Look Out, It's the Pinto Stampede!

Pintos at the drive-in during the Stampede. People come from all over North America! (Photo courtesy of Pinto Stampede).

Remember the Pinto? The all-American economy car was a hit with the public in the fuel-conscious '70s. More than 3 million were built between 1971 and 1980, but sales crashed following Mark Dowie’s sensational 1977 story in Mother Jones about the fiery dangers of the model in Mother Jones.

A variety of Pintos

Oh Pinto, I love thee in all your variety. (Photo courtesy of the 2013 Pinto Stampede)

And so the phrase “exploding Pinto” entered the American vernacular. The car made Time's list of “50 Worst Cars of All Time,” in part because the company was said to weigh the cost of fixing the problem ($120 million) against the cost of settling lawsuits from owners ($50 million).

Only 5,000 to 10,000 Pintos are currently roadable, but there’s life in the old girl yet. Time has mellowed the car’s image. Even Dowie told me, “The Pinto was actually a pretty reasonable car, except for that one flaw, which you can fix with an $11 part. It was a fabulous vehicle that got great gas mileage.”

I associate Pintos with figher planes

When I think of the Pinto I immediately associate it with fighter planes. (Photo courtesy of the 2013 Pinto Stampede)

Just ask Norm “Trail Boss” Bagi about this sterling vehicle. The New York City property manager is not only the proud owner of a ’77 Pinto Coupe — “The only original option was a license plate holder,” he says — but also the organizer of the fourth annual Pinto Stampede, a charity drive which this year travels to Hell and Back.

That’s Hell, Michigan, to Dearborn, where Ford is based and the Pinto launched as an import fighter. The Stampedes raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, including $38,000 so far.

How can you not love an underdog event like this? Bagi told me that Pintos are “fun, easy-to-maintain cars” that don’t deserve their bad reputation. “They were no more prone to fiery crashes than any other car of the period,” he said, a bit defensively I thought. A grand total of 27 people were killed in Pintos, “far less than the ‘thousands’ reported by the media of the era,” the Stampede claims.

Don't laugh. Pintos make darned good drag cars.

Don't laugh. Pintos make darned good drag cars. (Photo courtesy of the 2013 Pinto Stampede)

Who owns a Pinto (or its first cousin, the Mercury Bobcat) in 2014? “Regular people, not elitists or egomaniacs,” Bagi said. He himself got into them while searching for — what else — a Mustang. “My parents owned Mustangs, but then they got divorced, and both ended up in Pintos,” he told me. “I came across an ad for a Pinto Squire wagon with the orange shag carpeting and plaid seats, and it brought back memories.”

Rare versions, such as the Cruising Wagon — with a porthole in the back — and the panel van are expected in Michigan July 18 for the start of the Stampede. Forty-five Pintos from all over North America — California, Canada, South Carolina, Wyoming — are expected to attend. They’re attending the Ford Employee Car Show in Dearborn, where they’ll be joined by five more Pintos.

Bagi’s car started out as a plain-jane four-cylinder model, but it now sports a 300-horsepower Boss 302 V-8, Magnum wheels, a shaker hood and spoiler. Actually, Pintos make fine drag cars, because they’re so light.

Only 16,000 miles on this Pinto
This cream puff has only 16,000 miles on the clock. (Photo: BringATrailer.com)

Many of the cars still driving have that $11 part, a plastic guard that prevents the shock towers from puncturing the gas tank. If this article gives you Pinto fever, there’s a cream-puff 1971 example on Bringatrailer.com right now. Just $4,950 for a loaded car with 16,793 miles!

For nostalgia's sake, here's a '73 Pinto ad featuring 'ol Doc Gibson (who apparently still makes house calls):