Curbside Classic: 1973 Ford Pinto Wagon; The Lowest Wagon Ever and the Best Selling Wagon in the World – This Is Why Americans Love CUVs

If you want to know why CUVs are so popular with folks above a certain age, it’s because they were forced to spend their formative years in a Pinto wagon. It tops out at 50 inches (1.27 meters), which is less than a Toyota 86 sports coupe and a mere 1.4″ more than a current Miata. So from now on when you see a Pinto wagon (if you should be so blessed) think of it as a Miata wagon. That will help you imagine what the front seating position was like, and what a torture it was to sit in the rear seat. That is, if you’re too young to have missed the experience of being forced to sit in one. If you have, no need to imagine, as your PTSD is probably being triggered by the sight of this.

What do we attribute a 50″ high wagon to? Poor planning and warped priorities? What else? The Pinto was originally conceived purely as a…well, what shall we call it? It’s not a two door sedan in the usual sense, although it did have a ridiculous little trunk hatch and not a hatchback originally. A poor man’s Mustang? An el-cheapo coupe? A miserably-cramped attempt to outdo the equally cramped VW Beetle, designed 40 years earlier? But even the VW’s rear seat was better than the Pinto’s.

It was a foolish attempt to apply the first and third principles of Detroit’s lower, longer, wider mantra to a subcompact car. If anyone thought that was really a good idea, I’d like them to explain it to me. I’ve been waiting patiently for almost 50 years.

The Pinto’s underpinnings were based on a shortened UK Ford Cortina chassis, whose body of course had the proportions right. It had a drastically more user-friendly interior room than the Pinto, including proper seating front and back with appropriate sit-up height and leg room, given its short length, 168″, or just five more than the Pinto. And it was six inches taller!

Not only was the Pinto was five inches shorter but also five inches wider,at just under 70 inches.  If I’ve lost you with all those garbled stats, let’s just say the Pinto was kind of like a Cortina that had been melted, but all the lost height went into its hips, not in length. Or just a ridiculously inefficient package.

But Ford USA knew better what Americans wanted in a subcompact car: a 3/4 scale Torino SportsRoof coupe.

There was just one, two; no three problems with Ford offering just a two-door coupe/sedan Pinto: the Chevy Vega. It also appeared in 1971, but came in three distinct body styles (as well as a sedan delivery version of the wagon), and the hatchback coupe instantly became the best seller of the bunch.

Although Ford’s relentless drive to make the Pinto as cheap as possible resulted in a base price ($1919) that well undercut the cheapest Vega sedan ($2146), the result was also a very cheap feeling car. Here’s a few salient words from Car and Driver’s 1971 small car comparison: “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”. The Vega would exhibit other issues, but it felt quite substantial in comparison to the Pinto.

Car and Driver subjected themselves to a 15,000 mile comparison test of the two, and not surprisingly, it was not exactly their idea of a fun time. In terms of passenger space this was their summation: Realistically, either the Pinto or Vega should be limited to carrying two adults, with the rear seats limited for small children or parcels. Try telling that to a Cortina owner with a family.

They found the Pinto hatchback with the optional 2.0 L engine, four speed stick and optional (!) disc brakes to be satisfying and amusing as a city car. But its charm melts away in long-distance cruising:  The ride quality is much harsher than the Vega’s, high speed directional stability is lacking, and the bucket seats…proved to be agony for most of the staff…the Pinto’s ventilation system is utterly inadequate.

Since we’re here to trash talk about the Pinto and not the Vega, we’ll just include this one overarching line about the Vega: from a noise and vibration point of view, the Vega’s engine is unfit for passenger car use.  In more ways than one, as it soon turned out.

Of course the Pinto’s engine in the test suffered form all sorts of maladies too, some of them stemming from the fact that the camshaft had been installed incorrectly in a large batch of 2.0 L engines. And so on… All the grisly details of Pinto and Vega ownership (in the first few months) are here.


Back to the more immediate and more easily solvable Vega problem at hand: to quickly rush out a Pinto a hatchback, which arrived in February of 1971 in this form, and which was soon replaced in 1972 with a bigger rear window. But to make a wagon took a bit more doing; sort of.

