Curbside Classic: 1977 Ford Pinto – The Townsend Agency Cheaped Out

1977 or '78 Ford Pinto. Chicago, Illinois. June 2021.

Last summer, I had written an essay with the hypothetical premise of “what if” the fictional Charles Townsend Detective Agency from the 1970s television series Charlie’s Angels had used AMC products instead of Fords.  It was fun to draw parallels between corresponding models between the two makes, and it wasn’t all that hard to do.  I had proposed the alt-world swap of Jill’s (later Kris’s) Mustang II Cobra II to a Hornet (or Concord) AMX, Kelly’s Mustang II Ghia to a Pacer D/L wagon, Bosley’s Thunderbird to a Matador coupe, and last but not least, Sabrina’s orange Pinto to a Gremlin.  I’m a huge fan of all five seasons of this show, which I’m in the middle of watching on DVD in chronological order.  I’m toward the end of the fourth season, which was the one where the character of Tiffany Welles, played by highly successful model Shelley Hack, had replaced Kate Jackson’s Sabrina Duncan, a character that was written off as haven gotten remarried (she had been a divorcée) and with a kid on the way.

1977 or '78 Ford Pinto. Chicago, Illinois. June 2021.

After solid showings in the Nielsen top-ten rankings for its first two seasons, the show’s third season was the first not to make the top ten, topping out at No. 12.  Rankings fell even further, to No. 20, for this show’s fourth season.  I’ve read a few theories that assigned the blame to the beloved Jackson’s departure and Hack’s inability to really warm up her acting chops until well into the season, but I’m going to say something that some fans of the show may find controversial.  Tiffany Welles is my favorite Angel.  There.  I said it.  I know that picking favorites is often discouraged, and even among our own family members, we are taught to love them all equally.  Jill, Kelly, Sabrina, Kris, Tiffany, and Julie all have their great qualities.  They’re all strong, intelligent, resourceful, extremely beautiful women.  There is not a shred of apparent “woe is me” victimhood in any of them, varied though their backgrounds may be.  These ladies are in control.

Tiffany Welles at the wheel of the orange 1977 Ford Pinto.

Tiffany Welles behind the wheel, with Kris Munroe up front and Kelly Garrett in back.

It’s just that Shelley Hack, in portraying Tiffany, was just so darned perfect in looks, voice, and demeanor.  She had that million-dollar face, a cool, understated confidence, and even despite her slightly goofy, bouncy gait when she walked, she spoke to me the most, as the Angel with perhaps the least obvious sex appeal, though she had it in spades.  Tiffany also seemed really compassionate, which was apparent in her interactions not only with her teammates at the detective agency, but with the people she was hired to help.  She also came from this patrician, affluent background as part of the rollout of the introduction of her character, but one simply could not imagine her asking to speak to the manager at the local Starbucks because the foam on her latte didn’t look right.  She would simply pay for it, say “thank you” with that gorgeous smile, drink it, and like it.  While one character trait that Tiffany seemed to share with Sabrina was that both women seemed very down-to-earth, Tiffany seemed extremely refined, like she probably owned a few, choice items of jewelry from Tiffany.

Tiffany Welles with the orange 1977 Ford Pinto.

It is for all of these reasons why the orange Pinto seemed extremely miscast as her assigned company vehicle, which she had inherited from Sabrina.  The Pinto seemed to fit Sabrina’s no-nonsense, basic goodness, and also like pretty Sabrina, the orange hatchback was slightly gilded, as it wore wire wheelcovers, had an upscale plaid interior, and a white vinyl roof.  Kelly was posh, so the Mustang II Ghia was a good fit for her.  Both Jill and Kris Munroe were the California-look blondes (though with personalities very different from one another), with great bodies and the most obvious mainstream appeal, so their Cobra II’s assignment to them was spot-on.  But, Sabrina’s same orange Pinto… for high-fashion Tiffany?  I actually chuckled during a scene I recently watched where Tiffany had arrived at a movie theater in the Pinto and she exited the car.  I think the Pinto’s ’77 restyle was both attractive and effective, and I especially liked that it no longer had to share taillamp lenses with the Maverick.  It is a decent-looking car.  It’s just that there’s such a huge disparity between the appeal of this model / actress and car that this juxtaposition seems ludicrous.

1977 Ford Pinto print ad

Just like Nielsen rankings for this show had fallen for the fourth season with this second change in the cast, the Pinto’s first significant restyle (outside of the acquisition of larger bumpers) for ’77 brought a 30% drop in sales that year, selling about 203,000 units for ’77 against 290,000 units the year before.  The new front clip and taillamps had less to do with the Pinto’s drop in popularity than the fact that ’77 was this car’s seventh model year.  The wagons were again the most popular, single model, accounting for about 79,500 sales against 49,000 trunked sedans and 74,000 hatchbacks.  The sedan always seemed redundant to me.  Why weren’t all coupes hatchbacks, as they all shared the same styling and basic overall structure?  What benefit outside of price would there have been to purchasing one of the two-door sedans over the hatchback, and was there actually that much of a different in production costs between the two?

1977 or '78 Ford Pinto. Chicago, Illinois. June 2021.

The Pinto’s rival from Chevrolet, the Vega, will probably always remain the gold standard to me for styling among economy subcompacts of the ’70s.  I’ve always thought it so ironic how a car so flawlessly styled (in hatchback form, anyway) could have contained such a myriad of inherent flaws, at least up until maybe its penultimate or last model year on the market.  The very last Vegas would be sold alongside the refreshed Pintos of this vintage, though I cannot tell for sure if this one is a ’77 or a ’78, even after attempting a license plate search.  I think our featured car looks terrific with its two-tone white and persimmon paint job and color-keyed interior of dark red.  I always thought the hatchback’s two, glassy rear-door designs were some of the Pinto’s best features, especially the all-glass version present here that would make its debut for ’77 with the styling refresh.

1977 or '78 Ford Pinto. Chicago, Illinois. June 2021.

I have not yet gotten to this episode of the fourth season, but I can see it very clearly in my mind’s eye where the orange Pinto had been destroyed at the mercy of a huge piece of construction equipment that dumped a large load of something like concrete blocks on it while Tiffany was on assignment.  However, the orange Pinto returns to be driven by the character of Julie Rogers (played by the late, great Tanya Roberts), who replaced Tiffany for season five.  How cheap did the Townsend Agency have to be to then scour the used car lots of the area’s Ford dealerships to find yet another, identical, orange ’77 Pinto… in 1980?  You mean to tell me that as he called from his yacht, Charlie Townsend couldn’t authorize John Bosley to spring for an upgrade to a restyled ’79, or (gasp) a Fiesta S?  Maybe the office budget had simply been blown on all of that fabulous decor back at headquarters in Beverly Hills, where the office space, itself, undoubtedly cost a pretty penny.  In the meantime, I have my friend Kelly D. to thank for these wonderful pictures, and for the chance to showcase the love I have for the Ford Pinto, Charlie’s Angels, and Ms. Shelley Hack.

Belmont Heights, Chicago, Illinois.
June 11 – 14, 2021.

Print ad and TV stills as sourced from the internet.