Home » Toys For Under The Tree: 1977 Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon vs 1970 Fiat 850 Sport Spider

Toys For Under The Tree: 1977 Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon vs 1970 Fiat 850 Sport Spider

Sbsd 12 18 2023
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Good morning, Autopians! In this week leading up to the Christmas holiday, my gift to all of you is going to be eight toys. Some will be ready to play with right away, while others are some assembly required, and batteries are definitely not included. On Friday, we’ll do a traditional runoff between the four winners, and let you choose which one you want Santa to leave for you under the tree.

On Friday, we looked at four potential first-driving-lesson vehicles, and the clear winner was the easiest one to drive: the Mitsubishi Galant. I guess that makes sense. The two manuals followed, and I’m surprised by how close their vote counts were to each other. I guess my “throw ’em in the deep end and see how they swim” approach is shared by more of you than I would have guessed.

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The real surprise here is the minivan; I assumed it would score higher, being the most similar to the majority of modern cars, and the least likely to be mourned, should some terrible new-driver fate befall it. But it seems to have barely moved the needle.

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For our first pair of Christmas treats, we have a gussied-up Seventies American economy car that could only have existed in that time and place, and a tiny Italian sports car in an eye-searing shade of green. Neither of these is ready to hit the road just yet, but I think both of them have potential. Let’s check them out.

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1977 Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon – $2,488

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.3 liter overhead cam inline 4, four-speed manual, RWD

Location: Martha Lake, WA

Odometer reading: 70,000 miles

Operational status: “Motor is blown,” which I assume means it doesn’t run

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The 1970s were a weird time. You had disco, Star Wars, and–inexplicably–”Star Wars Disco.” Fashions and cars were generally pretty bad, music (with some regrettable exceptions as noted above) was generally pretty good. Interest rates were high, and inhibitions were low. Even a little kid like me could tell everything was topsy-turvy. And the Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon somehow manages to encapsulate all of it.

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This is not a custom car. You could walk into a Ford dealership in the late ’70s and actually buy one of these things; a Pinto panel wagon with porthole windows and some admittedly cool graphics. I’ve never seen this color combination before as most are silver with red and orange graphics (or less commonly white with two-tone blue), but the seller says this beige/green combo is original, and I have no reason to doubt it. And I’m not ashamed to say I really dig it.

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Under all those flashy graphics, it’s a run-of-the-mill Pinto wagon, powered by a 2.3 liter “Lima” four-cylinder engine. These little wonders found their way under the hoods of various Ford products all the way up until 2001. They’re generally robust and durable engines, but the seller says this one is “blown,” and I don’t think they mean supercharged. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for an engine swap to me. Imagine this thing with a later turbocharged 2.3, or even better, a 302 V8.

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The inside hasn’t weathered the years as well as the outside has, but that’s cheap 1970s upholstery for you. Actually, most of it doesn’t look too bad; the driver’s seat needs redoing, and the door caps need a coat of paint (they’re exposed steel, painted black), but the passenger’s seat just looks dusty. The biggest problem is that it’s all plain black; the flashy exterior deserves a less somber and boring interior color, especially when it’s such a cave in the back anyway.

1970 Fiat 850 Sport Spider – $3,800

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Engine/drivetrain: 903 cc overhead valve inline 4, four-speed manual, RWD

Location: Aledo, TX

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Odometer reading: 48,000 miles

Operational status: Turns over but won’t start

I’m not sure anyone has ever taken the time to figure out what marque has the widest range of engine displacements ever used in two-seat roadsters, but I believe that honor may belong to Fiat. Fiat’s 1907 130 hp Grand Prix race car had a 16.2 liter four-cylinder engine, and the fabled “Mephistopheles” land-speed-record car of 1923 was powered by a gigantic 21.7 liter six-cylinder Fiat airplane engine–though to be fair, it wasn’t an official Fiat creation. Contrast that with this car, the 850 Sport Spider from decades later, with its diminutive 0.9 liter four, a little less than 1/24th the size of Mephistopheles’s engine.

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This little water-cooled pushrod engine is mounted longitudinally in the rear of the 850, driving the rear wheels through a four-speed manual gearbox. This one doesn’t run at the moment; it turns over but won’t fire. But there’s not much to older engines like this; see if it has fuel, spark, and compression, and if you’ve got those, it’s just a matter of fiddling with stuff until it starts.

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The rest of it looks quite nice; I have always loved that acid-green color on Fiats, and this one looks mercifully rust-free. The inside is tidy, except for a little wear and tear and a couple dash cracks, and it has non-original high-back bucket seats in it. I can’t place them, but I’m thinking GM, maybe out of a Monza or something. The seller also notes that it has a new convertible top.

