The Ford Pinto

Every mile has a memory of some kind or the other

By Warren Miller

During the 1970s, my life was in complete disarray. I was in the middle of a divorce, my kids were all over the place, with my son Scott just graduating from the Art Center in Pasadena, my daughter Chris attending college in Santa Barbara, and my son Kurt attempting to make the Olympic team in a single-handed boat called the Finn.

There was a gas shortage, real or contrived. In the middle of all of this, President Jimmy Carter cancelled America’s participation in the Olympics in Russia. For all the young men and women who had trained for years to make the team, there was no team.

The gasoline shortage could have been disastrous for a camera crew if I didn’t take it seriously. What if I had sent somebody to Salt Lake City and all of the gas stations were empty en route?

I had the backseats taken out of the Pinto station wagon and installed auxiliary tanks so that a cameraman could leave Los Angeles and drive all the way to Salt Lake City without ever stopping.

By the time the crew had the Ford Pinto virtually worn out, I gave it to my daughter, taught her how to drive it and she kept it running until she went away to college. Then it was my son Kurt’s chance. He had gone to San Francisco for a sailboat race, towing his Laser. With no mechanical knowledge whatsoever he allowed the engine run out of oil and burned it up. I told him to ask a sailor friend to tow it back to Los Angeles.

Kurt missed a couple of days of school getting the station wagon back to Hermosa Beach while I looked around for a replacement engine. A brand-new engine for that Pinto was almost $800, but one from a wrecked Pinto was only $100. By the time I found one, I drove to the San Pedro wrecking yard. They had the engine out of the wrecked car and ready to load on my trailer. They also found two mechanics who would install it for 80 bucks.

By the time I picked up the engine and drove it to where the Ford Pinto was being fixed, they already had the engine out of the Pinto and by noon of the next day it was all done and ready to pick up.

During the life of that cheap station wagon, my drivers probably made at least 300 trips from Hermosa Beach to the film labs in Hollywood, not to mention the many trips to the mountains and all the driving the kids did in it. That was an amazing car.

All this was going on during the Ford Pinto crisis when the government had declared that the cars were too dangerous to drive because of where the gas tanks were located.

During that time I signed a contract with Hobie to produce a film about his Hobie 14- and 16-foot catamarans as well as one for Hoyle Schweitzer who had invented the windsurfer.

I put a motor on one hull and replaced the canvas trampoline on one of the catamarans with a sheet of plywood and we had a good camera boat. Don drove that Pinto and the trailer all the way to New Orleans and back to film a backcountry trip on windsurfers.

The entire windsurfing addiction ended up with Laurie and I buying a condominium on the North Shore of Maui where I managed to windsurf for the next 12 years.

As I look back at the lifespan of the various automobiles that I have owned in my life, each one of them has almost 100,000 miles or more on them and every one of those miles has a memory of some kind or the other.