By on June 4, 2019

In an interesting case of historical marketing, this very yellow Rare Ride seems to have adjectives applied to it which are, in fact, false. Today we have a look at a 1979 Ford Pinto European Sports Sedan.

The late Sixties was a tough time for American OEMs. An onslaught of small, economical, and affordable Japanese cars put a lot of pressure on domestic manufacturers to compete. By the latter part of the decade, boardrooms at the Big Three (and AMC) hummed with compact car ideas.

Ford began development of the Pinto in 1967, under the overall direction of then president Lee Iacocca. Lee wanted a lightweight entry into the market (under 2,000 pounds) that cost less than $2,000. Engineers at Ford jumped to the task, creating a new platform that also served double duty under everyone’s favorite Mustang, the II. From start to finish, Pinto’s development took 25 months — an impressive timeline in an era when new car development typically took 43 months.

Ford introduced the Pinto in September of 1970 for the 1971 model year. New competitors to the Pinto included the Chevrolet Vega and AMC Gremlin from America, plus the Mazda 1200 (later GLC) from Japan.

As was typical of economy cars in the Seventies, multiple body styles greeted Pinto customers. There were two-door sedan, sedan delivery, and station wagon styles, as well as a three-door hatchback. Engines ranged from 1.6 and 2.8 liters in displacement, with the range topped by the Cologne V6.

The Pinto was a very successful car for Ford, but things took a turn in the middle of the decade. Some Pintos caught fire here and there, which led to an NHTSA investigation in 1974 and the eventual publication (in 1977) of Ford’s Pinto Memo. Some 117 lawsuits impacted Ford by the time everyone was said and done. It’s a long, complex story which can’t be covered here.

Ford applied a styling update to the Pinto for 1979, signalling that the company’s smallest offering was not long for this world. Front and rear exterior revisions made it look more like a Fairmont, while the interior underwent its own modernization. The refresh brought with it the ESS package. Available on sedan and hatchback Pintos, ESS added a black grille and trim, wider moldings, sports wheels, and classy ESS badging. The package was around for just two model years, as ESS died with the Pinto in 1980.

Americans prepared themselves to revel in an all-new Escort for 1981.

Today’s Rare Ride was for sale on eBay recently, in shockingly clean condition for a lifelong Michigan vehicle. With a 2.3-liter inline-four and 23,000 miles, this ESS asked $7,995.

[Images: seller]

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46 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1979 Ford Pinto European Sports Sedan Is None of Those Things...”

  • avatar

    If you had a rear-ended SVO and one of these you might at least be able to do the “sport” part. :-P

  • avatar

    That’s a lot of cheddar for a Pinto. I’d maybe consider it for a wagon with the Cruising Package, if it has a four-speed. And the matching surfboard.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I had an early 71 (1.6 4-spd) with the trunk (first car), 76 (2.3 4-spd) also with the trunk, and an 80 Bobcat (2.3, 3-spd auto). All were fitted with the 1/4″ thick plastic blast shield placed between the differential and the gas tank. I never worried about it.

    The 71 was the $2000, 2000-lb stripped car that Iacocca was shooting for. It was an exercise in lightness and no-frills. I loved it for the year I had it (1981-82). Rose-colored glasses and all that.

    The 76 was the best for me, but it required a lot of rebuilding for rust and engine wear. It was totally shot by 1988.

    The 80 was crap in every way imaginable.

    That 79 is amazing, but there are hundreds of better ways to spend 8 grand.

  • avatar

    The wagon version was a much more hospitable car than the sedan. I drove to Jacksonville Florida with a friend in his well-optioned wagon and it was a pleasant trip.

    A guy a few blocks from me had a sedan he dropped a built 289 in. Couldn’t tell the difference until he started it, then the crackle of the header exhaust told you to respect the car. He ran away from some serious iron in that sleeper.

    • 0 avatar

      And all those hot rod parts based on the Mustang II will fit as well. Brakes, suspension, etc. But in the end, it is still a Pinto.

      I have to admit that the yellow looks good on that car though.