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I test-drove one of these once, and it was a hoot. Totally impractical, of course; it’s cramped, slow, and utterly terrifying around even normal-sized traffic, but the sense of lightness and immediacy was just a delight. It’s on par performance-wise with an MG Midget, but it’s a totally different feel. This one looks like it’s just a weekend or two of tinkering away from being someone’s pride and joy.

So that’s our first pair of castaways on the Island of Shitbox Toys. Tomorrow, we’ll look at another pair, and those, if I remember right, both run and drive. But for today, you must choose between a wild panel delivery, and a tiny Italian sports car. What’ll it be?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Eric Udell
Eric Udell
4 months ago

Without a question, the Fiat.
I’ve had a few experiences with Pintos, none of them particularly good. A good friend’s mother had one in the mid 80’s and it was lime green. We called it the sprite, because it looked like a lime but was actually a lemon. As teenage boys are wont to do, we attempted to get it to do a burnout, but it failed even with violent neutral drops of the slushbox.
Later, my widowed mom dated a guy who drove a white 4 speed crapcan pinto. He was a winnner ( he’s my stepdad now, nearly 40 years later ) but the car was a loser. Being a clueless teen who didn’t really get how the world worked, at the time I asked him why he drove it, and he said it was because he was a divorced dad of two and his family ( and ours ) were his priority, and this was the car he could afford. So he was easy on the clutch and made the car last, because he had to. Even then, this struck me as noble.

I wish the Fiat was close, because I’d be all over that thing. Seems cheap for a cool 70’s ragtop that looks close to being a runner and would be a fun car for tootling around the country where I live or going to cars and coffee on Saturdays.

Last edited 4 months ago by Eric Udell
Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
4 months ago

HA! Thanks for the laughs…Pinto vs. Spider? That’s a good one! No contest…I’ll take the Spider of course

EastbayLoc
EastbayLoc
4 months ago

Fiat. Pinto will never be the answer. First day of high school, a friend’s mom drove us to school and picked me up in a brown Pinto. Pulled up in front and everyone was staring. This was in 86. For a year, I got asked where my crap colored Pinto was. Hated that car with a passion. And I sure as hell am not buying a yard art Pinto with a blown engine and a racoon family that I’d have to evict.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
4 months ago

Where’s the both button?

Colin Buckhurst
Colin Buckhurst
4 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

Agreed. This might be the first of these where I legit like both options.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
4 months ago

Pinto! The 2.3 turbocharged Lima from a ninth generation Thunderbird Turbo Coupe drops right in. A 302 V8 will kinda fit, but that puts the center of gravity of the car somewhere ahead of the front axle, which is not ideal for doing anything except going in a straight line.

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
4 months ago

I went Pinto. Yeah it’s kind of a pile, but porthole window + cuisin’ stripes + running 302 = bitchin’ wagon.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
4 months ago

Yes, they are not as beautiful as the bigger more powerful and sexier Fiat 124 Spider, but that only means you can almost always get one quite cheap. Two of my old car friends have had them for years and love them. Great cars! BUY NOW

Fred Fedurch
Fred Fedurch
4 months ago

My mother gave me her Mercury Bobcat wagon (woody) when she bought a new car in 83 (Mercury Sable wagon). I got in a head-on with an elderly lady in a 72 Mercury Marquis. Irene Nora McArthur, age 79. Yes, I still remember her name 40 years later. You would remember the name of the person you got in a head-on with who was driving Steve McGarret’s car while you were in a Pinto too.

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
4 months ago
Reply to  Fred Fedurch

If your mom bought a new Mercury wagon in 1983, I’m guessing it was a Marquis not a Sable.

Fred Fedurch
Fred Fedurch
4 months ago
Reply to  ColoradoFX4

Oops. Skipped a wagon. She bought a Ford Escort before the Sable. I “inherited” all three when she bought new cars.

JDE
JDE
4 months ago

The fiat price seems high to me, but I honestly don’t know what those little piles sell for these days. they are both crack pipe priced in my opinion though. It really boils down to how much investment money I have after. I would truly love to convert the Fiat to Electric via one of those EV west kits that keep creeping up in price, but you can maybe hold 100 miles of battery at best and still keep the tire on it and also not totally destroy the Slow but flickable charm of a 70’s British “Sports” car. The pinto is begging for a little SBF or maybe even a modern wrecked Mousetang 2.3 Turbo and manual trans(plant). But in either case you will still have a bunch of money into total piles of crap, even with your own sweat equity.

