The Ford Pinto
September 11, 2018
By the late 1960’s no doubt those who study demographics had advised US car makers that there was a huge market for smaller, less expensive cars. In the mid 1960’s the first of the Baby Boomers arrived in droves to get their driver’s licenses. Between 1966 and 1975 over 40 million American teens became drivers.
Ford Motor Company’s response to this demographic phenomenon was the introduction of the Pinto, marketed as “The Little Carefree Car” on September 11, 1970. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Initial planning for the Pinto began in the summer of 1967, was recommended by Ford’s Product Planning Committee in December 1968, and was approved by Ford’s Board of Directors in January 1969. Ford President Lee Iacocca wanted a 1971 model that weighed under 2,000 pounds and that would be priced at less than $2,000.”
Over the course of the car’s production lifetime, from 1970 through 1980, there were 3,173,491 Pinto’s built and sold.
The Pinto was not without challenges and a design flaw which could result in an explosion and fire during a rear end collision resulted in very bad publicity for the company based on two very high profile legal cases. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“In April 1974, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to recall Ford Pintos to address fuel system design defects after reports from attorneys of three deaths and four serious injuries in rear-end collisions at moderate speeds. The NHTSA found there was not enough evidence to warrant a defect investigation. In August 1977, Dowie’s ‘Pinto Madness’ article was published a series of accusations against Ford, the Pinto and the NHTSA. These included that Ford knew the Pinto was a ‘firetrap,’ and said that Ford did not implement design changes because Ford’s cost-benefit analysis document showed that paying out millions in damages in lawsuits was more profitable than the design changes. The day after the article’s release consumer advocate Ralph Nader and the author of the Mother Jones article held a news conference in Washington DC on the alleged dangers of the Pinto’s design. On the same day, Nader and the Center for Auto Safety re-submitted their petition to the NHTSA.”
In 1978 there was a nationwide recall of the car which required a polyethylene shield to be installed between the rear end and the gas tank as well as additional work to improve fuel lines and seals.
Despite the efforts of Ford and Chevrolet to stave off the invasion of foreign cars beginning in the late 1960’s, both the Pinto and – Chevy’s answer – the gutless Vega, were abandoned by 1980 as US car makers struggled to compete.
In 1975 Pinto’s, Vega’s and other small cars filled the streets as they were inexpensive options for teens and young adults whose wages from part time work allowed them to own a car. I was such an individual.
My first job was as a file clerk for Valley Ford in Yakima where I started working part time in the fall of 1975, earning an amazing $2.10 an hour. I suppose my parents tired of me always having one of their cars (the Mustang!) so when the new car sales manager advocated on my behalf the following summer for a car which they’d gotten at auction, I became the proud owner – and with a monthly payment! – of my very first car: a 1974 Pinto Runabout, dark blue with a white top and sunroof.
As I thought about this article I contemplated what story I would share about my experiences as a Pinto owner for five years. How I killed the engine at every intersection the day I drove it home since I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift? Dragging Yakima Avenue with my friend Daphne and meeting two guys who, if their life depended on it, could not guess what her last name was (It was ‘Guess’)? Or how the car took me all over the state for several years?
Finally, I understood that my Pinto was the one constant during that five year period from teenager to adult. Snippets of memories flood back and I see myself as a barely 20 year old driving to a Rainbow Girls’ camp on Hood Canal singing along with Billy Joel’s ‘She’s Always A Woman To Me’, the freedom of the moment and an open road palpable.
It was with me when I arrived on the campus of the University of Puget Sound in late August that same year and provided more than a few runs for me and my sorority sisters to Piggly Wiggly for study snacks or out for pizza. I can see it in the parking lot at the Alpha Phi house the Tuesday before Thanksgiving covered by a blanket of snow. A few hours later I had my roommate, a girl I knew from Yakima who also attended UPS, then picked up my ex-boyfriend in Seattle before dropping my roommate off in Kirkland then navigating over Snoqualmie Pass in a snowstorm.
But my favorite memory involving the Pinto occurred May 5, 1979. It was the Saturday before finals week and the campus was going crazy with parties and people letting off steam. I had decided to attend a Rainbow Girls’ reception for a friend of mine over in Gig Harbor. It was about a half hour drive from UPS to Peninsula High School so I took off around 6:15, needing to arrive by 7:00 pm. I made it across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge with no problem but when I got to Gig Harbor I was lost. This was long before the days of GPS; all I had was a paper map and it didn’t provide good detail. Up and down several streets I went and my frustration grew. Finally, I pulled the Pinto to the side of the road, consulted the map, and determined I was hopelessly lost and, best case scenario, even if I could find the high school, I would be late.
Resigned to these facts I decided to forgo the event and return to campus. I pulled back on to the road. Just as I came to the crest of the hill, there’s a full rainbow arched before me. I sigh and think “It’s going to be alright.” Now calm, I descend down to the waterfront of Gig Harbor then turn left when I get to the bottom of the hill. I’m thinking this will put me back on the highway but, when I get to the top of the road, I am literally at the front door of the school. Then the next miracle occurs. There is a car leaving from a parking space right in front of the entrance. I park the Pinto and hurry in, barely getting into the gymnasium before things begin. I see a couple of girls I know and ask if I can sit with them. No room on the bleachers where they sit, they say, but there is a spot on the one below. I find myself sitting next to a guy who I know is dating another of my friends – but she’s a mucky muck and is sitting with a different group of people.
As the meeting goes on I find myself spending more time talking to this guy than paying attention to the meeting. I accidentally knock his coat and camera on the floor. We keep talking. Nearly three hours later, the reception over, I go to visit with a couple other friends and there’s the same guy also talking to one particular gal. My friend – the girl that is – asks me what my phone number is so she can call me. I give it to her but say “I’ll only be there another couple weeks as I’m graduating and going back to Yakima.”
Then I leave. By then it’s about 10 pm and it’s a beautiful night as the earlier showers and clouds have cleared. I walk down the steps towards my Pinto when I hear a voice behind me say “Barb, wait up.”
I turn. It’s the fellow who I’d been sitting next to.
“Did you want me to remember your number?” He asks.
“Do you want to remember my number?” I respond.
“Only if you want me to,” he says.
I repeat the number and say – again – that I’m only there for a short time as well as it being a long distance call for him. He replies that it’s in his budget to make the call and says he will. I get into the Pinto and drive back to campus.
The Pinto remained with me through graduation and then when I moved to Eatonville for my first post-college job. It was reconstructed after I hit a deer in the fall of 1979. It moved with me to West Seattle in August 1980 when I got married and ferried me to interviews and then a new job that fall. Then in early 1981, the hubby and I sold it to raise money for the down payment on our first house. And the guy from the reception in Gig Harbor? We celebrated our 38th Wedding Anniversary in August.
It took some digging but I finally found a few photos. I’m particularly amused by this one of ‘my’ guy giving us a little beefcake with the Pinto in the background. Belatedly, I give thanks for that car and how important it was to me at the time. For five years it was my trusty steed, there for me every step of the way.
As always, a link!