  • avatar

    I lived in the southeastern US when these cars were current, and I do not recall seeing a Mazda 1200. In the early 70’s, the Mazda RX-2 and RX-3 were fairly common, and you’d see the occasional 808, which was a piston powered RX-3. The common Japanese cars of the day were the Datsun 1200 and 510 in the early part of the decade, along with the Toyota Corolla. Mid decade saw the Datsun 610 and 710, then later the new 510. The Corolla remained a stalwart of the class. Honda started bringing its Civic mid decade, then the Accord. I might add the Accord at that time was a little smaller than a current Civic.

    As far as piston engine Mazdas were concerned, the GLC came by in the late 70’s, and along with the RX-7 (1978 as a 1979 model), and then the 626, which saved their presence in the US.

    Pintos weren’t the best of cars, but they weren’t the worse. I like that both the Pinto and the Vega were available as three door wagons, which appeals to the obtuse part of my personality. The wagon version of the Pinto was, IIRC, not subject to catching on fire in the case of a rear impact.

    Given the choice between a Vega 3 door wagon and the same bodystyle Pinto, I think I’d go with the Vega. I like the styling a little more, plus the Vega has an additional feature that I like: if you do something stupid or silly in the car no one who was with you can tell anyone else, because as everyone knows, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

    • 0 avatar

      The 1977 Accord was 2/10ths of an inch shorter than a Pinto on a wheelbase 3/10ths of an inch shorter. It weighed less than 2,000 lbs, and was classified as a subcompact. The Civic was a mini-compact. Today’s Civic hatch is a foot longer than the first Accord hatch.

      The Vega was a more ambitious car than the Pinto, but the unfortunate failures in engine and body engineering baked in by GM made the Pinto the more durable car.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    We operated a Pinto Wagon for a while. Compared to our VW Type IV wagon, it was positively antediluvian.

    However as bad as it was, it was more robust than the VW, and therefore better suited for delivery service.

    It was however the closest vehicle I have ever owned/operated that fell into the category of ‘a few thousand parts moving in loose formation’.

    • 0 avatar

      I bought a 75 one owner wagon from my sister in 1980 for $600, fixed a rusted door panel (Michigan winters) it was a v6, repainted it and put a used set of cool looking wheels on it, drove it for 2 years then sold it for $1500, not a bad little driver! There were no gas tank issues with the wagon.

  • avatar

    “adjectives applied to it which are, in fact, false”

    Are you implying that the Pinto is NOT a european sports sedan? Or that the listing owner is lying?

  • avatar

    I live in an affluent part of the upper Midwest and see a fair amount of high end cars every day, especially now that weather has turned. As an example just this week I saw two different AMG-GT roadsters and an orange Lamborghini. I know, I know. You me and everyone else has theses experiences. What I say above is not all that unique.

    But I’ll tell you this, I would spend a lot more time talking to the owner of this car, and looking over every detail of this Pinto, than I ever would if I met the owners of the AMG-GTs or got to look over that heylookatme orange Lambo.

  • avatar

    My first car was a used ‘76 Pinto with the 2.3L and four speed manual. While I was very thankful to have a car, it was a horribly unreliable piece of crap. The original motor lost compression so I swapped in a junkyard motor from an ‘82 Mustang (still a 88hp 2.3L, alas.) Putting a header and less restrictive exhaust on improved the performance substantially, but then the rest of the car proceeded to fall apart around it.

    I saw an absolutely cherry ‘77 for sale on the Internet a couple of years ago and was oddly tempted to buy it, but couldn’t convince myself to spend $8k on a gutless car that would once again have me fighting issues from poor build quality and an engine design that vibrates so bad I had to periodically tighten up any number of screws and bolts under the hood.

  • avatar

    There was also a Granada ESS available during the same time period.
    I think I’d rather have the Granada.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The ESS package was also available on the Granada. Remember those compare to the Mercedes Benz ads.
    Considering some of the Pintos European lineage notably rack and pinion steering and the 1.6, 2.0 and 2.3 OHC-4 as well as the 2.8 Essex it comes close to a European compact more so than a US Granada.

  • avatar

    I owned one of these ESS Pintos. It was a perfect 5 year old, 20K mile car I bought off the back lot of a Dodge dealer. When I took the car home, I noticed that the oil filter was suspiciously old and rusty. Unfortunately, whomever owned it before me, never changed the oil in the 5 years, 20K miles they drove it.

