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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

1974 Mercury Bobcat & Ford Pinto

Mercury's 1974 Bobcat was the home-grown economy car with a pedigree.
The Mercury Bobcat was unique to Canada when it was introduced but our story starts with the Ford Pinto. Pinto production began at Ford's plant in St. Thomas, Ontario in August of 1970--as a 1971 model. The smallest car to wear a blue oval was designed to be a potent import fighter. Along with Chevrolet's Vega and AMC's Gremlin, the pint-sized Pinto helped to push sales of imported cars downward to to 23% of the Canadian market that year. That made Ottawa and the domestic car makers happy. 

 
With Pinto the corporate stable, Ford's handsome Cortina was no longer imported from Britain after the end of the 1973 selling season.


The Pinto had long been in gestation, first appearing on stylists drawing boards in the mid-1960s. Early designs called for a rear transversely-mounted engine. To keep costs low, the subcompact was meant to make use of existing drivetrains drawn from Ford's British and German operations.

Being photographed with adorable baby horses didn't hurt Pinto at all.
Available initially only as a two-door sedan, a smart three-door hatchback quickly joined the Pinto team. Dubbed 'the Runabout', the three-door version was hot. And then, there were three as a station wagon version was added for the 1972 selling season. The wagon boasted nearly 1.69 cubic metres (60 cubic feet) of cargo space with the rear seat folded flat. Pinto would outsell arch-rival Vega from the get-go and as far as everybody at Ford of Canada Limited was concerned, 'that was a good thing.'

The 1971 AMC Gremlin was the first of the domestic import fighters.
The Pinto was a darned cute little car. It featured a vertically slotted grille flanked by inboard turn signals. Its flanks were pleasantly chubby with baby fat. A sharp mid-line crease ran the length of the body, punctuated by the wheel openings. Its wheelbase was a mere 2 387 millimetres (94 inches),  50.8 millimetres (two inches) less than Gremlin. At the rear, Pinto wore long, rectangular horizontally positioned taillights that rode directly above the bumper. The large glass window raked sharply enough for a near fastback look.


Pinto struck a chord with buyers as being user friendly. Advertising stressed just how simple it was to perform basic maintenance. To that end the ignition key was designed to be both a spark plug gap tool and a screwdriver. Ford's legendary Model T was trotted out for photo sessions with Pinto and advertising shrewdly drew comparisons of simplicity, economy and reliability between the two Fords.

West Germany's perennially popular Volkswagen Beetle was the Ford Pinto's ultimate target.
Pinto did make use of the British and German Ford power plants. The four-speed manual transmission was imported too--and rack and pinion steering was incorporated into the package. Pinto was the right car for the right time.

Chevrolet fielded the Vega to compete with Pinto and Gremlin. The small Chev was not popular with consumers, however.
The cabin was carefully crafted to get maximum room and comfort for four passengers. The instrument panel was functional, though some critics complained that it was stark. Well, the target was Volkswagen and the car from West Germany had elevated 'basic' into a prized virtue.

The 1974 Ford Pinto.
The 1974 mode yearl as not a particularly good year for the Canadian automobile industry in general. Memories of the recent gasoline crisis in the United States prompted Americans to shy away from full-sized car lines. Production was of by some 60,000 units at the Oakville, Ontario plant, as fewer large Fords were shipped to the USA.


Still, workers turned out 142,338 Pintos and 11,561 of the brand new Mercury Bobcats. Those Bobcat sales were critical to the health of Lincoln-Mercury-Meteor dealers. Many of the Pintos were shipped to the States but the Bobcats with their wide mesh grilles and long taillights were strictly for the home market. While the Lincoln-Mercury-Meteor dealers sold the Comet-no Mercury had ever been so small or so beautiful as the Bobcat.

The Mercury Bobcat Runabout was as practical as it was fun to drive.
Pinto and the new Bobcat were given standard front disc brakes, like Vega. The massive safety bumpers mandated by Ottawa didn't take away from the envelope's good looks. A larger 2-litre engine was stuffed under the hood as standard equipment and an optional 2.3-litre mill was available.

Advertising for the Bobcat emphasized that this was a uniquely Canadian car geared to Canadian tastes and driving habits. Bobcat was sold by a nifty cartoon character cat and had its own catchy jingle, "He's a frisky little critter, the pack of the litter." Bobcat was touted as "a lot of car for a little scratch." Hey, it was the '70s.

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

The United Auto Workers charged that the 2% to 3% extra that Canadians were paying for identical models sold in the United States was discriminatory. The Trudeau government lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons and an election was called by the Governor General. 

Robert Stanfield's Tories ran their campaign on a platform of price and wage controls to take care of the kind of problem identified by the Canadian arm of the UAW. Trudeau was opposed. When the polls closed in the Yukon on election night, the CBC stayed on the air through the wee hours of the morning to let us know that the final tally was 139 seats for the Grits and 96 for the Tories. Mr. Trudeau then astounded the nation by imposing a federal price and wage control board. Canadians would tighten their belts and it was a good thing that Pinto and Bobcat were around to help.

Mercury Bobcat interiors were snappy.
The option list for Bobcat and Pinto was longer than a country kilometre. It included dress-up items like "flippers" that allowed the rear windows to pop open, a sunroof, an alarm system, air conditioning, radios of numerous types and a luggage rack. Wagons could be ordered with enough faux wood trim slathered on its sides to make a beaver sit up and beg for a bite.

Canadians bought a total of 226,000 automobiles from the Ford family during the calendar year. Sales were up ever so slightly from 1974--moving up to 24% of the domestic sales pie. The truck picture shone, as 105,290 units were sold, giving Ford a whopping 34.6% of that market.


Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

Copyright James C. Mays 2003
 All rights reserved.

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