The solution, which arrived in 1972 sometime during the model year as it was not in the initial 1972 brochure, was to just extend the rear bodywork, by some ten inches. No lengthening of the wheelbase, or raising the roof; never mind four doors.

So the result is…highly compromised, again unlike its UK cousin, the Cortina Mk II estate. Maybe if American kids had been forced to sit in the back of a Cortina, wagons might still be popular today.

In addition to more rear cargo room, the extra length also gave more protection to the Pinto’s somewhat vulnerable gas tank, but I’m not going to beat that dead horse here again.

Apparently Ford gave enough thought to building a four door version that the converted…one side of one to two doors, but given that the far side still has its single door, it was a half-hearted effort. And it wouldn’t have really improved much; in fact it would have made front seat ingress and egress much worse. Who cares about the kids anyway?

And for those of you who think Ford might have been considering a three door version, it might actually have made some sense; on the other side, though.

Enough with the florid words; let’s see the proof. Here’s the front. If I told you this was a Mustang II, you might well believe it. Well, you should, given that the Mustang II was based on the Pinto. The basic architecture was perfect for a low-swung sporty coupe, but not so much so for a small family wagon. Note: the front seat are not original; from a Mustang II, perhaps? That applies to the steering wheel, additional instruments and console too.

Well, I suppose the excuse was that in real life, a Pinto is just a multi-colored Mustang.

And here’s that torture chamber that Ford had the gall to call the back seat. No, that’s not a size 18 shoe. Looks like the back of a 2+2 sports coupe, eh? Should have called it a shooting brake.

Ford saved the best for last in the wagon. The load space is downright spacious compared to the rear seat. But then everything is relative, and it’s still anything but truly capacious. But it was substantially bigger (60.5 cf) than the Vega Kammback’s cargo area (50.2 cf). And this feature, presumably along with the Pinto’s lower price, helped propel Pinto sales consistently above the Vega’s.

Here’s the sales stats for the two Detroit import fighters, which of course had no impact on import sales except to stimulate them as they were up a whopping 25% in 1971 over 1970. Oh well. But they did find buyers, as a huge raft of young American boomers were buying their first new cars. For the ones that bought Pintos, at least not the first year ones, the memories are probably somewhat favorable on balance, as it was mostly a fairly reliable and economical little conveyance for two. But more than likely they bought a Japanese import to replace it. Or a bigger American car.

For those that bought the Vega, it was quite likely their last domestic car ever. Although I have heard stories of folks coming back to the poisoned GM well for a second or even third drink. Some folks are slow learners. Or masochists.

Don’t get the wrong idea, that what Ford did in creating the Pinto wagon was somehow more improvised or a lesser packaging job than the Vega wagon. Not at all. In fact, what Ford did is to simply imitate the Vega wagon by giving the Pinto the same longer rear end overhang the Vegas had from the get-go. The end result is remarkably similar, although the Vega comes off looking decidedly more refined and organic. It was designed this way, to be a sporty shooting brake, under the eye of Bill Mitchell.  The Pinto comes off looking what it is: cobbled up.

But they’re both paragons of lousy space utilization.

Just like the Pinto had a much better packaged British cousin, so the Vega had a much better packaged (and everything else) German cousin, the Opel 1900. But that’s all old history now. Coulda’, woulda’, shoulda’.

The best selling Vega by far was the hatchback coupe, which was of course a very attractive car given its Ferrari-esque front end and roof line, and other fine lines in between. It also had the most un-Ferrari engine ever since it took much more after a Lamborghini engine; the tractor variety. But in the Pinto family, which included the sedan, hatchback and wagon, the wagon quickly became the best seller of the three beginning in its second year.

Here’s a chart to show the respective wagons’ share of each model line, which included three version for each of them (sedan, hatchback and wagon). The Pinto quickly soared to the top (1972 was only a partial year for the wagon), but then slowly declined as the Pinto sedan and hatch became just a very cheap car, and folks looked elsewhere for a proper small wagon. Curiously, the Vega wagon started slow but increased its share steadily and in its final year challenged the coupe for the #1 slot. I suspect that’s because the Monza coupe, which arrived in 1975, stole a good number of Vega coupe sales. Or something like that.

But there you have it; where else but at CC would you find a chart of such utterly obscure and useless information?