    I wish the one I had was a nice, sunny yellow like this one. Mine was silver and had a red interior. The body was solid for a five year old car in that part of the rust belt, but the silver paint had faded and was sunburnt. I ended up in a minor accident which allowed me to re-paint the entire car, but the decal that went around the windows and between the tail lights was no longer available, so I did without.

    In addition, the car developed a pretty decent rear main seal leak (common on those 2.3s); once I forgot to check oil levels and ended up spinning a cam bearing. I was able to get a friend who worked for one of the local hot rod shops to rebuild my 2.3 with some Racer Brown parts (a better cam, new intake with 390 CFM Holley 2bbl, headers and a turbo muffler). Since it still had to meet emissions, it really didn’t go a whole lot faster, but it had better torque and a good sound from the new muffler.

    I traded the car in at the local L-M dealer on a brand new, zero miles 1986 Mercury Capri 5.0L Sport Coupe (the RS model was dead). One of the mechanics bought my Pinto from the dealership but I never saw it again. One of the things that’s hard to tell from these photos is that is the biggest factory tach on any car I’ve seen with the exception of the C3 Corvette. Overall, I liked the car, but I never got good gas mileage or performance out of it, even after the new cam and stuff. My friends were starting to buy Honda Civics that could blow this thing away easily. They had power and economy, I had a 4 banger power with the fuel economy of a large six. It was a little disappointing to put all that effort into a car and get so little return; I could have gotten an older V8 car and with the same money had some real fun. But I was thinking that a four cylinder would get me better fuel mileage than a V8, and it did.

    I don’t know that I would spend $8K for this car. I wouldn’t mind a Pinto as a hobby car, but maybe an earlier one, without all of the emissions controls. They were lighter and more fun.

  • avatar

    When the Granada ESS came out, I thought it should be called the


  • avatar

    My first car – handed down from my mother – was a ’75 Mercury Bobcat. Orange, with a white vinyl top and stripes. Google that for the full effect.
    It had the cologne V6 and could move real pretty well. I had a lot of fun with that car actually, but then again this was 1982. The times, and (my) standards were a lot different.

    That being said, I wish I still had it.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I will pass on this. I have negative memories of the Pinto and Vega. These 2 cars and the Oil Embargo of 1973 are responsible for the tidal wage of Japanese cars. I would take any Toyota and Datsun over these abominations. I would even take a Gremlin over these. Bad bad cars. I remember the 1970 Ford Maverick when it was introduced in the Spring of 1969 with a base price of $1,995. The Maverick was a much better car than a Pinto.

    • 0 avatar

      Neither the Maverick, nor the Pinto were great cars (and even ‘good’ would be stretching it) but the Pinto was brand-new; the Maverick might have looked like a sport coupe, but it was just a warmed over Falcon, and performed like it. It was old-fashioned while the Pinto was the latest, greatest thing from Ford. You got bucket seats and a 4-speed floor shift with the Pinto. In the Maverick, you were stuck with a front bench and a three on the column (just like a Falcon).

  • avatar

    few years ago we had a car show at work, and the Pinto Stampede showed up. pretty neat seeing a bunch of them lined up.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    amazing how rallye wheels can even make a Pinto look pretty good
    That upholstery would probably raise the value of a 79 911 20%

  • avatar

    Lee Iacocca was an absolute genius for coming up with the right car at the right time for middle America. Mustang, Pinto, Mark III, K-car, Chrysler minivan, all him. Ford was crazy to freeze him out when they did. The man was amazing

    • 0 avatar

      Well his name wasn’t Ford and he was never afraid of pi$$ing on Hank the Deuce’s shoes. There was only so far he was going to go.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah, I know the story. Ford wrote the book on a lot of things automotive, nepotism being one, if you’re last name wasn’t “Ford” you were only going so far

  • avatar

    When HF II got arrested for drunk driving back in the late 70s, they told him all he could drink going forward was Iacocca Cola. Boom…Lee was out the door…

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    It wasn’t Iacocca it was the quality of Ford’s compact and subcompacts. The looks of the Pinto were not that bad but the quality was subpar compared to the Japanese which the same could be said of the Vega. The Big 3 made some awful compact and subcompact cars during the 70’s. These cars contributed much to the bad reputation of the Big 3.

