It may be a small group, but a handful of Ford Pinto enthusiasts from around the region will roll into Mitchell Friday in celebration of the oft-maligned car model.
The cars and their drivers are part of the Pinto Stampede, a five-day tour from Lincoln, Nebraska to Mitchell that runs from July 8 to July 12, with stops in North Platte, Nebraska, Hot Springs and Wall as well as a number of sightseeing locations along the way.
Norman Bagi, of New York City, the organizer of the event, said this year’s tour is considerably smaller than past years, when participants numbered in the dozens, because of a late start in planning the event. But the low numbers won’t affect the enjoyment of the participants as they cruise across the state showing off their beloved vehicles.
“They’re having fun,” said Bagi, who is not participating in this year’s ride due to work obligations in New York. “If you have people driving along together, then they’re having a blast. It’s kind of what kept it going this year.”
Bagi organized the first Pinto Stampede to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the manufacture of the first Pinto, a model he remembers fondly from his childhood.
“I grew up in the back seat of one,” Bagi said. “One day I was looking at getting a car on eBay, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, and somebody had posted a Pinto on a Mustang thread, and I was looking at it. And I thought, that’s the car for me.”
Bagi said the Pinto used to roam American highways numbering in the millions, thanks to its low purchase cost and fuel efficiency. That popularity took a nosedive when a report on Pintos in the 1970s suggested its gas tanks could explode when struck from behind by another vehicle. The reports were greatly exaggerated, Bagi said, but the damage to the car’s reputation was done.
“It’s definitely what (the Pinto) is known for, but only a handful of people bring it up. But every time you pull into a gas station, there’s one person (who mentions it),” Bagi said. “The number of incidents was very comparable to many small cars of the time, and it was actually safer than some of the imports coming in.”
The car has built up a number of fans over the years because of a group of drivers who remember the cars from their youth and its affordability.
“Every Pinto guy has a story. How it was the car they used in college, or how it was the car that got them to work,” Bagi said. “I’ve pulled up at biker shows, and half the bikers would walk up with Pinto stories. Harleys are not cheap to own, so if you had a Harley, you had a Pinto for a car.”
Bagi said the first Pinto Stampede was supposed to be a one-time affair, but enough people got involved to keep it going. The group has used the ride as a fundraiser for other organizations like The Wounded Warrior Project and local 4-H groups. And though this year’s group is particularly small -- Bagi said between three and five cars may pull through Mitchell Friday -- there are plans for a big ride in two years, when the car will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
“The biggest one I’m looking at is the 50th. I’m doing that as my final one. Next year won’t be huge, but that last one we’re going to Dearborn, Michigan, and I assume we’ll have 100 to 200 Pintos for that one. The first year we had 70, and that was big,” Bagi said.
Bagi encourages anyone with even a passing interest in the Pinto to come and check out the drivers and their rides Friday. Unlike the owners of some cars, Pinto owners tend to be a very engaging and talkative bunch who love to hear and share stories about their car, he said.
“You’re dealing with Pinto owners," Bagi said. "They’re down to earth people who are easy to talk to. I’ve been to car shows where one guy sits next to another guy and they sit there and talk about who has more horsepower. But with us, if another Pinto joins and his fenders fall off, we all run over to check it out. We don’t have that ego.”
Bagi said the cars and their drivers plan to be in Mitchell Friday, making stops at The Discovery Museum, The Telstar Shelby Cobra Museum, the Guns of History Gallery and then the Corn Palace. No specific times were available.