1971 Ford Pinto

Sales of the 1971 Ford Pinto kept piling up in the car's early days. On January 18, 1971, less than five months after its introduction, the 100,000th Pinto was delivered to one Marco Ojeda at S and C Motors in San Francisco, California.

1971 Ford Pinto
Performance was better than buyers expected
when the Ford Pinto hit the market as a 1971 model.

What made this news so special was that California was one of the hottest markets for imports, yet Pinto was winning customers there at an unprecedented rate. By January 1971, California dealers were reporting sales of Ford's new subcompact equal to 17.8 percent of all import sales.

Helping to make the Pinto a success was that it hit its price target. In base form, the first sedans were listed at $1,919, undercutting both Lee Iacocca's desired price ceiling by $81 and Chevy's Vega by $171.

Gasoline was still very cheap and plentiful in 1971, and no one was required to post official fuel-mileage figures. However, Ford literature touted engineering tests of the base 1,600-cubic-centimeter engine and standard transmission that averaged 25 mpg in "simulated" city and suburban driving.

Initial customer reviews praised the car's operating economy, ease of entry and exit for passengers, and cargo-area access. Performance got better-than-expected marks, considering that many customers were coming to Pinto having previously experienced only V-8 or six-cylinder engines. After all, this was the first domestically produced Ford passenger car with a four-cylinder engine since 1934.

There were a few complaints, such as the plastic grille breaking when the hood was slammed, or one of the most serious problems: the inside door handles breaking off in a passenger's hand. Dealers soon learned to keep plenty of these parts on the shelves, and fleet owners of Pintos often ordered cases of door handles just to keep the cars on the road.

Ford encouraged salesmen to point out benefits of the Pinto compared with the Vega, Volkswagen, Toyota Corona, and Datsun 1600 sedan. Areas in which they claimed superiority were maneuverability, stability, and serviceability. For instance, a special publication to dealers pointed out that VW recommended that its owners change oil and lube the car every 3,000 miles, while Pinto owners could easily go twice that distance.

Ford even marketed a pair of tool kits for the Pinto, a beginner's set for $28.75, or the "master's" kit at $44.95. The latter included everything from wrenches, to ratchets, to gauges, and even a torque wrench. In theory, you never had to bring the Pinto back to the dealership for servicing. One of the most popular promotional items Ford used was a little service key that not only acted as a screwdriver, but provided measurements for proper gapping of spark plugs and points.

While the Pinto was an economical starter car, it did offer a wealth of accessories. Deluxe interior-decor packages, full wheel covers, exterior dress-up kits, (which could include a vinyl roof), and a variety of radios could be found on the order form. The 2.0-liter engine added $50 to the total. With this larger engine, it was possible to add air conditioning and, for $175, Cruise-O-Matic.

Even a Rallye appearance group was marketed, featuring most of the decor-package items plus blacked-out hood, taillamp bezels, and grille; Boss Mustang-style fender stripes; Rallye badges; front disc brakes; and A78X13 black sidewall tires.

On February 20, 1971, the much-anticipated Pinto Runabout made its public debut at the Chicago Auto Show. Five days later, it went on sale, and, like the sedan, it was met with strong customer demand. Priced at $2,062, it was distinguished from the sedan by exposed chrome hinges for the liftgate and five decorative chrome strips on the back "door."

All other profiles and dimensions were nearly identical to the sedan. Pneumatic rams assisted in raising the hatch, and there was plenty of room when the back seat was folded down. This feature was also optionally available on the sedan, and provided up to 38.1 cubic feet of storage space.

Assembly of the Pinto was conducted at the San Jose, California, and Metuchen, New Jersey, plants, plus Ford of Canada's new St. Thomas, Ontario, facility. Production schedules were tight, and two shifts worked through most of the model year to keep up with the orders that were pouring in.

In its first year, 288,606 sedans and 63,796 Run­abouts were produced, making for one of the best first-year launches ever, bested only by the Mustang in 1965 and the Falcon for 1960. What was even more surprising to Ford's marketing group was that the vast majority of buyers opted for the more-expensive 2.0-liter engine, and were also going for the automatic transmission on those cars by a better than 2-to-1 ratio.

Even Henry Ford II appeared to like the car. He was reportedly often seen tooling around the Detroit and Grosse Pointe areas in his specially painted Candy Apple Red Runabout fitted with custom wire wheels and a black leather interior.

Of course, not everything at Ford, nor with the industry as a whole, was rosy. More and more, the federal government was getting involved in what was built into America's cars, based on two keywords: safety and emissions.

In a 1971 special report to Ford dealers and salesmen, a personal message from Henry Ford II addressed 10 points of commitment the company was making toward the environment. It also pointed out all of the safety innovations Ford had pioneered, from its first safety packages in 1956 to the Tot-Guard child-restraint system first offered in 1967. It talked about protecting passengers with safety-designed instrument and dash panels, plus the use of low-profile impact-absorbing vinyl coat hooks.

How­ever, this same publication discounted many of the claims made about what additional steps the car company could take regarding safety, and contended that vehicles were a relatively small contributor to air pollution. (An early driver-side airbag system was tested on the Pinto, but ultimately kept from production.)

In describing the Pinto to dealers and the press, the chairman stated that they shouldn't look too closely for annual changes as this would be a car like the Model T: It would remain basically the same throughout its run, only featuring improvements, and not altering its looks each year. Given the success of the 1971 Pinto, it is no surprise that the '72s were virtually identical.

A few minor details were revised, such as relocation of the seatback release from the hard-to-reach center to the outer edge. About the only noticeable exterior change -- save for a couple of color changes, the availability of a sunroof for the sedan and Runabout, and decor-package decal options -- was an enlarged backlight for the Runabout's hatch.

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