  • avatar

    That Cologne V6 didn’t smell nearly as good as you’d think.

  • avatar

    “Is None of Those Things”
    Then why bother? Oh thats right, opportunity to Ford bash. Got it.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a title and it’s time to relax a bit. Also, I bash GM and Chrysler regularly. Also it’s a car from 1979 with no relation to modern times.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      Eh, I am a Ford guy and this car is a true Sheitebox. It’s only redeeming quality is that it was better than a Vega, but choosing between those two is like choosing between Goneherra or Syphilis…the only way to win is not to play.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Ford’s small cars and compact/midsize trucks improved when they used Mazda platforms.

    • 0 avatar

      The Ford-designed Ranger was far more successful than the Mazda-based Courier. Likewise, the Focus was a huge improvement over the Mazda-based Escort. But, yeah. American bad, Japanese good and all that.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      Only one I can think of that was any good was the Probe. Mercury Capri, Escort/Tracer, courrier was a rust bucket…bunch of stinkers

  • avatar

    The reality is that, aside from the fire issue, the Pintos were not as bad as they are made out to be. Once that issue was dealt with, people didn’t really worry about it. They are horrible by today’s standards, but at the time, they were affordable, kind of fun, and had a good amount of usable space.

  • avatar

    Oct ’70: 1971 Pinto 2000 automatic bought by my mother. Color? Anti Establish Mint. Haw, haw.

    Oct ’71: Mother complained of lousy mileage. Me on vacation from study in UK and after reading C/D article, and wondering about zero power, took to dealer, and yes, cogged cam belt off by one tooth. Quality production.

    June ’74: Taken to body shop by me on yet another vacation from Blighty due to foot long rust hole in driver’s door. Drafty inside. Body shop owner examines car and laughs: “Cancer up to the waterline – not touching it!”

    Nov ’74: Door inner and outer skins separate. Old bath towel now plugs leak into cabin.

    Dec ’74: Mother donates car to son, me, finally fully returned from UK and looking for job. Seemed sluggish. Take off oil cap and yes indeed! All the cam lobes were squashed, metal squished out to sides. Quality. Always had oil changes regularly, apparently techs never noticed as no sludge, clean as a whistle. Just ruined lobes.

    Jan to April ’75. Used as winter beater by me after getting job and while saving up for new car deposit.

    May ’75: Junked. That door-flapper would never make it through inspection the coming fall.

    Anecdotal, sure, but happened to me. Pinto, the worst-made, rough-riding, rattling, lack of any sort of quality, utter piece of sH*t.

    And you’ll never convince me otherwise. Who cares about a damn gas tank when the rest of the car dissolves before your eyes at four years old?

  • avatar

    Kroger, your Delta Tau Chi name is Pinto.

  • avatar

    Shockingly! Internet writers sure do love that word.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    A Mazda based Escort starting in 1991 was a much better car than the 81 thru 89 Escort. How do I know I had an 85 Mercury Lynx (Escort) and a 1994 Escort wagon. Maybe the Focus was a better car but that 1994 was trouble free and the 85 Lynx was not. I was not talking about the Ford Courier I was talking about the mid to late 90’s Ranger going thru 2011 which was shared by the Mazda which were better than the earlier Rangers. Mazda brought a lot to Ford’s compact and subcompact cars. John Taurus I realized you are foremost a Ford fan but I go by my ownership experience. My 1994 Escort wagon and 2001 Taurus were excellent cars but the 1985 Lynx was nothing but trouble. I am more interested in how a vehicle holds up and how reliable it is and less interested in brand. Maybe I am in the minority in judging vehicles on their reliability and not brand but having owned various vehicles new and used over 44 years I do have some knowledge from experience.

    Wouldn’t mind seeing Mazda making cars for Ford again if Ford latter decides to get back into cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      The B series was a badge job for Mazda. It was a Ranger with a different grill. And surprise…mid 90s car was better than mid 80s car…who knew?

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