PROJECT: PINTO SPORT WAGON
PINTO SPORT WAGON
Wait a minute, I thought, driving our Project Pinto Sport Wagon around the slalom course, Pinto's aren't supposed to be this much fun, particularly wagons.
They were meant to be economical, family-oriented, pleasant if not enjoyable, and even cute.
So I couldn't help but laugh as I wiggled the wagon through the narrow bounds of a dayglo-orange cone slalom course I'd come busting up to the 180-degree, close-radius first turn, virtually flying the car through. I was surprised that it didn't flip tail first into the rocks or plow off nose-first into the weeds. If I wanted to calmly drift the car, it responded, no hassle, no wrestling, no trouble. Now, if we only had about 50 more horsepower, we could...
We started this project on the assumption that the Pinto station wagon is a benchmark car in Detroit, It is very possible you can count the wagon's poor reviews on one hand. Seldom have consumers, dealers, writers-even the loyal opposition-agreed so uniformly that any one car was so well conceived, designed, executed and sold. The figures prove it. In the 1973 model year, Ford stamped and welded together 215,000 Pinto wagons and if you ever stopped at a Ford dealer on a Saturday afternoon, it wasn't hard to understand why. Used Pinto wagons virtually don't exist.
No matter how you dress up any Pinto wagon with options, you come up with three types of car. There's the Squire, the fake wood-sided model with the excellent cloth interior, automatic transmission, Michelin radials, air and stereo. Then there's the plain-sided car with nice interior options, perhaps a few exterior dress-up extras such as the phony-looking mag wheels, finishing up with an AM Radio and an automatic transmission. This is the family second car that spends it's life picking up groceries and kids. Finally comes El Cheapo, with stock vinyl interior, the tiny stock wheels and tires, a four-speed transmission and little space between the base price and the final price. The one model that is clearly missing is a Pinto sport wagon. For the young enthusiast with a family, it could do a very credible job of bridging the gap between the MG, Triumph, 240Z or Corvette he wanted to own and the sedan he is forced to own. A few dealers have seen the need and are offering the whole gamut of stripes, real mag wheels, knobby radials, stereos, sunroofs-the list alone could fill this story. This is a dress-up story and we'll put it on the do-it-yourself basis.
The enthusiast will want to make two initial changes on the Pinto wagon; the suspension and the engine. In this first installment, we'll cover the suspension, while the engine will be dealt with next trip. Any other changes on the Pinto involve cosmetics and, being a matter of personal taste, that's up to the owners. We found the basic car to be quite pleasant with it's cloth interior, a fairly logical (if incomplete) dashboard and enough tasteful dress-up options to allow for some individuality.
The stock suspension is a good base from which to work especially with the optional radial tires. But it is, after all, a compromise and with the enthusiast's traditional willingness to put up with a little less comfort for improved handling, there are a few tricks. First, we sent the car to George Spears of Spearco for his suspension kit; Koni shocks absorbers front and rear (set at medium stiffness, about a turn and a half) and a 5/8-inch rear stabilizer bar to supplement the stock 4/5-inch front bar that comes stock in the wagon and as an option with the handling package in the standard Pinto. Anyone who is reasonably proficient with his hands can do the work on a Saturday. We knew we could improve on the stock A70-13 Polyglas tires and decided on a set of Continental's new Conti TT fabric radials in a 185/70 SR13 size, the Conti's are wider and squattier than the stocks, with a very aggressive tread pattern that are almost worth the price just for looks. The Superior Industries wheels are their version of the classic slotted disk. Size is 13x5.5 inches, half an inch wider than stock. The tire and wheel combination effectively drop the car height about 3/4 of an inch, but more importantly, wheel offset and tire width add about 3 inches to the car's normal 55-inch track.
For fun we included Spearco's front spoiler. At the speeds we travel, it's more aesthetic than effective. Likewise with the side go-fast stripes.
The benefits of the suspension became obvious immediately. The radial tires (on the high side at 30psi.) cut the rack and pinion steering effort dramatically. We had no way of testing it, but the drop must be in the magnitude of 25 per cent. That also adds a bit of illusion, making the car feel lighter and handle better. More importantly, of course, are those extra three inches of track. The addition of the roolbar in back cut body roll and eliminated the mushy rolling lurch one used to get from the back end when trying to get the car through a corner in a hurry. Now the whole car felt tied together, the front and rear working in combination rather than on separate courses. While a hard corner once required a lot of work and the scuffing, it now meant a lot of effort to keep from sliding out of the seat. With the shocks set only at medium, the ride had neither deteriorated nor had normal road noise increased. Apparently the combination of rollbars and radials produces a bump noise though it doesn't cause any steering deflection. But that problem is insignificant when compared to the increase in driving enjoyment.
The acid test came on one of the curling canyon roads north of L.A. Most of the sports-type cars we get are tested on those deserted, hidden roads where many California race drivers once learned their art. Besides curves and cliffs, the roads have an occasional pothole, scattered gravel and fallen rocks-just enough to keep you honest. Here the Pinto stepped out of it's station wagon role of grocery carrier and left a rather like a stiff Alfa Romeo wagon (if they built one). From an avowed Alfa lover, you know that comment doesn't come easy. But there is still that one great hole in the Pinto's new sporting nature; horsepower.
There is no reason the Pinto wagon must be confined to the roles Ford has assigned it. They are selling every Pinto they make and haven't much impetus except to meet demand. But no car is so good that it can't be improved upon.