Ford Pinto Runabout

The secret to small-car success cannot be found in an options list

Car and Driver, June 1974

The two faces of the Janus or the three faces of Eve can seem like some kind of pretty remarkable schizoid behavior. But it's nothing compared to the multiplicity of Pintos. You have to move up to a pinochle deck before you're approaching Pinto numbers. Ford's idea of a simple little car to replace the simple old Falcon which, after a considerable time lag, supposedly replaced the Model A, which in turn replaced the Model T ... has already gone off on a tangent.

Today's Pintos are dealt out from the factory in three distinct suits: 2-door sedan, 3-door hatchback and station wagon. The rank within those suits is determined by the option list: two engines, two transmissions, three different wheels, five different size tires, an Accent Group, a Sports Accent Group, a Luxury Decor Group, a Squire Decor Group, a Bumper Protection Group, an Appearance Protection Group, vinyl roof, sun roof and enough seperate bright-metal exterior trim pieces to blind oncoming traffic by the freeways full. That's what has happened to the simple little lovable Pinto since Ford introduced it in the fall of 1970.

Some of the models, the station wagon particularly, have undeniable star quality. They are roomy machines with crisp good looks and functional personalities. Others -- notably the automatic transmission hatchback of this test -- have serious mechanical weaknesses. What follows is a guide to the various ups and downs of the option sheet -- dealing strictly with the Pinto in this case but indicative of the pitfalls lurking in the Chinese-menu construction of almost all option sheets.

The basic Pinto is a reasonable transportation device for four people. The front seating area seems exceptionally spacious because the instrument panel is well forward. Moreover, the wide body and low bucket seat cushions allow plenty of elbow and shoulder room. And even the rear has acceptable knee room for adults if the front seat passengers are willing to compromise a notch or two on their seat tracks. The Runabout, with its tilt-up rear hatch and fold-down rear seat, allows you to trade off rear seating area for a considerably anlarged cargo hold. It's a first rate design and, at $126 over the cost of the base 2 door sedan, well worth its price.

In fact, if everthing about the Pinto worked as it should, we would have no complaints about the price even though Ford has pushed it up by a considerable amount ($271) in 1974. Ford is obviously trying to put its small car line on a profitable footing -- not an unreasonable goal -- and the rapidly rising prices of the small imports give it plenty of room for increases. Even at $2418 for the base Runabout, Ford is still able to undersell the foreign-made competition.

When it comes to increasing profits, all Detroit manufacturers are aware that there are other ways besides raising the base price. One of the most effective is a smorgasbord-style option list. And the Pinto now has one of it own. We view this with mixed emotions. On the favorable side, it means that Ford has finally cast aside that old myth that says a small car must necessarily be a cheap one. There is no reason why car buyers shouldn't have comfort, silence and luxury in small packages as well as big ones. And by ordering a Pinto with the Sports Accent Group $428, you can have an undeniably luxurious small car.

But the problem arises in the way some of these Groups are assembled. As an example, the Sports Accent Group contains a really effective (and needed) sound package. The test car without the benefit of the sound package droned along with an interior sound level of 79 dBa at a constant 70 mph, which is on the high side for a car of this class. But to get this sound package you have to buy the whole Sports Accent Group including color-keyed wheel covers, bright trim molding on everything, 2-tone paint and a double deluxe interior with imitation wood grain on the dash and cut pile on the floor . . . all $428 worth of Detroit-style ostentation just to get a reasonably silent car. It's a stiff price. And an unwelcome one, we think, at least to the small-car buyers who want the minimum in garbage.

The Pinto base price increase seems somewhat more reasonable when you remember that, in addition to a massive set of bumpers that are new for 1974, you also get the 2.0-liter engine as standard equipment. It was optional before. Now, as an option, you can choose an all-new 2.3-liter overhead cam Four. This engine has two distinctions: (1) it's the first American-made powerplant designed with metric dimensions, and (2) for a 4-cylinder of such large displacement, it is commendably free of vibrations (2.3 liters, you will remember, is exactly the same size as the Four which shakes the living daylights out of a Vega.) So on the surface, Ford's new engine appears to be a good thing.

There was only one thing wrong. It's rated at 82 hp, but it felt like 28. The test car, huffing and puffing mightily, managed the quarter-mile in 21.5 seconds at 64.8 mph and peaked out at an 84-mph top speed. A 4-speed Beetle could blow it into the weeds.

This seems all the more disappointing in light of the fuel mileage we recorded. Routine driving yeilded about 16 miles per gallon of regular and that was when we stuck to the 55-mph speed limit. That agrees quite closely with the EPA results of 21.0 mpg for a 4-speed 2300cc Pinto and 16.7 mpg for the automatic. But since the EPA test includes a cold start and the fuel consumed is calculate from the exhaust emission rather than actually measured, we decided to set up our own test to see if the gap between the manual and the automatic transmission is really as large as it appears. Because of the time required to set up the test, the original test car had already been returned. So two 1974 Pintos, one manual and one automatic, were obtained from a rental agency. The 4-speed car averaged 20.6 mpg the entire cycle and 26.6 mpg at a constant 60 miles an hour. The automatic averaged 18.2 mpg overall and 22.3 mpg at 60 mph. This is substantially better that the original test car and indicates a considerable variation in production cars. But the substantial mileage gap between manual and automatic is confirmed. The test Pinto suffered two additional ways: a huge weight increase for 1974 and an automatic transmission. With a full tank of gas, this Runabout weighed in at 2680 lbs., up a full 345 lbs. from the 2.0-liter, 4-speed Runabout we tested last year. Of that increase, about 37 lbs. can be charged off to the larger engine, 47 lbs to the automatic transmission and another 17 to the roof rack. Which means that the bumpers and other dtail refinements have added a crushing 244 lbs. to that new model. its no wonder that steering effort was high and the non-assisted brakes required a strong leg for stopping.

As for the automatic transmission, we are unable and Ford is unwilling to explain why it is such an unhappy companion to the Pinto's 4-cylinder engines. It should be avoided. There is a noticeable improvement in both performance (2.8 seconds and 8.0 mph in the quartermile) and fuel economy with the manual transmission. So if you can't shift, don't buy a Pinto. It's as simple as that. The automatic version is devoid of even the simplest driving pleasures.

The same applied to handling. There was nothing treacherous about it. The Pinto was just limp. With the factory recommended 22 psi in the BR78 radials, the cornering limits were very low and the car approached then with inexorable understeer. The rubber bushings in the suspension deflected, the tires rolled over on their sidewalls and the car stumbled around like a fat man in ski boots . . . OK for the wife to take shopping maybe, but a real disappointment for anybody who like to drive.

This is not to say that the Pinto is all bad. The ride is reasonably smooth for a small car, it has quite good directional stability, the front seats are comfortable and the general layout of the instruments and controls is convenient. All of this is as it should be.

The fact remains that the test car was not only inefficient but exquisitely dull as well. We approve of the comprehensive option list -- it allows a basic car to be tailored to a broad range of customers -- but it can never provide salvation for a poorly engineered car. And the 1974 Pinto, burdened down by it enormous weight and shackled by a power robbing automatic transmission, needs salvation first and foremost. The Big Car options are in conflict with the car's very reason for existing. It's the Silk Purse Syndrome in action. Fortunately, this can be avoided in most instanced . . . simply exercise restraint when confronted with the options list, and follow the advice printed in the Pinto's advertisements about sticking with the basics.

This page hosted by GeoCities Get your own Free Home Page