Mocamino
Mocamino
4 months ago

I have to admit, it’s a cool looking wagon. But between it and the green spider, it’s no contest. Yes, Tony will have to fix it, again and again and again. But just LOOK AT IT.

Cerberus
Cerberus
4 months ago

I might not have much ideal opportunity to drive it, but it’s not even a question: FIAT. There’s not an occasion I can think of where I want to drive that Pinto, much less one that doesn’t even run and looks like it was used between scenes on the set of Caligula. Neither is really a daily driver, and I cannot conceive of wasting toy car parking space on a Pinto.

Tim Cougar
Tim Cougar
4 months ago

The Pinto Cruising Wagon is one of my guilty pleasures. As pretty as the Fiat is in that color, I know which one I’d rather have under my tree.

Forbestheweirdo
Forbestheweirdo
4 months ago

I’m 90% sure those are NA Miata seats in the Fiat. Anyone else?

Forbestheweirdo
Forbestheweirdo
4 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Yeah I just looked at pics of na seats and I’m more sure than ever that they are. If only we could post pics here

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
4 months ago

FIAT. Between the color and “slow car fast” it works. There are enough Italian car-besotted folks around the interballs to help make it run and stay running.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
4 months ago

There has GOT to be more wrong with the Fiat for that price, but I chose the pain anyway. I just want to take that little cutie home and cuddle it.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
4 months ago

I know the interior of that Pinto has seen some shit I do not want to think about, but it’s just perfect (if, in fact, the underside is decent) for me. Try to get the price under $2k, fix or replace the engine, then start on the mostly quite simple suspension mods. Autocross it for a couple years as you get it dialed in, then cage it & go race Lemons.
kinda a good thing it’s so far away as I’m already car poor 😉

Cyko9
Cyko9
4 months ago

As much as I like the Pinto wagon, the Fiat is the better deal. The crazy color works in its favor, too.

rctothefuture
rctothefuture
4 months ago

Tough call, I prefer the 124 to the 850. However, that color and condition make it a better choice than the Pinto. I’m sure there’s more to that Ford than what meets the eye, even with the correct transmission.

Hamish48
Hamish48
4 months ago

The Fiat! I had one. It was a project car from the moment you picked it up brand new from the (incompetent) dealer but I had a beat up old Beetle in the driveway to fill in the gaps of let-down. When it all came together it was the greatest blast on 4 wheels, though you were never totally sure it would do a long round trip. In later years I had a CRX-SI which reminded me of the 850 while actually being reliable, but the needle on the thrill meter never got as high as my little Fiat on a good day. Out of respect we won’t mention Italian metal …

Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
4 months ago

I went with the Pinto, although I would be happy to find that little Fiat under my tree as well. I think that Pinto could be modified into being a hoot.

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
4 months ago

850 all the way. Would make a good addition to my questionable Italian collection

Rich Hobbs
Rich Hobbs
4 months ago

Aha…is that a Lancia Scorpion. I see?

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
4 months ago
Reply to  Rich Hobbs

Yep, that’s my girl Speranza. She’s highly questionable, but fantastic

Rich Hobbs
Rich Hobbs
4 months ago

Feeble Italian Attempt at Transportation! Still it’s a Guigaro design. Smog exempt. I’m sure I could find a something better that will fit in the engine compartment. Hayabusa, you d
said ? The Pinto scares me.

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
4 months ago
Reply to  Rich Hobbs

Fairly Interesting Automotive Technology, thankyouverymuch!

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
4 months ago
Reply to  Rich Hobbs

I used to have a Fiat Series 2 850 Sport Coupe, and while researching other stuff to keep it running I found someone had worked out how to fit a VW gearbox using a combination of VW, 850 and Fiat 124 parts to make up suitable driveshafts to fit. And once the VW gearbox is in there, there are adapter plates to fit virtually anything, thanks to old VW floorpans being repurposed as dune buggies/sand rails. I did some measuring with mine and found it only needed a slight bulge in the rear panel to allow the alloy 4.4 litre V8 from a Leyland P76 to fit – and kudging by the engine bay pic and the position of the rear engine mount, a Spyder would allow the V8 to fit without any panel mods!

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
4 months ago
Reply to  Rich Hobbs
CPL Rabbit
CPL Rabbit
4 months ago

Are my eyes deceiving me, or is the firewall rusted through on that Pinto?

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
4 months ago
Reply to  CPL Rabbit

It’s hard to tell, but the rust on the metal surfaces inside the car means moisture is getting in from somewhere.

AlterId
AlterId
4 months ago
Reply to  CPL Rabbit

That’s one of the downsides to water-based lube.

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