfortunately it was the only one. In just about every other dynamic aspect, it was an epic fail. But Ford was starting with a clean sheet. But they should have just left the 1.6 back in old Blighty, and started with the 2.0 as standard. Damn bean counters.

My memory of driving dozens of new Pintos off the transporter trucks tells me that well over two-thirds or more 1971s had the 2.0, although more of those came with the three-speed automatic. That combination was still as much of a drag as was the (brief) GF who had one of those. Too much moaning and not enough action.

Mercifully, the 1.6 disappeared after 1973. But the Pinto’s sporting qualities also started to evaporate about then too. De-smogged motors, despite their growth in displacement, became duller. Automatics became more common. Power steering, too. A substantial structural upgrade coinciding with the Pinto-based Mustang II but added weight. And Ford slathered on the sound-deadening insulation to mitigate those tin-can reverberations. In its later years, the Pinto became terminally boring, if freeway compliant.

With a ten-year production run, the Pinto outlasted its cross-town competitor, the Chevy Vega. And after the omnipresent VW, it’s the most common of these six cars in Eugene today; I had to choose from among three (update: at least a half dozen or more) Pintos I’ve shot. This red example is particularly rare though, for all you Pinto-philes. The “Runabout” hatchback became available halfway through the first 1971 model year. And by 1972, the glass portion of the hatch doubled in size.

This particular Pinto speaks to me in the most sympathetic way possible (for a Pinto), and not just because of its relative rarity. It has that just-right balance of patina, freshness, and historical accuracy, right down to the vintage aftermarket wheels. Very unlike this late stage evolution (that’s a factory-direct Pinto Cruising Wagon). You younger folks (thankfully) don’t know what you were missing. The seventies started out on a high note, but . . . .

Tell me one specific model Detroit car that got better looking with age? (update: I’ve come to admit there were some exception’s to this rule). Designers spend years developing and styling a new car, just to start mucking it up in year two or three. And the government’s ridiculous five-mile bumpers didn’t help either. But this first-year Pinto is still frisky and as cute as a baby, even after almost four decades. Not bad for a tin can.

1971 Comparison car #1 (winner)

1971 Comparison car #2

1971 Comparison car #3

1971 Comparison car #4

1971 Comparison car #5

1971 Comparison car #6