Not only did the Pinto wagon outsell the Vega wagon, but according to this, it was the best selling wagon in the world! As to the answer to the question posed in the ad, the correct answer would be the energy crisis of 1973-1974, which propelled both Pinto and Vega sales upwards, along with all other small cars, while big car (and wagon) sales tanked. In fact, in 1974, the Pinto even was the #1 selling nameplate in the US, beating out the perennial favorite Chevy Impala for the title. The Pinto rules! Briefly, anyway.

Let’s not overlook the Pinto Cruising Wagon. The Child Protective Services made it well known that it was not approved for carrying children, so we can’t blame the CUV fad on that. And it made a lousy alternative to a proper van, since given the very low roof and short load space, sex was going to be confined to strictly side-to-side positions. Therefore not many CUV owners today were likely conceived in the back of a Pinto Cruising Wagon, so it gets a pass.

Let’s get back to this particular fine example I couldn’t help but notice in traffic, and as soon as I followed it, it obliged by turning into the nearest 7-11. Eagle-eyed Pinto anoraks will raise an eye at its front bumper and say; that has to be a 1972 wagon, as the 1973 has its bumper further forward on an extension to meet the ’73 regulations.

Good noticing, and quite true! But this really is a ’73. When I raised the issue with the owner, he showed me the build sticker on the front door pillar, which proclaimed that this Pinto was built in 7-73. The front bumper must have been changed at some point.

All of this came up because the owner told me it was for sale, with an asking price of $4,000. And he promised me a couple hundred in commission if he gets a lead from this article, so come on, you know you want it!

He showed me the engine, which he called a “2.3”. Unless it’s been changed out, the ’73s still used the German-built 2.o L SOHC four, which is known as the “Pinto engine” in Europe even though it was designed in Germany and built and used there starting in 1970, one year before it was also first used in the Pinto. But because it was also used in the Pinto, it acquired that name by association. And convenience, presumably. Is this one sporting an aftermarket Weber carb, a common conversion to rid oneself of the nasty driveability issues?

Starting in 1974, a 2.3 L variant was built in Lima, OH, and that venerable version became known as the “Lima four”. The 1600cc “Kent” engine was thankfully not offered on the wagon.

This Pinto wagon was/is going to be a lot more fun to drive than its successors. The 2.0 four was lively and not yet beat into dull submission from more onerous smog devices, and it has the four speed stick, a lovely device about as good as any of its kind. The wagon was of course heavier than the sedan or hatchback, but these made fun city cars, with very direct rack and pinion steering, and its suspension tuning was still more European than American.

The fact that it came with a standard four speed instead of the lame three speed manual on the Vega, which was in reality more like a two-speed and overdrive thanks to its low gearing, was a relative boon.

All this changed for the worse beginning in 1974 when the Pinto received some of the worst shelf bumpers ever. And in order to tame its tin-can ways, in subsequent years it received ever-more noise deadening material, structural reinforcements, more restrictive smog controls, softer suspension, and so forth. It quickly became terminally dull and deadly.

And of course much heavier, so much so that the 2,8 Cologne V6 had to finally be made optional starting in 1975. Whatever fun a 2.0 4-speed Pinto once could muster was a hazy memory by the time this final-year 1980 was built.

Let’s get back to the important stuff: pitching this Pinto wagon so that I can claim my commission. The current owner bought it not long ago from the original owner, who is seen here driving it at a cruise-in in 2014.

The odometer says 32,455, and the current owner claims that’s all it has, but from the condition it’s in, I rather doubt that. I would add at least a 1 to the front of that number.

I’m supposed to be pitching, but I’m probably throwing a wild ball when I tell you that it also has a trailer hitch and helper springs on the rear end. Yes, folks pulled trailers with Pinto wagons back in the day. But these are simple and easy cars to fix, so I wouldn’t give this and a few dings and stains and tears a second thought.

If you ever had a Pinto, I know you know you really want to relive the experience. You could get someone to drive it while you ride in the back seat, with knees in your chest. If you never rode in one, here’s your chance to find out why these were the best selling wagons in the world in 1974. Buy it and then explain it to us. We’re all ears.

In either case, call Bobby at 54one-743-6669.  The asking price of $4,000 is low; very, very low.


Related: 1971 Pinto: 1971 C&D Small Car Comparison, #4   PN