When the 1979 Ford Pinto opened its model year, it was apparent that the car was in its waning days. In an attempt to give the now eight-year-old design a little more market appeal, a front-end redo was mandated.
A front-end makeover for 1979 wouldn't be enough
to save the Ford Pinto.
On the inside, there was a redesigned instrument cluster. In place of the two round pods that had formerly housed all necessary gauges since '71, the new dash featured square gauges: speedometer on the right, fuel gauge and engine-monitoring warning lights to the left.
Entry-level Pinto buyers now had an expanded choice of models when a Pony edition of the station wagon was added to the lineup. Those who had a little extra cash to lavish on their Pinto had other options.
A new "European-inspired" ESS package for the sedan and Runabout came with silver paint and black accents around the window trim, dual racing mirrors, back panel, and bodyside moldings. The grille and headlamp buckets were charcoal colored. Styled steel wheels and a front stabilizer bar completed the external portion of the package (though Runabouts were also equipped with the all-glass hatch).
Interior appointments kept the performance theme alive with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, plus an instrument cluster with a tachometer, ammeter, and coolant-temperature gauge.
The Cruising Wagon continued with several different stripe kits available. To capitalize on the eye appeal of this package, a similar getup was newly offered for the Runabout. Like the Cruising Wagon, the $330 hatchback package included blackout trim in all the usual places, multicolor bodyside stripes, white-painted styled-steel wheels, a sport steering wheel, and the gauge package.
It's not surprising that most print advertising for the Pinto featured models well under the age of 30. Even the Squire, a family vehicle, showed young couples with toddlers beside the car.
However, as much as marketing tried to shore up the product, outside factors were taking their tolls. Hefty awards from civil juries and word of memos from inside the company that appeared to put financial decisions ahead of human life were damning. Then, too, prices continued to rise.
Still, there was a slight increase in 1979 Pinto production, topping at 199,018 cars. For the first time since 1971, when it had a production head start on the Runabout, the basic two-door sedan was Pinto's popularity leader.
As the Seventies came to a close, America was a nation in turmoil. Inflation was running rampant, accelerated during the latter half of 1979 by another fuel crisis that sent the price of gasoline to more than a dollar a gallon in most places. Doomsday investors ran the price of gold to $800 an ounce as militants in Iran's Islamic revolution stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took Americans hostage for well more than a year.
There were still Cold War tensions, too. President Jimmy Carter announced a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan.
There was little joy in Detroit amid all these events. It seems that Henry Ford II summed up the American auto industry's feelings when he said, "The U.S. industry is facing an economic Pearl Harbor."
Behind his comment was the fact that due to what many felt were too-liberal trade agreements, a growing share of the auto market was being gobbled up by Japanese manufacturers. Their cars had come to the fore among the imports during the Seventies, growing to 26.7 percent of the total market, and had contributed to a $40 billion combined loss from American carmakers.
In late 1978, Lee Iacocca was sent packing from Ford Motor Company for what many feel were the disastrous memos about the Pinto gas-tank debacle that led to his desk. Not only was Henry Ford II unhappy with the huge amounts paid in fines and punitive damages, but he realized how this negative news could affect all aspects of the family business. It was no secret that Henry and Lee didn't see eye to eye anymore, and, in the end, the man whose last name was on the building won out.
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