Bringing the Ford Pinto to Life

With the OK given in 1969 to move ahead on bringing the Ford Pinto to life, a release date in less than 20 months, September 1970, was set. Heading up the program, code-named "Phoenix" -- ironic, as it would turn out -- was Frank G. Olsen, an experienced engineer who had worked on several other projects, including the Mustang and the upscale Ford Fairlane and Torino.

In an article published by the Society of Automotive Engineers, Olsen laid out the published objectives from the "Phoenix Green-Book" that set up the schedule and developmental steps for the project. Among the goals was that the car would present superior appearance, passenger comfort, amenities, ride, handling, and performance.

In February 1969, a 32-man group, including the chief engineers from all areas of Ford's manufacturing division, went on a three-day shakedown cruise of cars already in the market that the new little Ford would be broaching. These included two Fiats, the 850 and 124; the Volks­wagen Beetle; Opel Kadett; Toyota Cor­olla; and, from England, a Vauxhall Viva and a member of the company's extended family, a Ford Escort. Their goal, according to Harold Freers, Ford's chief engineer, was to come up with an "Americanized compact."

Each test car was rated in a number of areas to determine where the focal points of Ford's entry should be. It was generally agreed that Volkswagen would be the overall main target. In terms of quietness, Toyota was considered tops, while the Fiat 850 was deemed most comfortable. The team also agreed that for ride and handling, the Opel couldn't be beat.

Using unitized construction, an area where Ford had plenty of experience, new ways were sought to make the package as light as possible, yet still retain rigidity. Starting with a stamped under-body platform, the structural members and outer sheetmetal were uniformly welded together.

According to Ford, this would improve hood, decklid, and door fit, thus reducing rattles, squeaks, and leaks from wind, rain, or dust. A "halo" ring held the bodysides in place, cutting down on weight, while providing additional rollover protection.

This development didn't happen overnight. Almost from the moment that Pintos started to hit the test track, major flaws began to appear. "Hardly a week went by when we didn't need the body engineers. We went through a number of redesigns to make it pass," Freers told Motor Trend.

Most of the structural-integrity problems centered on making the body solid and stiff, while using as little material as possible. Some of these problems were solved with new ways of using the front cross members, the rear end, and even the dashboard as a unifying source.

A major hurdle to overcome was containing passenger-compartment noise. At the time, high-dollar Lincoln sedans carried a total of 140 pounds of sound-absorption material. Mavericks had just 28 pounds of the stuff, and with a target weight of a quarter-ton less for the upcoming subcompact, only 12 pounds were available.

A new process of heat-curing vinyl sealing material was one of the innovations used with the Pinto. This custom-formed plastic bond was applied to the full length of the outer panel seams and joints to help cut noise. Plastic was used extensively in the Pinto to cut down on both weight and cost, such as a number of interior components as well as the front grille.

Engineers tending to passenger comfort managed to stretch the cabin to its absolute maximum, allowing for six-and-a-half-footers to easily enter and exit. All dashboard controls, the gearshift lever, pedals, and gauges were laid out for easy control and monitoring. Servicing was also a priority, as the main cluster housing the speedometer plus fuel, oil, and electrical monitors could be removed in just a few minutes with the use of a simple screwdriver.

Probably the most important ingredient for the Pinto recipe would be the drivetrain. Looking to existing products from Ford's European operations, two likely candidates were found that would fill the bill.

There was a little inline overhead-cam four-cylinder known as the Kent engine. Introduced in 1959, it had already proven its durability in a number of British models, starting with the Anglia. Its basic design had started at just under one liter for use in Anglias, but had grown rapidly for use in Consuls and Zephyrs, eventually hitting 1.3 liters for use in the Cortina by 1962. A couple of years later, displacement had grown to 1.5 liters, and there was still room to go.

As the horsepower race of the Sixties continued in England, though at a much slower pace than in America, the Kent engine received another boost in displacement, to 1.6 liters in 1967, and was aimed primarily for the Cortina GT models. So durable was the little Kent that its basic design served as the basis for engines used in Colin Chapman's Lotus road and race cars.

The engine's proven qualities made it a natural for Ford's new American-built subcompact car. As used in the Pinto, it was rated at 75 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, with torque measured at 96 pound-feet at 3,000 revs. Induction came through a single-throat carburetor with an automatic choke for simplified operation. Cross-flow cylinder heads improved power by virtually eliminating the combustion chambers. Dubbed the Pinto 1600 (for its displacement in cubic centimeters), this would be the base power­plant.

Knowing that Americans love power under the hood, engineers went shopping for a slightly larger engine that could be offered as an option. This time it was Ford of Germany that supplied the goods, another overhead-cammer with a proven racing heritage in Europe, the 2.0-liter "Cologne Four." It made 100 horses at 5,600 rpm, and was considerably stronger than the base engine, generating 120 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm. It, too, had a cross-flow cylinder head with larger valves and ported manifolds.

Power was conducted through another proprietary component, a smart little four-speed gearbox based on a similar unit that had been successfully used by Ford of Britain for many years. Both engines would be equipped with the stickshift as standard equipment, but a Cruise-O-Matic three-speed automatic was available to those who opted for the 2.0-liter engine.

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