With all the jokes about explosions and fireballs you get when you mention the Ford Pinto these days, you’d think that sales of Ford’s North American compact of the 1970s must have been pretty dismal. That’s not the case at all, as those of us who grew up in the 1970s can tell you — Pintos (and Mercury Bobcats) flew out of the showrooms in huge quantities, with well over three million sold during the 1971-1980 period. With so many sold, enough have remained that I still find some Pintos and Bobcats as I search for compelling Junkyard Gems, and today’s discovery is the pocket-sized version of Ford’s dreadnaught Country Squire wagon.
Sure, Pintos did tend to catch on fire when rear-ended hard enough, but the big controversy on the subject didn’t take off until publication of the Mother Jones “Pinto Madness” article of late 1977. As it turns out, just about all cars of the era with fuel tanks located between the rear bumper and the rear axle — that is, most rear-wheel-drive cars sold in America at the time — had a problem with fuel-tank explosions in rear-end collisions, but the Pinto ended up getting all the notoriety. By the late 1970s, Pinto sales were in decline anyway, as the car’s design seemed more old-fashioned with each passing year.
In 1973, though, the Pinto was thoroughly mainstream, and sales of the fuel-sipping little Ford really skyrocketed after OPEC shut off the oil taps in October of that year. 1974 ended up being the biggest sales year of all for the Pinto/Bobcat.
In 1973, Pinto wagons outsold both the two-door sedans and Runabout hatchbacks by wide margins, and the pinnacle for those wishing to drive the sharpest-looking Pinto wagon in the cul-de-sac was the Pinto Squire. That’s what we’ve got here, though the “wood” has faded badly in the California sun.
In the era before you hauled your family in a minivan or SUV, the wagon was king (my family had a full-sized Chevy passenger van, but we were a bit odd). Ford offered three sizes of wagon in 1973, with endless permutations of each: the Pinto, the Torino, and the full-size.
Some discount used-car lot tried to move this iron for cheap, but couldn’t do so despite this car’s magical pre-smog status (1975 and older cars don’t have to deal with California’s strict emission-control testing).
This overhead-cam four-cylinder engine family proved to be a monumental success for Ford worldwide. Originally developed for use in the Cortina and Taunus, Dearborn stuffed the Pinto engine into countless Mustangs, Rangers, Fairmonts, XR4Tis and other machines throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with a 2.5-liter version seeing service into our current century. The one in today’s Junkyard Gem is the 2.0-liter (actually 1,993cc) version, rated at a not-at-all-shabby-for-the-time 86 horsepower. For 1974, the 2.3-liter version became available, and that’s the displacement you’ll see with most of these engines.
This car had the Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission option, which added $170 to the price tag of a $2,319 car (that’s $1,032 and $14,081 in 2020 dollars, respectively). Americans were already well into our love affair with two-pedal cars by that time, so you won’t find many Pinto wagons with four-on-the-floor rigs.
I started driving in 1982, and at that time the Pintos and their Vega counterparts were just about the most likely cars to get handed down by relatives to American teenagers (Detroit land yachts with small-displacement V8s, plenty of body filler, and coat hangers for radio antennas were popular early-1980s hand-me-downs as well), and you did whatever you considered necessary to upgrade to something less embarrassing.
Built to be a rugged, reliable basic car, just like the Model T.