July 18, 2014 at 9:05 am

Tom Greenwood

Pinto fans find a lot to love in Dearborn visit

Ford Pinto Club of America members gather in their vintage vehicles. (Brian Campbell)

The Ford Pinto.

OK, what kind of image does that name bring to mind?

Ka-boom, right?

The much maligned Pinto has been classified as one of the worst and ugliest cars in the world — the kind of vehicle that only Dr. Kevorkian could love.

But don’t tell that to Norm Bagi and 50 other members of the Ford Pinto Club of America who will be gathering at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn Friday for their annual Pinto Stampede.

“I’ve owned three Pintos, but this is the first one that I bought,” said Bagi, owner of a 1977 light blue Pinto with a Boss 302 V8 that produces a little over 300 hp. “I was looking around for either a Mustang or a muscle car and came across this car on eBay. I liked what I saw because it’s different. It’s not the kind of car that everyone else drives.”

According to Bagi, the Pinto car club has members from all over the U.S. and most are headed to Dearborn, the “Holy Land” for Pintoholics.

“They’re coming in from California, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Georgia,” said Bagi, a building manager in New York City.

“Pintos are scarce, so we have to plan our stampedes at least a year in advance. We don’t have car shows, we drive. Last year, we drove the Mississippi to Memphis. In 2011, we drove from Denver to Carlisle, Pennsylvania; and in 2012, we drove the beautiful back roads of Virginia and West Virginia.”

The caravan of Ford Pintos will visit the Henry Ford Museum, the Ford Product Development Center, the Ford & Mercury Restorers Club Car Show and other area landmarks.

Bagi dismisses decades-old reports claiming that if rear ended, the Pinto would explode into a “barbecue that seats four.”

“I tell them those reports were severely over-exaggerated,” Bagi said.

By way of background, the Pinto was the creation of Lee Iacocca who wanted a vehicle that weighed less than 2,000 pounds and cost less than $2,000 (base price $1,880) in the fight against the Chevrolet Vega, AMC Gremlin and VW’s Beetle.

The car was a hit, but things began to sour in July 1977 after Mother Jones magazine published an article that called the car a rolling death trap due to the positioning of its gas tank near the rear axle.

According to the article, the Pinto was responsible for thousands of fiery deaths and injuries when rear ended.

The situation worsened with the release of the “Ford Pinto Memo,” which alleged that it would cost the auto company less to pay compensation for deaths than to install an $11 part to prevent gas tank explosions.

Talk show comedians feasted, sales plummeted and the Pinto was discontinued.

(Heck, in the 1983 horror movie “Cujo,” the victim and her son were trapped in Pinto whose battery had died. Oy vey.)

But decades later, independent studies showed that the problems actually were exaggerated with stats showing that rear end deaths in the Pinto were about average for vehicles its size during that time period.

In fact, the Jalopnik autoweb site recently praised the car for its cornering, handling ability, power to weight ratio and ease of repair.

None of this is a surprise to members of the Pinto Car Club of America who will take to the road for a scenic drive after they meet in Dearborn.

“We’re taking the back roads to Hell,” Bagi said. “I can’t think of anything nicer than driving my Pinto to Hell and back.”

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